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In Israel, a ceasefire and a new government don’t mean an end to the bloody status quo

By Etan Nechin

Global politics

Jun 29, 2021

It seemed almost by design: a week after Israel and Hamas signed a ceasefire, and order was restored to the streets of Israel after a wave of interfaith violence, a new government was sworn in, the first one not led by Benjamin Netanyahu since 2009. Naftali Bennett, leader of right-wing Yamina, became Prime Minister along with Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, who will take over in two years. Both of them lead a patchwork coalition called the ‘Change Coalition’ which includes parties from the hard-right to Ra’am, the first Arab party to be a part of an Israeli government since the Six-Day War.

Upon the confirmation vote, thousands gathered in Rabin Square; some of them jumped into the fountain, a celebratory tradition reserved for election nights and when Israel won the Eurovision. But unlike his predecessors, Bennett didn’t come to the square—those who came didn’t vote for him. The celebration was less about the forming of a new government but about the exit of Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years. The catharsis was a culmination of two years of anti-Netanyahu protests held in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and on bridges all over the country.

This coalition is first and foremost the creation of Netanyahu: while building a cult of personality around him for the past decade, a counter-movement was created organically by Israeli left and right who simply wanted to see him out—who just wanted a change.

But what change can this ‘Change Coalition’ truly bring?

For its detractors, the new coalition is bound to fail: on the one side, you have Bennett, who was speaker of the Yesha Council—an umbrella organisation of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank—and said in a speech that the Palestinian are a “thorn in the butt.” On the other side, there is Ibtisam Mara’ana, the Arab member of the Knesset (MK) who before joining Labor was a member of Da’am, a radical socialist party that called for a one-state. If it’s not obvious enough, what I’m trying to highlight is the fact that the ideological gaps here are irreconcilable.

More so, many of the new ministers were part of Netanyahu’s government over the years and showed outright disdain or apathy to any talks with the Palestinians. As for the Palestinian question, Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas said, “What hasn’t been resolved in seventy-three years probably won’t be solved in the next four.”

This is Netanyahu’s legacy. Like frogs in a cauldron, Netanyahu slowly lulled Israelis into believing that any change to the current order will be disastrous. The last operation, which saw hundreds of Palestinians killed by airstrikes and scores of Israelis killed by missiles fired by Hamas into the hearts of cities, wasn’t an error—it was a culmination of the Israeli right’s strategy. To prevent the forming of a Palestinian state, it divided the Palestinians, weakening the Palestinian National Authority, a corrupt but viable partner, and instead fueled Hamas with cash that would later be used to buy and create missiles.

Netanyahu created an atmosphere where, for any future leader, ushering significant changes in Israel will be extremely difficult. That’s why so many parties who ran to replace him over the years looked more like a faded, albeit less corrupt replica of Netanyahu than an actual opposing force.

In this sense, it will be a government of vetoes from both sides, focusing on small achievements to civil society instead of ambitious reforms on a national level.

The coalition ran on ousting Netanyahu to root out corruption and extremism and reinstate the political status quo. But in Israel, where the sins of occupation and expulsion are still happening, the status quo is extreme. They may have ousted a corrupt Prime Minister, but the system in place, which was here before Netanyahu, is morally and ethically corrupt. Just in the past couple of years, The Nation-State Bill enshrined Jewish supremacy into law; expulsion of Palestinians from their homes to house settler Jews is approved time and again.

It’s not that the Israelis are inherently right-wing or racist. It’s just that for the past two decades, voices on the left have been delegitimised, attacked, and silenced. Thus, the Israeli public lost its vocabulary to express how it can end the occupation and oppression of Palestinians.

More so, like any corrupt system, it rationalises itself to those benefiting from it. Of course, this system isn’t sustainable. The renewed spotlight on Israel saw a change in international public opinion. Instagram and TikTok users are showing the reality on the ground, exposing this system to the world. The growing criticism, from young people to representatives in the US Congress, is welcome. The walls of blind loyalty to Israel are starting to crack.

