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A Chance for Reviving the Israeli Left

Saturday 8 April 2023, by siawi3


Photo: Alon-Lee Green: Protests in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2023.

A Chance for Reviving the Israeli Left

As the anti-government protests continue to challenge Netanyahu’s extremist reign, the Jewish-Palestinian grassroots group Standing Together offers an alternative.

by Gall Sigler

April 4, 2023 12:37 PM

Just days before Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced judicial reforms that would bring hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets, activists in the socialist Jewish-Palestinian grassroots group Standing Together organized the first of the now-massive anti-government demonstrations. Responding to the inauguration of the most extreme rightwing government in Israel’s history, Standing Together called on all Israelis—Jews and Palestinians—to express their support for social and economic equality in Israel. 

Thirty thousand Israelis, many clad in Standing Together’s trademark purple shirts and waving Israeli and Palestinian flags, gathered at Habima Square, in front of Israel’s national theater, in Tel Aviv on January 7.

 “We got there, and tons of people started showing up,” says Yonatan Shargian, the head of Standing Together’s drumming team. “Everyone was a little surprised.” 

Though many moderate opponents of the judicial reforms turned out, the loudest voice in the protest was radical: Demonstrators demanded full Jewish-Palestinian equality in Israel. They brandished signs that read “against the occupation” and “stop apartheid,” while chanting “all citizens are equal, Jews and Arabs.” 

The presence of Standing Together’s radical message upset the moderate factions, who held a separate procession. The demonstrators for Jewish-Palestinian equality marched to Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Among the speakers was Ayman Odeh, leader of Hadash, the successor of the Israeli Communist Party. “We have a massive and historical opportunity within this crisis. Look how much power is here,” he said, “and this is just the beginning.”

One week later, Standing Together activists returned to the streets, determined to advocate for their socialist vision. By then, however, liberal groups had also mobilized their camp against Minister Levin’s judicial reforms. This time, 80,000 turned out to Habima Square in the heart of the city on January 14. Among the many Israeli flags, Standing Together shirts and signs were still visible in clusters. But the meaning of the protests had changed: Rather than endorsing Jewish-Palestinian partnership, the demonstrators sought to defend the current system against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attack on the courts. 

In the months that followed, the anti-government protests have ballooned to historic proportions. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have flooded the streets for weeks, certain that Netanyahu’s judicial reform will tarnish Israel’s system of checks and balances. They brought the country to a standstill by holding a general strike and temporarily shutting down outbound flights at Ben Gurion International Airport. On March 27, they even compelled Netanyahu to pause the legislation. 

Despite losing the foreground, Standing Together welcomed the popular opposition to the reforms. In fact, many of its Jewish members continue to participate in the demonstrations. “A change for the worse is still a change for the worse,” Alon-Lee Green, a member of Standing Together’s national leadership, tells The Progressive. 

But Standing Together is not content with merely decrying the further deterioration of Israeli democracy. Instead, the organization is determined to continue its struggle for a socialist paradigm for Israel, one that emerges from the ashes of the traditional left, by mobilizing long-marginalized communities in Israel.

Standing Together was formed in 2017 as a merger of activists from different protest groups calling for a joint Jewish-Arab struggle for peace. According to its website, the movement’s raison d’être is “peace and independence for Israelis and Palestinians, full equality for all citizens, and true social, economic, and environmental justice.”

Standing Together says it has 4,200 members, but it consistently punches above its weight. “Relative to the amount of people, we make a lot of noise,” says Shargian. 

Standing Together has been at the center of various social struggles over the past few years. They have protested against the deportation of asylum-seekers and the ongoing Israeli occupation, as well as for better pensions and COVID-19 relief. Their most successful campaign to date, “Minimum 40,” strives to raise the Israeli minimum wage. It won the support of dozens of members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and even passed a preliminary hearing in June 2022. 

Beyond their pressure campaigns, Standing Together has also inaugurated a media platform, Rosa Media—for which I have volunteered—that aims to provide socialist commentary on current events in Hebrew and Arabic. 

Standing Together’s intersectional and grassroots approach seeks to succeed where the traditional Israeli left has failed. As the recent elections reflect, the Jewish left struggles to find broad support within Israeli society. The once-mighty Labor Party—the party of Israel’s founder David Ben Gurion—enjoys a meager four seats in the Knesset. Meretz, the party of the Zionist left, failed to pass the necessary electoral threshold of 3.25% to gain parliamentary representation. 

“We are trying to create a new discussion around the occupation, which is not only about solidarity with the Palestinians, but also the self-interest of Israelis in the question of the occupation.”

The collapse of the traditional left, Standing Together argues, reflects the sense of alienation among marginalized communities in Israel. By supporting a Jewish state, the traditional left has refused to invite Palestinian citizens of Israel to participate on equal terms. Meanwhile, since the early 2000s, Palestinians have increasingly opted for Palestinian-led parties, such as Hadash and Ra’am. 

The left thought they could “just press the button and they [Palestinians] will all be summoned and vote,” notes Sally Abed, a member of Standing Together’s national board. “We are building a ‘we’ that includes Palestinian citizens and Jewish citizens,” says Green. “That was never done before.” 

Unsurprisingly, Standing Together’s biggest challenge is engaging the Jewish-Israeli public in questions pertaining to Palestinian equality. While an overwhelming majority of Israelis support the goal of their campaign to raise the minimum wage—84 percent, according to recent polls—Israelis are much more divided on the occupation and Palestinian civic and national rights. 

The movement’s “theory of change,” centers on inviting more Israeli Jews to support Jewish-Palestinian equality by re-defining the terms of the conversation around the occupation and the oppression of the Palestinians. “We are trying to create a new discussion around the occupation, which is not only about solidarity with the Palestinians, but also the self-interest of Israelis in the question of the occupation,” says Green. 

Despite its rigorous activism, Standing Together does not offer a coherent ideology for a left in Israel. It remains agnostic about key issues pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and eschews using buzz words such as “Zionism” that may alienate potential supporters. But their very premise—an equal partnership between Jews and Palestinians—is refreshing. Though they may refrain from using the term, their approach subverts the central tenet of statist Zionism—that Israel is not currently a state of all its citizens, but only a state of the Jews. 

“We don’t know what exactly things will look like,” says Shargian. “But the important thing right now is the joint struggle. And through that we’ll figure out the rest.”

Gall Sigler is an American-Israeli undergraduate student of Political Science at Yale University, with a special interest in US foreign policy and Israeli-Palestinian affairs.