From the May-June 2023 issue of News & Letters
V. Revolt is global
Revolt against rulers’ skewed efforts to transform reality is global, opposing both fascism, which markets itself as the alternative to the disintegrating status quo, and the “return to normal” that markets itself as the only alternative to fascism. And each revolt is confronted by serious contradictions.
A. Challenging Israel’s semi-democracy
The extreme right-wing coalition government that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu assembled at the end of 2022 uncovered dueling concepts of what kind of a society Israel should be: a theocratic state with ultra-orthodox biblical interpretations of how citizens should live, combined with ultra-nationalist views of the land as strictly for Jewish people, as against a more liberal version of Israeli society for Jewish citizens.
In both these concepts Palestinian people, whether inside Israel or in the occupied territories, are reduced to Other. Dozens of Palestinians have been killed this year in the name of “security,” while Israeli settlers on occupied lands have felt free to attack Palestinian communities. (See “Israeli fanatics threaten Palestine, Israel,” Jan.-Feb. 2023 N&L; “Pogrom by Israeli Settlers,” March-April, 2023 N&L.)
When the government moved to curb the independence of the judiciary by giving the right-wing controlled Knesset (Israeli parliament) the power to overrule decisions of the Supreme Court, and to influence the appointment of judges, tens and then hundreds of thousands of Israelis came out in protest. Reservists in the military said they would not report for duty, and a general strike was called. The banner of democracy was raised over and over. With the country at a standstill, Netanyahu was forced to pause the right-wing overhaul. No one trusts Netanyahu and demonstrations continue.
NEEDED PALESTINIAN HUMAN RIGHTS
The protests are an important, necessary moment. But it is equally important to recognize that at present it is an incomplete struggle for democracy. It is not only that Netanyahu is still maneuvering with his right wing to grab complete control More fundamentally, the denial of basic human rights and authentic self-determination for the Palestinian people has been the reality within Israel since the 1967 occupation of non-Israeli lands. Its roots stretch back to the contradictions in Israel’s very founding, which involved right-wing anti-Arab terrorists as well as socialists.
A small group of demonstrators within the mass protests raised a crucial slogan: “Democracy and Occupation Cannot Coexist.” If progressive Israelis, secular and religious, wish to preserve Israel as some form of democracy, then they must work out how that democracy serves Palestinians. Palestinian Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories have a right to self-determination, to their own country. It has never been more urgent for progressive Israelis and Palestinians to unite for authentic self-determination for both peoples.
B. Women’s revolution in Iran
Women’s revolt has shaken Iran since the morality police murdered 22-year-old Jina (Mahsa) Amini last September. The revolt quickly became so revolutionary that the idea took hold that the country could never be the same. The rulers feel the threat so deeply that they have violently repressed protests and have been executing men, mostly young, who participated or supported the movement. Each execution sparks more protests.
The poisoning of school girls also continues. They have taken place so regularly and in so many different parts of the country that no one believes that the government is not behind it. Adding fuel to that fire is the fact that the many different policing/military organizations in Iran—from the Guidance Patrol (morality police) to the anti-“riot” Special Unit to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—infiltrate, harass, beat, murder and arrest so efficiently that it is unlikely that they wouldn’t have worked out who is mass poisoning school girls unless they are doing it themselves.
While the government threatened to shut down businesses that do not enforce strict dress codes on women—as women are still regularly defying draconian decrees to cover their hair—many establishments find defying the government’s threat is actually good for business. Thus, the revolt continues.
C. France’s massive worker-student protests
Over the past few months France has exploded in mass protests, demonstrations, and strikes against a so-called pension reform which will force workers to work two additional years, to the age of 64, to receive their pension. This follows an earlier change which jumped the retirement age from 60 to 62. So massive and continuous have been the demonstrations against President Macron and his government that comparisons have been made to the May-June 1968 protests that shook French society.
Over several weeks there was a unity of all the major trade unions to organize walkouts and strikes. Workers in transportation and many industries, as well as farmers of the Peasant Confederation, have been joined by students from the high schools and the universities blockading and occupying their institutions. These demonstrations have not been limited to Paris, always the center of France’s long history of revolt, but have been occurring in the provinces, in towns and small cities. Protesters were of all ages and occupations, with many joining in their very first demonstrations. In short, it appears that an overwhelming majority of the French people are opposing the pension changes.
This did not stop the arrogant Macron, who realized he could not get a majority in the National Assembly, and therefore imposed the pension changes by decree. This has in turn further infuriated the population.
MASS DEMOCRACY FROM BELOW
We are witnessing an important struggle: Bourgeois democracy with its formalism and manipulation versus mass democracy from below, in the streets. That democracy from below has been very inventive in its slogans. One reads: “metro-boulot-tombeau,” that is “metro-work-tomb.” Then came “Tu nous mets 64—on te mai 68,” “You give us 64, we give you May ’68.”
Raising May 1968 brings forth an important point for the French protesters to work out: As great as the events of 1968 were in shaking French society to the roots, in the end the slogan of that moment—“Everything is possible”—did not give birth to a new society, but only de Gaulle remaining in power.
What we are witnessing in France 2023 has moved far beyond the pension question. What hangs over the demonstrations is the question of what kind of a society is France today and their lives within it? That must be confronted explicitly and not be allowed to be short-circuited.