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Anarchy In The Jewish State: Hunter Stuart hangs out on the margins with anarchists who want to abolish the government
The Jerusalem Report magazine: June 2016
By Hunter Stuart
Nine anarchists crowd into the small room, and take seats on the floor. A lightly-mohawked fellow named Tal comes around and takes everyone’s phones.
“We don’t want people listening in on the meeting,” Tal explains, disappearing from the room with an armful of smartphones, which he empties into a drawer in the kitchen.
Bang! The drawer shuts, and the meeting can begin.
This is the monthly assembly of the Israeli anarcho-communist group Unity, a six-year-old organization based in Tel Aviv and Haifa that supports dissolving Israel’s borders and abolishing the government in favor of “a non-national society.”
Unity does not pretend it can overthrow the Israeli and Palestinian governments on its own. Its mission is merely to raise awareness about anarchism. “We’re a propaganda organization,” says Yigal Levin, 29, one of the group’s founders. Unity’s online literature, which is published in Hebrew, Arabic and English, explains that in addition to abolishing Israel’s borders, the group opposes a two-state solution.
“We are certain that the replacement of a dispossessive settler state with a joint state in Palestine… will not constitute a solution for most problems facing the Hebrew and Arabic society in this country,” the group’s manifesto proclaims. “We support a more thorough, radical process of de-colonization.”
I spent two weeks in May hanging out with a dozen Israeli anarchists from three different groups ‒ seeing them protest in the streets, watching them get arrested and tear-gassed, and talking to them on city benches late into the night over cheap cigarettes and cold bottles of Budvar. Some of them were hostile, deriding me as part of “the establishment but many were generous and open, patiently explaining their philosophy, answering my many questions, and even offering me their beds if I needed somewhere to sleep.
Many who subscribe to the anarchist creed do so because they want to live a kind of communal, utopian existence, where they’re in charge of their own affairs. Authority and centralized government, they think, are inherently coercive. Human beings, on the other hand, are inherently good and will naturally form their own social order in a peaceful and productive way ‒ if only given the chance.
It’s a noble idea, to be sure. Yet the movement is fraught by clumsy public relations and a lack of organization. Even the website for the Institute of Anarchist Studies, an anarchist publishing organization in Oregon, concedes that the movement “has yet to acquire the rigor and complexity needed to comprehend and transform the present.”
Israel’s oldest and best-known anarchist group is Anarchists Against the Wall, a loose organization of anti-occupation agitators who demonstrate against the separation barrier in the West Bank. Although the group has no wider anarchist platform, and not all of its members are anarchists, its commitment sets them apart: they’ve been traveling to Palestinian-led protests in West Bank villages almost every Friday for more than a decade.
“The reason we have no manifesto is because it’s not relevant,” an Israeli Anarchists Against the Wall organizer who’s in his forties tells The Jerusalem Report during clashes with the IDF in Ni’lin, a Palestinian village, in late May. “The most relevant thing we can be doing right now is this.”
Tal is a teenage student who lives with his parents in a nice neighborhood in Haifa. A Mizrahi Jewish anarchist and activist, Tal wears a nose-ring and black clothes. As he puts it: “I look like a freak.” The combination of his dress style and brown skin make Tal the subject of frequent searches by the police in Haifa. “It happens about once a week,” he says.
The police sometimes make him pull open his underwear so they can look inside to see if he’s hiding drugs. These repeated violations of his privacy by Israeli police officers are part of why Tal is a believer in anarchism, which eschews authoritarian figures such as cops, and aims to create a radically egalitarian society.
The anarchist movement in Israel is very small, even for an already small country. Past estimates have put their total number at 300 or so, but I’d estimate the number to be significantly higher based on the fact that I saw at least 100 people turn out for a Unity rally in Haifa on a recent afternoon. Still, the anarchist movement has not caught on in Israel the way it has in other parts of the world.
Part of the reason is because the state has such a monopoly over the means of violence, and is so well-equipped to handle popular unrest, says Yossi Shain, a political philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University. “These types of anarchist groups [like Unity] are incredibly marginal,” he tells The Report, explaining that the military strength of the government naturally inhibits such behavior.
