Israel’s George Floyd Moment May Have Arrived

I.

George Floyd has changed the social and political landscape of America. For some, the George Floyd incident divided the country further. For others, the George Floyd incident radi- calized their actions regarding the police and African Americans. And for others still, it provided a serious and sober assessment of their perspective on what the future might become and how to get there. I believe that the May 2021, uprising in Israel, may just do the same for Israel in relation to its Palestinian neighbors and those on its borders. Israel will have to come to terms with the divisiveness and extremism within its own borders or risk further deterioration of ethnic relations on all fronts. Some time ago, I contemplated an article on the many ways in which Is- rael resembles its neighbors in the region more than the west to which it claims to emulate and look to for support and foreign assistance. While there are many ways in which the country is not like its neighbors, there are so many ways in which it is similar: the authoritarian tendencies of its leaders and governments, a single leader of one party which has been in power for long enough to create a cult of personality, religious dominance of the society and in policy and fi- nally, the overall entrenchment of the ethnic and class instability of the country. Trusting that we can hold two differing ideas in our heads at one time; I am struck by the similarities most pro- foundly between today’s Israel and United States, something I never could have imagined even five years ago…especially as an observer of the events of the last few weeks in Israel.

I am taking as a given that the disruption in the United States during the summer of 2020 and the spring Palestinian and Israeli uprisings are similar and yet different… They both are chal- lenges to the status quo. And have demanded attention and discussions of personal dignity as well as social responses. In regards to the long and enduring history of African American histo- ry and that of the Jews in Israel; it should be clear the histories of each are quite different and must be looked at in different contexts.

In the immediate days after Donald Trump became president in 2016, an Israeli American friend and I bought a pack of cigarettes and sat across the street from her house and smoked one after another to commiserate and cry about the anticipated impact that Donald Trump would have on our country. Somehow I guess we were thinking that if we engaged in self destructive behavior, the less likely it would be that Donald Trump would. It turned out our fears of Donald Trump’s xenophobia, authoritarian tendencies, and outright racism were only a few of our overt fears about the incoming administration. At the time, many of us, thought that, as a ‘republican,’ the party institution would check Trump’s excesses. This is a positively bizarre thought at the moment given the rise and wholesale acceptance by the party of “the big lie.” We also anticipated that the independent powers of the presidency would be checked by the judiciary and legislative branch and finally, at the time if all else failed, we also hoped that those “modern and savvy “liberal” New Yorkers, Ivanka and Jared,” would serve as an inoculation against Trump’s excesses. It turns out our fears of Trump Presidency were spot on but our hopes as to who or what would bail us out were sorely out of step. At some point in that con- versation our discussion turned to Israel under Netanyahu as evidence of the horrors of creep- ing bigotry, authoritarianism and state manipulation of freedom of the press and laws at the hands of a cunning executive. I recall that at this point, my very prescient friend said something like, “the difference is that Israel is only a few years ahead of the United States.” I wondered how she could possibly say that. I mean tiny, “middle eastern Israel” is nothing like the United States. She has lived here long enough to know that. I mean Hillary Clinton came close to win-

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ning the election and we’d just come off the popular, ground breaking Obama presidency. Surely, the same level of sectarian violence and extremism could never happen here. And even if it got close, our courts, constitution and our legal system, (our institutions) would spare us from the violence and domestic extremism which seems to have Israel constantly on edge. While she was certainly right about Israel continuing on its extremist and divisive path; she could never have imagined how correct she was about the United States and what would be- come the culmination of the Trump legacy, what I will call, its “George Floyd” moment of clarity. And that this moment of clarity came before Israel had its own moment of the same. I am as- suming for the moment that the Gaza/Israel uprising of May 2021 provides an opportunity to be Israel’s George Floyd moment. The latest opportunity and moment which Israel has to confront the humanity of the “enemy, “ ruminate and then act upon it, and actually vote in a new admin- istration.

II.

May, 2021, in the midst of a wearying and still raging global pandemic; Israel is imploding and America is attempting to come to terms with the legacy of the corrupt and mendacious political environment which Donald Trump left in his wake. Both countries are on fire and are battling for the survival of their democracy, that is regardless of their being “advanced” or “developed” na- tions. No amount of economic “progress” or stock-market highs can tamp down the flames. Chaos and violence on Israel’s borders and communal violence between Israeli Jews and Palestinians erupted worse than at any other time since the country’s founding. In this conflict, Israel fought primarily on two fronts, the worst being the brutal communal violence inside the country in their mixed Arab and Jewish cities. Jordanian troops were alerted to support their Palestinian brethren on the eastern border of the country and Hezbollah on the northern border as well as the possibility that Syrian artillery could conceivably weigh in and contribute to the mayhem. These fronts are only a few of those which Israel can look forward to in any future conflict. The United States is also fighting on numerous fronts. At least one border is overflow- ing and already causing the new president difficulties. Threats from white extremist and do- mestic terrorist groups from within are finally being taken seriously. In addition, there is an on- going battle for voter access in numerous states, and continuing legal assaults on the corrup- tion and overreach of the prior administration. There is also an enormous chasm in the country regarding the legitimacy of the last election, “The Big Lie,” which is creating hostility and inflex- ibility in the government and paralysis of the two party system.

