A Historic Junction

A Historic Junction

The Israeli left after October 7.

A pro-ceasefire protest in Tel Aviv, Israel, on December 9, 2023 (Mostafa Alkharouf/Andalou via Getty Images)

After more than two months of intensive bombardment, Israel’s war in Gaza continues to exact a terrible human toll. As of this writing, Israeli forces have killed close to 20,000 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians. According to the United Nations, roughly 1.8 million people, or 80 percent of Gaza’s population, have been internally displaced since the war’s start. Within Israel, an atmosphere of tension, fear, and anger prevails. Massive billboards and banners draped across high-rises announce, “Together, We Will Win.” Civilians and uniformed soldiers alike walk the streets armed with M-16s. Yet discontent with the government’s conduct of the war has also begun to simmer. Hamas and other Palestinian factions continue to hold at least 120 Israelis hostage, but the Benjamin Netanyahu administration often refers to returning them as only a secondary priority. Against this backdrop, and despite mounting repression, left-wing Israeli organizers and anti-occupation activists have begun to return to the streets. Their demand: a ceasefire and a deal to free all the hostages. On December 6, I spoke with three left-wing Israeli activist-thinkers about the challenges facing the Israeli left right now. —Joshua Leifer

Joshua Leifer: How have things changed for Israeli leftists since October 7? How has the political map shifted?

Yael Berda: Today, there is going to be a small protest in front of the Kirya [the headquarters of the Israeli army’s general staff], under the banner of “stop the war.” I’ve been wanting to do this for at least a month. At first it was hard to find the courage to do it, then it was hard to find partners. I’m hoping it will be twenty, maybe thirty people. It’ll be a huge win, for a few reasons.

One is that there was a huge clampdown that began immediately after October 7, on [the left-wing activist and civics teacher] Meir Baruchin. He was arrested for four days. He was really mistreated, and charged with treason, for putting up pictures of Gazan children. It felt like leftists could not express sorrow or pain for people—civilians—in Gaza. That’s changed in the last two weeks. You’re allowed to express pain, but you still can’t be against the war.

I was speaking with a very good friend and fellow activist about a protest. I said to him, “So what if we get arrested? So what if the right-wingers hit us? We’ve done this before. We know how to deal with it.” And he said, “What’s so hard for me is being looked at by everyone as some wacko.” The sense of being so lonely, so weird, so misunderstood, and so illegitimate—this, to me, is new.

We currently have an authoritarian government. The material difficulty is real. But something is also happening in people’s minds. They can’t bear the social pressure.

Sally Abed: Standing Together has rallies across the country every three to five days. We’re mobilizing people. We’re trying to find a loophole to be able to protest safely; we’re literally renting wedding venues for our meetings. Jewish leftists have come to me, bawling, and saying, “Thank you for making us feel seen.”

We’re at a very dark place in Israel. It really feels like we’re fighting over the soul of the society. As a socialist Palestinian in Israel, if you asked me two months ago what my strategy for the next three years was to build a new left in Israel, I would have told you it was working around social justice issues, economic issues—and really trying to reach the peripheries. That has completely changed. The new Israeli left that we need to build from the ashes has a completely new mission. October 7 has created a historic junction, where the main question will be peace or no peace. I don’t think “peace” is going to be the word, but the next elections are going be on this issue. And it hasn’t been the issue for so many years.

Eli Cook: I went to the big protests on Kaplan [the street in Tel Aviv that became synonymous with the demonstrations against the judicial overhaul plan] almost every week earlier this year. Those were neoliberal protests—pretty conservative, or status-quo oriented. But I could come every week with my anti-occupation shirt and march. There was not a single time where I got shit for that. We thought, “We’re a legitimate fringe, but we’re part of the group.” But I definitely agree with Yael that this is no longer the case.