Anarchism may also be unattractive to Israelis because to dissolve the country’s borders, which are considered vital for national security and are often seen as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, may seem a rather daunting task to the average layman.
An Israeli restaurant worker and activist named Anne who self-identifies as an anarchist says it could be “totally paralyzing” to consider how difficult that task was. “But the point isn’t to win, it’s about doing the right thing, and that’s why we do it,” says Anne, who is in her early thirties and lives in Jerusalem.
Lena Pasinkova, a Russian-Israeli journalist who’s also a member of Unity, agrees. The 26-year-old anarchist says it’s very difficult to get the two sides to cooperate in Israel-Palestine. “I don’t know how I can make people more in solidarity with each other,” Pasinkova tells The Report on a break from her job washing dishes in a sweltering kitchen in Haifa’s German Colony. “I feel that all I can do in Israel [as an anarchist activist] is worry that the government is on a road to fascism.”
Agree with her or not, it’s hard not to admire Pasinkova’s dedication to the cause. She fled Russia for Israel in 2014 after a stunt she pulled in St. Petersburg landed her on the wrong side of the law. Pasinkova and a small group of fellow activists had built a large fire in the street and publicly called for Russia to end its military involvement in Ukraine.
“The point was to say to Russia, ‘If you don’t stop intervention in Ukraine, Maidan [Nezalezhnosti, the central square of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine] will use this bridge to come to you, that social revolution will come to Russia,’” she explains. “It was kind of a joke, but a serious joke. We wanted to say that as long as you kill other people, you’ll also get killed. Russia kills people in Syria, and so they are killed by Syrians. They intervene in Ukraine, and they also die there.”
Pasinkova says she was facing up to three years in prison for vandalism ‒ a fellow activist, Pyotr Pavlensky, is currently serving a 16-month stint behind bars for his role in the same demonstration.
So, when her lawyers advised her to flee Russia, she did, leaving her family and friends behind to move to Israel in 2014. She joined Unity shortly afterwards, and made Aliyah soon thereafter, when her Russian foreign passport was going to expire. In addition to her job as a dishwasher and her organizing activities with Unity, Pasinkova is a writer and editor for Political Critiques, an online magazine based in Poland, Ukraine and Russia.
The anarchist struggle in Israel-Palestine has her pretty worn out these days, she admits. But she doesn’t intend to stick around long ‒ she plans to go to Turkish Kurdistan soon, to study anarchism and “join the revolution.”
Here, in Israel, there are several ways anarchists grapple with the state. The first is the mandatory draft. When Jewish Israelis turn 18, they’re compelled to serve three years in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), or two years for women. Though there are plenty of Israeli anarchists who aren’t pacifists, serving in the IDF is anathema to their cause.
As a result, some find loopholes that allow them to avoid conscription, such as feigning or exaggerating psychological issues. Others, like Edo, an unemployed activist from northern Israel, refuse to be labeled “mentally unfit,” and spend time in prison for refusing to serve. Edo, 19, tells The Report he spent 90 days in Israeli prisons last year for rejecting IDF orders to enlist.
‘The Past Holds Us All In a Net’
Trying to create a practical framework for their philosophy is something that has given pains to Jewish anarchists for more than a century, from American civil rights campaigner Emma Goldman (1869-1940) to the German political philosopher Gustav Landauer (1870-1919). Landauer’s answer to this question was to argue that government could not be violently overthrown, but only gradually dissolved over time by people making it superfluous, which could be accomplished if they changed their behavior.
“The State is a condition, a certain relationship among human beings,” he famously said, according to the 1950 book Paths in Utopia by the German Jewish politico-religious scholar, Martin Buber. “We destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.” In other words, if enough people voluntarily remove themselves from the establishment, the establishment itself would naturally decay, meaning there’d be no need for a violent workers’ revolution.
Goldman, on the other hand, refrained entirely from trying to map out how the anarchist future would look. Doing so, she maintained, could actually be damaging to the anarchist endeavor itself.
