What Is the New Israeliness?

Translated by Ami Asher

The teenagers and twentysomethings who were barely old enough to light funeral candles after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 are now doing what today’s adults were unable to do back then: creating a new Israeli identity capable of living in peace with itself.


Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets since July 2011, when social justice demonstrators began to mobilize. Credit: Creative Commons/avivi.org.

This identity is a necessary condition for peace between Israelis and our neighbors. Most importantly, this identity will not require Israelis to constantly imagine and reinvent new enemies.

Many people are asking, what is the new “Israeliness” that the leaders of the tent protest movement are talking about? Others wonder how a movement for social justice can be mobilized without any reference to the injustices of the Occupation. I intend to offer an answer to both questions. Naturally, I am not speaking in the name of those youngsters — they are quite capable of doing it themselves — but still I would like to offer my own sociological analysis of their campaign. What follows is just a brief account; for a detailed analysis of the Israeli political crisis, see my book Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine: Democracy vs. Military Rule (Routledge, 2010).

My analysis begins with Rabin’s assassination and the failure by the left parties to satisfy the 1992 voters’ expectations to change government priorities and evacuate the occupied territories. The Right interpreted the murder as a result of the political polarization in Israel and claimed that profound internal disagreements preclude peace with the Palestinians. Instead, they advocated “peace among us first,” with “us” meaning the Jews, as Israel’s Palestinian citizens were deemed irrelevant. This was a terribly undemocratic interpretation, since it meant that anyone opposing compromise with the Palestinians had the right to act violently to veto and derail the entire process. The immediate corollary was that if we want “peace among us,” namely with the most extremist settlers, we need continued war with “them,” the Palestinians.

Protesters march in Tel Aviv. Credit: Creative Commons/Simply Boaz.

The problem is that the two big left parties adopted this interpretation and, after ousting Binyamin Netanyahu in 1999, formed a national unity government, excluding all parties representing Palestinian citizens. They led the entire Jewish public to support the violent repression of the Second Intifada. After their electoral collapse they joined Ariel Sharon’s government in 2001, and blindly supported both the Second Lebanon War and the subsequent attack on Gaza codenamed “Cast Iron.” In short, Rabin’s assassination erased the Left’s political identity. Why? Because they were unable to undertake the political task of building a shared identity for all Israelis in the aftermath of the murder. This is what the protest movement is doing right now: it is rebuilding Israeli society on foundations of solidarity, mutual support, and shared values of equality and empathy.

Young Israelis are now doing something else that today’s adults were unable to do in 1995: they are seeking an original and creative way of following in Rabin’s footsteps.

The problem exposed by the Oslo peace process was that without a common threat, Israeli society would break apart into separate sectors, with nothing in common. It’s not only Left versus Right, it’s also European vs. Mizrahi Jews, religious vs. secular, Jew vs. Arab, new immigrants vs. old-timers. The left-right polarity is a way of blurring all social tensions and channeling them into common hatred without being able to cope with them, to communicate on a shared basis of pride in one’s Israeliness. All that remains is hatred and fear of the Other. The assassination catalyzed the disintegration of Israeli society because the Left had no room for its others: Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and Mizrahi Jews, and the new Russian immigrants. It remained what the late Baruch Kimmerling called in Hebrew Ahusel — Ashkenazi, secular, veteran, socialist, and nationalist — excluding all forms of otherness from its definition of Israeliness.

August 6, 2011, in Tel Aviv. Credit: Creative Commons/Ishai Parasol.

The greatest challenge of peace is not only to arrive at a just peace with the Palestinians, but also to rebuild Israeli society in such a way that Israelis will no longer need to constantly imagine and reinvent new enemies. The challenge is to enable Israelis to become integrated in the Middle East without fearing for their identity. In order for this to come to pass, identity needs to be constructed with a positive basis of common values, rather than on fear and denial of the Other. In this vein, I’d like to suggest a positive take on the slogan “peace among us first”: in order for us to make peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world, with the Middle East, and with the entire world, we have to reconstruct our vulnerable, anxious, and insecure identity of old.

This is what the new movement is doing. Its members are creating this identity with wisdom, prudence, great talent, creativity, and love. The mission they have undertaken is of unprecedented historic dimensions — nothing short of a revolution. But it’s not easy to revolt, given the huge power of the conservative, reactionary forces. It’s very easy to say that we want everyone to join in. Bringing them together in practice is much more difficult in view of existing social tensions and conflicts. But this is the task nonetheless.

This new generation is completely aware that this is its task. It knew this long ago, ever since Rabin’s assassination and the rise to power of his archenemy “Bibi” Netanyahu. The mood was already there in the students’ strike of 1998, whose slogan was “the students are everybody,” meaning Jews and Arabs, Left and Right, Ashkenazis and Mizrahis, religious and secular, veterans and new migrants, men and women, kibbutzniks and settlers. With this slogan and their struggle against Bibi, they won the support of 85 percent of the public and media. Ring a bell? Exactly the support the polls give now to the tent protest movements. Just like today, back then people tried to incite the students against the Orthodox Jews, but they did not get carried away. It was Netanyahu who broke up their ranks, the same guy who, after a fifty-day strike and a twenty-day hunger strike, had the negotiation representatives, who were not on a hunger strike, eat pizza in front of the cameras.

It is no coincidence that the Students’ Union joined the protest movement and that its members don’t trust Netanyahu’s promises. Bibi is still paying the bill for the pizza he ordered. It was Ehud Barak who took full advantage in 1999 of that huge mobilization and its slogans by offering a “government for everyone,” and dragging “everyone” into a ten-year war. Now, with “Bibi-Barak” leading the current Right-Left, we have to thank the protest movement for acting to deconstruct their tribal and apolitical dichotomy, which leaves us mired in a warmongering agenda, in a country that wastes most of its material and mental resources on preparations for war and rehabilitation thereafter.


August 6, 2011, in Tel Aviv. Credit: Creative Commons/Or Hiltch.

My left-wing generation has spent all its strength and better years fighting in wars and fruitless struggles for peace. Now it is our children’s turn, and they are starting from the bottom by building a nonviolent, inclusive Israeli identity capable of living in peace with itself, as a necessary condition for peace with our neighbors. This is the new Israeliness that is so urgently required. Naturally, it is a slow process, as protest leader Daphne Leef always reminds us — a prolonged process of personal change, a change of language and discourse, a change in interpersonal relations and relations with the Other. This is the process that the founders of the State of Israel went through — creating a new language and identity to build a new society. This is what’s required now, nothing less. It is a huge task requiring a broad-based mobilization of creative forces. It will certainly not be easy. But the summer of 2011 saw the beginning of the greatest revolution since the advent of Zionism. It had better not fail.

Lev Luis Grinberg is a political economist and political sociologist, currently teaching as a visiting professor in the Department of Sociology at UC Berkeley.
tags: Analysis of Israel/Palestine, Democracy, Israel/Palestine, War & Peace   
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