Boycotting fascism?

Boycotting fascism?

During the last week angry young residents of Tel Aviv have been staging a sit-in, or, more accurately, a tent-in, along fashionable Rothschild Boulevard to protest their being priced out of the housing market in Israel’s cultural and economic capital. The protests have drawn the attention of the Israeli and international media, with The Guardian even comparing the protesters to the pro-democracy revolutionaries in Egypt and other Arab countries.

The protests might be new, but the process against which the tent-dwellers are protesting has been going on in Tel Aviv, like other world cities, for at least two decades. But until recently, the main victims of high housing prices weren’t young middle-class Israeli Jews no longer able to afford to live close to the cultural and economic action in Tel Aviv, but poor Palestinian residents of Jaffa who were being pushed out by gentrification and had nowhere else to go.

In the wake of the 1948 war, when Jaffa, like most other Palestinian towns and villages, was emptied of the vast majority of its population, the once-proud city turned poor and decrepit neighbourhood of Tel Aviv underwent a process of Judaisation, with only around 5,000 of the former population of at least 70,000 Palestinians remaining. That population increased several-fold in later decades, but when Jaffa suddenly became a fashionable neighbourhood for Israel’s emerging yuppie Jewish class beginning in the late 1980s, prices began to rise.

By a variety of legal and economic mechanisms the growing Palestinian population was squeezed out of Jaffa’s remaining neighbourhoods like Ajami and Jebaliya, which were quite desirable because of their seaside location. Residents complained of a clear policy of Judaisation through planning and other mechanisms, but were rebuffed when they took their case to the Tel Aviv municipality.

"What can we do; the market is the market," more than one official would declare. In other words, it wasn’t the explicit policy of the state, but rather natural market forces that were pushing working-class Palestinians, and their Jewish neighbours, out of these neighbourhoods.

Of course, this argument was nonsense. The Israeli state has been deeply involved in the neoliberalisation of the country’s economy, of which Tel Aviv was the natural epicentre. As part of this process it was quite adept at using so-called "market forces" as part of its toolbox for enabling greater Jewish penetration of Palestinian towns and neighbourhoods that were deemed priorities for Judaisation. That Jews were also victims was not relevant, as they were being replaced by even more Jews, and those pushed out always had "somewhere else" to go.

Young Jews could "pioneer" neighbouring towns like Bat Yam – the equivalent of moving from Manhattan to less-desirable but soon-to-be-gentrifying parts of Brooklyn or Queens in the 1980s. Palestinians, however, had literally nowhere to move to except a few Palestinian cities which themselves were experiencing housing shortages.

Resistance was largely futile; more than one Palestinian family set up tents to live in Jaffa’s ill-kept parks after being evicted from their homes, both as a protest against their eviction and because they couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. The tents became part of the landscape after a while, and ultimately disappeared.

In the meantime, gentrification continued apace, whether faux-Ottoman-era monstrosities like the Andromeda Hill development or the even more perverse Peres Centre for Peace, built – tellingly – on land expropriated  from Jaffan refugees including the neighbourhood’s cemetery, whose remaining gravestones teeter on the hill along the Centre’s southern border.

Meanwhile, late last year the Israeli Supreme Court okayed the construction of a housing development for a religious Zionist group in the heart of Ajami, on refugee land leased to them by the Municipality and Israeli Lands Administration, despite strong protests by local Palestinian residents and Israeli human rights groups.

And while this process plays out, the remaining Arab parts of Ajami suffer from drugs, violence and government neglect (as illustrated in the 2010 film "Ajami"), while activists who press too hard against the situation can be assured of receiving various grades of the "Shabak education" that Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line have always experienced when they challenged the basic premises of Israeli rule.

From markets to boycotts?

As long as this process was confined to Jaffa, most Israelis, including residents of Tel Aviv, didn’t think too much about it. After all, what was happening in Jaffa was the same thing that happened across the country for decades; it was the modus operandi for how the State of Israel was built.

What’s different today? Today it’s middle-class Israelis who are being pushed out and have nowhere to go; at least not anywhere they want to go. Rich Israeli expats and Diaspora Jews who’ve bought up much of Ajami’s housing stock are now also among the most important buyers of apartments in Tel Aviv, while the young Ashkenazi Jews who are currently living in tents are being told that they should move to the "periphery" and pioneer far less desirable parts of the country than Tel Aviv’s satellite towns.

Gay activists complain that they only feel at home in Tel Aviv, while would-be cultural creatives have little desire to move to development towns populated by working-class Mizrahi Jews or recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union or Ethiopia.

This is a fascinating story, you might be saying to yourself. But what does it have to do with a story about "boycotting fascism," as this column is titled? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The suffering of young Israelis at the hands of the Tel Aviv housing market illustrates a larger phenomenon which is presently affecting the fabric of Israeli society as a whole: Processes and policies which for years or even decades have been deployed on or affected the Palestinian community, on both sides of the Green Line, are now affecting mainstream Jewish Israelis negatively as well. But hardly anyone understands the genesis of the problem, and so the anger is either misdirected or dissipates because, after all, the market is the market: what can you do?

Another example of this process is the debate surrounding the passing last week by the Knesset of the so-called "Anti-Boycott" bill that has now made it illegal for Israelis to call for or engage in boycotting Israel or even the settlements or settlement-made products, allowing the boycott’s targets to sue boycott supporters for damages without having to prove actual harm from the action.

The new law has caused a firestorm of protest in and outside Israel, with left-wing critics claiming it will lead outsiders to wonder if "there is actually a democracy here", and, even more damaging, to argue that its
passage heralds the arrival of fascism in Israel,
whether "quiet" or "purposeful and palpable".

