Some years ago, a friend who lived in Belfast at the height of the war n Ireland said that she would see news coverage of the riots and shootings on the television and have to pinch herself to remember that she lived in the same city. She lived peacefully in an area quite untroubled by the war. I was reminded of this reading Anarchists Against the Wall as one contributor referred to those Israelis who feel no need to think about the occupation while sitting in a coffee shop or eating hummus in Jaffa. The one difference is that the man and woman in the Jaffa cafe have almost certainly been in the Israeli Defence Forces, or have children who have been, or children who will be. Yet the number of Israelis prepared to take action over “the situation” – hamatsáv – is few, especially at the cutting edge of protest against “the wall”. For many, emigration is a way out, with perhaps a million Israelis living abroad.
For a small number of Israelis, a life of permanent protest is the only option, Anarchists Against the Wall (AATW) being one of the most active organisations. In this short book AATW members outline their history and actions. The book is split between reprinting some AATW leaflets and a longer, and more interesting, section of personal accounts by activists. AATW began, formally, in 2003. The group rejects lobbying, electoral efforts and “interfaith” dialogue in favour of direct action and civil disobedience having “let go the coat-tails of the Zionist left” to work with the “popular committees” of Palestinians on the West Bank, especially at Bil’in and Ni’lin, on the weekly demonstrations against the wall. While twenty Palestinians have been killed in these types of demonstrations, AATW members have had no fatalities but share in being teargassed and being shot at by rubber bullets, and occasional live ammunition. They accept that they cannot be equal partners in resisting the occupation – Israelis can go home or drop out of activity at any time – but their solidarity actions give them “an opportunity to cross the barriers of national allegiance.”
The book is primarily about the group’s day to day activities, though demonstrations against the war in Gaza are also mentioned, with some reference to individual involvement in campaigns against gentrification within Israel, within the social movements and actions in solidarity with refugees. To the Israeli right AATW activists are traitors, more so to those who (shockingly) describe the 1967 Green Line as the “Auschwitz borders” to justify Israeli expansion. AATW has little time for groups like Peace Now, which have faded anyway after the failure of Oslo. One contributor remarks “So we give up on these people. Our statements [at general peace demonstrations] are not meant to communicate but to rage and keep us going.”
In exchange “Radical activists in Israel/Palestine run from one action to the next. It feels like everything is urgent.” Another writes “We hardly ever bother with promoting our various grand-scheme-of-things ideas. Once the occupation is behind us, we will have the luxury to discuss our diverse opinions.” A further contributor adds “Personally, I do not think I will see the end of the occupation in my lifetime — I am thirty years old.” Yet another, “’When the occupation ends. . . . ‘ How many times have we said this to ourselves, fantasizing over a future paradise, while becoming more and more cynical and disillusioned with each passing year. Today we know better. The occupation is not going to end; it is here to stay.”
Little wonder that the group is subject to burn out. One chapter is devoted to trauma, with some activists showing genuine symptoms of post-traumatic stress due their regular exposure to violence.
Some Jewish critics of Israel will have found it difficult to speak of their views within the formal Jewish community, if involved in it, or within traditional Jewish families brought up on Zionism. For some Israelis, becoming a dissident means isolation from friends and family. “Like others, I have gradually lost contact with most of my friends from home. Some of us cannot deal with the confrontations and so we drift apart.” Whilst most Palestinians welcome Israeli Jews taking part in their struggle, others question this. “A local Palestinian farmer stopped me and bluntly asked what I was doing there. Why, for example, was I not in Tel Aviv talking to Israelis, or demonstrating outside the Knesset or prime minister’s house? I did not have a decent answer for him, but I did not go to another demonstration for three years, although I did not confront Israeli society either. I just left the country.”
I admire what AATW does, and would encourage people to read this book, yet I was left with a feeling of unease. So many of the contributors felt little hope for the future, and the weekly demonstrations clearly take their toll (exactly why the IDF comes down so hard on those taking part). Some of the writers remarked on how isolated they felt from all their fellow Israelis, how difficult it was, even, to take part in joint campaigns on other issues. Yet in the book there is only a passing reference to the International Solidarity Movement, which operates in similar territory, and no mention of, for example, Gush Shalom (the radical peace bloc), B’Tselem (the Israeli human rights organisation, active against the occupation), the soldiers’ movement Breaking the Silence, the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions or any other group which might not share AATW’s anarchist views but are on the same side. I wonder how much of the isolation is self-imposed. The book left me wanting to know more.
A version of this review will shortly appear in Jewish Socialist magazine