Matan Kaminer & Lauren Schandevel
As we struggle to build up the U.S. left in the face of an insurgent white nationalist movement — and after decades of Red Scare repression — it can be all too easy to overlook the trials and tribulations of our comrades abroad. As socialists, however, we must never lose sight of the need for a strong, international left. We stand to gain so much from talking to our comrades in other countries — and appreciating that their struggles are our struggles.
The Detroit Socialist’s Lauren Schandevel sat down (virtually) with Matan Kaminer, a DSA member based in Israel with strong connections to Israel’s parliamentary left. Matan is a writer and academic who recently received his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Michigan. They discussed the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Occupation, BDS, and DSA’s role in building an international socialist movement.
LS: What is the state of the left in Israel? Does it exist?
MK: I’m not very optimistic about the state of the left in Israel. And a lot of it kind of hinges on how you define “left” because the political landscape in Israel is divided up differently than the U.S. and a lot of other countries.
LS: What do you mean?
MK: The issue that dominates politics here is the conflict with the Palestinians, and the words “left” and “right”, which are very commonly used here, refer almost exclusively to that. So, if you’re in favor of any sort of territorial compromise with the Palestinians, then you’re considered “left.” And since Israeli politics has moved so far to the right along this axis over the last 10–30 years, positions that would be considered very moderate or centrist in the US with regards to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are considered “radical left” in Israel today.
LS: What about other domestic political issues in Israel? How are they addressed?
MK: If you look at socioeconomic issues, those are barely present in the political sphere at all, and when they are present, they’re not considered to be in any way related to the conflict or to the left/right dichotomy. Which is wrong; they are very intimately related.
LS: How do Palestinians living in Israel fit into this political framework? Are they part of the “left”?
MK: More than 20% of the population of Israel is Palestinian, and the parties that represent that 20% are left-wing parties in both senses: obviously in the sense of wanting to end the occupation and having proactive peace plans, and also in the sense of, if not being declaredly socialist, at least in general (because they represent a poor and working-class population) having progressive policy positions on socioeconomic issues. Unfortunately, this 20% of the population is basically considered “untouchable” by the rest of the political spectrum. And even the leaders of the so-called left or center-left in Israel have basically declared that they’re not willing to sit in a coalition government with these so-called “Arab” parties. So that explains a lot of why the horizon for left politics in Israel in this moment is so truncated, so small.
LS: When did this start? When did “left” in Israel become synonymous with Palestinian solidarity and the “right” become . . . not that?
MK: It’s been a gradual process but there have also been swings. For the majority of Israel’s existence, up until the 80s, the idea of a Palestinian state or negotiating with the Palestinian Liberation Organization was beyond the pale. The only people in the Jewish community who supported it were the Communists, who were anti-Zionists or non-Zionists who belonged to a party that was and still is majority Palestinian. That changed in the 1980s, and it changed big time in the 1990s when the Labor government signed the Oslo Accords. [The Oslo Accords are a set of agreements entered into between the Government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1990s.]
In my analysis, the Oslo Accords were never meant to become the final peace treaty; the Israeli government was never interested in allowing a viable Palestinian state to exist. But a rhetoric was there. Things changed very rapidly following the Second Intifada. [The Second Intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, was a period of intensified Israeli-Palestinian violence starting in 2000.]
The Second Intifada was framed as the Palestinians rejecting the possibility of a two-state solution. If you look at what was offered, it wasn’t a solution the majority of Palestinians could get behind since basic issues like a capital in Jerusalem and the refugee problem were left unresolved, but it was framed in the Israeli public consciousness as Palestinians rejecting peace, and from then on, we have this rapidly accelerating movement in which the separation paradigm becomes the main thing. And that’s a consensus among the right and so-called “center-left,” that what we Israelis want is total and complete separation, or, as former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak phrased it: “us here and them over there.”
LS: What effect has the American embassy move had on local or regional politics?
MK: The embassy move, as well as the recognition of the Israeli claim to the Golan Heights, are symbolic moves in the sense that they don’t have any direct infringement on the lives of Palestinians, who have much more urgent problems to deal with like checkpoints and children being imprisoned. But they do signal to the Israeli government in no uncertain terms that their current policy of occupation is approved of by the US government. It’s sort of seen as a model by Trump in many ways, and that allows Israel to go on with impunity to enlarge settlements in the West Bank, do various forms of creeping annexation (slowly applying Israeli law to different aspects of the settlers’ lives in the Occupied Territories), and just generally things that are going to make any sort of resolution to the conflict more difficult.
