On numerous occasions this past month, I’ve been asked my opinion on the “social justice” protests in Israel. There is much bellowing beneath my short “shu bi‘a`rifni” (hell if I know). Some believe that literature and storytelling convey truth better than facts; accordingly, I will use the words of two late and missed writers Mahmoud Darwish and Gil Scott-Heron to express why many are uninspired by the 14 July movement.
Gil Scott-Heron sang the poem Whitey on the Moon in 1970 responding to Neil Armstrong`s trip to the moon. In the poem, Scott-Heron anchors the “advancements” of the space program in those populations at whose expense such feats were accomplished. “Whitey” does not refer to Neil Armstrong as an individual, but rather to an institution that organized society’s objectives to serve the interests of one racial group at the expense of another. Scott-Heron’s hostility towards that institution, which deemed him and his people inferior, tempered his ability to celebrate the moon landing. He sang:
I can`t pay no doctor bills./ (but Whitey`s on the moon)/ Ten years from now I`ll be payin` still/ While Whitey`s on the moon./ You know, the man jus` upped my rent las` night,…No hot water, no toilets, no lights…/ Well I wuz already givin` `im fifty a week/… Taxes takin` my whole damn check,/ The junkies make me a nervous wreck,/ The price of food is goin` up,/ An` as if all that crap wuzn`t enough,/ A rat done bit my sister Nell./ (with Whitey on the moon)
Scott-Heron scoffs at the US government for spending billions of dollars on the space program while ignoring social issues—particularly social issues facing impoverished, ghettoized, and communities of color. In so doing, he demonstrates how ridiculous the notion of great feats and technological advancements are by tethering them to racial inequality.
These examples are taken out of the abstract universal realm, in which we like to place our achievements or our problems. It destabilizes the idea that the space program actually belonged to people in poverty like Gil Scott-Heron. His song argues: America beat Russia in the space race, so what? That is not my achievement although you used my tax money to get to the moon. And poverty is not our American problem it’s my problem because the government does not care that I have no money and a rat just bit my sister!
The intersection is located where: you take my tax dollars and achieve something and I give you my tax dollars and lose something.
A similar relationship explains why I cannot but roll my eyes at the 14 July movement. Deep behind this apparent lack of sympathy is something more complex. In the prose poem Memory for Forgetfulness, Mahmood Darwish explains how Palestinian refusal to celebrate so-called Israeli liberals is not the result of disdain or derision, but rather a great deal of pain and loss. Darwish’s response to the protests in Tel Aviv thirty years ago can be applied to the protests today. Memory for Forgetfulness chronicles the inner thoughts and experiences of a Palestinian refugee, Darwish, during the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut. The book offers reflections of personal, political, and historical dimensions of the Lebanese civil war, the Palestine question, and the Israeli invasion of Beirut. Excerpts included in this article are about Darwish’s reaction to Israeli protests in Tel Aviv, which addressed the 1982 invasion. Darwish’s writing cuts through the proclaimed intention of Israeli demonstrations and reveals the odious consequences of those protests. The same observation must be made about the 14 July protests: they occur at the expense of Palestinians and most Israelis are oblivious to the fact that Palestinians are affected by and have a stake in the outcome of the protests. If one understands the Tel Aviv protests as divorced from the question of Palestine then there is something pathological in that disconnect. To understand the protests and the question of Palestine as detached from one another necessitates a great deal of privilege. Both Darwish and Scott-Heron write about how this kind of privilege makes people delusional.
The structure of Scott-Heron’s poem works well to measure that disconnect Darwish so eloquently wrote about in 1982, and that exists between Palestinian reality and 14 July slogans today. Scott-Heron’s correlation between space adventures and structural racism or poverty in the US is comparable to the correlation between the examples of asymmetry between the Israelis and Palestinians. Historically, Israeli “social justice” has been achieved at the expense of Palestinian social justice. The Whitey on the Moon structure is useful in this way: “can’t pay no doctors bills but whitey’s on the moon.”
Palestine has a refugee population of over six million but Israelis want more affordable housing.
