How should we respond to the new Israeli protest movement?

Should the Left intervene on demonstrations to “save Israeli democracy”?


Israel’s new ruling coalition, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, has provoked a worldwide moral panic. His Minister of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich, proudly calls himself a “homophobe, racist, fascist”. The new government is proposing a so-called “override clause”, which will make itself immune to any decisions taken by the High Court of Justice.

The Washington Post reports that in 2005, new Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir “led his neighbors on a reign of terror through Palestinian villages — torching homes, mosques, cars and olive groves.” Ben-Gvir’s election victory was accompanied by a new wave of pogroms by armed settlers, who were (even more) emboldened by the new right wing leadership.

The government has also been met with demonstrations of an unprecedented scale within 1948 occupied Palestine itself (writers note: to avoid confusion, the rest of this article will refer to the country as “Israel”. I hope to return to the discussion about what we should call the State in a different article). Half a million people – 7% of the Israeli population – demonstrated throughout the country including 200,000 in Tel Aviv. Demonstrators say that they are against a possible dictatorship. At the same time, the demos are bedecked with Israeli flags and addressed by leading military figures.

A small number of protests have invited Palestinian speakers – under very limited conditions. As activist Yoav Haifawi reported from the relatively liberal city of Haifa: “On February 18, the designated Arab speaker, Reem Hazzan, didn’t show up. It was soon shared on social media and later published in Haaretz that the organisers were not happy with the contents of the speech that she intended to deliver … She was told to submit an amended text, or she would not be allowed to speak. … The organisers were speaking to her, a representative of the Arab public, from a position of power. They duplicated inside the protest movement the same undemocratic attitudes that characterise the Israeli state. She consulted her comrades and decided not to submit any new text. That night there was no Arab speaker in the Haifa demonstration.”

Last week in Berlin, we were confronted with similar protests, when Netanyahu announced that he would be visiting Berlin. Israelis opposed to Netanyahu called a demonstration for “Jewish communities and other friends of Israel” (my emphasis) under the title “Saving Israeli Democracy”.  Some Israeli anti-Zionists argued for intervening in these protests. Others (including most if not all Palestinians) refused to attend a demonstration where Palestinians are clearly unwelcome. This article tries to explain what happened and why.

The Jewish Anti-Zionist response

By chance, shortly after Netanyahu’s visit was announced, Jüdisch-Israelischer Dissens Leipzig (JID) held an online meeting about the new Israeli government. Palestinians were invited to the meeting, and explicitly encouraged to make contributions, but as far as I can tell, most people attending were Israeli anti-Zionists.

Although JID is an Israeli group, it is one of the few organisations on the German Left which explicitly supports the Palestinian struggle.  The two speakers at the event – Yossi Bartal and Michael Sappir have both written articles for Both speakers were clear that the current Israeli state, which systematically discriminates against Palestinians, is not a democracy and not worth saving, and that the demonstration was aimed at restoring the status quo. Nonetheless, they argued for an intervention, for building a block inside the demo, and pointing out the hypocrisy of a demonstration which called for democracy while excluding Palestinians.

As Yossi argued, the small anti-Zionist Jewish Left was making similar interventions  in Israel. This is true, to an extent, although it is not always wise to import tactics from Israel to Germany, home of both the largest Palestinian diaspora in Europe, and where the dominant narrative systematically excludes Palestinians. In addition, the Israeli anti-Zionist Left may be tiny, but it is also divided on whether to intervene in the demos against Netanyahu. Some, like the Israeli Palestinian One Democratic State Group said that they did not want to participate in “a protest movement intended to preserve a racist colonial regime.”

Intervening meant standing inside a sea of Israeli flags, while being forbidden from carrying a Palestinian flag. It ran a clear risk of merely legimitising and normalising a demonstration which was unambiguously supporting Zionist oppression. 

What happened in Berlin?

In the end, a number of demonstrations took place in Berlin on Thursday, 16th March. There were two demonstrations called by Palestinian organisations which took place 100 metres away from each other outside the Bundestag. These soon merged to form one single demo of around 200 people. The Israeli Jewish anti-Zionists called for participation in the Palestinian demos, saying that their intervention on the Zionist demo was not an alternative to actions called by Palestinians, which were happening at a different time. 

Having said this, there is a difference between intention and effect. Although the “interveners” called for people to attend both the Palestinian demo and their intervention at the Israeli demo, it was clear that the German media would concentrate on the “intra-Israeli” debate which fits the narrative of “good” and “bad” Zionists. An opportunity to exclusively call people to attend the Palestinian demo was missed. 

After the Palestinian protest, we walked towards the U-Bahn. Police told us to not go to the nearest station – as this would require us to go past the “Save Israeli Democracy” protest. If we insisted on walking past, they told us to remove our Kuffiyahs because, I quote: “if the demonstrators saw people wearing Palestinian scarves, they might be ‘provoked'”.

Let me just remind you that the other demo was not supporting Netanyahu – it was supposed to be for democracy. But merely walking past it with a symbol of Palestinian clothing was deemed to be “provocative.” Similarly, when Israeli Jewish activists who had been taking part in the Palestinian demonstration tried to attend the intervention at Pariser Platz, police tried to prevent them getting through. Two people standing opposite the demonstration also held up Palestinian flags. They were surrounded by police and told that they must take down their flags, or they would be removed them from the square. 

