Gideon Levy on demonstrations there, silence here

June 19, 2009

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

By Gideon Levy

It makes one green with envy: The scenes from Iran prove that some nations are trying to take their fate into their own hands. Some nations are not floating on the surface in sickly indifference, some are not looking around in endless complacence. And some are not following their leaders with the blindness of a herd. There are moments in the histories of certain nations when the people say enough. No more.

Czechs and Ukrainians, French and Russians, South Africans and Palestinians, Thais and Chinese, Lebanese and now Iranians have taken to the streets on at least one inspirational occasion and tried to make an impact. Some succeeded, some failed, but at least they tried. They did not surrender to their failed leaders, who dragged them from bad to worse. This is not only about rising up against a tyrannical regime; sometimes it’s about a struggle for justice in democracies, too. That struggle is not conducted only in polls and elections; such struggles must spill out onto the streets. Here, too.

The scenes from oppressive Iran are of light breaking through. Thousands of women and men protesting and demonstrating, holding signs and shouting out loud. They stand with their faces visible, fearless. All of them are at risk because of their protest. Perhaps less than what we imagine here – our learned analysts know that there is only an Iran of darkness – but certainly much more than in free Israel.

But while Iran’s women are taking a risk and demanding that their voice be returned to them, Israel’s women are wrapping themselves in silence, from the mall to the parking lot. As Tehran’s men cry out “Where is our voice?”, here they ask “Where will our next vacation be?” Here in the SUV, there in the streets. Here in front of the stupefying television screen, there in front of the forces of evil. Here in darkness, there in the light of popular protest.

We only take to the streets when there is a festival, hardly ever because of a scandal. Tel Aviv’s centennial or the book festival, the beer festival or the tomato festival – but never in protest. In Iran they are fighting for liberty, here for vacation time.

It’s true, there is liberty in Israel, but only for us, the Jews. We have a regime that is no less tyrannical than the ayatollahs’ regime: the regime of the officers and the settlers in the territories. But what do we have to do with any of this? In Iran, police disperse demonstrations with violence, they shoot and kill. And what do we do?

When you get a chance, go on Friday to Na’alin or Bil’in and see what happens there. Demonstrators are killed here with similar brutality, but in Iran the crowd is standing up to a tyrannical regime, while here only a handful of brave people stand up to the Border Police, who are firing weapons. Moreover, we hardly write anything about the protest being silenced with bullets. It interests no one, and this, too, is called democracy.

A democracy is not tested only with elections. A democracy is measured in everyday life. National aims are not achieved only through power hungry politicians; the street must also speak. In the latest polls, 64 percent of Israelis say they support a two-state solution. Great. But when Israel moves steadily away from such a solution, when the prime minister takes a small step forward but then raises more and more impossible obstacles, no one thinks to do anything. Have you heard a single political conversation recently? Nothing.

One can only imagine what would have happened if the day after Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, that same silent and paralyzed majority that allegedly wants two states had taken to the streets to demand an end to the occupation. Or if they demanded that we say yes to the Arab peace initiative. What a boost that would have been, a genuine wind of change on whose strength Barack Obama, Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas and Bashar Assad could move forward together.

But when the street is silent, only the leaders are left, and their survival drives them.

Israel is now at a fateful crossroads, no less than Iran. An opportunity lies before it that will not be seen again, one that affects the future of all its people no less than the election results in Iran affect the Iranians’ fate. Missing the opportunity here will be just as decisive as four more years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. But look what is happening in totalitarian Iran and what is happening here, the sole democracy in the Middle East, blah, blah, blah.