Interview with Alon-Lee Green, Israeli social and political activist

“We put forward a holistic worldview, one that sees the interrelations between the ongoing occupation of Palestinian Territories, the growing social and economic disparities within the Israeli society, and the attacks by the government on democratic freedoms and on the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

Maxime Benatouil (co-director of transform! europe): What triggered the launching of the Standing Together (ST) initiative? Did the inability of the Left to mobilise play a role in the setting up of the initiative?
Alon-Lee Green*: In the Autumn of 2015, a violent escalation swept across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Every day we heard news about Palestinian teens being shot and injured, sometimes killed, by Israeli soldiers, while numerous stabbings and attacks were also carried out against Israeli citizens, creating an atmosphere of fear and despair among both peoples. The Israeli government kindled the fire, allowing the army and the settlers to unleash massive violence against the Palestinian population, while at the same time – also inciting racism towards the Arab-Palestinian citizens of State of Israel (a minority of around 20% of the population, living within the 1967 borders).
Facing the mounting violence, the existing organizations of the Left had a very limited impact on public discourse, let alone willingness or ability to mobilize in large numbers in response to the deteriorating situation. Therefore, a small grassroots initiative got together in October 2015 to organize a Jewish-Arab rally in Jerusalem, taking up the temporary name ‘Standing Together’. We were Jewish and Arab activists from various left political parties, human rights NGOs, as well as many independents. We chose Jerusalem especially because the city’s political life was dominated by right-extremist groups (who violently target anyone who speaks Arabic in the streets, etc.), and also because the divided city – with East Jerusalem being a territory occupied during the 1967 war – was symbolic for our message of standing together not only for equality and against racism within the Israeli society, but also against the occupation and for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The demonstration was very successful, attracting a crowd of 2,000 protestors, who marched in the city center, under the threat of a right-extremist counter-demonstration. We continued holding Jewish-Arab rallies throughout Israel under the title of ‘Standing Together’, both in the Arab-Bedouin town of Rahat, in the Southern Negev desert, and also in the city of Haifa, in the North. All these demos attracted significant crowds, who rallied under the banner of Jewish-Arab unity and symphatized with our optimistic message of hope.
During the course of these first weeks, it was clear to us that there is an urgent need not just for an ad-hoc framework which merely responds to developments, but rather for a public movement that takes the initiative and sets an agenda; not for a one-dimensional action group which focuses on a single issue, but rather for a movement that connects the dots; a movement that will be the home of all those forces and people in Israel who wish to build a different society, and believe it is possible.
You simultaneously put forward the principles of peace, equality and social justice in your political action and mobilising work. Is this articulation of issues part of your DNA as a grassroots initiative / political movement? Or did it require some serious thinking to get to this level of intersectionality?
A.-L.G.: We view ‘Standing Together’ as a grassroots initiative which aims at building a broad Jewish-Arab movement for a Left Alternative, one that is grounded in the principles of peace, equality and social justice. We put forward a holistic worldview, one that sees the interrelations between the ongoing occupation of Palestinian Territories, the growing social and economic disparities within Israeli society, and the attacks by the government on democratic freedoms and on the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Our insistence on the intersectionality of issues comes from the analysis that we developed pretty early on, about the all-round crisis of Israeli society. Every time a new round of bloodletting erupts, and we hear the claims that wars and occupation is an ever present reality, that we will forever live by the sword – it is an expression of this crisis. Every time a politician dares to make racist statements, that in the past would have been considered unacceptable, yet it goes by without protest – it is an expression of this crisis. Every time the government ignores a social protest movement that sweeps across a large portion of society – it is an expression of this crisis. And every time that those who support a just and equal future feel anger over the deterioration of our society, yet don’t believe we have the ability to change, and therefore give up – it is an expression of this crisis.
Therefore, we believe that not only our political system but also those existing forces who are supposed to change society – are all in a state of crisis. Those who thought that our problems are centered just around the occupation, wars, and lack of personal safety – learned that our society sinks deeper into poverty, into aggravating social maladies, and its natural resources are being robbed; those who thought that the problem is just poverty – discovered that the disease of racism is becoming ever more dangerous, and that the incitement grows towards the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and other communities – immigrants from the former USSR, immigrants from Ethiopia, the LGBT community, Mizrahi Jews; and those who thought that the political persecutions and the anti-democratic legislation is only the problem of the minorities – learned that they are eventually aimed against all of us.
We believe this crisis is not a fait acompli. We believe our society, our politics, and our reality can be brought into an entirely different place: We can achieve a peace based on justice and independence for both of our peoples; We can create social and environmental justice; We can bring about an equal society, without national, ethnic or gender-based discrimination. But in order to change our reality, it is not enough to create ad-hoc formations, that are assembled anew every time another danger appears. In order to change reality, we must build a broad movement, based on a Socialist world outlook, that can express a left-wing political current, to present a complete vision of change and to work towards achieving it.
What are the movements forthcoming priorities and actions?