The parallels between the two countries is striking. Both countries are by all appearances, “ad- vanced” economic societies. Both wealthy societies however, have decreasing middle classes and larger and larger poor populations. In 2016, A report issued by the OECD ranks Israel as the country with the highest rates of poverty among its members. Approximately 21 percent of Israelis were found to be living under the poverty line. This is ironic since another recent study found that “Israelis” ranked among the happiest citizens of any country. As of 2019, The United States and Israel both are still in the top ten of OECD countries with high levels of poverty and citizens living under the poverty line. Notably more poverty than Mexico, Turkey and Chile. (oecd.org) Needless to say, the degree of poverty in both countries increases the extremism and volatility of the political temperature. Although Israel does not have a constitution, it has a tradition of supporting free speech and democratic norms. Both countries have another thing in common. The United States has had an illiberal Populist leader in control for the last 4 years and Israel has had a similar striped leader for approximately 12.

In Israel, there have been 53 years of a destabilizing and divisive policy of occupation leading to inequality in representation, ever mounting hostilities, tensions and outright hatred between

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Palestinians and Israelis as well as intense tensions among secular and religious Jewish com- munities. In order to support this policy, the legal rights and protections for all Israelis, have been compromised, not just Palestinian and Israeli Arab, but secular Israelis as well.. The Unit- ed States has had at least 50 plus years of increasing inequality, a diminishing middle class, stagnant wages, a simmering racial divide and increasing homelessness and poverty as noted. During the Netanyahu and Trump administrations, immigration became a focal point of both countries’ policies and a significant issue in their elections. In Israel, immigrant workers are al- lowed into the country to perform health, elder care, industrial or farming work. They are not al- lowed permanent residency or health and other benefits which are shared among the majority of the population. The illegal immigrants in Israel, most of whom are refugees from Ethiopia or African countries who frequently have had to struggle through the Sinai at the mercy of maraud- ers and thieves and are often the victims of blackmail and rape on their way to Israel. This group is constantly threatened with expulsion and deportation and, not entitled to health care or welfare as well and worse, have no international status making their exit or travel basically im- possible since they are not awarded a passport. More recently, even Jewish immigrants from Africa and other countries have not been admitted according to the traditional Law of Return practice. In the United States, immigration has also become a hot-button political issue, for dif- ferent reasons however. As our economy has suffered during technological innovation and less industrial work became available to the aging middle class populations, many of whom were put out of work and lost their homes by successive American recessions; immigration, rather than the structural faults of the economy, have been labeled as to blame. Consequently, the Trump administration has used fear and suspicion of immigrants especially from Mexico and Central America as enemies and criminals and labeled them as such. International terrorism has also made Arabs in particular unwelcome. Xenophobia, racial and religious enmity is heightened by accompanying rhetorical “cultural signals” which have heightened tensions in both countries over the past years. In reality, immigrants in both countries account for the functioning of the economy through providing child care, eldercare, maintenance, farm work and small business growth. They often do the work that others will not do and a related item, often forgotten, is that they pay taxes.

Both countries illustrate the power which divisive and inflammatory rhetoric delivered from the leadership of the country has to reinforce and enflame the population. Both countries also illus- trate the enduring legacies of powerful and entrenched interest groups and the resulting cyni- cism and corruption used to fan the flames of racism, hatred and ultimately unreasonable fear. Americans, is a country of immigrants and we might be more sensitive to this and what dislo- cation, intolerance and tribalism can look like. And for Israelis, since World War II, it has also been a country of immigrants and although there is the ever-present potential of an external threat, there is a clear parallel between treatment of “the other,” from within and without. Be- cause of the Israeli recent past, heavy handedness toward minorities is ironic and cannot go without comment. Within Israel this is a tragic comment on fear and the cynical uses of a politi- cal power. Both countries seemed to really believe that any threat to their democracy and grip on stability could never touch them- as if their economic status and superficial calm could pro- tect them from serious civil unrest. Donald Trump seemed genuinely shocked that even though the stock market rose during his dishonest handling of Covid, his popularity continued to de- cline. Both countries needed a reminder that Wall Street or the high tech sector is not main street and I’m afraid given he events in both countries in the last year, they both got it.

Israel has continued to limit immigration, speech and citizenship rights in the country. The cur- rent leadership has been in power for at least 12 plus years, numerous successive ruling coali- tions cementing in place loyal interest groups and their access to power. And becoming in- creasingly populist and illiberal In the United States the longevity of racial inequality and eco-

