by Yossi Yonah
Palestine-Israel Journal: Is it correct to say that the protest movement’s advisory committees were established as a response to the governmentappointed Trachtenberg Committee?
Yossi Yonah: Yes, in part, but not exclusively. The role of our advisory committees was to articulate a comprehensive and coherent worldview backing the political, social and economic demands of the protest movement. Comparisons between our committees and the Trachtenberg Committee are often being made, but that was not the essential raison d’être of the advisory committees. We speak on behalf of the protestors; the Trachtenberg Committee speaks on behalf of the Israeli government; we are loyal to the public; the Trachtenberg Committee is loyal to the government. We actually see ourselves as the trustees of the public.
Did the protest take you by surprise?
Yes, indeed. No one expected it, though the conditions have been ripe for a long time, as the conditions have been ripe for long time in the Arab world for a revolution and yet no one expected it. The Arab Spring caught all of us by surprise. Actually, there’s an interesting anecdote about this. I was in Cairo, in Tahrir Square, just after Mubarak was toppled. And I was very much inspired by the Egyptian revolution of 25th of January.
What do you mean? Did you think it was going to have a spillover effect that it would spread to Israel?
Not really. But I did ask myself how come there is no public uprising in Israel. Now, I was not thinking in terms of revolution; I was not yearning for a revolution. As you know, the slogan the Egyptians cried out was “Ashaab Yureed Isqaat Anitham/ (The people want the collapse of the regime!)” We’ve got to understand the meaning of the word Nitham in Arabic. This has two meanings. It might be the regime; it might be the system. So I was thinking that it would be great if we can have this slogan heard in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, expressing people’s demand to bring down — not the regime, not the government — but the system. By this I mean bringing about the collapse of the neoliberal system governing Israeli society for too long.
Is it possible to bring down the system without bringing down the government?
Yes, definitely. I do not see around me many politicians who are diehard neoliberal ideologues who would not cave in when facing strong public demands to alter their policies. They would give up their ideology before they give up political power. And besides, I do not see the point of bringing down the government if there is no serious political alternative. And I do not believe that there is such an alternative. Thus, until such an alternative emerges, pressure ought to be put on present government.
Going back to the protest, how did you become personally involved in it?
Immediately after returning to Israel from Cairo, I was asked by the Socio-Economic College if I would be willing to give a lecture at the Gan Meir Park in central Tel Aviv, in the open air, talking about the public sphere and the Arab Spring. I said that I’m not accustomed to giving lectures in the open air; I need a podium, a ceiling over my head, a lecture hall, like we have at the university, but still, I agreed. And coincidentally, the lecture was scheduled to take place one week after the eruption of the protests began on July 14. And then I was asked to transfer the talk to Rothschild Boulevard, the emerging center of the protest movement, since a public arena had already been established. I told the person who asked me to give the lecture, you know this is someone else’s party — I don’t want to crash a party! And she said no, you should do it, you are cordially invited. So I went there and talked about public sphere, social justice and related issues. To my great amazement I encountered a crowd of deeply curious young people who were drinking in my words in a way I had never experienced before. It was a thirst hard to quench. When I concluded my talk, the organizers asked me to come back again the following day, and that’s how my beautiful affair with the protest movement began.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and his colleagues’ first response was to try to tarnish it, to diminish it. Then they realized it was a serious phenomenon and changed their approach, which is why the Trachtenberg Committee was established. How do you look at what the Trachtenberg Committee has done? Is there a value?
I wouldn’t say it’s insignificant. Even if one doubts the sincerity of the committee and its deep commitment to coming up with adequate recommendations to the economic ills afflicting Israeli society, the very establishment of the committee is very significant. It shows that the government couldn’t be totally indifferent to the protest movement. Whether it is willing to comply with its demands is secondary; the fact is that it could not ignore its claims, thus signaling a real change in the relationship between the government and the protestors.
Are we witnessing a global crisis and a global phenomenon of protest? Beginning in Tunisia and Egypt, the Arab Spring, then Israel, and Spain and Greece and Occupy Wall Street, and now we even see protests in Russia, which was unimaginable.