Palestinians have a sixteen percent unemployment rate in the West Bank and an over forty percent unemployment rate in Gaza because of the occupation but Israelis rally for more jobs to remedy their five percent unemployment rate.
There are over five thousand Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails but protesters demand the release of Gilad Shalit.
In 2004, the Hebrew University confiscated Palestinian lands and homes uprooting more than 250 Palestinians but Israeli marchers hold posters that say blatantly racist statements such as, “Arabs out of Jaffa, more room for artists and students.”
And as protesters chant and sing and talk to the press about their vague demands for social justice they remain silent about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Based on most of the footage released, the protesters are seemingly oblivious to the inextricability of Israeli “social justice” and Palestinian suffering. The paradox of this new movement for social justice is that the organizers understand full well that as soon as they speak about the Palestinians (the people most abused by Israeli society’s power) popular support is sure to plummet. What does social justice even mean when it is divorced from the equation of social equality?
One can replace Scott-Heron’s moon with any other idiom that suggests that those with privilege are not down to earth or are completely detached from reality -- detached from the reality of Palestinian suffering. The examples in his poem can reflect a myriad of different circumstances where the people in power disregard and take advantage of those without it. Last September, Time Magazine ran a cover story titled “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace.” Ha’aretz Journalist, Ari Shavit is quoted saying, “There was a time when people felt guilty about the Tel Aviv bubble. Then it turned out the bubble was pretty strong. The bubble was resilient."
Tent city is in the bubble and that bubble might as well be on the moon. Israelis in the hundreds of thousands gather to march and sleep in tents on the streets of the affluent Tel Aviv neighborhood on Rothschild Boulevard. If one juxtaposes the image of the tents on Rothschild Boulevard with the tents of the 700,000 Palestinians that were forcibly removed from their homes in 1948 or the tents in Jabalya Refugee Camp after the Israeli attack on Gaza—the inequality of the situation is clear.
A closer look at the spatial aspects and conditions of these tents can tell us a great deal about choice and privilege. Darwish clearly demonstrates that the construction of Israeli cities occurs against the backdrop of the forcible removal of Palestinians and their subsequent placement in tents. Darwish records:
Lift up, then, another hundred cities over this rifle’s hammer, and let old towns emerge from their stables and from under the dominion of locusts growing in the tents of the wild ass of the desert.
It is not as if critics of the movement do not want Israeli Jews to have adequate and affordable housing. However, Palestinians do not appreciate being uprooted to make room for such cities and homes to be built. Over six decades after the establishment of Israel where over 700,000 Palestinians were uprooted from their homes, over 200,000 Israeli citizens walk out of their existing, albeit expensive, homes to sleep in tents. Couches have been taken out of apartments for demonstrators to lounge on; some tents are being used for arts and crafts; and Israeli barbers are giving free haircuts. Protesters describe their tent city as “a creative space,” a place where Israelis are fostering “a real community,” where people can “share ideas and generate important discussions.”
Palestinians also inhabit tents but Palestinian tents have a different look and tone. They are built by international aid organizations with wooden beams and large heavy pieces of cloth. Darwish describes the atmosphere in Palestinian tents, “…where we are, is the tent for wandering meanings and words gone astray.” There is no creativity or movement building, only, “the orphaned light, scattered and banished from the center.”
In the new tent city, protesters have forgotten about the tents that were perched in order to make room for their homes. Many of the protesters and their international supporters probably deny that Palestinians ever experienced a loss they benefit from. So yes, to most Palestinians these protesters are probably “whitey on the moon” marching under the banner of social justice. Some chants include, “the people will take back the country” and “Tel Aviv is Jewish.” When one listens to the rhetoric and language used by the protesters, a fury of confusion and utter disbelief transpires.