However, to those expecting radical change to happen swiftly, disappointment awaits. The occupation, marking its 54th year, isn’t going to go away because both sides simply cannot imagine a different reality. The old guards in Israel and Palestine are still holding on to their seats of power, still relying on some American miracle to either support annexation or pressure Israel to withdraw. For those in Israel, it will take hard work and time—a whole lot of it.

The left needs to stop reminiscing about the Oslo Accords and reimagine a different reality for Israel in the region. The two-state solution isn’t dead; it just requires a reconfiguration. Those who want peace need solidarity from the international community to have the courage to make their voices heard again.

What’s promising in this government is that these challenges reflect Israeli society perfectly. Israel is made up of small sectors all vying for their space and power, but there’s no escaping one another in such a small society. These challenges and increasing international criticism can force members of the government to deal honestly with anything that arises because they won’t have the power to brush it under the rug.

If there’s one comforting thing about this government it’s that it is imperfect and flawed—just like the society it represents.

The normalisation of Islamophobia: what causes align with your ‘brand’?

It’s hard to talk about Islamophobia because there’s so much tension.

There’s the ‘good Muslim’ act Muslims perform daily to persuade non-Muslims that, no, we’re not terrorists. Actually, most of us get on fine, seeing as there’s nearly 2 billion of us in the world. There’s the defensive nature surrounding Islamophobia, for those who propel anti-Islamic rhetoric in both the large ways (pushing xenophobic ideas and trying to ‘get rid’ of Muslims) and in the small ways (saying dumb things like “It must be so oppressive to be a Muslim woman. I feel so bad for you.”). There’s also the trauma and the automatic defence mechanism that goes up by Muslims and ex-Muslims alike, because we want to show we’re not affected by the bigotry that has arguably shaped us—the collective trauma we share.

In addition to all of this, on a parliamentary level, the last decade has especially seen the rise of right-wing and Islamophobic laws globally. In February of this year, France passed a legislative bill to combat “Islamist separatism,” an ideology that describes “the enemy of the Republic.” French Muslims have said this bill unfairly targets them and many have noted that although the bill is supposedly ‘neutral’, it all has links to the French Muslim community. In the UK, Muslim Labour voters have recently been blamed for the dip in voter counts, with a 12 per cent drop in favourability.

Last Ramadan, Labour party leader Keir Starmer declined to be a part of Ramadan celebrations with the Muslim community at the digital Open Iftar, after pro-Israel groups questioned the views of Open Iftar’s CEO Omar Salha. Salha’s tweet said, “This #Ramadan, Don’t Eat into #Palestine,” essentially encouraging the boycott of Israeli goods.

During the Israel and Palestine tensions, I witnessed so many people across social media say something to the effect of, ‘I don’t know much about this topic, I don’t want to appear anti-semitic’ yet it felt like no one cared about appearing Islamophobic. And why would they, when Islam is being treated like a deadly virus people need to step away from?

When asking in a Twitter poll if Islamophobia has become more normalised, 89 per cent of voters said yes. When I asked on my Instagram if Islamophobia has become more acceptable and if other causes have become ‘trendier’ to align with—the response was staggering. Many of the respondents noted the role the media has in the negative perception of Muslims.

Some said, “Islam is seen as ‘backwards’ versus other struggles such as LGBTQ+ rights are seen as being ‘progressive’.” Claudia, 30 said, “Islamophobia, as opposed to other forms of racism and prejudice certainly seems more normalised to me. Many people seem to not be afraid of being perceived as Islamophobic.” Another said, “Calling it ‘trendy’ is a reductive take but Islamophobia is definitely more normalised.”

Masuda, 27 told me, “The ‘work’ that has been done so far has not been enough to shift the narrative (for example, oppressive tropes) and humanise Muslims. When we do see ‘liberated’ Muslim characters, they are often positioned as the exception to the rules, the one that’s gone against the grain of their culture and religion to have the agency they’ve been seeking.”

Whereas Qavi, 26 pointed out that “so many other religions have the same rules, whether it comes to eating pork, drinking alcohol and even anal sex, but it’s because Muslim still follow these guidelines that we aren’t viewed as liberal. Religion has become taboo nowadays so anything that religion stands for is seen as outdated.”

