Our visitors — activists coming to express solidarity with the Palestinians, human rights workers documenting the latest atrocities, itinerant journalists doing the definitive intifada story — sometimes see things clearer than we do. Here, in the eye of the storm, it is easy to be misled. The signs are confused, the omens change from week to week. For a moment, a mood of optimism sweeps through. Peace Now appears radicalized. More than half the population agrees with talking to the PLO. Masha Lubelsky (the secretary of Na‘amat, the establishment Histadrut women’s organization) pays a public visit to Faisal Husseini. A thousand new peace activists (not old lefties) sign up for a “peace bus” to Cairo to meet Arafat.

At other times, there seems to be no effect at all. The atrocities increase and daily life continues with apparent indifference. The Russian immigration revives good old-time Zionism. A right-wing cabal takes over the Jerusalem Post. Despite the overt political crisis — even the fall, as I write, of the Shamir government — there is little sense that the elite is responding to the present rather than locked into the past.

Israel is a place where things happen at an extraordinary pace and in profusion — but change very slowly. And the changes are uneven and contradictory. Opinion polls have registered two opposite movements in the Israeli Jewish population — sometimes among the same respondents: On theone hand, in the short run, support for brutal repression, indifference to human rights violations, continued expression of the distinctively Israeli version of racism toward “Arabs,” deepening anti-democratic sentiments. On the other hand, in the long run, grudging recognition of the staying power of the intifada, along with a pragmatic realization that Israel will eventually have to talk to the PLO. This balance is unstable. An event like the Beita killings or a massive terrorist attack could unleash the most primeval resolve not to “surrender.”

Unlike South Africa, where the line of change has long been transparent, here the portents are not clear, even in the third year of the intifada. For nearly a decade now, most white South Africans outside the lunatic right have realized where the future lies. There is little sense of what must be given up on the path to full democracy and social justice, but the sense of historical inevitability is quite real. In Israel, this has not yet come. Trapped in the kitsch of Zionism, beguiled by militaristic posturing about “security,” deeply affected (even the secular) by religious rhetoric, the vast majority still hopes for an unexpected twist of the dialectic.

The intifada “in Israel” has not produced the concentric circles of a stone dropped in a quiet pond. The ripples have been uneven and contradictory, some altogether invisible on the surface. This is the case even among the groups I concentrate on here, the population which makes up the potential peace movement. It is the apparent weakness of these oppositional forces that puzzles Palestinians as they look for the impact of these two years on Israeli Jewish society.


In Israeli political discourse, the term “left” is now used to describe any group vaguely in favor of peace, more vaguely recognizing Palestinian rights and even more vaguely ready for territorial compromise. Three criteria define the more radical wing of the opposition (what would be called here “ultra-left”) — groups that: 1) had arrived at the two-state package (end the occupation, negotiate with the PLO, a Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967) well before the intifada; 2) are not embarrassed to express solidarity with the uprising; and 3) support refusal to do military service in the territories (the crucial litmus test which still excludes most of the liberal peace camp).

Even by this not very rigorous definition, it must be said that the intifada has done little to increase our forces. Many groupings that sprung up in the heady atmosphere of the first year have faded away. The story of Dai L’Kibbush (End the Occupation) in Jerusalem is typical. Formed in the summer before the intifada, as a coalition of several left groups that had worked together before as the Birzeit Solidarity Committee and the Committee Against the War in Lebanon, the group peaked during 1988. The weekly forum was attended by 50 to 60 members; younger activists came from outside the left coalition groups; weekly visits were made to the West Bank; some media profile was achieved. By autumn 1989 the group broke up, without any intentional decision. Reasons included the ideological turmoil in the Communist Party, the weakening of the Progressive List for Peace, sheer burnout and lack of strategic thinking. Many people also dropped away as the mainstream peace movement seemed to move closer to the two-state package. Why organize a demonstration of a few hundred when Peace Now — potentially — could get 10,000 under an only slightly less explicit slogan? The group was also divided by the endemic (if false) conflict between doing educational work among Israelis and expressing solidarity with the Palestinians.

