I attended my first pro-Palestinian protest in Israel shortly before the bombing of Gaza began in the mixed ethnic neighborhood of Jaffa in South Tel-Aviv.
The most striking thing about it was that the Palestinian protesters appeared so free.
It was as if in seeking freedom from Israeli discrimination they had eliminated much of their own.
African-American activists appear to experience something similar, but so much activism in the United States self selects for a general sense of discontent. It often seems as if the grumpiest people at the American protests make the biggest show. And the stakes are rarely great enough to touch the protesters in such a personal way as the discrimination experienced by Palestinians in Israel, so the issues being protested often feel more abstract.
There is widespread discrimination against Palestinians not just in the West Bank and Gaza but also within Israel proper. Palestinians are educated under a special curriculum in almost wholly segregated schools.
Contrary to what so many Israelis claim, with little explanation, about Palestinians teaching hate in their schools, Palestinian Principles in Israel must be approved by the Shabak, or secret police. And teachers are prevented from teaching Palestinian history and some of the most beautiful Palestinian literature, because it is politicized.
Palestinians are prevented from living on 93 percent of the land in Israel, which is owned by the state or para-state organizations and can only be sold to Jews. Even as their population has grown almost ten-fold since the founding of the state, their communities have been prevented from expanding. Not only that, they are often prevented from expanding or even renovating their homes, in a part of the world where it is not uncommon to live in places so old they would be placed in a museum were they in the U.S.
The discrimination also reaches into the job market. Palestinian Israelis do not serve in the military but many of the best jobs are closed off to all but those who have served. And serving in the military adds points to one’s credit, hence making it easier to receive bank loans.
Much of the discrimination is personal. Theoretically, the Jew can sell his house to an Arab in many places, but he may be under significant pressure from friends and neighbors not to.
The system is unbelievably complex and confusing and after much study and many questions I fear I have gotten some of this wrong. But this complexity is not neutral. For it serves the purpose of obscuring this discrimination from Israelis, most of whom think Palestinians are integrated into their society. After all, they can run for office, eat in the same restaurants, bathe on the same beaches.
The West Bank may exist in a state of Apartheid, but Israel is not an Apartheid state.
And this brings us back to the protest. It was a mixed ethnic crowd, mostly Palestinian but also perhaps 15 percent Jews, who appeared widely welcomed and integrated into the gathering. There were a lot of wide eyes, broad smiles, big hugs and little sign of religion. According to one veteran protester, the gathering represented a broad swathe of the Palestinian population in the area, so it was not just some gathering of the elites
And the police presence was slight, apparently there to prevent escalations more than to provoke them.
Someone tried to drown out the protest chants by playing loud nationalistic dance music and this was largely ignored. One man jumped out of his car, looking angry and waving an Israeli flag, but he was gently ushered away by the police. I asked the veteran protester if the behavior of the police was normal and he noted that they were mostly there to contain the protests. And yet, this Israeli Jewish man had been shot in the eye in a peaceful protest many years ago. I pointed out the contradiction and might have added what I found out later: this very mellow protester had been arrested 40 times in protests.
And this is the paradox of the Israeli state.
It is so easy to see its civilized side if that is what you want to see. And yet, its brutality is so shielded from view for most supporters of Israel, including the Israelis themselves—until it breaks out in war.
It is, in a sense, the perfect crime in which the criminal covers his tracks so thoroughly that he somehow manages to convince even himself that it has not been committed.
And yet, one of the lessons of the protest for me was that a broad based, Gandhian non-violent movement, in which protesters were not merely non-violent in their actions but also in their demeanors, might be possible.
There is a long and extensive history of Palestinian use of non-violent tactics like strikes, boycotts and simple protests, which often goes ignored, but I believe that what I am talking about runs a bit deeper than what has come before. In the same way the Palestinians appeared to have thrown off their internal oppression through protest, Jews and Palestinians might through working together in such a movement, set in motion a process of reconciliation that will need to occur under any political resolution of the occupation.
Deep, non-violent protest holds the promise of creating space for a wider swathe of the population to join the movement. It is more likely to win friends from the Israeli opposition, it can draw out greater international support, it brings more level-headed leaders to power and links them more closely to those working on the ground, and according to the only studies of which I am aware, it is far more likely to result in the emergence of a democratic state.
Certainly, it would do wonders for the reconciliation that would make any such state far more secure and stable and, in the end, viable and sustainable. And it is just such a pleasure to participate in friendly and open hearted work for justice.
While the Gaza War may have eclipsed such talk of peaceful protest for the time being, it is a potential strategy that could go a long way in bringing broth justice and reconciliation.
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Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Palestine Solidarity Project/Flickr