Something interesting has happened in the last few years. Until now, globalization was used as a pretext to accelerate neoliberal policies. Governments were saying it was necessary to compromise on labor conditions; they argued that it is inevitable that salaries should be cut down in order to survive in the ever-intensifying and competitive global market. But now globalization is also working in support of the protestors. We don’t have yet global movements working in unison to topple neoliberal systems. But the struggle against them assumes global overtones in the sense that our consciousness now is being cultivated by the interconnectedness between events unfolding in the various corners of the world. The dispossessions of the peoples around the world are not isolated phenomena; the peoples now understand that it is the same system that impoverishes them all over the world. This understanding gives us moral support. Occupy Wall Street, people in Spain, Greece, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya — people all over the world are revolting against the system responsible for their dispossession. I think it is the geographer David Harvey who succinctly describes this phenomenon as “dispossession by accumulation,” made possible by the advent of neoliberalism in many Western societies. The understanding that we are all prey to the same malicious system is a new source supplying the protestors with oxygen. Even if the protest loses some impetus, even if it declines here or there, it will erupt somewhere else; it will return with vengeance. Again, globalization is helping to rekindle the fire. The world can draw on our experience, and we can draw on the experience of others. Thus, there is no denying that we are working in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and inspired by it. And the idea of using tents in protests, which started in Israel, has been replicated in Wall Street and Amsterdam.
Are you suggesting that the Arab Spring was the first spark?
Yes, of course. Now Spain, Italy Greece, Britain are relevant as a source of inspiration for us, but also the Arab Spring. Many people in Israel wouldn’t want to admit that, and the resistance to admitting it carries with it an undue sense of arrogance and even a tinge of racism. “What is there for us,” people often say, “to learn from the primitive Arabs?” But it seems that the Arab world after all was also a source of inspiration for us. To ignore this would be to live in self-denial, complete idiocy. Just think again about the slogan “The people want...,” which is directly imported from our neighboring countries; and let’s think again about the official site of the protest movement, which is called “J14” (July 14), indicating the day the protest in Israel began, and which is fashioned after “January 25th”, the date signaling the beginning of the end of Mubarak’s regime.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are using what is happening today with our neighbors, the emergence of political Islam and instability, to claim we cannot reduce the defense budget. How do you react to that?
We have to distinguish between Barak and Netanyahu. Barak wants to protect the interest of the military complex in Israel, while Netanyahu wants to exploit the international economic crisis in order to deepen neoliberal policies. He acts, as Naomi Klein succinctly describes in her book The Shock Doctrine, in the ways neoliberal regimes use crises to advance their policies. So, he uses these real or imagined threats not only to avoid the demands of the protest movement, but also in order to strengthen neoliberal policies. And, indeed, we can detect elements of the Shock Doctrine in the various recommendations of the Trachtenberg Committee, mainly those calling for further privatization of public assets. Thus they are offering neoliberal cures to the diseases created by the neoliberal policies implemented in Israel over the past 30 years!
The Israeli peace movement looks at the protests with a combination of envy and admiration. In recent years, the Israeli peace movement could get 3,000, 5,000, maybe 10,000 people onto the streets. While half a million people took to the streets for the largest protest movement demonstration in September! However, the leaders of the protest have been very wary of addressing issues such as the occupation, the settlements and the subsidizing of the Haredi ultra-Orthodox sector. How can you avoid dealing with those core issues? What is your comment about that?
Wearing my other hat, being a peace activist for a long time, I’m also one of those looking at the protest movement with envy. And still I was among those who ascertained the choice made by the leaders of the protest movement to separate the two causes: social justice and the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. I acquiesce with this choice not without misgivings, not without distress. But had the leaders of the protest combined the two issues — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the socioeconomic problems — they would have lost the wide public support the protest has enjoyed so far. I think the protest movement beautifully crafted the social cause within the language of citizenship. And we, the expert teams, have tried to put some meat into this language. We thought that this language can be utilized in later stages to include other problems plaguing Israeli society. Bringing these issues on board in the initial stage of the protest might have undermined the potential support of the public.
Yes. When you are saying citizenship in our political context, you are actually trying to forge a middle ground. On one hand, you distance yourself from chauvinistic and national rhetoric. On the other hand, you avoid talk about grievances, urgent needs and problems of minorities that are specifically discriminated against in Israel. So you make compromises on both sides. You transcend chauvinistic and nationalistic language that gives special place to Jews, and on the other hand, you are not singling out specific groups that traditionally bear the brunt of discrimination.
The rationale was to come up with an inclusive and accommodating language that allowed all citizens of Israel to be included. It is not just a question of tactic, of making sure we’d be able to draw more and more people into it, but as time went on it was a strategy; in a sense it harbors a potential for rekindling citizenship as a source of identity, not just a formal status. This is the kind of citizenship Rousseau talked about, in which citizenship is not a formal or legal entity, but has something to do with the common good. We realize it might be totally unrealistic, but we envision a commonality through this notion of citizenship: commonality between Arabs and Jews, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, Haredim and non-Haredim, men and women, religious and nonreligious. It doesn’t mean that the various groups have to relinquish their particular culture, but they are required to come up with or to encourage a new equilibrium between opposing sources of identity — particular and universal, or at least particular and more universal. I’m thinking about cultivating an Israeli republic that unites all of those who live within the boundaries of Israel. This, by the way, does not necessarily mean that national groups must relinquish their national identity, but only to counterbalance it with a more inclusive one.