Other new radical groupings emerged not from the traditional left but from the wider liberal camp dismayed by Peace Now’s passivity and timidity. Notably, there was the Twenty-First Year, made up of young and passionate intellectuals, who took an uncompromising moral stand against the occupation. Their integrity was impressive, and they appeared ready to launch an imaginative campaign of civil disobedience, something quite unknown in Israel. In summer 1989, 27 members were arrested in Qalqilya, protesting against a house demolition planned by the army. Their detention earned much publicity and some sympathy. There was no follow-through, however, and the group’s energy dissipated.

Other groupuscules that have appeared on this same political terrain include militant, single-issue alliances between liberals and radicals — for example, the Beita Committee. A new model is the “moral witness” or “watch” groups in the sphere of human rights violations. More radical student and faculty groups have emerged (notably Ad Kan in Tel Aviv University), taking up issues such as the closing of the Palestinian universities. There is no indication, though, that the student body overall has become radicalized.

Probably the most encouraging story is to be found in the women’s movement. Its most radical core is Shani: Israeli Women Against the Occupation. This group was started in Jerusalem at the beginning of the uprising, mainly by the same veteran radicals who had also started Women in Black, the weekly vigil of women holding the single sign: “End the Occupation.” Shani draws on some 200 women — many previously active on the left or in the women’s movement, others drawn into political work by the events of the last two years. It has regular political meetings and has cooperated with Palestinians on campaigns such as reopening the schools. Together with Women in Black — whose original Jerusalem vigil now attracts about 120 women each week and which now exists in no less than 30 other centers — and six other women’s organizations, Shani now belongs to a Women’s Peace Movement coalition. The coalition’s most dramatic achievement was a march across Jerusalem on December 29, 1989, attended by some 4,000 Israeli, Palestinian and European women.

Refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories is still the key test of radical political conviction — for men, at least. Yesh Gvul, the support group for refusenik soldiers, remains coherent, well organized and consistent. Just over a hundred soldiers — almost all reservists rather than regular (18- to 21-year old) conscripts — have been in prison for refusal. Perhaps 500 more have refused but are quietly assigned to other duties. To Palestinians, these numbers do not sound impressive. They are also puzzled at how a soldier actively engaged in the occupation can also be a “peacenik.” This is to underestimate the powerful symbolic importance of army service and the ability of Israelis (as all human beings) to split thought from action. Some cynicism, though, might greet the soldier quoted by Mordechai Bar-On: “When I am in Gaza, I feel like Kahane, but as soon as I return home, I join Peace Now activities.” [1]

Using the criterion of actual behavior — joining organizations, going out in the streets, minor acts of civil disobedience, willingness to distance yourself from traditional loyalties — the intifada has simply not had an effect commensurate with its intensity and persistence. On the other hand, most liberals have come round openly to thinking the thoughts that were once the property of the hard left. The radical position has been ideologically vindicated and legitimized, but the old left remains too socially marginal to be able to capitalize politically on this change in thinking.

Cognitive Liberals

This is the Israeli Jewish public where, to my mind, the greatest changes are occurring — and the greatest contradictions becoming visible. I am talking about that sector of the educated middle class — academics and professionals, dominantly Askenazi and secular — who see themselves as enlightened, Western-oriented, believers in democracy and the rule of law. They would vote for the Citizen Rights Party (Ratz), Mapam or the dovish wing of Labor. Increasingly they describe themselves as “Peace Now.”

At the cognitive level, the intifada has profoundly changed this group. They have gone beyond a vague sentiment in favor of “peace” and coexistence. There might be deep layers of insecurity, mistrust and racism below, but on the surface they need no persuading to accept the inevitability of the two-state package. Thanks to the intifada, the debate is over.

This change in thinking must not be underestimated. Why is it not matched by appropriate action? Why can this group not be aroused to a gesture of protest that carries a little price, to distance themselves a little from the state?