There seem to be two things happening at once: Islamophobic denial—the refusal to accept that Muslims are being scapegoated and marginalised—as Islamophobia towards Muslim communities continues to rise. So what is the truth?

At times, it does come back to reporting, as Nesrine Malik wrote about for The Guardian. If my default is Islamophobic bias, the fear of a Muslim-majority planet, then no matter how covert, that will be reflected in the truths I am trying to seek.

For example, it is Muslims that are being blamed for the drop in Labour’s voter count yet no one is asking why is it that after decades of unwavering commitment towards Labour, Muslims are taking a step back? Starmer may not have been a part of the digital Open Iftar event but where was his or Labour’s efforts in partaking in the Ramadan festivities—something Labour politicians especially have historically done.

Many a time, Islamophobia, just like any other form of systemic oppression, is transparent. Careless words become normalised views which then become the catalyst behind hateful attacks. “The hatred towards Islam from top-down is obviously political and historic, but what has developed this in recent years is the idea that Islamophobic comments are not racist because they’re technically true,” said Adam, 25, in response to my query on the normalisation of Islamophobia across my Instagram.

“Coverage of the grooming gangs in Rochdale and elsewhere was not Islamophobic because it is apparently true that Islam encourages this abhorrent behaviour. This is in fact similar to a lot of anti-semitism (e.g. the idea that suggesting Jews run the world isn’t racist because ‘it’s true’) but it happens on a smaller scale, and crucially it is countered more and often by non-Jewish people in solidarity,” he added.

“It is quite common for anti-Muslim groups to show solidarity with causes that they think Muslims oppose. It is why the English Defence League (EDL) came out in mass protest in light of the grooming gangs scandal, despite paedophilia being rife in their organisation. I recall another story where a UKIP member called for a ban on halal meat, citing that it was the method of slaughter he disapproved of (in solidarity with animal rights activists). He didn’t realise that his proposed ban would also ban Jewish Kosher meat, and had to issue an apology to the Jewish community, but obviously no such apology to Muslims for obvious reasons.”

Similarly, when there have been accusations of anti-semitism in both the Labour and Conservative party, many MPs stood their ground that this was unacceptable and any anti-semitisim should be met with serious consequences. However, many people across my Instagram polls shared that this same respect has not been presented to the Muslim community when it has come to eradicating Islamophobia. No protest has been formed by MPs, if anything, these complaints occur occasionally, with no consequence. The Tories have even recently released a report that there is absolutely no Islamophobia in the Conservative party, which feels just as accurate as the Tories sharing that Britain is not racist.

This isn’t about playing into oppression olympics and tallying up who has it worse. What this is about is whose oppression seems obligatory to align with and whose we can scroll past. As oppression does not remove the ability to oppress another.

Though those black boxes on Instagram for #BlackLivesMatter were pointless last year, what it did do was cause noise. Now when you think about those that are being targeted and those who are living through civil wars, whose struggles do we accept and normalise and whose is it do we want to change? How are we picking what to care about and whose lives we’re willing to put the democratic effort into?

Perhaps, it’s this sprint of social media activism we do which means that one month, we all have the energy to focus on an atrocity so that, comes another, our efforts are already tired and die down before we even try. What we need to look at is actually why we pick and support a specific cause? Does it make us appear more ‘woke’? Make us look ‘cooler’? More progressive? Is that other marginalised group too taboo and not digestible enough to fight for across 15 seconds in an Instagram Story? What is it that we’re scared to say and stand for? If so, why?

I personally see non-Muslims being afraid to speak out about Islamophobia because right now, Muslims aren’t ‘cool’ to align with. With our negative press and the fact that our struggles are yet to be made commercially and aesthetically pleasing in order for there to be an outpour of rage across social media. Instead, there’s a complacent attitude that Muslims must tolerate the issues we go through within and outside of our communities. This human rights issue should make you want to speak up against Islamophobia, not fall into the complicit trap of silence. Or does it simply not align with your ‘brand’?