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nomic disparities are illustrated continually in educational, economic and prison populations. These divisions in status have only been made worse by bringing racial stereotypes to the sur- face at the highest levels of government by an autocratic leaning populist president. Examples of this are the demonstrations and public reactions from the turn out of Neo nazis at the Uni- versity of Virginia Campus in 2017 to the summer of 2020 when the murder of George Floyd stood out to all as the symbol of injustice, and a killing amongst black men at the hands of in- stitutional racism which was finally one that no one could look away from. The repression and unequal treatment of minorities and institutional issues with policing and “the prison industrial complex” unexpectedly arose last summer as significant issues heightened by the actions of the Trump administration. The Floyd incident brought millions into the streets with the Black Lives Matter movement regardless of ethnicity and race. When the George Floyd trial con- firmed the murder of Mr. Floyd at the hands of the police, the reality of the actual sins and legacy of racism seemed to penetrate the society as a whole allowing for the recognition of other long ignored legacies of ethnic discrimination. One example of this is the recent recogni- tion of “Juneteenth” and the “Massacre at Greenwood” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The election of Joe Biden to the presidency and the January 6th, Capital Hill insurrection have all brought home the enormous structural and ideological divisions within our country and the fact that they can no longer be ignored but need to be addressed honestly and straightforwardly.

In both countries then, years of discrimination, dislocation, explicit hatred emanating from communal elements and the unequal treatment of minorities has impacted every corner of so- ciety. Even though we have already had our George Floyd moment in the United States; Israel doesn’t seem to be too far behind. Is the May uprising israel’s George Floyd movement which ushers in a new administration or will the country need to entertain an unprecedented fifth elec- tion coming up in the fall of 2020 and continued populist leadership. Will the May 2021 uprising and very real tensions regarding property ownership in East Jerusalem, the status of the Tem- ple Mount and constant electioneering give rise to new frustrations which emerge within the country and give pause to Israelis to reflect on their future as George Floyd did in the United States?

The United States has not been wholly successful in coming together after its George Floyd moment- far from it. The denial of the violence and intentions of the Jan. 6th event, denial of republican involvement and complicity in “the Big Lie” and continued nationwide attempts at voter suppression mirrors the continued mystification of what causes the violence and ill will of the Palestinians within Israel. Each society appears to have difficulty acknowledging the facts on their ground. Populist policies which continue to favor settlers in the occupied territories and religious authorities gaining power in education, tourism and the courts are increasing and significant issues within the Israeli polity. In the United States as well, any occurrence or con- frontation between police and a minority, or amongst ethnic groups might erupt into wholesale conflagration and social uprising. Both countries and its inhabitants are wrong to think that there will be no consequences for their actions. Israel got a glimpse of that during May and the United States is still quaking from the events of last summer. The media, vigilance and work to keep salient and real issues top of mind is necessary, lest the United States descend again into demonstrations in the streets or Israel lay in wait for the next uprising rather than examine and confront their status quo in a more realistic manner.

III.

Israel is still struggling to define itself as a “religious” democracy. One which insures the rights of minorities within a religious system. It has thus far failed to accommodate even the Jewish divisions within the country, let alone rise above the inter-ethnic issues. The United States is struggling to remain a representative democracy and a republic without falling into the trap of only representing one party’s base.

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There is much more that could be said on the co-mingling of these two countries policies and the not coincidental eruptions of both into the latest rounds of civil strife. The George Floyd moment and Trump’s heavy handed tactics over the summer may have been enough of a shock to the US system that it contributed in some small way to bringing about the election of Joe Biden with the highest voter turnout ever. It remains to be seen whether or not the tactics of the Israelis in the fighting of May 2021, will result in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s final removal from office and the initiation of any permanent changes within the country.

Whether a young black man in America or an Arab Palestinian youth in Israel, the number of unemployed outnumber those who are employed. The inequality is stunning and ongoing. The instability spilling out of those communities is overwhelming. The dignity of parents and fears for their children are exacerbated by the treatment of the authorities in both countries, and in particular, the police and military. In addition, whether Hispanic, African American or Arab watching other segments in the society, the monied elite as well as immigrants in the United States; Israeli Jews and religious groups in Israel all enjoy better social mobility and a higher standard of living and more assistance from the government increase while their own benefits decrease is a recipe for disaster. This only exacerbates the frustration and despair and there- fore the disaffection and alienation amongst the majority of American and Palestinian minorities in each country respectively. Ironically, both President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu emboldened and enabled each other. Ultimately, they both failed their countries and their allies by raising the internal temperature to the boiling point with no way to turn it down. The Abra- ham Accords and Saudi presence in Jerusalem, seems not to have made any significant im- pact on the Palestinian condition in terms of genuine Arab efforts to ease the community’s suf- fering. Iran helps Gaza in as much as they can better their own geo political interests. In the United States, African Americans have finally realized that they need allies within the country to change their circumstances. The George Floyd incident helped a large part of the country to see that. This realization has not yet occurred amongst the Palestinians and Israelis. Within both countries many of the religious and ethnic groups have taken to the streets to demon- strate just what unresolved dislocation, anger land frustration looks like.

Whether religious extremists or white supremacists, both groups have helped to push their democracies to their limits. Neither country’s minorities can exist for generations without digni- ty. Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, the Americans know this and the Israelis should have.

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Suzanne Rosenberg occasionally writes on current issues. She teaches History at Bergen Community College and Politics at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, NJ.

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Suzanne Rosenberg

Suzanne Rosenberg

Suzanne Rosenberg occasionally writes on current issues. She teaches History at Bergen Community College and Politics at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, NJ.

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