These liberals make up the saddest social class in Israel. The intifada has exposed too many of their guiding myths. This has caused an intellectual radicalization, but it does not mean embracing the radical solution. They would never use the terms “solidarity” (unlike South African liberals who would not be embarrassed to express solidarity with the black struggle). They still believe in the cruel hoax of Jerusalem as a “united city.” And they cling to the image of a basically moral army in which a few deviants have been forced by circumstance to behave badly. They reject the idea of refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories, as they reject all forms of boycott (such as cutting off research ties with the military or the police). There is a crisis which leads to passivity for most and agonized engagement for others.

The more extreme forms of passivity are based on denial. [2] The truth about the methods being used to suppress the uprising is now fully known. More than at any time in these 40 years, the Israeli media have lifted their self-imposed censorship. Exposures of atrocities have become routine. Human rights organizations — the existing Palestinian ones and the six new Israeli groups that have been formed over these last two years — have minutely documented the unfolding picture. At some deep psychic level, however, all this information is just too uncomfortable to be acceptable — so it is not accepted. People know, but act as if they do not know. This evokes other historical conjunctures, when liberals have been simply unable to comprehend the fact of state terrorism against a common “enemy” and the internal threat this carries for democracy.

The number of people in any society who are prepared to dislocate the comfortable rhythms of private life in order to “make history” is always limited. They hope passively for something to happen. In the Israeli case, this means the pathetic wait for the United States to push the Israeli government into a peace settlement. Here, as elsewhere, liberals are classic “free riders”: they expect others to invest energy in a solution from which they themselves will benefit.

The liberal class here is the bearer of a secularized version of the ideology of the chosen people: the notion that the Israeli state embodies a moral superiority. Democratic values are assumed to be strong and widely shared, the army governed by fine moral restraints. While the events of these two years have strained these beliefs, the paradox is that this genuine belief, this self-serving myth, protects people from realizing when their own values are threatened. Their close identification with the state, in the historic task of nation building as well as their personal involvement in the military and security apparatus, prevents them from taking a genuinely critical position, a degree of detachment from the hegemonic culture. Anything like this would be seen as disloyal, unpatriotic or — worst of all — anti-Zionist.

Parody of Justice

Take the case of academic and professional lawyers, the high priests of liberal legal ideology who surely should be at the forefront of the human rights struggle even if not active in progressive politics: Of the 13,000 Jewish lawyers in Israel, only a handful (literally) work in any of the human rights organizations, have spoken out in public, or will defend political activists. Neither the Israeli Bar Association nor any of the three university law faculties has taken any public stand. With a few token exceptions, the Supreme Court upholds as legal whatever the military might do. Most important of all, lawyers continue doing their military service in the military courts without a word of protest. This legitimates the cruel parody that passes for “justice” under the military administration: mass arrests and administrative detention, ritual trials, the derisory punishment given to the handful of soldiers tried for illegalities. [3]

This active collusion is facilitated by the conventional apolitical concept of civil liberties, a highly formalistic appeal to legality and the “rule of law.” An abstract concept of rights is applied to “both sides” — as if there were some degree of symmetry between Israeli Jewish citizens and Palestinians who have been under military occupation for 22 years. This discourse precludes any criticism of the cynical use of formal legality to criminalize the entire infrastructure of Palestinian society — schools and universities, trade unions, women’s groups, cultural associations, self-help economic projects.

Tactics such as civil disobedience and selective army service refusal are condemned as threats to the “rule of law.” If the protest movement even tests the boundaries of legality, so the argument goes, this would invite the right to do the same, as if they needed such an invitation. Silence is also rationalized by the spurious division made between Israel proper and the Occupied Territories: “over there” the rule of law does not exist and human rights violations are the norm. Except for using the legal system to restrain or delay the grossest violations, nothing can be done until a political solution arrives. [4]

But underneath the passivity, there is some agonizing. Its cynical form is what is called here “shoot and cry”: the gross bad faith of which the Israeli liberal class is — for some reason — so proud. You obediently carry out orders, but afterwards you express pangs of guilt for what history has “made” you do. Golda Meir was the mistress of this particularly Israeli form of self-righteous kitsch with her famous reproach to Palestinians for “forcing our boys to shoot them.” [5] Its collective expression is the many organizations formed to express moral agony about the effects — on Israelis — of the intifada. In early 1989, the Ministry of Education arranged psychological counseling for high-school youths who had been encouraged to beat blindfolded Palestinian detainees. The delicate Israeli psyche needed care rather than Palestinians’ bodies.

