Above: Activists from the Standing Together movement.
As part of an ongoing series of interviews with leftist activists in Israel/Palestine, Daniel Randall of Workers’ Liberty spoke to Hannah Pollin-Galay, an activist in Standing Together, a cross-party movement organising Jews and Arabs against occupation and in favour of social and economic equality. By profession, Pollin-Galay is a Yiddish and Holocaust researcher at Tel Aviv University.
DR: What is the shape of the movement against the “Nation State Law”? Does it offer hope for a renewed movement, uniting Israeli-Jews and Arabs, against the occupation?
HP-G: Right now, I see productive resistance to the Nation State Law on four different levels: the first is visible, public activism here in Israel. This started over the summer, with two different protests, each drawing tens of thousands of people into the streets, Jewish Israelis together with Palestinian citizens of Israel and other Arab communities within the country. Grassroots energy has laid the foundation for a new Jewish-Arab alliance and it can take us much further.
Now that people have felt what it is like to work together, to cross ethnic lines and march together in the streets, people will want more of that solidarity. There are organisational meetings taking place at the moment and I believe the time is ripe to start up again, now that the major holiday season is over.
The second level of resistance is happening through the Israeli Supreme Court. The Nation State Law clearly violates Israel's own founding document, the Declaration of Independence, which states that Israel “will provide full social and political equality for all of its citizens, without regard to religion, race or gender.” There are currently two petitions of challenge to the Supreme Court, one from the Druze community and one from the Oversight Committee of Arab Affairs. The court has clear grounds for overturning the law. But, it will need strong support from the public in order to stand up to the far-right Minister of Law, Ayelet Shaked, who threatened to “wage war” against the Supreme Court if it were to revoke the law.
The third level is international pressure. Leaders of the Arab-majority Joint List [an electoral coalition in Israel] have met with both the European Union and the United Nations to enlist their help in overturning this law. Both of these international bodies should show that they are willing to take concrete measures against the Israeli government if they do not overturn the law.
Lastly, I think that the Nation State Law has spurred people to ask questions about our culture and how it needs to change. I can best speak from the Jewish-Israeli side: I hear a different language around me, with people now recognising the need to advocate for the presence of Palestinian-Arab communities, language, and culture in our daily lives, our politics, and our public spaces.
I do see this happening in small, but influential, settings. For example, there was a mass Arabic lesson in the streets this summer, organised by a progressive school system. A group of activists toured the Negev and hung up signs in Hebrew and in Arabic announcing the names of unrecognised Bedouin villages. There are more Palestinian-Arab citizens running for office in the municipal elections, which are underway now, then ever before. For instance, there is a promising party running in Tel Aviv called “We Are the City” (Anahnu ha-Ir), which includes Jews of different backgrounds (yes, there is great diversity among Israeli Jews!), people from poor parts of the city, Arabs, as well as a representative from the African refugee community. There is a shifting mindset that I believe can serve us in the long-term, if we organise properly.
Will this build to strengthen the struggle against the occupation? That depends upon how disciplined we are in keeping these coalitions together and upon the type of support we receive from the international community for these efforts. There is a great deal of contingency here: if we get into petty arguments and divide up into factions, this momentum will be lost. If our efforts are ignored abroad, that can be highly demoralising and slow things down.
To his credit, Jeremy Corbyn was the only major politician to mention our historic joint Arab-Jewish protest on 11 August, which he did on Twitter. He should do that again! In the Guardian, Bernie Sanders recently wrote about the need for an international left-wing alliance. Count us in. We work very hard and can make change happen from within Israeli society, something that can only be done from here.
DR: What about wider social struggles in Israel? Are there any echoes of the mass struggles around social issues such as housing in 2011? Are there attempts to link these struggles to the question of the occupation?
HP-G: The problems that were highlighted during the Israeli social protests of 2011 have not gone away. Last week, activists from the disabled community blocked highways in a demand for liveable benefits. Teachers who work under third-party contracts, and are thus drastically underpaid and denied benefits, have also been protesting for direct employment contracts.
Unfortunately, these movements are often fractured, each group fighting for their own cause separately. There are groups that are trying to unite these struggles. One of them is a general union called Power to the Workers (Koach L’Ovdim), which organises workers who are not traditionally included in the national unions. Another “connector” movement is Standing Together, which we’ll discuss later in the interview.
DR: To much of the outside world, the situation seems utterly intractable: a far-right Israeli government seemingly committed to a policy of permanent hostility to the Palestinians, including some individuals who are more-or-less explicit advocates for ethnic cleansing. What’s the way out of this impasse?
HP-G: The right wing would like us to see the situation as intractable. These are certainly dark times and everyone concerned about Israeli and Palestinian lives should be on high alert. But, we should also keep sight of how contingent our politics are.