Since the end of the last ceasefire in late November, there has been a slight change, where you can now, at least a little bit, recognize the suffering in Gaza. But it’s very hard. I will say, though, that the protests to free the hostages have given Israelis on the left a way to say, “End the war,” or, “Ceasefire,” or, “Let’s find another way to talk about wiping out Hamas that doesn’t require wiping out half of Gaza”—while still saying, “Let’s bring the Israelis home,” which I fully believe, too. For me, at least, there has been a place where I can go to hear people who aren’t even leftists saying, “Everyone for everyone”—make a full hostage trade, and just end this part of the fighting.

A lot of polls show that Israelis have moved to the right. But the same polls showed that Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] is done, and that most people are going to vote for Benny Gantz. I’m not saying that Gantz is some radical leftist, but I do think that there is something there.

At the same time, there has been further regression. When Israel “disengaged” from the Gaza Strip [in 2005], the real leftists were always saying that this could not be a one-sided disengagement—that this had to come with some kind of negotiation with the Palestinian Authority, otherwise it was just going to create a situation where it strengthened Hamas and hurt the moderates. And that’s exactly what has happened. Yet the mainstream Israeli narrative has become, “What do you want from us? We left Gaza and you still did this.”

Leifer: I want to ask about the protests to free the hostages. From afar, they are often the only representation many people see of dissent in Israel about how the war is being conducted. To what extent do you all feel that the zero-sum nature of the war goals is understood by the rest of Israeli society? That totally bombarding and destroying Gaza and returning the rest of the hostages are mutually exclusive aims? Is that a potential line of dissent that might be effective? Or are the calls for war too loud?

Berda: We do see people going out to these protests. That is the only point of light that we have, as leftists. We have to capitalize on it. The government has no plan to actually bring the hostages back without a ceasefire. They don’t have a plan that entails concern for the safety of the hostages, or of all Israelis. The protests for the hostages are by people who are “for life,” versus people who are “for death.” But the government does have a plan, which is Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s “decisive plan” [which entails the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza and the expulsion of Palestinians who resist]. And they have a plan to put settlements in Gaza. That is the only plan on the table.

Cook: Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I’m not sure, in the end, the plan is to have settlements in Gaza. In a strategic sense, there is no plan. The people making these decisions are politicians. It’s all very superficial and cynical. I think Netanyahu’s goal is to capture Yahya Sinwar [the head of Hamas in Gaza] and have his Saddam Hussein moment. Netanyahu will do anything for that moment, no matter the costs.

About the hostages: it feels like Israelis have managed to separate two parts of their brain. They want to bomb all these different areas in Gaza, but they also want to bring the hostages home. That disconnect is disconcerting. We’ve also heard that the offer from Hamas for a ceasefire was on the table from the middle of October. But the narrative in Israel is that Hamas would never have given up the women and children if Israel hadn’t done what it did in northern Gaza. A lot of people probably believe that to be true. But serious journalists say this isn’t the case.

Abed: The official narrative is that because of the casualties, civil society in Gaza will eventually convince Hamas to give up. Think how distorted this way of thinking is. In Israel, we are part of a public that has been protesting for ten months, in a regime where you do have freedom of speech and association to a high degree, and we still did not succeed in ousting the government. So the idea that people can overthrow Hamas because Israel is bombing them—in what world does that happen? Yet that’s how Israeli officials are justifying the killing of civilians.

Berda: For decades, Israel has been going through a very methodological process of engineering public perception of Palestinians as subhumans. While you can’t completely escape the reality of what’s happening in Gaza because of social media, the Israeli public is barely exposed to the atrocities being committed. On Channel 14 [a rough equivalent to Fox News], which is now the second-most watched channel, you see counters of how many “terrorists” have been killed, and that includes all the casualties—all the children and all the women.

As leftists, we are fighting this big machine. It’s not even about fake news, but about how the public perceives this whole thing, which is so detached from the reality for Palestinians, and so detached from our interests as an Israeli public. It’s going to take a lot of work to shift this paradigm. It’s very discouraging to me, but my survival mechanism is, “How do we change that?” Because I can’t accept it. We need to understand how we can overcome the urge to morally lecture the Israeli public, and, at the same time, how we can understand their emotional state. But it’s also really tough to give people a completely different set of information, a different perception of life, of our reality.

