Israel’s Arab Spring

Jeremy Gordin explains the uprising against Bibi's judicial "reforms"

For the first time in history, the human species as a whole has gone into politics. Everyone is in the act, and there is no telling what may come of it. – To Jerusalem and Back, Saul Bellow, 1976.

DIBsimDIBsim – an acronym with a suffix making it into a Hebrew (masculine) plural. It stood for “Damn Israeli Bastards” (DIB) and was used by the charming, sophisticated, lefty-liberal, wannabe-hippie types such as we Seffrican Jews who’d gone to Israel in about 1969 to pursue our tertiary educations (theoretically anyway) [i].

Ah well, that was 54 years ago. We couldn’t yet speak the local language (some of us would never manage to do so); we were looked at askance, our long hair, ragged clothing [ii], and the faint redolence of Maryjane were not apparently considered as positive attributes; and we knew from our readings (read: skimmings) of Marx, Bakunin, Che Guevara, Eldridge Cleaver, etc., that Israel was moving dangerously rightwards. Not that “politics” matt

In short, by referring to our brethren in our new “home” as DIBsim we were mainly being self-justificatory/defensive. Aged 17 or so, we were proverbial fish out of water; treyf chickens trapped in the backyard of a kosher butchery. To use the bizarre word so beloved of Israel’s immigration authorities, we hadn’t yet been properly “absorbed” by Israeli society – and some of us never would be.

On the other hand, many of us remained in Israel, did time in Zahal (the army), brought up and nurtured families, paid taxes, and so on and so forth [iii].

But that, as I said, was 54 years ago, and that's sufficient nostalgia for now, because nostalgia ain’t, as you know, what it’s cracked up to be. Let’s rather get back to that nasty acronym. To “our” way of thinking, the Israelis, mainly the sabras (i.e., not the oldsters from other countries, but those born there), were beaucoup arrogant [iv].

And well, look now at what the DIBsim have just gone and done! The chutzpah! The cheek!

Not content with their ongoing colonization of Jerusalem, the west bank of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights, they have organised their own Arab Spring right in the heart of Israel, just in time for Pesach (Passover [v]) – which is preeminently a Spring festival, though the rabbis, being rabbis, tend not to emphasize that aspect of the holiday.

As I trust you know, on Sunday night the Israelis got out on the streets en masse (there’d been about 40% of them initially), then they shut down the whole country until prime minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu “agreed” to postpone – until end-April, after the Pesach break – the “judicial reforms” his coalition bloc has been busy trying to jam through the Knesset (Israeli parliament) [vi].

How did this come to happen?

There’s a hoary old joke about former Israeli PM Golda Meir visiting President Richard Nixon at the white house in the early 70s. “Oy,” says Golda, “I’m feeling so stressed.” “What do you have to be stressed about?” asks Nixon. “Can you imagine what the pressure on me is like? I’m the president of some 300-million people.” 

“Yes,” says Golda, “but Mr President, I’m the prime minister of some three million prime ministers.” [vii]

You get the picture, yeah? Israelis are outspoken, opinionated, each thinks that he or she has a say in the running of the country, and that his or her view is the best there is. I mention this “attitude” because it gets even worse when it comes to writing about Jewish history, ancient or modern, and/or writing articles analyzing Israeli politics.

In short, no one, but no one, not even her auntie, is going to agree with the very potted, (thankfully) very brief, and very compressed “history,” replete with generalizations of the most shocking sort [viii], that I am about to offer you. Oh well, so be it. I have the floor now; there are to be no interruptions or points of order; be quiet and listen.

Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel occupied a great deal of territory, Israel did shift “rightwards”. The power of the political party of the founding fathers and mothers, the Labour party and various off-shoots[ix], was slowly and then quickly pulverized. Some of the early peace initiatives, such as the Oslo agreements, went well, but afterwards everything pretty much came to nought. Israelis also required lebensraum; settlements started being constructed in the occupied territories. Notwithstanding the return of huge swathes of Sina, more so-called peace initiatives petered out.

Gone were the heirs of the founding parents, Yitzhak Rabin and crazy Arik Sharon (G-d love him), the first murdered by a Jewish fundamentalist, the second felled by inter alia too much caviar, vodka, and too little exercise [x]. More so-called “terrorism” then broke out intermittently – and, in tandem with the international resurgence of so-called Islamic fundamentalism, grew murderous.

Meanwhile, one Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, from the centre-right/right-wing Likud party, and also from the country’s military elite [xi], came onto the political scene. Though he wouldn’t have put it quite this way, he knew intuitively what Bobby Zimmerman once sang: money doesn’t talk, it swears. Bibi focused on and grew the country’s economy, encouraged the hi-tech companies, threw off such leftist economic shackles as the founding parents had left behind, and created what we neo-liberals call “stability”.

Everyone loves economic and fiscal stability. If only our ANC had understood this. Geez, the ANC could have done what it liked; it could have put a hammer and sickle on the national flag, it could have insisted no white boys could play national rugby, it could have re-named Brakpan Mpofuville, it could have created a de facto one-party state – if only it hadn’t screwed our fiscus straight up the macgoolagong. But it was too greedy and dofen kyk hoe lyk ons nou.

So Bibi put on a very back burner the Americans and everyone else who nattered tediously about the “plight of the Palestinians” and a new generations of Israelis simply got on with their lives and enjoying the fruits thereof. Why not? Of course, there were a few killjoys who remembered that the founding parents had said Israel should be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), caretakers of the world’s spiritual and moral standards.

