Int’l social activists meet Israeli counterparts

A mass social justice movement does not need charismatic leaders or tent city encampments, activists assert.

Social justice protest 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Social justice protest 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
A mass social justice movement does not need charismatic leaders or tent city encampments to be effective on a national level, according to international activists in Israel this week taking part in a conference on global activism.
Matt Renner, an Occupy Wall Street activist and development and communications director for independent news organization Truthout, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that like Israel’s J14 social justice movement, OWS passed the stage of nationwide encampments long ago, in favor of smaller meetings and workshops held behind the scenes – with activists meeting to discuss ways to keep the protest moving forward in a way that can bring societal change.
Renner was joined by Miguel Arana Catania of Spain’s M15 movement, who said, “When we had the encampments we had a lot of strength, a lot of power, but we learned something that is clear – that the strength is coming from 99 percent.”
The main issue was how to organize this critical mass of people to bring change, Catania added.
Renner and Catania, along with Gulnara Aitova of the Russian pro-democracy movement, are in Israel to take part in the Activists of the World Unite! conference.
Sponsored by Social Economic Academy and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, it brings together Israeli and international social justice leaders to share experiences and develop contacts. Speakers and panelists at the conference include influential journalists and activists who deal with issues such as nonviolent resistance, housing protests, foreign workers rights and the feminist struggle.
The conference is being held on Thursday and Friday, as the heat of summer returns in force to Israel – following months of speculation that the nationwide social justice protests will also return over the summer. Speaking to Renner and Catania, it was easy to see a long list of parallels between their movements and Israel’s J14 movement – namely that both started as largely spontaneous grassroots protests that spread like wildfire, and were centered around protest encampments.
As in Israel, the movements made a point of trying to remain non-partisan and egalitarian, and lacked a clearly political set of demands or a framework for how to translate a massive groundswell of popular support into legislative or parliamentary change.
Although the interview was conducted in English, the sentiments the two activists expressed would have been very familiar to anyone who covered or paid attention to last summer’s protest movement in Israel.
J14 was criticized for many different reasons, one of them being its devotion to being an egalitarian movement without a strong centralized leadership or charismatic leader.
Renner said he did not believe this to be a problem, in that “movements of the past had been focused on one person, and what we’ve seen is that when that person is either taken off the playing field by assassination or coopted or corrupted, the movement all of a sudden shrivels. The most important part about the way we’ve been organizing is that its non-hierarchical.”
Catania was even more clear in his dismissal of the notion, saying that one of the weaknesses of the Israeli protest was the prominence of certain leaders, who made repeated media appearances and became symbols of the movement.
He made the statement while sitting at a table with J14 leader Daphni Leef, as he was being interviewed by Israeli media outlets at the conference.
When asked what they think they can learn from the Israeli movement, which has adopted some of the slogans and styles of the OWS movement, Renner said he was moved by the popularity and sheer force of numbers of the Israeli movement.
“If you can get 500,000 people on the street in a country of 7 million that’s a great accomplishment, and that means your message and how you expressed yourself worked – so I’m here to learn from that,” he said.
J14 has also been criticized for being in many ways apolitical, and for refusing to address wedge issues like the occupation and how these issues affect Israel’s economy and social structure.
Renner said he did not think this was a faulty approach, in that “once you begin investing in the wedge issues you get involved in the two-party system,” adding that in the US “the way we’ve gotten to where we are is corrupt, and we [in the occupy movement] have a very non-partisan approach because everything in America is very partisan.”
In language similar to what was said last summer in Israel, both Renner and Catania said they do not support trying to effect change from within the political system, with Catania saying, “We have to make a new game. This game is not working, the political system of giving the power to a new person every two or four years is wrong.”
Renner, for his part, said that many of those in the OWS movement had been involved as organizers for the Barack Obama presidential campaign before becoming disenchanted with his administration.
There is a reluctance to use their grassroots support to play the political game to their advantage because “the system is corrupt and once you become part of the system, you become ineffective at best and corrupt at worst,” he said.
Renner added that he supports local organizing through local party chapters and local politics.
More than anything else, however, a parallel can be seen in the very basic acts of civil disobedience such as camping out in city centers that founded all of the cost-of-living movements of the past year.
“You should act as if you’re already free to do things you think make sense regardless of their legality,” Renner said