What do the Israelis want?

cc Lizzy Shaanan via the PikiWiki – Israel free image collection project (CC BY 2.5)

Israelis are protesting against judicial reforms, shouting, “We don’t want what happened in Poland and Hungary!”. Why didn’t they take to the streets when right next door for decades, Palestinians have been dying from Israeli apartheid? Shiraz, a social work and education student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of one of the protest organisations, answers

Aleksandra Leks: Why did Israelis hit the streets?

Shiraz: Our government decided to pass what they call a law reform, a bunch of laws regarding the law system. If all of them pass, or even some, it will hurt Israel’s democracy dramatically. For example, one rule will give the coalition complete power over the judges; they will be the ones deciding who will be picked as a judge. They plan to pass laws regarding whether the Supreme Court can turn over directions and cancel those that violate human rights. For now, that is the case; the Supreme Court has that power. The reform will add the possibility of re-voting these laws. These are just a few examples; there are more, which is scary. Once they get this power, they can do anything, and Israel will be on the road to dictatorship. Luckily enough, people realized it, woke up, and hit the streets. 

Is that your first protest?

No, it’s not. I’ve been to many demonstrations ever since I was a kid when my parents took me to one of the biggest protests in the history of Israel in 2011. I’ve been to several protests throughout the years, including the more radical and leftist ones.

What do you mean by radical ones? 

The left and right in Israel are mainly about your views regarding Palestine’s occupation. Most people approve of it to some extent, at least for now, and only a tiny minority opposes it and protests. There are joint protests organized by Israelis and Palestinians together. They demonstrate against the settlements and for the rights of Palestinians to be respected. I’ve been to some of these, for example, in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem where Palestinian families are about to be deported from their homes where they’ve lived for years.

Why did you join these protests? 

I believe that all the people living on this land deserve to have their rights respected, and for now, the rights of Palestinians aren’t. Many people in Israel don’t even know what’s going on. They just automatically assume that if there is any police violence towards them – if someone got injured or even died – it’s justified and that they are terrorists.

In Sheikh Jarrah, I’ve heard stories of families that have lived there for generations, and now settler organizations are trying to kick them out of their homes. Everyone there and some human rights organizations are trying to fight against it. I joined the protests two times. The second time I was there, the police used stun grenades. Since then, I’ve been too scared to go there. I was scared of the police in our protests too. Panic attacks were a norm for me for a long time because of what happened in Sheikh Jarrah. I still have it at the back of my head, but I know it’s a Jewish protest inside of Israel; they usually don’t use such violence in this type of protest. Not yet.

And what made you join the current protest? 

I heard that there was a protest on campus, a student protest. I decided to join it at the last moment. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if many people would come, and I wasn’t sure whether it would be so effective, but many joined it. As I joined it, I started reading and researching more about what’s going on and realized the extent of the changes, how scary they are, and how scary living in such a country will be. I started going there more regularly. Slowly, I became braver, started coming forward, taking a more active role as more of an activist instead of just a participant.

In what way did you become more active in the protest?

I took my first active step in the WhatsApp group of my degree. There was one Thursday on which all of Israel went on strike. Some classes got cancelled, and some didn’t. I had an idea of putting pressure on our professors. I thought that if a big group of students told them why they went to the protests and won’t attend the classes, they would cancel it too.

Also, the degree I’m studying, social work, is related to human rights. It’s a profession that exists to protect the rights of the people. It’s about helping the most vulnerable individuals. It was crazy that they didn’t support it publicly. I wrote a message in the WhatsApp group, encouraging people to email the professors, telling them they are going to the strike and why it is so important. That started an argument. Some people supported me, and some argued with me. They just thought that we shouldn’t bring politics to campus.

And do you think that bringing politics into campus is important? 