Among the arguments that this law reflects such a move is that it restricts freedom of expression, reflects a clear tyranny of the majority within Israeli politics, erases the distinction between Israel and the Occupied Territories, will cripple efforts of various peace groups to help resuscitate the moribund peace process, and is part of a larger process to strip the Supreme Court of its independence. More broadly, in the words of
the usually conservative Maariv columnist Ben Caspit, it represents a right wing that "is running amok" and
threatening the supposedly democratic fabric of Israel.

But just as with the housing problem in Tel Aviv, these claims hold true only if one is considering Israeli Jewish society. For Palestinian citizens of Israel, and much more so for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Israel has always been – to use the word presently in play – fascist.

Fascism or nationalism the problem?

The basic formula for fascism, that of a highly militarised, corporatist state that manages relations between labour and capital in the name of a mythically defined "people" to the exclusion of all those deemed outside the collective, well defines the kind of ethnonationalism that has long dominated Zionist ideology.

Moreover, the kind of exclusivism that is at the heart of all nationalist identities is ramped up on ideological steroids in the authoritarian nationalist discourses that underlay fascism, as the Italian and German experiences have tragically shown. Ethnonationalisms, and particularly those that emerge in settler colonial settings such as Israel, South Africa, the United States, Australia and French Algeria, are also based on extreme forms of exclusivism and territorial expansionism that must deny basic rights and even humanity to indigenous populations in order to achieve the goal of securing control and/or sovereignty over the "homeland".

Israeli geographer Juval Portugali defines nationalism as the "generative social order" of Zionism, cementing the relationship between the Jewish/Israeli people and the territory it reclaimed. This generative order has historically been exclusivist far more often than it has been open to plural identities, which is why the (re)emergence of nationalisms have so often brought war in their wake – especially when they have been joined with a colonial settler project.

In Israel this process is evidenced in the powerful role of the Israeli state and army in all aspects of the life of the country, from the socialist Labour-dominated pre-1948 period through the neoliberal present. It has shaped a political reality in which Palestinians, whether citizens of the Israeli state or occupied inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza, have always been accorded lesser rights, by law and custom, than Jews.

Political theorists might reasonably argue that Israel doesn’t fit the classic mode of a fascist society, particularly since its ruling parties and ideologies do not self identify as such. But if you’re Palestinian, the fact that the fascist tendencies have been "silent" to Israeli Jewish or much of the world’s ears has not lessened their painful impact.

And so it is not surprising, to recall the complaints of those criticising the new anti-boycott law, that Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line have long been deprived of the basic civil and political rights of equal citizenship. Their freedom of expression has long been curtailed to varying degrees, they have always suffered from the tyranny of the Jewish majority, there has never been a distinction between the Occupied Territories and Israel (thus the massive expansion of the settlement enterprise even during Oslo), and the Supreme Court has never stepped outside the mainstream Israeli political consensus supporting the occupation – whether of Jaffa or East Jerusalem.

Put simply, the Left has "run amok" in the territories as much as the Right. Indeed, the whole notion that there is a basic difference between the Zionist Left and Right has historically been little more than a "good cop-bad cop" rhetorical strategy to confuse foreigners about their basic agreement on core issues surrounding control over the territory of Mandate Palestine.

Of course, Palestinians have long understood this, even if Americans and Europeans have chosen to remain more or less wilfully ignorant. Labour, Likud or Kadima: the occupation just keeps grinding on. (As I write these lines, Haaretz is reporting the the IDF Civil Administration is engaged in yet another major land grab in the heart of the West Bank, trying to have large tracts of land, including those containing "illegal" outposts, declared state land so they can be permanently taken over by Israel in advance of any peace agreement.)

The future of boycotts

Against this long-term level of institutionalised domination and discrimination, Palestinians have tried many means of resistance, none of which have proved very successful to date. In a recent column I have discussed some of the culturally-grounded, non-violent means of resistance that might achieve a measure of success against the power of the Israeli state.

As Yousef Munayyer points out in his recent op-ed, the new anti-boycott law has at least had the salutory effect of stimulating more interest in the boycott and larger BDS movement. He also points out, quite rightly, that since the occupation cannot exist without the massive support of the Israeli state, the whole premise of most of the movements against whom the law is intended – left-wing Israeli groups seeking to boycott settlement products or cultural/educational institutions – is deeply flawed, since only by taking on the entire apparatus of the Israeli state can a boycott movement hope to stop the occupation juggernaut.

The challenge confronting such a movement, however, is that ideologies sharing the DNA of fascism are genetically predisposed to believing that the world is against them and that their existence is constantly in peril from within and without. In the Israeli case, the more successful a boycott movement becomes, the more the Israeli state, with the support of a large share of the public, will feel justified in using any means at its disposal – from shooting unarmed protesters to launching massive propaganda campaigns – to fight back.

Moreover, its leaders and their foot-soldiers are becoming more willing to demonise and act against even members of the collective who challenge official ideology and policies. This is of course not unique to Israel today, nor to the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world, as William Cook’s July 21 op-ed describing similarities between Israeli and American government subversions of freedom of expression makes clear. And the rabid hatred of left-of-center Norwegians by mass murderer Behring Breivik attests to the ease with which this disease can spread to even the most seemingly stable and democratic societies.

Against such a powerful adversary, Palestinians and their supporters in the BDS movement will need to craft an extremely creative and persuasive set of arguments, and the strategies to spread them globally, in order to have a chance of overcoming the overwhelming advantages possessed by the Israeli government and its supporters. In my next column, I’ll look at some of the key principles, strategies and tactics of the movement today and explore how their strengths and weaknesses bode for the near future of the struggle against the Occupation.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California: Irvine, and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).