Still, a concern with the corrosion of “our values” may lead to wider political commitments. Consider the Mental Health Workers for the Advancement of Peace. Through annual conferences over the last two years (attended by 400 participants), work groups and contacts with Palestinian colleagues, they have widened their agenda to discuss general obstacles to peace and such previously taboo subjects as political limitations to traditional professional roles.

This politicization is less evident in groups such as “Parents Against Moral Erosion” (no doubt all “two-staters” in thinking), who are upset at their children having to make the uncomfortable moral choices facing young soldiers. They meet with Rabin and various generals to convince them to find a political solution — but in the meantime to make military orders “clear” and “moral.” This group embodies all of the liberal plight and directly undermines the work of Yesh Gvul, which insists that soldiers should have to make some hard moral choices.

Organizations working on the human rights front are important, both in terms of immediate humanitarian functions and their long-term political potential. Unlike in South Africa, though, the human rights struggle has not yet been placed in an explicit political context. This stage has been delayed by the strength of the liberal legal paradigm and the deep emotional inhibition about expressing solidarity rather than sympathy. So politically committed human rights work has been taken over by radicals. Groups such as Women in Support of Women Political Prisoners, the Association for Imprisoned, Children and the newly formed Public Committee Against Torture are almost entirely run by refugees from traditional leftist groups.

More established groups, such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), continue with traditional work such as litigation in sensitive cases. ACRI has won important legal victories, such as bringing to trial a senior army officer who gave explicit orders to break arms and legs of Palestinian 20 villagers. B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) was formed in February 1989 entirely in response to the intifada. It is identified with a range of left-liberal Zionist figures and defines itself within the accepted discourse (“B’Tselem was created through commitment to and concern for the security and humanistic character of the State of Israel”). This allows it greater credibility in collecting and disseminating quality information which is essentially the same as that generated by Palestinian human rights groups such as the Palestine Human Rights Information Center and Al-Haq.

In the liberal as in the more radical spectrum, the women’s movement has made striking progress. Reshet — an organization emerging from the May 1989 Israeli-Palestinian women’s conference in Brussels — has successfully pushed a radical peace agenda into the Labor Party. One of their visits to Gaza in January 1990 was joined by the wife of Haim Bar-Lev (the 1967 chief of staff and hardline minister of police in the last three governments). Perhaps what she and the other women excluded from political life in Israel see might eventually make some difference to the exercise of male power.

Peace Now

Although it sometimes lapses into narcissism, Peace Now without doubt is the most important force in the peace movement. It might be slow in acting, but this is the group from which the mass of liberal opinion takes its cue. With its patriotic image, its contacts in the kibbutz movement, the Knesset and even the army, it has both credibility and mobilizing potential.

The puzzle is why — particularly since the signals from the November 1988 PNC conference — Peace Now has moved in such a sluggish way. The movement is like a slumbering giant; roused to action and then settling back into a prolonged stupor. Since the dramatically successful event of December 1989 — 20,000 people circling the walls of the Old City, brutal police tactics, charges by the right that Peace Now was financed by the PLO — there has been three months of silence.

This pattern has deep roots: the overall dilemmas of liberal Zionism; the fact that this must be the only peace movement in the world that is pro-American; the movement’s ambivalent relationship with the Labor Party. Perhaps, though, its caution will be vindicated. The truth is that more radical groupings are marginal — which is why Peace Now either ignores or patronizes them. Its ideological shift to the two-state package makes it more attractive now for refugees from more radical groups who have found no alternative homes (in the women’s movement or human rights work).

