‘An absolute deluge of repression’: The criminalization of dissent in Israel today

First published at LeftEast.

Tibor T. Meszmann interviews Matan Kaminer.

Can you describe what is going on, what are the positions and challenges for the Israeli left after October 7th, after the circles of violence intensified in both Israel and in the Occupied Territories? 

Whenever talking about the “Israeli left,” it’s important to begin by clarifying what is meant. For some people, especially on the Israeli right, “left” means anyone who is willing to reach any sort of accommodation with the Palestinians, and in recent years this has been stretched even further, to anyone – even if they are right-wing in any other sense of the word – who is opposed to the continued rule of Benjamin Netanyahu. But I take “left” in the sense in which it is used globally, to signify a commitment to civil equality and social justice. In this sense, most leftists in Israel are actually Palestinian citizens, who are represented most prominently in the Communist Party of Israel. Within Jewish-Israeli society, as in many parts of Eastern Europe, the left is quite small, and was politically marginal even before the war began.

The consistent left in Israel – Palestinian and Jewish – has unequivocally and vocally denounced the crimes committed by Hamas on October 7th, and has just as unequivocally opposed the savage war unleashed by Israel in the Gaza Strip, a war legitimized by genocidal rhetoric which has intentionally targeted civilians and led to the deaths of many thousands. Like everyone else, we on the Israeli left were taken by surprise on the 7th. Due to peculiarities of Israeli social geography that I won’t go into, leftists were over-represented among the victims of that violence – among the murdered that day was my comrade Hayim Katsman, as well as veteran activist Vivian Silver. But the events of that day have not changed our deeply held conviction that so long as the Palestinian people are not free, there can be no meaningful freedom or security for Israelis either.

How do peace activists and anti-militarist organisations interpret the situation? Do groups manage to express sophisticated analysis of the situation that also supports Palestinian self-determination? Are there tabled proposals and concrete actions, protests, initiatives?

It would be a bit tautological and facile to say that all consistent leftists support the position I have sketched above because that is the consistent left position. Certainly, there are many people who have been associated with the left in one way or another in the past who now claim to have been “sobered” by the Hamas attack, realizing the true nature of the enemy etc. I’m not sure how seriously to take these claims: to me they smack of opportunism. Consistent leftists are aware, of course, that Hamas is not in any way a left-wing organization. Like other Islamist movements in the Middle East, its rise to prominence is a result of the utter failure of the secular left, represented among Palestinians by parties like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). 

However, as anti-Stalinist leftists of the Cold War period knew well, but many in our generation seem to have forgotten, it is quite possible to support a national liberation struggle without supporting the political forces that happen to be leading it at any particular moment. As many commentators have pointed out, Hamas is not popular because Palestinians are particularly interested in an Islamic state. It is popular because it is perceived as the only political force that is mounting a serious challenge to Israeli occupation and apartheid – a stark contrast with the collaborationism of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas. Hence, the only meaningful way of countering Hamas’ emerging hegemony in the Palestinian street is by articulating a position that is forcefully opposed to the occupation, and of course to the current war, while offering an alternative vision of a country where people of different nationalities and religions can live in peace and equality. 

As for proposals, this is not a moment at which we can offer detailed blueprints for the future. For the past several weeks, the cry of the moment has been “Ceasefire now!” and now that a temporary ceasefire is in effect, the call is to extend it and to secure the release of all prisoners and hostages on both sides. “All of them for all of them” is the slogan raised by the families of the hostages (Hebrew) – and it is quite a radical slogan, an inherently abolitionist one, to borrow a North American term. In addition, there is a case to be made for continued engagement with the popular movement against Netanyahu’s government, although much of that movement has continued on the militaristic and even jingoistic path that it took before the war, arguing that the government rather than the military is responsible for the Hamas attack, etc.

What are the stances of the government and police towards pacifist protesters and expressions of support for Palestinian self determination? How is pro Palestinian expression being defined as pro-terrorist and are there other forms of protest (e.g. antifascist for one) that are being targeted as well? 

On this front the situation has taken a serious turn for the worse since the war began. The left has been marginalized for many years, and for the Palestinian citizenry the security services have always lurked menacingly in the background, in the education system for example. Palestinian parliamentarians have been sent to prison on political charges, and others have had to go into exile. But as opposed to the Occupied Territories, which are under military rule, within Israel it has been possible to protest: individually, on social media and in everyday interactions, as well as in organized ways, in the street.

Since the war began, there has been an absolute deluge of repression, mostly targeting Palestinian citizens of Israel but extending to Jewish dissidents as well. Hundreds of people, if not more, have been fired, suspended from studies, doxxed, and physically menaced for making statements as mild as “there are children in Gaza,” and the police in particular has made a spectacle of publishing humiliating mugshots of such nefarious “perpetrators,” many of whom are young Palestinian women. The police, under the control of the fascist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, has also made no bones about its intolerance towards protest, with its head threatening to put anti-war protestors “on a bus to Gaza.” Four prominent Palestinian politicians were detained for attempting to attend a vigil, and a solidarity protest the same evening in Tel Aviv, which I attended, was broken up with brutal violence that I haven’t seen within Israel before.

After the High Court of Justice forced its hand, the police allowed an anti-war demonstration to take place in Tel Aviv on November 18th. The demonstration itself, which the police decreed would take place in a fenced-off enclosure, in a park near the beach, not a very central location, went off okay, though counter-protestors blared music to try to drown the speakers out. After the demo ended, though, some of these counter-protestors came very close to beating demonstrators, including my mother, who is not a young woman. The police responded very reluctantly; needless to say, there were no arrests made.