You are talking about the possibility of transcending group identities, but as some critics have suggested, the protest is an initiative of people belonging to the middle class, and it echoes middle-class concerns. Do you believe that the protest was able to transcend class difference, to represent all economic strata of Israeli society?
Your observation is no doubt accurate. Those who initiated the protest and most of the people who participated in its initial stages belonged to the middle classes. And it is true that the middle class’s grievances kindled the protest movement. But then the middle class began to extend the boundaries of its empathy so that it included the worse-off of society. People became sensitive to the plight of the poor. I do believe that the protest enabled the emergence of an embryonic sense of solidarity. And this is not the kind solidarity of the misfortunate sharing in the same fate; it is also the kind solidarity felt by the better-off in society towards the worse-off. The challenge confronting us, then, is to transcend our individualistic mode of existence and to strengthen this solidarity. The notion of citizenship is again relevant to explicate this point. Jean-Jacques Rousseau taught us that human beings may have two manifestations: one as individual, led by egotistic legitimate interests, and one as citizen, displaying an inclination towards the common good, an inclination to promote, among other things, the welfare of others.
There was a conscious decision to not include politicians. And yet, in the final analysis, doesn’t there have to be a translation of the protest into a political process?
The decision not to include politicians indicated a deep distrust of the establishment, the political establishment. Not with all of them, but most of them. Many of us don’t believe they are truly interested in promoting the res-publica, the public interest, the common good.
Do you think there will be a translation of the policies being advocated into a different configuration of power as a result of the protest movement?
I don’t know what forms this will take, but it is inevitable that the protest will be translated, one way or another, into the language of established politics, party politics. There is no way around it. I’m not able to predict to what extent there will be tectonic change between, say, the right and the left camp, but the protest movement must have some ramifications vis-à-vis the upcoming general elections.
Here we are sitting next to Rabin Square, and in Cairo, Tahrir Square was the center. To what extent are these public spaces in which people can express themselves important is this whole phenomenon?
We see how important that is. Some people are emphasizing new means of communication, Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, etc. I myself have been recommending the use of these means in order to circumvent unfriendly media. I believe that we need to upgrade alternative means of communication, because you can’t trust either the commercial or public media today. And yet the public sphere is where the final act should take place; it is the place where the culmination of protest activities should unfold. This is the place, as Hannah Arendt stressed, where significant relations of reciprocity and solidarity are displayed; this is the place, according to her, where citizenship is significantly activated. The social protest itself then is intimately connected with the public sphere. After all the word “protest” has its roots in Latin Pro-testre, and it means to bear witness in public. Thus Rabin Square, along with its heavy symbolic significance, seems a most appropriate place in which the protest — bearing witness in public — should take place. I do hope to see a big democratic celebration taking place again, right here.
Although the mainstream media in Israel was very supportive during the summer protests.
At the very beginning, the revolutionary moment engulfed everybody, including journalists, within the whirlpool of the grand storm. Think of Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “revolutionary moment.” In the revolutionary moment, everyone is possessed by the crowd mentality; you are not controlling yourself, you are just being swept, rather than thinking about your egotistical interests and relative position in society. There is no more beautiful spectacle than the uprising of the people, who are led by the desire to have a better society. It’s very difficult to be indifferent towards that. But as times moves on, as time lapses, things are being “put in order.” As time went on individuals began to rediscover their earlier identities, their private and group interests. This second thought was very noticeable within the media circles. They had to be accountable to their employers and their interests, and many of the owners of the mass media have shown their dislike for the protest. The protest did not serve their interests; on the contrary, it thwarted them. And it was also the time for government to make its move, its counterattack, through the public media. It wanted to put things back in order, to restore the logic of the system, of the neoliberal system. And they are quite successful, so far, in restoring this logic.
Now some questions about the future. It all began with the Arab Spring. When you look today at how the outcome of the Arab Spring is evolving, are you anxious or are you hopeful? How do you view what is happening around us?
I still look at it ambivalently, with hopes and some concerns. The fear concerning the emergence of extremist Islam in Egypt is well-grounded, but it is too easily manipulated and bracketed within our stereotypical way of thinking. I say please withhold your judgment; do not rush into saying “I told you so.” It seems that some Israeli political analysts are yearning for the failure of this revolution. They do not realize that their “hastening” the failure of the Egyptian revolution would not work in our interest. Well, it seems that they do not mind “cutting off their noses to spite their faces”
So that we can continue to be the only Western “bastion of democracy”?