I learned a great lesson in contingency this past year. The government had ordered the expulsion of thousands of African asylum seekers, many of whom have been living here peacefully, though undocumented, for close to a decade. These refugees had even received notices, paper in their hands, stating that they had to leave the country by a certain date. Around this time, I vividly remember standing in front of a shopping mall and asking people to sign a petition in support of the refugees, who the right terms “intruders”. Some people openly laughed in our faces, saying, “they’ve already been issued expulsion notices. Don’t bother!” They assumed it was a done deal. But, enough people all over the country responded to these efforts. Little by little, I saw public opinion beginning to shift and, eventually, the expulsion was stopped.
Likewise, tens of thousands of people were protesting every Saturday night against Netanyahu and his corrupt governing practices in December 2017. Based on polls, it looked as if he would be out any minute. Then, Trump came to his aid with the declaration of Jerusalem and the cancellation of the Iran deal. Then Bibi was back in the game. But, things did not need to play out that way.
Change is absolutely possible, and I think that coalition building is the key. How to do that from the Israeli side? We oughtn’t be purists and wait until everyone agrees with our exact agenda. On the other hand, we don’t want to sloppily make common cause with groups that may have substantively different aims. It’s important to articulate basic terms for urgent collaboration and Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, has recently done just that. He urges the public to rally into a people’s movement around the following four principles: “1. Opposition to the occupation; 2. Opposition to [racist] incitement against Arabs [within Israel], their place here and their achievements in society; 3. Opposition to neo-liberal economic policies; 4. Opposition to the diminishing of democratic spaces and support for fostering the values of equality and social justice for the broad public.” This is an excellent plan, which can bring together very large segments of both Jewish and Arab society for grassroots, day-to-day collaboration. If people part ways at the ballot box, their elected leaders will still be pushed toward this shared agenda. On the level of public activism, we have to isolate the right wing, rather than isolating one another on the left spectrum.
DR: What should activists on the UK left know about “Standing Together”, and what can we do to support it?
HP-G: Standing Together (עומדים ביחד نقف معًا) is a people’s movement, which aims to unite Jewish and Palestinian-Arab voices in Israel in a joint struggle for social and economic equality, peace, and an end to the occupation. I can sing its praises since I’m not among its leaders or founders. I literally just read about the movement in the newspaper one day and decided to join. Over the past two years, it has become one of the most powerful organising forces in the country. It had a major impact in stopping the deportation of African refugees. Standing Together also played a critical role in bringing Jews and Arabs together to fight the Nation State Law this summer. I hope and believe that this is just the beginning.
From my perspective as a rank-and-file activist (i.e., not the leadership), I would like to see Standing Together collaborate with as many groups abroad as possible. We already have a partnership with the American anti-occupation group If Not Now. I would like to see collaboration going beyond social media, though that is always helpful on its own. If, for example, we were to organise a major march, or even a strike, our partners in the US or in Britain could march or strike simultaneously in solidarity. It may also be helpful to have online meetings or something of the sort, through which the movement could get strategic advice from experienced organisers abroad.
DR: Workers’ Liberty believes that a two-state settlement is the only settlement around which Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian workers could feasibly unite, and is a necessary transitional settlement towards closer unity or federation. Others on the far left see any expression whatsoever of Israeli-Jewish national rights as inadmissible. What is your view on this, and how is “the national question” discussed on the Israeli left (and, if you have a sense of it, in Palestine)?
HP-G: I support a two-state solution, both because it is the only one that is realistically achievable and because I believe it best guarantees that there will be a space of Jewish asylum and one of Palestinian asylum. Each group needs a guarantee of physical and collective safety, given the historical record and the current geopolitical landscape.
From the Israeli side, I do not aspire for Israel to be defined as a “Jewish state” per se, but a fully egalitarian democratic state, which guarantees Jewish asylum among its other constitutional promises and criteria for gaining citizenship. Once someone is a citizen here, whether through family connections, refugee status, or a work permit, all should be guaranteed equal rights, in the fullest sense of the phrase. That means electing non-Jewish leaders to the highest ranks of power, and making our public spaces welcoming and ethnically integrated. The vibrancy of Jewish culture in Israel, something that is very important to me personally, will be up to us to create, democratically, rather than being prescribed from top down. The Palestinian state would make a parallel guarantee of asylum for Palestinians and, I hope, create similar democratic structures for non-Muslims, though I feel more responsible for the internal politics of Israel.
Over time, I agree, a loosening of borders will need to happen. There is an interesting project called “Two States, One Homeland”, which sketches out a plan for a federation modelled on the European Union. I am in favour of this, but believe that we first need independence before we can create a union of partners.
