Sunday, January 16, 2011

We are not loyal - to a government of racists!

"The Slumbering Majority wakes up" proclaimed large signs as the human river flowed from the entrance to the Gan Meir Park and unto the streets. Later on, KM Nitzan Horowitz would proclaim from the podium, to the crowd overflowing the Museum Plaza: "Look around you: We are not small and we are not weak, and we have no reason whatsoever to despair!".

In recent years, this part of the Israeli society indeed often felt isolated and marginalized. Often, the dominant atmosphere in its demonstrations was of a brave challenge flung out by those determined to swim against an overwhelming tide. Tonight's change in atmosphere was brought about precisely by the most audacious manifestation to date of nationalistic aggression: The resolution to launch an "investigation" of the peace and human rights organizations, which was initiated by Avigdor Lieberman and his Knesset emissaries and passed by a large majority, and which followed upon the "Loyalty Oath Bill" and "Admissions Committees Bill" and various other notorious judicial initiatives which have been proliferated uncontrollably in the current Knesset.

It was their manifest arrogance, their feeling that they can stain Israel's law books with any piece of racist or anti-democratic they choose, which aroused the people who had stayed home in recent years. A sense of urgency, a sense that it might be the last moment to build a counter-force and try to change the direction of the murky stream. "Demonstrate! Get out into the streets - as long as it is still possible!" read the demonstration calls put out by the Democratic Camp, which last week spread rapidly across the net - before published as paid ads in the press.

"No, no, no - Fascism will not pass!" echoed the old familiar chant along King George Street – and was answered with a new and more ominous one: "People, wake up! - Fascism is passing right now!". "Democracy cries out: Help," read a big placard and the next one had "The Murder of Democracy in Israel - a Foreknown Crime!". "Racism? We don't raise our hands!" read the posters prepared by Mossawa Center, one of the organizations targeted in Lieberman's investigation. Another long-threatened group, the New Israel Fund, provided signs with "Investigate me, too!" and "We will not shut up!". A young woman held up a sign with the words "A Leftist in the Crosshairs" with a target board drawn besides. "Yesterday I sat for an hour at home until I made it exactly as I wanted, I always prefer to make my own sign then to have a printed one."

"A Leftist Patriot" read a new sticker made by Peace Now ahead of this demonstration. Israeli national flags fluttered above the marchers, as well as Blue- and-White flags with the Star of David replaced by the big word "Peace." Protesters with a different political orientation raised Palestinian flags, and one of them stopped to wave the flag ostentatiously in front of the Metudat Ze'ev Likud headquarters. (Later, holders of Palestinian flags were detained by police, who apparently forgot that since the Oslo Accords this is no longer a crime in Israel - or maybe the police is expecting new guidelines soon?) And there were in the march the Gush Shalom signs showing the two flags together, Israeli and Palestinian, and the Red Flags of the Communists and the Green ones of Meretz, and drumming by several of the regular demonstrators at Sheikh Jarrah, and someone was also blowing a trumpet. Very prominent in their absence were any marchers with a sign identifying them as Labor Party adherents - though there were probably quite a few among the crowd who had still voted Labor in the last elections.

"I am Yonathan Pollak" read large signs, as did smaller black stickers which many wore on their shirts. The call for the release of Pollak - imprisoned for participating in a cycling protest two years ago – was voiced also by many people who had never come to demonstrate against the Separation Fence in the fields of the village of Bil'in together with Pollak and his fellows. The Hithabrut-Tarabut movement provided signs entitled "Release the Political Prisoners", where Yonathan Pollak was mentioned alongside Nuri el-Okbi, the Bedouin Rights activist sent to jail on charges of "running a business without a license" as well as Israel Bondak of Jerusalem, veteran of the Israeli Black Panthers and the only one, among many operators of "pirate" radio stations, to be sent to prison for his broadcasting activities.

"Jews and Arabs - Refuse to be Enemies!" read many signs, and the words were shouted loud and clear when the march wound its way up the old section of Dizengoff Street. The blend of accents among the voices testified that these were indeed Jews and Arabs who were chanting it together, again and again and again.

Those who walked in the later parts of the march encountered an unpleasant surprise at the Museum Plaza: police motorcycles parked to make a makeshift blockage and completely sealed off the entrance stairs. "No more allowed in, the square is full. Danger!" announced a grim-faced police officer.

Many of the demonstrators did not accept the prohibition, and they found roundabout ways, climbing concrete fences and pushing their way into the crowd already filling the square. "We already have been fifteen thousand people in the square, we ask the police to stop blocking our friends who want to join" said the voice from the loudspeakers. About fifteen minutes later, the declaration "We are now above twenty thousand!" was greeted with applause.