Leifer: There’s an argument happening in the international left that goes something like this: The Israeli left is marginal. Israeli society has become so militarized and indifferent to Palestinian pain that it doesn’t make sense, strategically, to engage with Israeli leftists. But it seems, at least to me, that if there is going to be any change within Israel, it’s going to require people like you organizing and changing public opinion. What happens, though, if the left abroad totally writes off the left in Israel?

Abed: So many people are now saying, “It’s the progressives that are the problem,” which is pretty unbelievable. That plays right into the right-wing narrative. I see the effects of this in academia—like the idea that postcolonialism is antisemitic now. There are Israeli academics who are saying they have “awakened” from postcolonial theory, and they’re no longer going to use it. This sort of “awakening” is happening across the board.

To me, the key question is, can we change this place? Is it possible? Or is it too far gone? One of the problems with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign is that it assumes that Israeli society can’t change. And by assuming that it can’t change, important conversations between Israelis and Palestinians don’t happen anymore. The situation becomes worse.

Still, why are people spending time on what the international left says? We have to stop a war, to save people, to save the country from an authoritarian overhaul, from a total decimation of social services. We have work to do. The last thing I have to do with my time is sit and fight with some idiot far away. What are your stakes in this? Do you want people to live, or do you want people to die? What is life-giving? What is legitimizing more death? What is creating polarization that we can’t come back from? We have so much to do; it’s impossible to engage on all fronts.

Cook: I don’t think Israel is especially pathological. But I’m very critical of Israelis’ inability to see the other side. Politically, I try to present pragmatic arguments to Israelis, rather than moralizing ones. One of the really crucial points that I’ve been trying to make is that the tack that Israel has taken, with a tremendous number of civilian casualties, is playing right into Hamas’s hands. Even on the most practical level, this is a misguided policy.

In the last few years, I also think the Israeli left has been talking past a lot of the American left. I could tweet something like, “The occupation needs to end,” and all these people in America will be like, “Yeah, the occupation needs to end”—only I didn’t realize that when they talk about the occupation, they mean everything, and I was talking about leaving the settlements in the West Bank. I do think that is a challenge.

Yael made the suggestion that “progressive-bashing” plays into the hands of the right wing, and I totally agree with that. But we’re also seeing how much the Israeli public has been lapping up the images of the radical left from all over the world. These images really damage the left within Israel. The right says, “You see? They’re not talking about peace, they’re not talking about living side by side. They’re talking about ‘From the river to the sea.’” I think when they see Palestinian flags and only Palestinian flags, it’s like, “Oh, this is just nationalism. It’s a war between my flag and your flag.”

Obviously, this isn’t everyone. But I do hope that there is a moment after this war ends when we have a real deep discussion with the American left on what exactly our goals are for the future. There are times when I feel there is a blurring of lines between Israel proper and the occupation. This blurring of lines is something the Israeli right has worked on for so many years: their argument is that there is no difference between the settler from an outpost south of Hebron [in the occupied West Bank] who is attacking Palestinians and burning their olive groves and the leftie Israeli Jew from Haifa who sends his kid to a bilingual school. I teach at the University of Haifa, and it’s not perfect; there’s a lot of fucked-up shit within the Green Line. But there is a big difference between that and what happens in the occupied territories.

Abed: We already are having discussions. I don’t know if it’s enough. I have done at least five briefings for over forty different organizations in the United States, including people from Black Lives Matter, Sunrise, and IfNotNow.

The Palestinian liberation movement is trying to tell us something very important. And I would never want to discredit or judge what is happening there. The anger is very real. The collective trauma is very real. Most of my fights are actually with people in the Palestinian diaspora who are living in these theorized fantasies of liberation.