A.-L.G.: During the past year, we have organized many activities and events throughout the country. Some of these were of an organizational character, aimed at serving the purpose of movement-building (activities such as local circle meetings, public talks and presentations, internal discussion seminars, etc.). Other were protests and demonstrations, aimed at mobilizing masses of people around specific demands, often through partnership with other organizations.
One of the highlights of our activity – which we plan to continue in the future – are the monthly Israeli-Palestinian peace demonstrations we organize in the occupied West Bank, under the title of ‘Freedom Marches’. These monthly demonstrations are organized jointly with ‘Combatants for Peace’, attract a crowd of hundreds who march alongside the Separation Wall, and end in a rally with speeches in Hebrew and Arabic, usually around a certain specific current theme, chosen for that particular monthly demonstration – for example: supporting the hunger strike of the Palestinian prisoners, access to clean water supply in the Palestinian villages, against the demolitions in the Jordan Valley, etc. (See: Jerusalem Post).
One of our priorities is defending democratic rights, against attacks by the right-wing government and the right-extremist groups. When one of these groups, ‘Im Tirtzu’, launched a smear campaign against ‘Breaking the Silence’ and human rights organizations, we took the initiative and organized a 3,000-strong march in Tel-Aviv. A similarly-sized march was initiated by ‘Standing Together’ in May 2016, protesting the appointment of war-mongering and race-baiting Avigdor Liberman as Minister of Defense.
Another organizational priority for us is supporting the steadfastness of the unrecognized Arab-Bedouins in the Negev. Last year we have organized an event called ‘Umm El-Hieran comes to Tel-Aviv’, where Bedouin tents were set up in the center of the city, with a photo exhibition telling the story of the unrecognized village of Umm El-Hieran. People from the village came there to talk directly with bystanders about the danger of demolition facing the village, as well as raise signs in Hebrew and Arabic. This was a protest, but also an informational event, aimed at educating the general public about an issue that is rarely in the news.
Recently, on 4 February, we have led and initiated a mobilization of 5,000 Jewish and Arab protestors in Tel-Aviv, supported by a coalition of more than 20 organizations, against the government’s racist policy of house demolitions of Arab-Bedouin citizens of Israel.
Not limiting ourselves to questions of peace, democracy and equality, but also focusing on social and economic justice, we plan to bring to the finish line a campaign called ‘Minimum 5,000’, aimed at securing basic livelihood for elderly citizens in Israel. This campaign, which is organized in co-operation with the ‘Power to the Workers’ trade union, demands the government to provide an old-age allowance that will guarantee every senior citizen a monthly income of at least 5,000 Shekels, even if his pension is nonexistent or very low. Utilizing this campaign as an anti-racist educational opportunity, all campaign materials are in both Arabic and Hebrew, and in media appearances there are both Jewish and Arab presenters. In this manner, we aim to show that Jews and Arabs in Israel have a joint interest in this matter, which can unite them regardless of their different nationalities. We try to develop a class-based approach, rather than a liberal approach, to combat racism.
To what extent is the ST movement anchored in small localities and in the peripheries? How many local activity circles are being active throughout the country?
A.-L.G.: The basic units of ‘Standing Together’, which form the backbone of our movement, are the local activity circles, which exist currently in three biggest cities in Israel – Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, and Haifa – with the fourth local circle based in the Negev desert, meeting either in the city of Beer Sheva or in one of the Bedouin villages.
We also have ‘at-large’ members, who don’t yet have a local activity circle where they live, but who are active in the movement and contribute to its work.
We stress the importance of the local activity circles not only used for mobilizing support for our national campaigns (for example, distributing leaflets of the ‘Minimum 5,000’ campaign or bringing people to the ‘Freedom Marches’), but also taking up local issues that relate to the needs and priorities of the local community. For example, our Haifa circle was involved in local environmental protests, against polluting industries, the Jerusalem circle was involved in pickets against the Mayor’s policies, etc.
Alongside our local activity circles, based each on a certain geographic region, we also have thematic circles, based around a certain issue, for example a Peace and Occupation circle, an Economic and Social circle, etc.
In this manner, people can engage with ‘Standing Together’ in various ways – either through a local activity circle where they live (attending local meetings that address all the issues and the campaigns the movement is currently working on), or travel to country-wide meetings of a thematic circle, where a specific issue of interest is discussed. Luckily, our country is not that big, so rotating the meeting places of the thematic circles between cities is a possibility!
How would you assess the impact you have had on the Israeli society in one year of existence?
A.-L.G.: We are very encouraged over the fact that although we are a new movement, with very limited resources, we were able to mobilize and to have an impact on the Left which far exceeds our current size. We are able to establish new local circles, and expand the ranks of our existing circles, and we hope that within not a long time, ‘Standing Together’ will become a significant grassroots, popular force in the Left in Israel.
*Alon-Lee Green is a political and social activist and the national director of the Jewish-Arab movement ‘Standing Together’ (עומדים ביחד نقف معًا). He worked in the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) as a political adviser, formed and organized the first waiters union in Israel and led demonstrations and struggles for equality, social justice and against the occupation. In 2011 he was one of the leaders of the Israeli social protest.
Photo: Flickr, by Jonathan Klinger, CC 2.0