But maybe this was just about the police? Surely the organisers of a demonstration for democracy would welcome anyone who opposed Netanyahu’s government? Well, not really. A video which later appeared on Twitter shows one of the demo organisers asking someone to take away his Palestine flag because “this will damage everything that we are trying to do” and that “we want to create a dialogue.” Liberals who enthusiastically supported the Israeli demo on social media must answer two questions – what exactly were the demo organisers trying to do, and who were they seeking a dialogue with?

Once more, the demonstration was covered in Israeli flags, which would make it difficult for most Palestinians to attend. For Palestinians, the Israeli flag is much more than a piece of cloth. It is a symbol of their expulsion and oppression and stands in contradiction to Palestinian freedom and self-determination. It expects the occupied to accept the supremacy of the occupier. Waving the flag reminds Palestinians of their unequal status in Israel and their continuing dispossession and oppression. Not for the first time in liberal Israeli politics, Palestinians were seen as less worthy of talking to than supporters of the occupation.

In the end, about 50 Jewish anti-Zionists did organise an anti-occupation block inside the Israeli rally on Pariser Platz. People in this block held placards in Hebrew with the slogans “There is no democracy with occupation”, “Occupation corrupts”, and “Legal Reform = Legalising Apartheid”. They reported little harassment, as long as they did not carry Palestinian flags. It is unclear whether they persuaded any of the people attending the demo to consider Palestinian rights.

Conclusion: How can Palestine be freed? And by whom?

In considering our strategy, we must begin with an assessment of who our main audience is – who do we think has the power to change society in Israel and Palestine? History shows that the main opposition to colonialism never comes from within the colonisers themselves. No serious anti-colonialists would centre the fight against the Raj in India on the British occupiers, or expect the fight for Algerian liberation to be led by French Pieds Noirs.

Independent Palestinian German researcher and writer Anna-Esther Younes argues: “Although all liberation movements have been led by those who were oppressed and enslaved – it seems to only matter or become a public issue when white people (or Israelis) – predominantly men – speak about it. Palestinians have been saying for a long time that you can’t have a democracy while practising settler colonialism and apartheid,  but their opinions and theorizations are usually erased in public. It wasn’t white allies who liberated South Africa. White people in SA lived with Apartheid, not under it – much like those Ashkenazim in Israel today, who can be militarist and anti-Palestinian, yet fight for ‘their’ rights to liberty and freedom.”

If I understand the strategy of intervening in the Zionist demos correctly, it is that Israel is in such a situation of flux (with interest rates rising 8 times in 10 months), that is is possible to win small but significant numbers of Israelis to a pro-Palestinian position. I remember hearing this argument before – during the social protests of 2011. These protests took some inspiration from the Occupy movement and even borrowed a chant based on the Arab Spring: “The people demand social justice”. At the high point, in August and September, hundreds of thousands of people protested throughout Israel. There was a renewed wave of protest 2 years later, when thousands took part in 30 demonstrations in a “Day of Rage” throughout Israel.

This movement never seriously addressed the rights of Palestinians – despite the attempts of some anti-Zionists to intervene. As early as August 2011, protests were called off after Israel launched an air strike on Gaza. The whole movement collapsed after it could not survive the call for national unity during the prolonged assault on Gaza in 2014.

A small number of individual Israelis have played a courageous part in the fight for Palestinian freedom. But Israeli society as a whole has and will only play a marginal role in the liberation of Palestine. This means that demonstrations, which openly reject or exclude the participation of Palestinians and their supporters, cannot be our focus.

Two years ago, on the anniversary of the Nakba, an unprecedented 15,000 demonstrated in Berlin for Palestinian rights. Last year, all demonstrations around the anniversary were banned, and people who appeared anywhere near the site of demonstration sites were arrested and fined over €300 each.  In particular, the police picked out anyone who looked Palestinian and wore the “colours of the water melon” (red, white, black and green, which are also the colours of the Palestinian flag). Their trials are still going on.

The level of repression has, to an extent, demoralised a pro-Palestine movement in Berlin which was starting to revitalise itself. We now have 2 months until the 75th anniversary of the Nakba to build demonstrations, which – in contrast to those who seemingly want to “save Israeli democracy” – state clearly that there can be no democracy based on the expropriation and oppression of Palestinians.

Palestinian voices have been excluded too long from this debate, so I’ll conclude with some words by Palestinian activists in Germany. Journalist Hebh Jamal comments: “Palestinians protested when Gaza was bombed, when over 200 were killed in 2021 and over 50 just last summer. We protested when Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered- and we have been protested for decades now. The demos that took place in Berlin, by the liberal Zionist bloc, is selective outrage and I’m so exhausted by the hypocrisy. There is no protecting democracy when a crucial part of the state’s function is to brutalise, segregate and occupy a people. What type of democracy are you actually fighting for? The irony…”

Palestinian activist Ramsy Kilani believes that strategy is key: “Protests against Netanyahu, which were organised at short notice, have shown the potential for unification, but also possible problems and areas where we don’t all agree. Future Palestine solidarity in Germany requires us to develop our understanding of which orientation our movement needs.”

The fight for Palestinian Liberation is being led by Palestinians, as it should be. People who want to support them should pay heed to their important strategic discussions if we are going to build a movement here which can contribute towards the end of occupation, in Palestine and worldwide.