Palestinian liberation has been severely discredited, delegitimized, and silenced for decades. We need to understand that this explosion in popularity now is related to this. Still, what are you actually trying to do? I want to be righteous, but we can’t afford only to be righteous. I want to be as angry as I actually am, publicly. But we don’t have the privilege to do that.

People ask me, what about the refugees? What about historic justice? As a Palestinian in Israel, I hold that responsibility for the collective liberation of Palestinians. And I believe this should lead us into a solution-oriented ceasefire. We need to stop the very immediate violent oppression. But a refugee in Michigan actually got to me. He said, “I will never engage in any conversation about peace with Israelis if we don’t resolve the issue of the right of return.” I didn’t express anger with him, because I understand where he’s coming from. But what are the kids in Gaza saying right now? You think that’s their urgent message?

Our mission needs to be building political will. And to do that you need to understand and acknowledge the critical role of Israeli society. Out of self-interest. Out of acknowledging the power differential. Without building the political will within Israeli society, there won’t be liberation. There won’t be peace. So, then, what is your messaging? Who are you trying to convince? Who’s your audience, and what’s your mission?

Berda: I worked with A Land for All [which proposes a two-state confederation model] for many years. The right of return is a very important factor. You asked, do you think the kid in Gaza thinks about these things? Of course, you know this better than I do. And it’s true that for most Israelis, the right of return, “from the river to the sea,” is an image of total annihilation. But in reality, there are multiple meanings. We can all have democracy and all live here.

Abed: But we don’t have the privilege for complex conversations right now. As community organizers, we don’t have that privilege.

Berda: I’m just saying not to forget that there are people trying to make other people more afraid than they already are: those who are constantly mobilizing October 7 and all the horrors again and again, to make sure that no one can have any belief in humanity. We have to notice and challenge that. This is not about moral lecturing, but about being willing to be critical. We need the critique and also the compassion.

Abed: I experience this every day. It’s possible, but it’s very complex. Organizing is very different than public narrative.

Berda: Yes. I’m trying to talk about the right of return, and to tell people that the Gaza Strip was created in 1948; it’s a Nakba creation. That people there speak of the right of return as part of their narrative. What does this mean? Does this mean that there’s going to be a forever war? Or is there a possibility to address this? Can we imagine a different life? Can we imagine how other people think? People in Israel will tell you, “My heart is closed. I have no empathy. I can’t listen.” And they mean it. Their hearts really are closed. They really can’t listen. But then the question is how to say something that tells them: first of all, you’re safe. Which the international left is not interested in telling Israelis.

Abed: I always say that Palestinian liberation necessitates Jewish safety, and vice versa. And I say it to both sides. You’re pro-Israel? You need to liberate Palestinians. You’re pro-Palestinian? You need to talk about Jewish safety. It’s much bigger than the hostages. It’s a much bigger shift in conception. It’s a very simple equation, and I repeat it like crazy. It is the basis of the new left that needs to emerge. When you talk about peace and ending the occupation, it’s related to that very deep, existential interest and need.

Leifer: How are conversations like the ones we’re having being translated into practical politics? As we’ve mentioned, the next election won’t be just a “yes Bibi,” “no Bibi” vote. At the same time, public discourse seems to have moved rightward in an extreme way—yet there are also moments where you’ll hear surprising comments by newscasters and analysts who say, “There needs to be a political solution to this, the status quo can’t continue.”

Maybe there will be some cracks of light, but at the same time there’s so little formalized organization right now. Labor and Meretz are functionally nonexistent; Hadash is doing important work, and it still has representatives, and maybe the Joint List [an alliance of four Arab-majority parties] can resurrect itself again. Yet none of this adds up to much. How do you deal with the lack of political options when the need for something to change is so great? Is this the last chance to make the case to the broader Israeli public that the occupation-management paradigm can’t continue?