I don’t think that campus exists in some parallel universe. University is a part of our life. I am a student, but first and foremost, a human being and a citizen. We can’t just come, study, and pretend that nothing is happening around us. That’s especially true when we study such degrees as social work, political science, or economics. People take classes in economics, and our economy is collapsing because other countries are too scared to invest in us. It’s all related.

We can’t just live in a bubble and be like, “Oh no, we’re just students”. We aren’t just students. Look at history; so many protests were led by students. They were the ones who started the change. I wonder why this apolitical trend is still alive in Israel. However, things are changing. In Jerusalem, the students lead the protests each week. We have a big rally every Saturday, and the students organise it.

Back to the story, what happened after you took that first active step?

After I sent that message, people started seeing me as more of an activist than I was at the time. They started asking me questions, coming up to me, and telling me they appreciated me for what I said. Then I started to take more steps. I wrote a letter to the dean saying that we wanted him to support the protests and oppose the government publicly, and then I collected students’ signatures under it. I also joined the organization and am now actively standing at the front, leading it.

We also do a lot of work behind the scenes; we meet and talk about how we want the protest to look from now on and what we think is essential. Also, making signs and organizing things, everyone does their part. I’m definitely not the most engaged one; some people do so much more than me, and I’m just a part of it.

It’s not the first time you’ve caused mixed reactions in your social circle. I know that you’ve decided not to serve in the army. Why?

In Israel, there is mandatory army service for everyone. You can get an exemption for religious, physical, and mental health reasons.

I was, and I still am, a pacifist. I was against serving in any army, specifically in the Israeli military controlling a West Bank civil population. This was me, doing it the hard way and applying for the pacifism exemption, which exists but is difficult to get.

It was a long process, but in the end, I got it and didn’t go to the army. I did national civil service instead. I was a teaching assistant in a special education kindergarten and worked in a woman’s shelter. 

How did it shape you as a person?

It was hard because it was my first time not doing what everyone did. It may be hard for people from other countries to understand how obvious it is in Israel to go to the army. Likewise, it’s as evident as attending high school after graduating from middle school – you finished high school; obviously, you’re going to the army. The army is so deep in the consciousness in Israel. There is no such thing as being against the army. The army is considered above all political differences and conflicts.

Even those who supported me didn’t do so out of understanding; they just allowed me to live my life on my terms. Some people did argue with me. Sometimes, I was scared of telling why I didn’t go to the army. I could easily avoid it because if you got an exemption for medical reasons you don’t always want to elaborate. If you’re not voluntarily giving details, people assume it’s private and leave you alone. It was hard for a long time, but I think, in a way, it made it easier for me to speak up now and put myself out there. I guess it prepared me for where I am now.

How will it all affect the lives of Israelis and Palestinians?

These actions will give the government unlimited power, which we all know is a considerable risk to take. Such an amount of power never ends up in good hands. We’ve all seen examples of countries such as Hungary and Poland where the law system was undertaken. Now, almost no one can stop the government. They can do whatever they want. They can violate human rights.

For now, the biggest concern for Israeli society is the question of women’s equality and LGBTQ+ rights. The coalition includes many very religious parties that are homophobic and misogynistic. These parties agreed to join the coalition on their terms; one of them is passing a law saying that any service provider has the right to refuse the service to anyone for religious reasons. For example, a doctor could legally refuse to treat a gay or Arab patient. So yeah, these groups are highly at risk; however, in the end, every Israeli will be at risk. 

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Palestinians, of course, live under occupation. They are not citizens of Israel, they don’t have almost any rights, to begin with, and these changes are going to make it so much worse. Our Supreme Court is already wrong in many cases. The most obvious one is giving the green light for the occupation to spread and continue. It usually allows the army to go ahead. However, in some cases, it blocks certain actions of the government. Without it, there will be absolutely no control, and our government will be able to take it even further. Nothing will be able to stop them. Can you imagine that some of the Parliament members said we should burn down the whole Palestinian village because a terrorist came from ? I have no reason to trust these people. They are not planning on doing anything good.