It’s good to mention that each person I know thinks about these eventual goals slightly differently. Issues of immigration and citizenship are always the toughest to tackle. We should attempt to maintain a big tent approach in the present, keeping sight of our shared aims of equality, peace, and safety. If we have to part ways later, because we advocate different points at some eventual negotiation table, so be it. There is too much work to be done now for factions to form.
DR: The political approaches of “BDS” are now largely hegemonic in global Palestinian solidarity activism; Workers’ Liberty believes the demand to “boycott Israel” cuts against the need to build direct, practical solidarity with Israeli workers and the left, and could have antisemitic implications. What is your view on this question?
HP-G: I do not support BDS, but I do not demonise those who have chosen that path. If a boycott supporter would like to work with me on something, or has something interesting to say, I will be open and try to focus on what we have in common. I try to contextualise disagreement over this one topic as part of a bigger picture. Obviously, I actively oppose the legal restrictions that the Israeli government has imposed on boycott supporters. I am especially appalled by the current decision to block the entry of the student Lara Alqasam. She, and those like her, should not only be allowed entry into Israel, but actively encouraged to come here and engage our student body in political debate.
It is worthwhile to reiterate what Noam Chomsky has said on the topic: “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Some political protest movements create new axes of inequality. Does a comfortable Londoner or Ivy League American academic have the right to exclude an Israeli childcare worker in Ashdod from events or discourse? How much do they even know about her and her daily struggles? Instead of pushing her out of the conversation, we should be speaking to her constantly, and telling her how much she has in common with her sister just over the border in Gaza, what she will gain by acting in solidarity with her sister in Gaza. Resentment against the new global elite, who voice liberal viewpoints on issues of identity while ignoring class inequality, has contributed to the rise of the right all over the world, with Trump’s election and the Brexit vote as symptoms. The same danger exists here, both within and across national borders.
Regarding potential antisemitic implications: a blanket boycott of all Israelis (speech and cultural production included) is a boycott of over 50% of the world’s Jews. Keep in mind that that is the poorer, darker-skinned half of world Jewry. Some people also hear echoes of past Jewish boycotts from the Nazi era. Yes, there is a danger of anti-Jewish prejudice there, though I do not believe that to be the conscious intention of the BDS movement.
I believe that it is more effective to show solidarity with Israeli working people and leftists of all gender and ethnic backgrounds, while directing angry protest and condemnation towards those in power - politicians as well as the security establishment, the settler movement, and one’s own government for tolerating the occupation. Again, though, there are solid people who have already committed themselves to BDS and I do not demonise them for that.
DR: Has there been any discussion in Israel of the scandals around antisemitism that have recently taken place on the British left? What’s your view on these?
HP-G: There were a number of articles on the topic in the Israeli press, most of which I found to be highly superficial, either overly panicky towards, or completely dismissive of, antisemitism. Clickbait, in other words. So, I started to follow the issues directly through the British media this past summer. I find it frustrating and heart-breaking. On the one hand, I generally support Jeremy Corbyn’s politics and the leftward direction that he has taken the British Labour Party. I believe that he could play a constructive role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, given that he is so passionate about the issue, expresses realistic aims (supporting a two-state solution) and has authentic ties to Palestinian actors, which is so rare for international politicians.
On the other hand, I see the complaints made by the British Jewish community as fully justified. I presume I don’t need to run down all of the different incidents (he said, she said, the wreath, and so on) here. But, I understand why British Jews find much of the rhetoric, as well as the dismissive responses toward it, hurtful.
What is important now is to fix the problem and move forward. The British left is far too admirable a group to let its problems of prejudice fester. I commend Jon Lansman and Momentum for making an effort to call out antisemitism among their ranks.
As a general point, I think it would be helpful for British leftists to take a vacation from the terms “Zionist” and “anti-Zionist.” Corbyn ran into trouble when he spoke of “Zionists” lacking a sense of history or irony. To whom was he referring? All Jews? All those who believe that Israel has a right to exist? A few obnoxious right-wingers? No one could tell and that is significant. At this point in history, I think that the designations “Zionist” and “anti-Zionist” say almost nothing about constructive policies or concrete ambitions, and are used mostly to dismiss people and to form social cliques. I often observe talk about “Zionists” versus “anti-Zionists” in the British media as a proxy war for a host of other issues — ranging from trade policy to an implicit culture war over the look and feel of the Labour Party (i.e., “Luciana Berger considers herself a Zionist and wears jewellery. I do not wear jewellery. Therefore, I must be an anti-Zionist”), to subconscious anti-Jewish prejudice. This hazy overlapping of issues is not only potentially hurtful, it is also a major distraction from constructive political work. I urge British leftists to cultivate a fresh, concrete vocabulary for discussing Israel and Palestine.
DR: Is there anything else you’d want to draw British left-wing activists’ attention to about ongoing struggles in Israel/Palestine?
HP-G: I would simply express gratitude for this opportunity for exchange.