When It Comes to Protest: K.I.S.S.
With the anti-judicial reform protest demonstrations continuing well into its fourth month (except for last week’s Gaza campaign respite), more and more voices are being heard that call for adding “The Occupation” to the protest, arguing that there can’t be true democracy ruling over another people. Big mistake. Actually, two big mistakes!
As a longstanding researcher of Israeli protest (my book on the subject was published in 1990: Stiff-Necked People, Bottle-Necked System, Indiana U Press), I can authoritatively state that if there is one thing that will guarantee the failure of an ongoing protest campaign, it is piggybacking disparate subjects into one demonstration grab-bag. As in all good marketing campaigns, the operative approach here has to be K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid.
There are a few reasons for this. First, given the broad “market audience” – in our case, the very wide political center, including moderate Right-wingers – any additional topic will not add many new protesters to the mass movement, but will certainly push lots away. And given that “numbers” are a key element in protest success, more (topics) is less (support). This is certainly the case if the secondary issue is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Second, once other issues are brought in, there’s no reason to stop there. Why not a very important third? The cost-of-living is definitely near the top of Israelis’ concerns these days, but then inevitably there will be demands to add a fourth and fifth issue to the pot, guaranteeing a fractured protest campaign.
Third, the issue of Israel’s “Occupation” has been on the country’s public agenda for many decades. Protest campaigns only work when they address a “hot” topic – something new that pops up out of nowhere (e.g., the first Lebanon War Sabra Shatilla catastrophe), or a problem festering for years without governmental attention (the 1971 Black Panther riots around neglect of poor Mizrahim; the 2011 “cottage cheese” demonstrations over the high cost of living), or a new, controversial policy being pushed by the government (the present Judicial Reform program). Even democracy’s most fervent supporters don’t have the mental wherewithal to protest on an ongoing basis regarding issues that have been around for a long time – precisely because democracies have elections (and parliamentary lobbying) for that purpose.
Which brings us to the second type of mistake in trying to add the “Occupation” to the protest campaign. Here the claim that as long as Israel “occupies” Palestinian land, it cannot be called a “democracy”. This is patently false. Perhaps one can define such a state (of affairs) as “flawed democracy”, but democratic it certainly is.
The error in claiming otherwise is typical of Left-Liberal ideologues: if it isn’t “perfect” then it’s “nothing”. This is called “utopian thinking”, and for those not familiar with the original Latin meaning of the word “Utopia”, it has two denotations: 1- the Ideal world; 2- a world that does not exist. And indeed, there has never been a utopian (perfect) democracy – not in ancient Athens (slaves; no suffrage for women), not in the earlier modern era (imperial, colonial Great Britain), and not even in the contemporary world (highly gerrymandered US Congressional districts; an electoral college that sporadically enables the presidential candidate with fewer votes to be elected).
Each country has its democratic flaws – and certainly there is need (even an obligation) for civic-minded people to rectify such flaws. However, not only do they almost always disagree on which “flaws” should be addressed first, but many times they cannot even agree about which are to be considered “flaws” in the first place or what to do about them. The judicial reform issue is good example: Israel’s Right-wing views the present judicial structure as being imbalanced and in need of immediate rectification whereas the Left-Center see any such imbalance (if it exists at all) as being of minor importance compared to other more burning issues.
None of this is to say that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict doesn’t need attention. However, politics being what it is, one cannot overload the political system with too many simultaneous issues – in principle, and certainly when a national budget has to be passed, when violent crime is running rampant in Israel’s Arab sector, and when the present government is mortgaging Israel’s economic future through huge transfers to the Haredi sector without any “core curriculum” concessions that would guarantee a future of productive workers emerging from this sector as well.
In sum, piling more issues on to the present protest campaign is a sure way of “kissing” its success goodbye.