They also argued that just as a people “cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free,” [xii] Israel couldn’t and shouldn’t go on occupying the land and lives of another group of people. It spelled disaster, if not today then the day after tomorrow.

We move on. Bibi got greedy and silly, as “leaders” who serve a number of terms are wont to do, and was charged by Israel’s attorney-general with deception, breach of trust, and receiving bribes. Relatively recently, then, there have therefore been a number of general elections in Israel [xiii] and Bibi even lost one; he couldn’t form a coalition which had a majority. The country seemed split roughly down the middle in terms of those who didn’t want Bibi and those who did.

Probably for this reason (the ongoing elections), among others, people didn’t seem to care all that much during the last general election(s) – it was repetitive, tedious stuff – and Bibi slid into power yet again, at the head of a coalition that is palpably right-wing and orthodox, viz., fundamentalist Jewish, viz., of the view that the land on which many Palestinians live and have lived for generations belongs to Israel because the Bible says so.

Now Israel has no written constitution and the only check on government behaviour/legislation has since the country’s founding been the courts, notably the Israel’s supreme court. But the right-wing parties don’t like the supreme court interfering with certain things, ranging from, say, whether Palestinians who’ve been living in Jerusalem’s old city for generations can be sommer kicked out, to whether some settlers can sommer grab some olive orchards close to the Jordan River and kick off the families living there.

Meanwhile, the charges against Netanyahu have obviously been chewing his ass, so to speak. What sort of legacy is that? The son of a famous medieval historian? The brother of a war hero? And what’s he gonna be remembered for? Getting bought for a few boxes of Cuban cigars? Not nice for a nice Jewish boy.

So, he said to his new guys, yeah, go for it, let’s break the power of the judiciary in this country; and, oh, by the way, let’s also make sure that a sitting PM can’t be charged; in fact, let’s make sure that I’ll never be charged. Who do these bloody, obviously leftist, self-righteous, judges think they are?

But opposition leaders [xiv] and others told him, Israelis didn’t fancy this new legislation being put through the Knesset without any discussion and your reputation is not exactly squeaky clean. Sure, we’ll talk later, said Bibi, after the legislation is through.

But people grew angrier and angrier. Then members of the “reserve” elite forces (the air force and special forces) said they weren’t going to go to reserve duty. These people, though, were volunteers, so to speak, they go to reserves voluntarily. So it wasn’t, as is generally thought, their unease that skrikked Bibi and minister of defence, Yoav Gallant (a Likudnik).

I have it on pretty good authority that it was the chiefs of Israel’s general staff that told Gallant very clearly that all the trouble in the country was dangerous bullsh-t indeed – that all sorts of folk, including Hamas in Gaza, were licking their lips.

Gallant conveyed this message publicly, as politicians in Israel are wont to do, and Bibi fired him. Then everyone and his auntie and his auntie’s auntie came out on the street. The main trade union joined in, the universities did, and so on, and Bibi had to climb down.

What will happen at the end of April though? I don’t know. I do know one thing though: you know those revolving doors which allow only one person into a slot at a time? Well, Bibi could be following you into a revolving door and yet still come out in front of you.


[i] Though not, if I have this right, at the cost of the Israeli taxpayer; I believe it was the SA Zionist Federation who paid our costs.

[ii] Occurred to me the other day that for five or six years, my ‘wardrobe’ consisted of two pairs of jeans, five tee shirts, underwear, sandals, and a jacket. And as best as I can recall, I seemed perfectly happy.

[iii] Not me. Being a romantic and a poet, I fled to Sweden – cherchez la femmemaibru, cherchez la femme – and thereby skipped conscription; the Seffricans zapped me later.

[iv] Whether they had (and have) a soft inside underneath their cladding was and still is a subject for debate.

[v] Which reminds me, I must ask my gorgeous wife to get working on those kneidlach (matzo balls); they’re quite hard to get just right.

[vi] “Democratically” of course; they have a slender majority in the 120-seat Knesset. And we Seffricans know all about “democracy” and parties that have a majority. It’s not who or what you know; it’s about how many votes you command. Those Athenians have a lot to answer for, I tell you.

[vii] There’re countless other jokes or anecdotes of this nature. E.g., “Where three Jews are having a political argument, there’ll be four opinions represented”. There’s also a Jewish saying that “nine rabbis do not constitute a minyan [the main religious quorum requiring the presence of ten Jewish adults], but ten cobblers or even ten journalists can”.

[viii] But as my brother Joel always says, generalizations are generally true. And who am I to argue with my brother?

[ix] Most of the fathers & mothers came from Russia and eastern Europe. Vu den?

[x] In October 2004 when asked why he did not wear a bulletproof vest despite frequent death threats, Sharon allegedly smiled and replied, “There is none that fits my size”. At 170 cm (5 ft 7 in) tall, he was reputed to weigh 115 kg (254 lb.), which are more or less “my optics,” so I don’t know what the fuss is about.

[xi] Both he and his famous brother, who was killed at Entebbe, had been special forces soldiers.

 [xii] This was Abe Lincohen on June 16, 1858.

[xiii] My brother tells me he has a “season ticket” at his local polling station.

[xiv] People with whom he’d served in coalition governments, not strangers; besides, everyone knows everyone else in Israel; it’s that kind of place.