It’s time to tell the truth: The recent demonstrations will not change even one cabinet decision. In their present form these demonstrations carry no weight in the considerations of decision makers. This right-wing government isn’t bothered by people standing on street corners or marching by holding up placards. It will blithely ignore all the blaring megaphones on its road to deporting asylum seekers, entrenching the occupation and aggrandizing a corrupt ruler.
Why do these demonstrations have no impact on the cabinet? Who do they influence?
A protest, by definition, should be a sharp expression of contention, but protests in Israel are much friendlier than that. Thousands of people stand together for a few hours, somewhat embarrassed, some holding up well-styled placards, others staring at a few dozen people shouting slogans, while others listen to speeches until they decide to go home. This is not what a demonstration by thousands of people against the deportation of refugees to an unknown future should look like. This is not what a protest against military rule that has been acting in the name of these selfsame demonstrators for dozens of years should resemble.
There is no lack of contemporary examples of protests with an impact, even here in Israel. In the name of the sanctity of the Sabbath and in opposition to their being drafted, ultra-Orthodox Jews are willing to suffer almost any act of repression: water cannons, beatings, imprisonment. They take to the streets out of true conviction and belief in values they were brought up on. The achievement is secondary to the act of protesting, serving mainly to shake things up. The protests dubbed the Arab Spring across the Middle East could certainly teach Israelis a thing or two about protesting, as can last October’s demonstrations for Catalan independence.
Perhaps the feebleness of the latest demonstrations in Israel stems from the reason people took to the streets in the first place. A person can identify with the suffering of another, share on Facebook and even donate time and money, but in contrast to a truly oppressed person, the well-fed and privileged demonstrator will always have something to lose. The right to demonstrate is a privilege for him or her, not an existential need. Thousands of demonstrators won’t take a policeman’s club for a person they don’t know and for a future in which they have no part. If the demonstrations fail – and they will – it won’t be their lives that change.
The recent demonstrations have become a weekly event for many, something done out of a sense of moral obligation, but they don’t resemble a true civic struggle. Protesters who come back every week deserve respect, clearly stating their opposition to cabinet decisions. But is a clear statement sufficient for bringing about a change? Is this what true opposition looks like?
These protests are missing a radical element – organizations and leaders who can sweep masses of people along, taking them into the streets and giving a loud protesting voice to those who can’t express themselves while bringing the country to a standstill. A true opposition. The current demonstrations lack that sharp edge that could stick in the side of elected officials, something that is so wanting in secular Israel. These protests lack emotional acts, ones not motivated by considerations of expediency but by fury and uncompromising opposition carried on until changes are made.
Radicalism is not extremism but is of necessity a thorough transformation of the status quo, and that is precisely what these demonstrations must insist on. In Israel, under the present government, changing the status quo requires acts such as burning tires, blocking roads and being prepared to absorb beatings for other people.
Israelis are the sons of daughters of a state that sanctifies the status quo, one that vilifies “extremists on both sides.” In Israel, protests are legitimate but with qualifications. It’s permissible to protest and argue but please don’t shatter vessels and definitely not the silence.
When these are the conditions, the right to protest is hollow – the demonstrators will demonstrate, the legislators will legislate and the state will execute. Each one plays their role.
When protests are coordinated with police, when they are bound by physical and ideological boundaries that are well defined, when everyone knows that the evening will pass quietly, the oppressor has won before the first slogan is yelled. Instead of barking while watching the convoy pass, we must block the convoy, interlocking our arms courageously. Then we’ll see how it passes without running us all down.