It was clear that the list of speakers had been assembled with a view to present a wide range of speakers - Jews and Arabs, men and women, moderates and radicals, Communists and Liberals, Zionists and anti-Zionists and non-Zionists.

Lieberman, the racist demagogue Foreign Minister and would-be Putin, was of course the target of an endless flow of condemnation, but almost all the speakers made sure to direct their fire also at the Prime Minister - "Netanyahu, who promotes the racist laws, who backs up Lieberman, who pays salaries to rabbis who publish letters of racial incitement". And the loudest and most sustained boos were reserved for the Minister of Defense: "Barak of the Labor Party and all your fellows, you sit in this most racist of all Israeli Government and you are an accomplice in all its misdeeds, in the racist bills and the rampant occupation and the destruction of any chance left for peace. Lieberman hopes to gain votes in the next election out of his deeds in this government. What are you trying to gain - a few more miserable months in your ministerial seats?" Meretz KM Nitzan Horowitz concluded with a Zionist credo: "I am a Zionist because I believe in the values of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. My Zionism is the aspiration for a sane Israel, an Israel of civil equality and human rights, an Israel which ensures equality to all its citizens regardless of religion, race or gender". In a similar vein, Yariv Oppenheimer of Peace Now declared his hope to see the day when it would be possible to say with pride the words "I am an Israeli."

"There is no cliche more outworn than 'The Occupation Corrupts' - and equally, there is no truth which is still as clear and pure as on the day it was first uttered" stated Hadash KM Muhammad Barake. "Those who deluded themselves that the suffocating oppression of the Palestinian people would always stop at the Green Line were proven very wrong and mistaken. Now, this oppression is coming here, and we all feel the tangible threat. It is by no means certain that a demonstration such as this would still be possible a year from now. But we who stand here in this plaza, Arabs and Jews, Jews and Arabs together in the struggle against galloping Fascisation, we can win! Yes, we can win, as the people of Tunis just yesterday won a heroic struggle against sinister tyranny!"

Attorney Bana Shoughry-Badarne of the Public Committee against Torture, speaking on behalf of the threatened human rights organizations, gently chided those who did not feel danger as long as its victims were mainly among the Palestinians. "More than a decade ago, when I first started to be active, all the phenomena were already highly visible: political detentions, killing of civilians, the expropriation of land, all the forms of oppression. But some people thought that since they belonged to the dominant ethnic group, the tyranny of the majority will not touch them. Now it is obvious that a country which does not define itself as the State of All its Citizens cannot have real democracy. We did not come here to demonstrate against an ephemeral inquiry, which is supposed to discover sources of funding that are open and visible to anyone bothering to surf the web sites of the organizations concerned. We are demonstrating against occupation and oppression and discrimination, for solidarity and for basic human and civil rights to all". (Prolonged chanting "Human Rights - For All! For All! For All!"

"Two weeks ago, Israeli women won a great victory, and the victims of the rapist and sexual abuser Moshe Katzav were vindicated in court. Yet the patriarchal governmental structure which rules over us has chosen this very moment to launch an offensive in a different direction" said feminist activist Dorit Abramovitch. "We have in this country a White Male Jewish regime, harking back to the romanticized comradeship of the 1948 fighters, a regime which was established long before Lieberman or Bibi appeared on the scene. As a feminist I am committed to pointing out the inextricable connection between governmental violence, occupation and sexual oppression. They are all part and parcel of the same. I want to say something that is not agreed by everybody here: There cannot be a Jewish and Democratic state - the two contradict and are incompatible with each other. The Palestinians in Israel never had democratic rights. We should not talk about restoring the glories of an old democracy, we should create a new democracy which until now never existed."

In terms of immediate political impact, the most significant and most unexpected speaker was MK Meir Shitrit of the Kadima Party – which so far had taken, to say the least, a most ambiguous position towards the Lieberman initiatives. "Jabotinsky is turning in his grave to see Likud members support this piece of anti-democratic folly. Jabotinsky always opposed the tyranny of the majority, always declared that the individual who courageously stands against the crowd is a king. What has possessed these Likud people to let Lieberman draw them to the extreme right? The Knesset does not have any authority to conduct such an investigation. You left-wings organizations need not appear, need not to answer any question, you can treat this investigation with the utter contempt it deserves. They have no authority to investigate you! (Applause). True, some Kadima members also voted in favor. It is easier to extract people from the Likud than to extract Likudness from these people. I want to announce here that Kadima decided on a strict party discipline. The next time the issue returns to the Knesset plenum, we will all oppose it, unanimously! (Applause)

"Many years ago I was active on the Left in France," said a mustached, white haired man standing on the side. "Among us in Paris we used to say: When you see the opportunists suddenly come over to your side and join you, it seems that the wind is changing direction."

Social TV video on the demo (Hebrew speaking, but you can see what it looked like)