Building Bridges over the Void: The Role and Impact of Dissidents within the Israel- Palestine Conflict

The Revolution is Unfinished! And so, indeed, it is. But only because no one knows, not even those who cry most loudly that they do, precisely how to go about the job of finishing it. Clifford Geertz1

After more than 45 years of occupation, the impact of nonviolent movements on Israeli society is still difficult to assess, and therefore their effectiveness is difficult to evaluate. The failure of all efforts aimed at ending the occupation is now clearer than ever, although, and this is remarkable, the fight against the system supporting this status quo has never declined. Despite this tireless activism, it remains unclear whether these nonviolent efforts have meaningfully contributed to peace or whether they have proved largely irrelevant to domestic and regional policies.

Not only do we lack convincing answers, but the answers we do have also differ depending on external circumstances. In bleak times, as during the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead and both intifadas, activist movements often feel useless. In contrast, during more encouraging times, such as the immediate aftermath of U.S. President Barack Obama's election, the feelings tend to be more positive and optimistic. This may be a defining issue among dissidents in Israel: shifting views without knowing what tomorrow has in store for them, going against the current within an uncertain environment.

Shift of Paradigms

Answers can be found within the shift of paradigm - a guideline for changes of ideology within a society. These shifts explain when and how an emotional breach emerges and ultimately fosters the embrace of alternative ideas which leave behind rooted concepts.

According to T.S. Kuhn, although science develops through cumulative processes, paradigm changes - such as the ones facilitated by Copernicus, Newton, Lavoisier or Einstein - are brought about when previous theories can no longer explain some physical phenomenon. In effect, the formulation of new theories becomes essential. No sooner are the inadequacies of the methodological directives unveiled and the anomalies of the mainstream theories highlighted that new and extraordinary research blossoms and leads to scientific revolutions2.

In the human sciences the process is different. Mijail Bajtin3 pointed out that the ideas system works as a concentric circle whose nucleus is formed by axioms, rooted concepts and mainstream ideas. The farther they are from the center, the more likely new concepts appear filtered from the outside. The most substantial changes take place in the border - the intersection of different ideas and feedbacks. Therefore, a new idea can only reach the center through the periphery, impacting every layer and every internal circle until its final destination: the nucleus. In this sense, dissident groups in Israel also play this role; they are the border, the periphery, where alternative ideas can come about. New paradigms soak in the core of the society through these groups without whom none of these paradigms would ever be present in our society.

Social science differs as it takes into account other factors such as the economy and structures. Different social theories, particularly Marxist ones, agree on the fact that a paradigm changes when a deep break in social, religious, economical, ecological or even military order takes shape, plunging mainstream preconceptions into turmoil. Every ideology works as a social orientation system, according to Marxist ideas, as a super-structure which aims at a comprehensive explanation of reality. Therefore, these breaks pave the way for consequent ideological changes. According to these theories, as every social system brings forth its own contradictions, the "same logic behind alienation and class division sets also the conditions for its own abolition"4. These internal contradictions lead inevitably to structural dislocations which alter reality and therefore the social paradigms.

The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, based on a more cultural perspective, agrees on the aforementioned thesis in a broad sense, but also believes that shifts can be caused by a perception of an imminent dramatic change that would lead to a structural crisis. Simply the foresight of a crisis, in some cases, is enough for the paradigm shift, when this crisis is deemed drastic, clear and frightening. As these changes do not occur suddenly and there is a transitional period in between both paradigms, people tend to cling to pre-known ideologies, which brings about what Herbert Marcuse defined as "false, fictitious and alienated consciousness" despite its incoherence. The deeper the crisis gets, the more contradictions appear, easing the way for new paradigms which are able to coherently and comprehensively explain the new reality.

Along the same lines, Israeli sociologist Daniel Bar-Tal affirms that the paradigm shift will be a consequence of a new framework gradually permeating the psychological structure of Israeli society. In order to achieve a substantial change in the Israeli structure of thought, an alternative range of ideologies is needed - a new and creative range of concepts, ideas and thoughts which constantly defy mainstream narrative. The pace and sequence of the new approaches become essential for the paradigm shift as they pile up until they finally break down the vicious circle where the Israeli narrative is trapped.5 According to this, Israeli dissident groups defy constantly the militaristic and victimized narrative of Israel and introduce new approaches which are meant to permeate the mental structure of society.

On the other hand, Michel Foucault, in "Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison," argues the advent of a new paradigm, or "creation of a new anatomy of politics," is gradually built from "multiple processes, normally minor, from different origins and locations, which match, repeat or imitate, lean on each other ... converging and designing the new methodological model." Foucault highlights the accumulative process over the permeation of ideas from Bajtin, but they both agree these processes need a trigger agent. Dissident movements play this role in Israel: They are catalysts of a process of change which tumbles the system, unveiling mechanisms of social oppression used by the state to rule its citizens. "Unless we identify the fulcrum of the class power we run the risk of its continuity and even its restoring after a revolutionary process"6.

