Dispatches from the present
There is a moment in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Dreamers (2003) when the hermetic, incestuous, thickly sensuous spell that has fallen over the large Left Bank apartment in which the film’s couplings, uncoverings and recriminations unfurl is finally broken. The dark enchantment of bourgeois interiority is shattered by a cobblestone through a glass window, and the camera follows the protagonists as they wake up, put on clothes and go down to join the barricades. The year is 1968.
The apartment I was sitting in last Sunday night was a narrow, drafty building in one of Jerusalem’s most sedate neighborhoods. I was not unclothed, and the ménage was most certainly not à trois, but I nevertheless felt something like that cobblestone come through the window, as the sounds of hundreds of people spontaneously slamming their doors, honking their horns, spilling out into the streets and marching toward the prime minister’s house floated up through the cold spring air.
Unlike Bertolucci’s oversexed cinephiles, I am no stranger to street protests. I have protested the occupation of the West Bank, the growth of the settlements and settler violence, the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinian villages in Firing Zone 918 and the eviction of poor Israelis from public housing. I am used to being out on the street alone, as Israeli society continues to sleepwalk its way deeper into permanent, irreversible, de jure apartheid. But suddenly, I’m less and less by myself. Ever since the election of a far-right populist government with sizeable fascist elements (think Richard Spencer as secretary of homeland security), the act of public protest has started to become a normal part of middle-class life in Israel.
Over the past three months, the populists, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, have been almost comically transparent in their attempts to copy the successes of authoritarian post-liberal regimes in Hungary and Poland (Netanyahu’s son is a frequent flier to Budapest; the government is in close contact with Warsaw). The Israeli middle class, so laissez-faire about the rights of millions of Palestinians under its control, has woken up to see the occupation brought home, as a cabinet full of settler-ministers tries to dismantle the Supreme Court and judicial review, on its way to tackling the other “strongholds of the left” like the universities, unions and the nonpartisan Central Elections Committee.
The high-tech wizards of north Tel Aviv are right to be afraid, and I have to say I’m happy to have them swarm around me by the tens, hundreds, thousands, hundred of thousands as we have gone out to protest once, often twice, sometimes thrice and even four times a week for the past three months. We have filled city squares in the pouring rain, we have marched down wide boulevards, a thick molasses of entrepreneurs, back-end developers, baristas and gender-studies students. Many of Tel Aviv’s best restaurants have given up and closed on Saturday nights because their staff, and their customers, have a standing appointment on Kaplan Street to chant and fume and wonder that their little slice of normality in the eastern Mediterranean is crumbling under a combined assault by messianism, racism and good old-fashioned autocratic greed.
And yet, something about Sunday was different. I had no plans to protest that night, and when the noise began to pour through the open window my companion asked, only half joking, if the civil war had finally started. It turned out that in a way, it had. Our phones were filled with messages and updates. In Tel Aviv, bonfires were already alight on the highway. As in Marx’s historical works, the almost absurdly petty pretext for this spontaneous outpouring of political will—in this case, the firing of the defense minister—pointed to the authenticity of the forces deep at work beneath the surface.
I felt, just for a moment, what it must have been like to be swept up in one of the great bourgeois revolutions of the last two hundred years. All around me doctors, pilots, professors, coders, waiters, teachers, accountants took a last look at their phones before going to sleep and bolted upright, lacing up shoes, slipping on coats and heading for the nearest corner, or marching all the way to the Knesset. By the time we reached the entrance, mounted police and a water cannon (that old friend to the streetwise leftist) blocked our way, but we were already hundreds, maybe two thousand strong, and we’d learned from our push notifications that a general strike was planned for the morning.
The words “general strike” have an almost sacred power for me, a child of the neoliberal Nineties. In the cold mist of midnight, I secretly savored Walter Benjamin’s description of the “messianic violence” of a society shutting down, forcing its gears to grind to a halt. This is what I wanted. This is what my sick, sleepwalking country needed. At 3 a.m., we went to bed.
We returned to the Knesset the next morning, some hundred thousand of us. Most with Israeli flags, a few with Palestinian flags that the border police chased with the single-mindedness of dogs trained to hunt, but overall the mood was one of euphoria (a freighted word in Hebrew, calling to mind as it does the Pyrrhic victory of the Six-Day War). But again, as in some histories, the greatness of the moment began to curdle thanks to the smallness of the characters involved. Netanyahu promised to pause the offending legislation, while playing for time and begging right-wingers to take to the streets against “the left.” It was clear that the legislation would be stopped, but equally clear that it would be restarted the minute its sponsors had figured out how to defang the bite of the protest movement. When I returned to the streets on Wednesday, to protest Netanyahu’s offer of a private militia to his fascist national security minister, the crowd was back to its normal dimensions. The vast, tensed potential of the middle class had once again been put to rest. I was alone again.