Democracy in Palestine/Israel: a feminist fight

Naama Nagar
10 May 2009


Generation X Feminists

I was invited to participate at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference on behalf of Generation X Feminists, a movement of Palestinian and Jewish feminists in Israel working to rejuvenate feminist leadership in the Left. I am traveling to Antigua from the USA, where I currently pursue my graduate studies, with two immediate objectives: mobilizing feminist movements from the world over to join the campaign for divestment from Israeli occupation; and raising support for New Profile, a feminist group in Israel which has recently become the target of McCarthyite state persecution.

Feminism – the New Leading Force within the Left in Israel

Generation X Feminists was formed in 2005 as a shared platform for feminist leaders in various Palestinian and Israeli women's peace and human rights groups. Soon afterwards, we were the first to get to the streets - especially in shell-striken-Haifa - in protest at the Israeli invasion of Lebanon during the 2006 fighting with Hizbullah. Leading a coalition of left organizations and parties which mobilized thousands to demonstrate, we eventually pressured the centrist peace groups such as Peace Now and Meretz to clearly condemn that military operation, and the ensuing public pressure resulted in the special committee investigations against the heads of state. A similar development repeated itself when Israel launched its massive attack on the Gaza strip in December last year. Parallel to mass demonstrations of Palestinian citizens in the north of the country, we were a driving force behind joint Jewish-Palestinian protests in Tel-Aviv-Jaffa and in the media.

To the foreign observer it may seem remarkable that feminist groups form the strongest voice in the extra-parliamentarian Left in Israel today. In fact, our unique standing is a result of both political changes in the national arena as well as trends and developments within feminist groups in the last few years. Ehud Barack's retreat from the Camp-David talks in 2000 signaled a sharp and swift right-wing shift of the Labor-led Left and left his party in shock from which it has not recovered, with its leadership swinging and constituencies dwindling, as clearly manifested again in the last national elections. With the rise of Sharonism and Libermanism uncontested by the shattered traditional Left, radical grassroots groups which took to the streets became the only noticeable opponents of the violent separation regime. Those included groups with a shorter life span such as Ta'ayush Arab-Jewish Partnership or the LGBTQI group Black Laundry, or their followers such as the Anarchists against the Wall . Among them, notoriously, have been many feminist groups and members of the Coalition of Women for Peace, including Women in Black, MachsomWatch, New Profile and others.

Among all those who work vehemently against the occupation, feminist groups are doing the most to build their power so as to intervene with formal political institutions. We do not contend from the margins, working as an underground-style group or exclusively through non-profits (NGOs); instead we constantly broaden our inter-organizational networks (as during the mobilization against the invasion of the Gaza strip), reach out to new constituencies (such as the Russian-speaking feminist movement F.O.R.A) and build stronger and sustainable democratic institutions and practices. Thus, for instance, in organizing the 2008 Feminist Conference in Israel we emphasized democracy and inclusion both in the topics discussed - the occupation, access to resources - and in format and organization, insisting fair representation for Palestinian, Mizrahi Jews, LGBTQI, former USSR migrants, periphery and different age groups.

I believe this sensitivity builds on our feminist approach which emphasizes internal power dynamics and identities in striking opposition to the center-left parties; consider, for instance, the inability of the Labor party to 'stomach' their underdog Mizrahi leader Amir Peretz, or the refusal of Meretz leader Oron to vacate his Knesset seat for Zehava Galon and to ensure representation for women and for feminist agendas. Surely, due to this effort we contain more internal tension than any other civic leftist group. Currently one of the major foci for disagreements is in the question of parliamentarian activity, with our Palestinian members linked more strongly to existing specific political parties while our Jewish members refuse to develop party allegiances. But we all understand that we cannot desert the parliamentary arena for long.

Feminists vs. State Violence

Perhaps a sad testimony to our success is found in the latest governmental chase after New Profile - a recognition of the central role we play in local and global resistance to the occupation. On April 26, 2009, police descended upon the homes of activists in the movement, detained and interrogated seven of them and confiscated personal computers. They were released on bail under the condition that they do not contact other members of the movement for 30 days, which is a clear attempt to paralyze the movement. Also raided were the offices of the The Center for the Defense of the Individual in East Jerusalem, an organization involved in legal support for Palestinians.

New Profile is a registered and recognized non-profit organization which acts openly and publicly for "civilization of society in Israel" and against "the undue influence of the military on daily life”. The group sees in the recent assault another sign for the militarism of Israeli society, which “undermines the sacred principles of democracy and freedom of expression” said their spokeswoman. The decision to open an investigation against New Profile was made known in Summer 2008, but it seems that the government has escalated its assault following the vocal and insistent opposition demonstrated by feminist groups during the attack on Gaza in January of this year, and perhaps the general attorney Mazuz is also seizing the opportunity of the rise of a rightist government to be 'tough' on the Left.

Trying to keep the 'Jewish and Democratic' house of cards intact, Mazuz - as do most mainstream liberals - chose to pick on the 'easy target': the non-violent radical left groups. Unfortunately the real danger to democracy sits safely in the new government which Mazuz serves; the Stanley Fisherist neoliberalism of Netanyahu, on one hand, and the outright Libermanist fascism, on the other. As feminists, we struggle for democracy both outwards - fighting the escalating repression of rights by the government - as well as in our own ways of organization and action. And while different leftists groups and parties attempt to reconfigure their constellations based on changes in personnel, the challenge faced by feminist groups is to work out what it will take for the Left to resurrect from its trauma if it is to really rebuild itself as a new leadership for the country.

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