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J14 and the Calamity of Hope: a response to critics

On August 26, Joseph Dana and I published an article, “Israel’s Exclusive Revolution,” bringing extensive reporting together with an analysis of Israel’s separation principle to describe the July 14 protest movement’s (J14) cognitive dissonance regarding the occupation. So far, no one — not one single person I know of — has responded to our article about the ongoing July 14 protests with facts of their own or anything resembling a reality-based analysis. Instead, our critics have replied with a mixture of personal attacks and emotion-laden, dreamy visions of the way things could be.

Noam Sheizaf wrote in a piece criticizing our article, “The important issue is not where the movement starts but where it leads, and in my view, this is still an open question… So there could, potentially, be mass change. This is the reason for the relative hope I see in this protest.” As with Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which has left most of his formerly love-struck liberal supporters feeling angry and abandoned, hope was all you needed.

It is true that there could be mass change (I presume Noam was referring to a mass Israeli movement to end the occupation of Palestine and official discrimination against Palestinian citizens and non-Jewish residents of Israel), but Dana and I did not find very much evidence that it was on the way. So we reported what we learned based on our coverage of events and interviews with key players in the J14 movement, including Palestinians. We aimed to portray J14 — and by extension, Israeli society —  as it was and not as it could be.

Sheizaf, who is not only a friend but one of the better  journalists covering Israeli politics, responded to me and Dana’s article by accusing us of “cherry-picking.” He did not produce any reporting or factual analysis to set us straight, however. Most disappointingly, Sheizaf felt compelled to distort our conclusions, claiming that we said “J14 was some sort of right-wing movement.” I challenge Sheizaf to produce any evidence that we wrote or even suggested that. If he can not, he should immediately retract his false claim.

On August 31, the normally insightful Gabriel Ash published a piece that read like a mimeograph of the criticisms that had already been leveled against Dana and I. After completely concurring with the substance of our analysis, writing, “Everything [Blumenthal and Dana] say about the limitations of the protest movement, I agree [with],” Ash lambasted us for not focusing on the supposed “process” of “changing Israeli consciousness.” He pointed to nothing factual to support his claim that such a process was underway and did not attempt to explain what the process was. He did no reporting and offered very little reality-based analysis. In the end, the thrust of his criticism was that we did too much reporting, and not enough dreaming about the way things could be.

When Ash attacked our reporting, he did not do so by engaging with the substance of what our sources told us, but by complaining that we talked to the wrong sources. Never mind that we interviewed some of J14′s original organizers, or that the mainstream of the protest is based on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. And never mind what anyone actually told us. According to Ash, the people we interviewed were not valid sources because some of them were middle class Ashkenazim. Like other critics, Ash didn’t like what we found, so he attacked us for not looking somewhere else. Then, after proclaiming his distaste for “pop psychology,” Ash accused us without any factual basis of seeking to interview only “people who are like [ourselves].” This was a comical statement considering that we featured long quotes by Palestinian citizens of Israel and based our overarching analysis on countless conversations we had with Palestinians. So was Ash saying that Dana and I are Ashkenazi Palestinians? Or was he just refusing to acknowledge the substance of what our Palestinian sources told us about J14?

For those living in a region consumed with conflict and war, the tendency to cling to irrational hopes and evanescent solutions is completely understandable. But it is also dangerous, especially when utopian aspirations are projected onto a mass movement with deliberately vague politics and clear limitations. Not all social justice movements lead the way to progressive change. In fact, some ultimately produce the reverse effect. Saul Alinsky’s Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, which transformed into a base of support for the segregationist George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign, is but one example of a dramatic social movement that turned reactionary. And after just a month and half of demonstrations, some of J14′s liberal-left activists have revealed an ugly, parochial mentality that has brought the movement’s latent ethno-nationalism closer to the surface.

Just weeks after the Israeli government detained scores of international Palestine solidarity activists at Ben Gurion International Airport for declaring their intention to volunteer in the occupied West Bank, the left-wing Israeli writer Yossi Gurvitz authored an uncharacteristically incoherent screed in which he declared that the “the ad hoc alliance” with “international left-wing activists…should end.” Addressing his rant to me, Dana and Ali Abunimah (though he didn’t mention us, we were the only J14 critics he linked to), Gurvitz claimed that “we’re not dealing with leftist [sic], but Palestinian right-winger. [sic]” Gurvitz’s broadside was an extension of his outbursts on Twitter, where he has attacked Abunimah, a Palestinian whose family was expelled from Lifta in 1948, as a “foreigner inciting natives,” bizarrely comparing him to Avigdor Lieberman. When I informed Gurvitz that Abunimah’s family was ethnically cleansed and that he is not allowed to return to their home, Gurvitz gloated, “If you ask Palestinians to reject moderate positions, you should be ready to pay the consequences.” Then, stepping into the role of the New Jew who had demonstrated his authenticity by “redeeming” the land, Gurvitz tweeted at me that my criticisms were not valid because I was a “tourist.” He thus appropriated the condescending talking point that has become a hallmark of Israeli hasbara: “You have to understand, it’s very, very complicated.”

While several other left-wing Israeli activists revealed ignorant, borderline racist views in Twitter exchanges with diaspora Palestinians, Gurvitz’s outbursts were in a class of their own. Gurvitz has covered the conflict for years, garnering a sizable following of readers who enjoyed his trenchant critiques of Israeli politics and military affairs. He seemed enlightened, informed about the history of the conflict and fully aware of the oppression Israel meted out against Palestinians on a daily basis. But once the “process” of J14 began, another side of Gurvitz emerged. As soon as Abunimah and others reminded Gurvitz that a movement that officially ignored Palestinians living under occupation or in refugee camps could not expect their solidarity, Gurvitz lashed out at them with visceral, almost inexplicable loathing. How long had Gurvitz harbored so much resentment for Palestinians? No one besides him really knows. But what is clear — and utterly tragic — is that his feelings were always there, lurking just beneath the surface. And now the mask is off.

While the “process” J14 initiated may have generated positive results in some areas, it has clearly been painful for Israelis like Gurvitz. Through their interaction with activists from the outside world, Gurvitz and others have been reminded that they are not citizens of a normal society, but players in a system that dominates and oppresses millions of people. They can sense through these exchanges that the discriminatory ideology of the state of Israel is a stain on their identity, and it hurts them. But instead of casting it off and redoubling their efforts against it, they hold on to the ideology and deploy it as a weapon against those “foreign” Palestinians and “tourists” who have denied them the sense of normality they yearn for. They want the occupation to go away for a little while so they can wage their “internal” struggle in the city Gabriel Ash once labeled “Colonial Tel Aviv.” But when Rothschild Boulevard empties out and the tents disappear, it will still be there. And then, they are going to have a whole lot of explaining to do.