Maybe it is not entertained consciously; maybe it is not expressed explicitly. But I do sense the existence of a distorted wishful thinking. As for myself, I don’t think that a final conclusion can be drawn yet as to the future of the Arab Spring. The Arab world might go through a transition phase whereby religion plays a stronger role in official politics. But then again, this should not be understood as if a transition is occurring, leading the Arab world from a secular to a religious historical epoch. What is unfolding there is taking place here, though to a lesser degree. We praise ourselves for being the only democracy in the Middle East, and once we used to praise ourselves for being a secular society. Now we are rapidly becoming more religious and less democratic. Bruno Latour, the French philosopher, wrote a book called We Have Never Been Modern, mocking the pretension of the West of breaking away from the yoke of religious mythological conceptions. His observation is definitely true in the case of Israel, for religion has never left Israel and the functioning of its public institutions. Unfortunately, the intensification of religious zeal in Israel nowadays wears an ugly garb. Thus, the question is not whether religion should play a role in politics either here or in the Arab world; in both places religion and politics have always been intermingled. The challenge is to not to eradicate religion from society but to articulate the kind of equilibrium that allows democracy to thrive in an epoch aptly termed “the era of post-secularism.” Aspiring to do the first may lead to an inevitable failure, while trying to strike a balance may hopefully bring some good results. Let us think, for instance, about feminism and religion. Notwithstanding the unfortunate, growing schism between the two, as current events testify, one may not want to equate feminism with secular society. The moment you think women must be secular in order to gain freedom and equality, you are foreclosing the possibility of religious feminism. There is a possibility for women to be religious and feminist. And there is a possibility that political parties will be religious and democratic. There is no inherent contradiction between the two. It just depends on how you interpret religion and democracy.
Ironically, the last remaining secular regime is Assad and the Ba’ath party, in Syria. We see where that is.
So we are looking at the future where all states in the region — including Israel — are becoming ever more religious. Again, this presents a great challenge for us. If the ever-growing religious character of our societies is inevitable, we have to try and forge a peaceful modus vivendi between religion and democracy.
One basic observation is that as long as the Israeli-Arab conflict remains a national conflict, rational solutions can be found. But if it is transformed into a religious conflict, it will be much more difficult to resolve. How do you respond to that?
I don’t agree, and my previous comments alluded to my misgivings about this widespread dogma. We should recall the fact that the most horrendous catastrophes of the 20th century were mainly brought about by nationalistic fervor and zeal, not religious fervor. Germany and Russia are points of reference. And we should not forget that democratic societies themselves easily turn out sometimes to be very chauvinistic, very nationalistic. So even as states are becoming more religious, this need not lead us to the conclusion that they are unable to coexist with each other. I am concerned but I refuse to give up hope.
Let’s look at the future of the Israeli protest movement. There are some people who say the tents were the foundation of the protest, and since they have gone, the protest is also closing. How do you see the future of the protest movement itself and its longer-term impact?
I want make three points. First, to plant tents all over the country again might be like a futile attempt exercised by humans to force upon themselves the sprouting again of tails. We might no longer need the tent as we no longer need tails. The tails remind us of our past, they are part of our heritage, but it is not necessary that we take our tails along with us into the future. I’m not saying that the tents will not come back, but I don’t see it as necessary for the continuation of the protest. The protest may take new forms and new manifestations. Second, the protest now is in a long process of regrouping, of establishing broad infrastructure all over the country. We should be prepared for the next round of protest. Third, we must form coalitions with groups which have been so far under-represented in the protest movement — ultra-Orthodox Jews, Israeli-Arab citizens, and the community of Russian immigrants. We should not give up on them. We should enlist them as full and equal partners to the next wave of protest. The protest is as much theirs as much as it is the protest of any other group constituting Israeli society.
Going back to my previous observation, it is hard to predict when the second round of protest will take place. Yet we cannot just wait and hope that it’s going to erupt spontaneously. It might, but we still want to hasten its coming. We are like those religious people who try to hasten the coming of the Messiah, though He himself or She herself decides when it is the right place and the right time for its emergence. We are bracing for a marathon, though it might be a sprint, appearing suddenly.
In conclusion, I feel a sense of optimism about the future. What are the grounds for this optimism?
Ironically, my optimism is grounded in the social ills of Israeli society; it is grounded in the ever-growing anger and frustration shared by many segments of the Israeli public. They feel that the government has misled them to believe that it is listening to them, that it takes them seriously. They are disillusioned. We know that the anger is fomenting; we feel the frustration of the people, as many of them are urging us not to give up. So we are not giving up!