LS: Did you see a ramping up of harsher policies right after the move of the embassy?
MK: Well, the move coincided with a particularly bloody repression of demonstrations in the Gaza Strip, so naturally as Palestinian opposition goes up, so does repression of that opposition. I don’t think, overall speaking, there’s been any particular ramping up of violence around this only because Netanyahu is a very astute politician and he’s perfected this method of keeping Palestinian resistance at a very low ebb in the West Bank through security services and building up a huge network of spies, and in the Gaza Strip through the blockade and through maintaining very strict control of who goes in and out of the Strip. There’s no need on his part to blow things up, because the current situation is very useful and convenient for most of the Israeli public; they don’t have to think about the Occupation.
LS: Is there any hope for a two-state solution at this point? Are people still talking about it, or has that idea sort of gone out the window?
MK: People are still talking about it on the left and center-left. In terms of a policy proposal that has currency within both Israeli and Palestinian societies, that’s still the only one. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it very likely at this point. I’m not married to a two-state proposal; I think it was a good response at a certain point, but on the ground, things are rapidly changing in terms of the size of the settlements and open hostility that unfortunately most Israelis today feel toward Palestinians. That doesn’t mean that a one-state solution is any closer . . . but there’s no need to get into the details when the situation on the ground is so far from any proposal being implemented in the near future. The important thing is to insist on making clear demands of the Israeli state: end the occupation, equal rights for Palestinians in Israel, recognition of the refugees’ right to return. These can be addressed in either a two-state or a one-state framework.
LS: In your piece for Jacobin, you said the Israeli left would not be taking electoral power anytime soon. If that’s not working, what tactics have you been using to gain traction, if any?
MK: Most of my activism in recent years has been helping to establish this organization called Academia for Equality. The strategic thinking behind that is that there are a few bastions within Israeli society where the left has a voice. I wouldn’t say the left is strong or dominant or anything like that, but we do have some points of strength [in the academy] where we can build solidarity. The higher education system is one of the only places in society where Palestinians and Jews do actually meet each other on an equal footing and have opportunities to work together, so I do think it’s very important to maintain that. I think a lot of students hear about the Occupation or hear any sort of critical narrative about Israeli society for the first time when they get to university because the public education system doesn’t teach any of that. So strategically it’s very important to protect free academic speech, and that’s why the right is targeting us. In the longer term, I try to remember that historical conditions always change; but even if they change for the better, if there isn’t a presence around to take advantage of that, then there’s no guarantee that those opportunities will be seized. So that’s what I see as our role at this time: to hold our little forts and maintain the organizational and theoretical continuity of the left in Israel, so when historical conditions change, we’re able to take advantage of that.
LS: What do you think about the international BDS movement? Do you think it’s effective? Do you think it could be effective?
MK: The first thing to note about this is that in Israel, it’s illegal now to support BDS or any sort of boycott of the occupation, even if it’s only of settlement products. So I can’t give you a direct answer to this question; I have to point out that I’m not at liberty to answer it. That said, I think there’s this sort of heinous discourse around BDS; equating it to terrorism, equating it to anti-Semitism, and I think there is absolutely no basis for that. It’s clearly a nonviolent form of struggle and I think that this kind of rhetoric around it and attempts to criminalize support for BDS in other countries is a very dangerous road to walk down. I think the left in the US needs to keep its eye on that, because if these things pass, it’ll be very easy to pass anti-boycott legislation about other issues. And boycotts are an essential tool in the arsenal of progressive movements.
LS: What can DSA be doing on this front, if anything, to support this work?
MK: I think it’s important for DSA to build international links. I know it’s something the organization is working on and there’s an international committee that’s being set up, and I think it’s really important. Internationalism is a core concept for the revolutionary left. While DSA is currently organized as U.S.-specific, that shouldn’t be fetishized. Our ultimate goal is to have an international socialist movement of working-class people — “working people of all countries, unite!” It’s also important to maintain an international perspective on all issues, including immigration, climate change, and the military — and to build solidarity around these. DSA has been growing in leaps and bounds over the last few years, but in other places, the left is much weaker. People abroad are looking to [DSA]. A lot of hope is invested in what’s going on in the US right now; we want to learn from you. We also need your solidarity and support.