Peace Now would be more attractive if it did not relapse into postures that infuriate even its long-term supporters. The Peace Now march to commemorate two years of the intifada, for example, adopted the slogan of “134 Children Killed — Israeli and Palestinian,” with a poster of one Palestinian victim and one Jewish victim. This gives an absurd and morally disingenuous picture of symmetry. There would be no harm in acknowledging the truth that 129 of these 134 victims were Palestinian children. It would not have reduced in number the meager 2,000 who joined the march.

The Center

This small attendance was an index of a deeper malaise. All these progressive forces together — leftist and liberal, new and old, from the human rights field or the women’s movement — have reached their peak of active mobilization. The changes that the intifada produced on this constituency had already happened in its first year. Evaluations written more than a year ago need very little updating. [6]

The current pantomime being enacted by the mainstream political parties needs no elaboration here. This is not to disparage the significance of these moves. On the contrary, this is obviously the terrain — from somewhere in the center of the Labor Party to somewhere near the center of the Likud — where political change will have to come. Here is where 50-60 percent of the Jewish population is to be found — excluding, that is, radicals and active liberals on one side (perhaps 15 percent) and the lunatic right and the religious parties on the other (some 30 percent).

If the intifada has caused any deep ideological transformation in this population, it must be very deep indeed. On the surface — in the public rhetoric of the politicians who supposedly represent them — very little has changed. For them (and more explicitly the far right) the uprising is simply a new battle from the unfinished war of 1948 (which itself was just another expression of the Arab revolt of 1936). Only solitary mavericks like Ezer Weizmann have publicly articulated even an opening position acceptable to Palestinians. They continue to lie and to defend the indefensible. Power is with the right, which has not fractured along class or ethnic lines. There also should be no illusions that the religious bloc is a Trojan horse in the national camp, waiting for some medieval bigot to give the peace signal.

This is not to say that change is inconceivable. At the cognitive level, the ground is being laid for accepting an eventual settlement. On individual issues, posed in the disembodied sentences of public opinion polls, there have been real shifts which the elite refuses to register. Conditional willingness to negotiate with the PLO (three or four years ago the property of less than 20 percent of the Jewish population) has now gone up to 55 percent. Despite desperate government efforts, the demonization of the PLO is slowly being reversed. There is a total lack of hysteria and even admiration for freelancers like Abie Nathan who simply get on a plane to talk to Arafat. Such “adventurism” has more effect on public opinion than ten carefully planned demonstrations outside the prime minister’s office.

At this stage, though, we should not be looking for a change of heart. When white South Africans began to change, they did so in response to the sheer power of events. We can glibly make a list of those structural events that need to happen here — economic pressure and crisis, loss of Israeli lives, further international isolation, shifts in the agenda of the global powers — but I doubt whether we have the analytical tools to predict just what constellation is necessary. Our fate is framed by the eternal Middle Eastern triangle: in one corner, the Palestinian struggle itself; in the second, great-power interests, especially those of the US; in a third, those seismic changes in Israeli politics that I have mentioned here. Perhaps only someone standing outside this triangle can devise a good model to explain how these three corners act on each other.


[1] Mordechai Bar-On, “Israeli Reactions to the Uprising,” Journal of Palestine Studies 17 (Summer 1988), pp. 46-65.
[2] “The Psychology and Politics of Denial: The Case of Israeli Liberals,” paper given at Conference of Mental Health Workers for Peace, Jerusalem, May 1989, pp. 10-26.
[3] Daphna Golan, “The Military Judicial System in the West Bank” (Jerusalem: B’Tselem, November 1989).
[4] Stanley Cohen, “The Myth of the Rule of Law,” Jerusalem Post, January 23, 1989.
[5] See Avishai Margalit, “The Kitsch of Israel,” New York Review of Books, November 24, 1988.
[6] For example, Bar-On, op cit.; Edy Kaufman, “The Intifada and the Peace Camp in Israel,” Journal of Palestine Studies 17 (Summer 1988), pp. 66-81. See also the contributions on Israel in Zachary Lockman and Joel Beinin, eds., Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against Israeli Occupation (Boston: MERIP/South End Press, 1989).

How to cite this article:

Stanley Cohen "The Intifada in Israel," Middle East Report 164-165 (May/June 1990).

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