Finally, I would like to go into a bit more detail about the repression in academia, both because this is where I work but also because I genuinely believe that it has a real role in inculcating ideologies, which can be either progressive or regressive. Obviously the right believes this, or it wouldn’t target critical academics, something that it has been doing for years. Academia for Equality, a membership organization in which I am active, has made protecting academics and students from such repression one of its major goals. But since the war began, we have had to face an avalanche of attacks, recorded in a report by our comrade Yara Shahin-Gharable. Perhaps the most visible of these acts was when the leadership of the Hebrew University, where I work, mounted an attack on a tenured professor, Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, for signing a statement which called the offensive on Gaza genocidal. Because they can’t fire her, they “called on her to resign” in the media and then in an email to the entire university community.

How do you see the public discussion, and the level and quality of media reporting? What are the key and-or critical points? 

The current state of public discourse in Israel is dismal. In the public sphere things have perhaps improved slightly from the first days of the war, when genocidal talk was everywhere, but there are still signs hanging from balconies in Tel Aviv saying “The image of victory: Zero residents in Gaza,” and the like. Most of the media has been very much complicit in this bloodthirsty discourse of revenge. The major exceptions are the independent website Local Call/+972, and the venerable liberal newspaper Haaretz, which has excellent coverage of the war, but these reach a comparatively small audience. But even in Haaretz the dominant tone of the op-ed pages is one of endless whingeing about the so-called betrayal of the international pro-Palestine left, a pose which my comrade Itay Snir has skewered (Hebrew).

What light does the perspective from inside Israel cast on the global strategy of the Palestine solidarity movement? Are there particular issues the movement should be paying closer attention to?

I think the global left, and the Palestine solidarity movement in particular, still has to come to terms with what took place on October 7th. The violence which Israel has exercised since then, though immensely intensified, is essentially similar to the kind of violence it has meted out against the Palestinians for decades. This is the psychopathically instrumental “rationality” analyzed by the Frankfurt School, the “rationality” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which the “clean” taking of civilian lives, from the air, is justified by the claim that any other path would have caused the loss of more lives, or of lives that matter more. But October 7th was, to my mind, something quite new. It was a complicated and confusing combination of three things: a stunning, imaginative military upset, undertaken by an obvious underdog against a hubristic Goliath; a strategically understandable, if morally reprehensible, hostage-taking campaign; and a monstrous outbreak of sadistic, pogromistic violence, which took the lives of hundreds of defenseless civilians, including babies and old people, and included desecration of corpses, mass sexual violence, and other obscenities. It is not precisely the same as the anti-colonial violence of the 20th century, which was analyzed so trenchantly by Fanon; there is something unprecedented about it, and it will take time to catch up intellectually.

As I’ve already mentioned, the more nuanced approach to national liberation wars of previous generations on the left has been replaced in some quarters by a simplistic Manichaeanism, such that any criticism of Hamas is considered tantamount to support for Israel. According to the people espousing this stance, “this is what decolonization looks like,” so if you have any problem with it, you must be against decolonization. This binarism should be familiar to Eastern European leftists, who have been told repeatedly that any criticism of elements of Ukraine’s war effort is equivalent to support for the Russian invasion. Sophisticated writers, including many at LeftEast, have rejected this logic, and it is possible to do the same with regard to Hamas. It in no way detracts from the justice of the Palestinian cause – in fact, it strengthens it – when that cause is carefully distanced from atrocities committed in its name.

In Eastern Europe, where the largest genocide in history was perpetuated against Jews (and others), this clarity is particularly important. The Palestine solidarity movement has generally been quite good at differentiating opposition to Israel from hatred of Jews and anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism. But since the Nazi Holocaust, and even more so since the exodus of post-Soviet Jewry in the 1990s, Israel has become the largest center of Jewish life in the world, besides the US. Today most Jews have some sort of personal or family connection to Israel, and this is particularly true of Eastern European Jews. Hence, in the region there is but a small distance between legitimation of violence against Israeli civilians and legitimation of violence against local Jews, and this distance can be leapt over with alarming speed – as we saw with the events in Dagestan. In Eastern Europe in particular, leftists should make it crystal-clear that solidarity with Palestinians in no way entails hostility towards Jews or Israelis as individuals or as communities. Rather, we should make it plain that the only way to achieve lasting security for Palestinians and Israelis – but given what a powder keg the region is, for the whole world really – is to fight for Palestinian liberation.

Matan Kaminer is a political activist and anthropologist. He has been active in the Israeli conscientious objection movement and Palestine solidarity work, in national and municipal electoral politics, and in organizing with migrants and refugees. He has a PhD from the University of Michigan, with a dissertation on settler-farmers and migrant farm-workers from Thailand in Israel’s Arabah region, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows, Hebrew University. Matan is a member of the board of Academia for Equality, an organization for the democratization of Israeli academia and society, and of LeftEast’s editorial board.

Tibor T. Meszmann is a researcher at the Central European Labor Studies Institute, Bratislava,  alumni member of Public Sociology Working Group “Helyzet”, Budapest, and editorial board member of LeftEast.  His research is at the border of the interdisciplinary areas of industrial relations and sociology of work.