Shlomo Avineri, in a paper published on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, compared all different countries which were under totalitarian and Communist systems, concluding that civil society was crucial in building such different regimes. From Russia ruled by Putin, the dictatorship in Belarus or Ukrainian chaos to liberal democracies in Poland, the Czech Republic or Slovakia7, wherever civil society was strong, it built the foundation of new democracies. Civil society brought about new conditions for those countries to become liberal democracies, whereas for their neighbors, the lack of a social base upon which a new democratic system could lay turned their governments into more totalitarian regimes. According to this analysis, activist nonviolent Israeli movements guarantee base conditions for a future peace process as they build the foundations to lay peace and foster encounters between both communities.

Clifford Geertz also agrees that paradigm shifts or "signification structures" succeed periods of crisis, although, unlike Marxist theorists, he understands crisis from symbolic and cultural structures. According to his theory of cultures, paradigm shifts appear when a disruptive force generates a loss of orientation, traditional frameworks break down and "mainstream ideologies obscure reality more than clarify it."8 Then, the need for a new map and new orientation patterns opens the breach through which new ideas can come across, settling an alternative ideological reformulation which explains new social reality. Geertz, like most sociological schools of thought, argues that a paradigm shift depends on social processes, and therefore a cultural reconstruction needs a radical change in social and institutional order. Unlike other sociologists, Geertz warns that crisis does not always assure a paradigm shift; in the cases where cultural matrices are rooted in the social structure, they resist even high levels of crisis.

The Israel Case

Based on the aforementioned theories, the Israeli military paradigm is leading toward a structural crisis, but meanwhile, Israeli dissident movements must pave the way for an alternative paradigm which aims for the end of the occupation and for peaceful cohabitation with the Arab world. They are not about passively waiting for the crisis to take place, but rather unveiling the system's incoherence and tirelessly criticizing it until it breaks down.

Paradigm shift does not imply the drastic removal of the entire system of thoughts and perceptions, but rather changing certain elements of the system which trigger the process aimed at the broader change. The breakdown of only one premise can start the chain reaction toward the shift. Therefore, psychological turmoil can be started by casting doubt upon premises and setting alternative frameworks. All premises are interlinked, thus, once one premise is broken down, it erodes the rest of them, leading sooner or later to the paradigm shift.

Where Are We Mistaken?

If the paradigm shift requires only the breakdown of one of the system's pieces for a domino effect toward change, we wonder why we are not able to identify that piece. Why it is so difficult to achieve this goal? The breach is not in the discursive arena, but in the inability to create emotional and empathic ties not with our narrative but with our movement itself. This lack of communication is caused by the impossibility of penetrating the emotional and symbolic sphere of our community in order to create a framework with which they can identify. Frameworks of belonging are stronger than arguments, and emotional processes are more influential than cognitive ones. That can explain the fact that people often vote for conservative economic policies which are against their own personal interest. Dissident movements in Israel build solid arguments but are incapable of setting identity frameworks. "Rightism" soaked in the so-called "area of identity" penetrates the psychic structure as it relates to the need of belonging. After the identity crisis of the Hebrew community caused by the rupture with the religious traditions maintained for generations, nationalist Zionism (socialist as well as rightist), in order to create identity ties different from the religious ones, brings forth people's demands: an answer which relieves even if it is not convincing. This relief can be identified with Lacan's "desire" and translates into Israeli society as an alternative identity which replaces the previous one. This is the cause of massive support of rightist policies and the key for structural changes. Nationalism is based on an affective dimension which needs to be tackled by the dissident movements. As it has been always undervalued by Israeli leftists, these movements have lost their ties with the people. Dissident movements have never taken into account irrational trends which move the collective subunconscious or the emotive potential behind nationalist theories, and have relied too much on pure rationality.

Psychoanalysis revealed that structural changes are not based on cognitive arguments. Every political reorientation passes first through affection and symbolism and then through rationality. Yannis Stavrakakis, a Lacanian psychoanalyst, points out that the leftist deficit is not epistemological but affective, and libidinal investment and the "mobilisation of jouissance" are necessary prerequisites for any sustainable identification9.

Essentially, in order to foster the paradigm shift within Israel society, new ties based on affection are needed in order to open spaces for activism, offer framework references, encourage field activists and go beyond paternalistic, academic and Western styles toward more basic aspects of identity. Without these facets, we are doomed to failure.

1Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
2Kuhn T.S. La estructura de las Revoluciones Cientificas, Buenos Aires: FCE Argentina, 2004.
3Bajtin, Mijail. "La cultura popular en la Edad Media y el Renacimiento: el contexto de Fran├žois Rabelais" Barcelona: Barral Editores S.A., 1974.
4Zizek, Slavoj. El sublime objeto de la Ideologia, Buenos Aires: Siglo XX Editores Argentina, 2003, 26.
5Bar-Tal, Daniel. Shared Belief in a Society: Social Psychological Analysis. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc, 2000.
6Foucault, Michel. La Naturaleza Humana- Justicia versus Poder - Debate entre N. Chomsky y M.Foucalt. Buenos Aires, 2006, 65.
7Avineri, Shlomo, Haaretz, November 7, 2009.
8Geertz, Clifford. Ibid., 22.
9Stravrakakis, Yannis. La Izquierda Lacaniana - psicoanalisis, teoria, politica. Mexico: FCE, 2010, 317.