The topic of Poland and Hungary is pretty much alive in the protests. Why is that?

Since that “reform” began, jurists have pointed out the similarities to such reforms formed in Poland and Hungary in the last decade. We had panels with juries from Poland and Hungary speaking of the changes. We recently received a message from the Association of Polish Judges encouraging us to fight.

For now, we mainly talk about Poland because what happened in Poland is very similar to what’s happening in Israel. The reform was met with massive protests, just like here. As Poles protested, President Duda said the reform would be put on hold. Later, it returned and passed overnight. We are in the same situation because our prime minister put the laws on hold. We want to avoid letting the same thing happen here. Some people tell us to stop protesting since we got what we wanted, but we continue to hit the streets every Saturday. We remind the government that we are still watching them, and we won’t let them follow the steps of the Polish government. 

Do police overuse their power? 

In some cases, yes. In Tel Aviv, they used stun grenades and received a huge backlash. The protest is not violent; that’s one of its most essential principles. I saw some people getting mad and cursing at the police. The students tried to calm them down and tell them that we must keep the non-violent style of the protest. We’ve been beaten up. I know people who have been arrested for no real reason. For now, I guess it’s not too bad on a big scale; however, since the minister in charge of the police is Ben Gvir, and he is always telling them to do more to stop us, I am afraid that at some point it will escalate. 

How would you compare the violence of the police towards the protestors in the current protests and towards the protestors in the Arab neighbourhoods?

It’s worse there. People don’t know what’s going on in the protests in Sheikh Jarrah even though it’s so close to the Hebrew University. It’s 15 min away on foot. People live by what the police are telling them, and if the police tell them that the protestors attacked them, they believe them. I also initially believed it because why would you think your country’s police are lying? But I was there, and we didn’t do anything violent. I had a stun grenade thrown 2 meters away from me. Police were beating up people using batons and arresting them. It is much worse there and slowly getting to us too.

It’s like that famous poem by Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the Socialists, and I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t one, then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t a Jew, then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” I think we can say the same thing about what is happening here: first, they came for the Palestinians, and we didn’t say anything, then they came to Arabs living in Israel, now they are coming for the LGBTQ+ community, they are coming for women. In the end, they will come for all of us. 

Do you think the current protests made people more aware of the Palestine occupation?

Sadly, no, these protests are mostly very Zionist-focused. Well, maybe there is some change because some speeches about the occupation are heard for the first time publicly in front of a big audience, at least in Jerusalem. So maybe it’s slightly changing, but most people still say that talking about the occupation will make the more right-wing people, who don’t support the government’s current actions, go away. They are saying that we should focus on Israel.

We don’t see so many Israelis protesting against the occupation of Palestine and the apartheid. Why is that?

There is ignorance and a level of hypocrisy. To be fair, Israel was never a sound democracy. It was democratic only in the borders of 1967, fully democratic only for the Jewish people, and people ignore that. They are caring now because it affects them, and I don’t think it’s something unique to Israel.

I assume these protests are an opportunity to make a further change. It’s time to think. What else do we want? What country do we want to live in? I think now is a great time to try and work on making a new social and political order. I believe that the government’s current actions woke up a significant population that wasn’t involved politically. When people care about one thing, opening their eyes to other bad stuff inside Israel will be easier. I don’t want to stop at the reform. As long as our country is built on exploiting people and their rights, it will never be a democratic state. Now, just from a practical point of view, Israelis suddenly have to care, and together we can cause a complete change in this country.

What do you want the future of your country to look like?

I want it to have a solid and steady democratic base and to exist in peace and end the occupation. Israel has to be fully equal to all kinds of people living here, Jews and Arabs, secular people, and religious people. I want everyone to be able to live their life free from religious compulsion. I want its people to have the same spirit I see here, fighting and doing everything possible to protect these values. We are the new generation of this country; we can take it to a better place. 

Aleksandra Leks

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