Cook: Many people agree that you can no longer manage the conflict the way you did. There’s been a lot of criticism of Netanyahu and his choice throughout his entire political career to support Hamas, to prop them up in order to never allow there to be a viable Palestinian Authority that could reach a two-state solution. As horrible as it is to say, I’m guessing the chances of some kind of solution emerging now are higher than they were on October 6. Before that, Israelis believed, “We can go on like this forever. We’ll just manage the occupation. We’re not really paying any price for it.” But it’s going to take people who are politically brave enough to stand up and push for that compromise.

If you had told me before October 7 that something as horrible as this would happen, I would have expected a civil war between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis. While there has been a clampdown, that hasn’t happened. Even on mainstream TV, there is an understanding that Hamas went for everyone—that they weren’t just trying to kill Jews. Some people have begun to say that maybe we need to get rid of the Nation-State law [which entrenched the definition of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state]. [Arab-Israeli politician] Mansour Abbas is beloved now in certain Israeli circles. That’s a sign that we can build a coalition. Things are not going to be the same as they were. There is going to be a vacuum for a political alternative, and we need to fill that vacuum with hope and constructive ideas. We also really need Donald Trump not to win the election in 2024.

Berda: One thing I was hearing from a lot of young people even before October 7, during the protests against the judicial overhaul, was that they have to enter into civil service, to be part of government and policymaking. That standing around and hating what’s happening and being silent about it, as many did for the last twenty years, is not going to work. We were seeing, in a way, the radicalization of the military, the radicalization of the civil service. People have realized things about the occupation in the West Bank that they ignored before.

Some days, I wake up in the morning and think, “How am I going get a job in the United States and get my kids out of this hellhole?” And the next day, I wake up and think, “Should I go into politics? Would anybody hear what I have to say?” I have a thousand ties to this place. But there are other people that don’t. We’ve seen a leftist drain; we must find a way to retain people, and the only way we do that is by having hope.

Jewish-Arab partnership is a good model to have right now, even if it’s conditioned, even if it’s depoliticized, even if it’s not socialist. I do think it will enable us to model the left that we want. It will open the space for us not to be on the margins. And when I say “us,” I mean the left that is socialist, progressive, Jewish and Palestinian, talking about peace, the occupation, social justice, and welfare. It’s very important that a strong socialist party, or two, comes up with a rebuilding agenda in favor of safety and life. It’s going to take a lot of time. I think we all feel very lonely. At the same time, I am OK with the fact that Meretz and Labor do not exist anymore. We’re not rehabilitating something. We’re building something new.

Cook: Many Israelis now understand that Hamas could do what it did because security forces were diverted to the West Bank to protect settlers. The narrative that settlements don’t give you security has been at the core of the Israeli left’s position since the very beginning. So, to me, there’s a little crack that has been pushed open, and we need to take advantage of that. The fanatics in the West Bank and the radical settlers and the people who want to set the Middle East on fire—they are a huge threat to everyone in Israel.

Leifer: What is the possibility of a return to much more intense protests if Netanyahu decides not to resign?

Cook: I can definitely imagine a situation, if and when the war ends, where it will be hard for Netanyahu to leave his house. There is so much anger. especially from people whose families were killed or kidnapped. These people will have a moral authority among mainstream Israelis.

Abed: The amount of hate and anger people have toward Netanyahu—it’s going to explode.

Berda: I wish that I was as optimistic as both of you. I believe that they’re cooking a civil war. And I believe that they’re going to fight to the death. I want to be wrong about this; I want this to be too apocalyptic. But I am not sure that he’s going to go by democratic means.

Sally Abed is a member of the national leadership at Standing Together, the largest Jewish-Arab grassroots movement in Israel. She is the co-host of Groundwork, a podcast series about Palestinians and Jews refusing to accept the status quo and working to change it.

Yael Berda is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Hebrew University.

Eli Cook is an associate professor of history at the University of Haifa.

Joshua Leifer is a member of the Dissent editorial board. His first book, Tablets Shattered: The End of an American Jewish Century and the Future of Jewish Life, will be published later this year.

Correction: An earlier version of this roundtable misattributed a quote from Sally Abed to Yael Berda.