According to Darwish, an epic soccer match inspired movement in Tel Aviv streets responding to the siege of Lebanon in 1982. He describes the Arab world as more inspired and riled up about the World Cup the summer of 1982 than the Israeli invasion of Beirut, which suggests the lack of ownership Palestinians have of their own victimhood. Today many demonstrators and the press have likened Rothschild Boulevard to Tahrir Square; Israelis inspired by the Arab spring would like some reform as well, they say. The Arab public and Darwish in particular did not and do not “rejoice over the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, which continues to rob us of all our roles.” Darwish writes that when the victimizer protests on behalf of or in the position of the victim then the important distinction between victim and victimizer becomes difficult to decipher. When those with the power have the bullhorn and are screaming it is like covering the oppressed moth with tape and making them listen to the screams. There is something haunting about watching the protests because the make the end of oppression look further and further away. How could Palestinians rejoice at the protests today when, “Tel Aviv is Jewish” is one of the mantras shouted or when protesters are continually asserting that the protests are not political but social? Darwish continues:
I listened to their radio but never understood the secret behind their crying. The victor was defeated from within. The victor was afraid to lose his identity as victim. No one else had the right to realize this achievement—to become the victim—because the reversal of roles would upset a scale of justice made of sand? For our sake they shouted, for our sake they cried; but they won wars for their own worth’s sake.
The 14 July demonstrators have made it clear that the question of Palestine is to remain “offstage and not make an entrance.” The sentiment on the street, according to demonstrator interviews and speeches is that Palestinians are “weaker people” than middle class Israelis and the protesters are not interested in social justice for them. Therefore, Palestinians will continue to understand these protests as both a spectacle and a continual appropriation of the Palestinian position, land, and the language surrounding the Arab spring. Unlike Israel’s protests for social justice the Arab spring was and is a political struggle for power—to take back power from the ruling elite and the government. The consensus between protesters in the 14 July movement is that this movement is social and “not about politics.” If anything the complacency of Arab regimes treating Palestine like a humanitarian issue while enabling Israel’s occupation and the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine was fodder for the fire, rage, and compassion that inspired the Arab spring. Israel is not suffering from the same tyrannical or undemocratic ruling as Egypt or Tunisia. Benjamin Netanyahu was in fact elected, and his high approval ratings are due to his positions on defense and policy matters.
Israelis are experiencing the worst social conditions in decades, however, what is happening is not an Israeli summer but an internal confrontation between Israelis. Middle Class Israelis feel they are victims of Israelis security-heavy priorities and although the country has a strong economy the middle class is caving under price hikes, taxation and increasingly privatized public services such as health, education and childcare. However legitimate the concerns of young and middle class Israelis, their dissatisfaction won’t be sufficiently addressed unless the disconnect between Palestinian suffering and the Israeli desire for social justice is connected. The protester’s desire for social services and their social values contradict. Disintegration of social welfare programs and increased taxes are inevitable when citizens continually support leaders that promise to beat the Arabs or protect them from their Arab enemies, rather than electing leaders who address the needs of a regular functioning middle class.
Is it not ironic that as hundreds of thousands protest in the street, airstrikes are being launched against and reportedly from Gaza? How can the list of demands from Israel’s middle class be seriously met under such “exceptional” circumstances? Did this new set of “clashes” not divert attention away from the list of demands and towards the external Arab enemy, which keeps Israel united? The truth is, Israeli’s middle class is not regular or functioning because they both want improved social services while simultaneously supporting an occupation that costs them more than 800 million dollars a year. An apartheid state cannot sustain itself and the contradictions in the messages coming out of the 14 July movement are glaring. The tape needs to be ripped off so those silent can whisper that Palestinian and Israeli social justice is inseparable.
The ostracized tent #1948 is the only glimmer of social justice and clarity present in the tent cities. Although a group of right-wing Israelis physically assaulted some of the people (both Israelis and Palestinians) inhabiting the tent and tore down the Palestinian flag, it still remains one of the only comprehensible messages emerging from the many murky and convoluted mantras coming out of the 14 July movement. Its message is crystal clear—social justice should be for all. That message and the existence of tent #1948 is subverting the racist undertones of the Israeli protests; I pray that more people join that contingent. Israel will never reform as long as Palestinians are still treated as inferior. Put simply, if the Israeli public thinks that it can achieve “social justice” while remaining utterly silent about the social injustices that are being committed against Palestinians in their names—they will continue to be looked at with confused eyes and perceived as “whitey on moon.”