Until Thursday evening’s rally at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, the last time I participated in a demonstration was in 2005. And though the two events could not have been more different, the connection between them was direct.
Back then, the Knesset was on the verge of approving prime minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for the “unilateral disengagement from Gaza” – a less brutal name for the forcible evacuation of every last Jew from Gush Katif, and the eradication of four Jewish communities in northern Samaria.
Suicide bombers had been blowing themselves up daily on buses and in malls, and Israelis were desperate for the government to take action. Disengagement was Sharon’s answer.
In spite of countrywide protests – and a lost referendum within Sharon’s Likud party, which caused its leader to pull a stunt and form Kadima overnight – the entire media and much of the public was game to get out of Gaza.
The rest of us considered the plan to be disastrous from every standpoint. We argued that Gaza would become one large terror base. We also thought Sharon was betraying the very people he had encouraged to settle there. The purpose of the protest I attended, which took place in front of the Knesset, was to demand that a national referendum be held, so that a genuine poll on this monumental move could be taken among the populace – not just the politicians ostensibly representing our wishes. (The Knesset subsequently voted against the proposed referendum.) More than 150,000 people turned up at that demonstration, and I felt proud to be there. I was heartbroken, however, that I was one of only a handful of secular Israelis in the huge crowd. What it indicated was that Sharon had been successful in his purposeful division of society, so as to garner support for the removal of fellow Jews from their homes.
Spurred by the comment of someone I encountered on the way to the demonstration, who told me that I “don’t look like one of them,” I published a piece contesting the wedge between Gush Katif and the rest of the country.
“This is a state with two peoples, ‘Them’ and ‘Us’,” I wrote in The Jerusalem Post.
“Lest the perplexed outsider imagine that the two peoples in question are Jews and Arabs, let him be reeducated: In post-modern, post-Zionist Hebrew, ‘them’ is a term used to define all the Jews who, after 1967, set up households on land the Israeli government begged them to populate and develop. Such people are known as ‘settlers’ – when they aren’t referred to as their synonym, ‘occupiers.’ “According to the same jargon, ‘us’ is the word that defines the rest of the Jewish population who, before 1967, set up households on land the Israeli government begged them to populate and develop. Such people are commonly known as ‘Israelis’ – when they aren’t referred to as their synonym, ‘citizens.’ “In my dictionary, every Jew who resides anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is both a citizen and a settler of the Land of Israel. The only thing distinguishing one of us from another is a number: the number of generations we have been living within those borders; the number of countries from which we were expelled; the number of tyrants we were forced to endure; the number of pogroms we suffered; the number of crusades we survived; the number of times we tried to assimilate and the number tattooed on our forearms. All other distinctions are merely semantics.”
Though many Jews did and still do dispute this, the Arabs in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza agree completely. As far as they are concerned, all Israelis are “settlers,” and the entire state of Israel is “occupied.”
It is for this reason that no peace agreement or two-state solution has been reached with them, no matter who is at the helm of the Israeli government.
Which brings us to the rally in Tel Aviv, the purpose of which was to express solidarity with the communities in the South.
These communities have been under rocket and mortar attack for 14 years, an onslaught that began before disengagement, but which has increased in frequency and severity since then.
No longer protected by the buffer of the Gush Katif “settlers,” the residents of towns and kibbutzim in the south have been bearing the brunt of the withdrawal from Gaza.
As they rightly point out, it wasn’t until rockets and mortars landed in Tel Aviv that the country as a whole took serious notice.
So extraordinary was the shift in perception that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu received overwhelming backing for Operation Protective Edge. Suddenly, it was “we” Israelis under unwarranted attack from “them” – Hamas terrorists.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu has continued to accept cease-fires, during which the South was still being hit with rockets. At Thursday night’s rally, an estimated 10,000 people – mostly secular – showed up to convey the message that “The fate of the southern communities is the same as that of Tel Aviv.”
But because it was called a “non-political” rally, the event was filled with meaningless platitudes. There were no speeches about why and how both the South and Tel Aviv are in danger of losing their right to their land in order to appease the “international community.” There was no outcry about the fact that the terrorist organization the IDF supposedly just defeated in battle is going to come away from negotiations in Cairo with concessions and incentive.
Nor was there any mention of disengagement; certainly no cries of “mea culpa” on the part of those – including the kibbutzim in the South – who embraced it with gusto. But then, they have more immediate concerns, such as the Hamas tunnels built under their noses and dining rooms for the past few years.
What I did overhear at Rabin Square was criticism of Netanyahu for (get this) antagonizing Washington, and comments about the poor showing of apathetic Israelis, who couldn’t be bothered to come and express solidarity with their brethren in the south.
There is much to hold Netanyahu accountable for at this moment, but causing President Obama to halt a shipment of missiles to Israel is not his fault. Nor are Israelis apathetic to the current sorry situation.
What is missing is the true cause to fight for and rally around – not “bringing peace and quiet to the South,” but rather the imperative and justice of sovereignty. That would be a demonstration worth getting off the couch to attend.The writer is the author of ‘To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’