“I believe that Anarchism cannot consistently impose an iron-clad program or method on the future,” she wrote in her 1910 book Anarchism and Other Essays, which is often cited by Israeli anarchists explaining their belief system. “The things every new generation has to fight, and which it can least overcome, are the burdens of the past, which holds us all in a net.”
Such eloquent prose was a knack of Goldman’s, who is one of history’s most prolific ‒ and most troublesome ‒ anarchists. A Russian-born Jewish immigrant to the US, Goldman became an ardent civil rights advocate soon after arriving to America, even going to prison on several occasions for incendiary speeches she delivered and, once, for speaking in favor of birth control.
Goldman personifies how anarchist agitating can be misunderstood in the present, but sometimes proves important decades, or even centuries, later. In her time, Goldman was considered a traitor and threat to public security ‒ J. Edgar Hoover called her one of “the most dangerous anarchists in the country,” and frankly the assessment wasn’t entirely off the mark. The man who assassinated US President William McKinley cited Goldman as his inspiration, and Goldman helped plan the assassination of a wealthy steel magnate, Henry Clay Frick, whose private security forces had killed a number of striking factory workers in Pittsburgh. The shooting attempt failed, and her accomplice, Alexander Berkman, who was also her sometimes lover, ended up serving a lengthy prison term for the crime.
But the ideas that Goldman devoted her life to ‒ such as women’s rights, gay rights and workers’ rights ‒ are widely accepted today. Leading civil rights campaigners, such as the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union, have said Goldman inspired them. Goldman’s friend, Harry Weinberger, said at her funeral that she would “live forever in the hearts of [her] friends,” and that “the story of [her] life will live as long as the stories are told of women and men of courage and idealism.”
So far, he’s turned out to be right.
A Public Relations Problem
The anarchist protest in Haifa on May 1, or “May Day,” was held on the anniversary of the Haymarket Riots, which occurred in Chicago in 1886 when laborers protesting for a shorter workday clashed with police. Seven police officers died in the violence, and eight labor activists, were later sentenced to death or long terms in prison for their roles in the killings, although little evidence was presented that linked them to the crimes.
The Haifa march, organized by Unity, is intended to commemorate and continue the workers’ struggles in Chicago in those years. An announcement posted on Unity’s website declares that the point of the march is to advocate for a six-hour workday, yet the significance of the demonstration is largely lost on bystanders.
As the group of anarchists marches through downtown Haifa banging drums and cowbells and holding aloft banners bearing slogans such as “From the river to the sea, freedom for everyone” and “No Gods, no masters, no nations, no borders,” passersby appear confused. Others are outright hostile, shouting curses at the group from passing cars. One man hangs out the window of a passing truck and shoves two fingers rapidly back and forth through a hole he’d made with his other hand.
Edo, the 19-year- old refusenik, says this kind of thing is inevitable. “It happens at every leftist protest,” he acknowledges but worries that the negative image given off by the march could alienate people from the cause. “For an outsider who doesn’t know what we’re talking about, it just looks like a bunch of punks with black flags shouting stuff.”
In a country where the left-wing is often called treasonous, people have a special loathing for anarchists, who occupy a position on the political spectrum to the left of most leftists. Comments like “I’d love to see the police bust open their heads” and “These terrorist Arab lovers should be expelled from the country” are typical in Israeli news stories about anarchist protests and other anarchist activities.
To be fair, anarchists have caused some mayhem in Israel over the years, which explains some of the vitriol. In recent years, they’ve changed the names of streets in Tel Aviv; torched settlers’ fields in the West Bank, and thrown tear gas canisters at the US ambassador’s house in Herzliya.
This sort of civil disobedience (and outright criminal activity) is known as “illegalism.” Apparently embraced by a sizeable minority of anarchists in Israel, its purpose is to provoke or attack state institutions in order to trigger a response and to inspire others. When asked why protesters at the May Day rally were blocking traffic, a stunt that resulted in the arrests of two of the demonstrators, one anarchist told me, “It was just for fun. We don’t like to walk in a straight line as the police tell us to.”
A smaller minority of Israeli anarchists support outright violence as a means to their political ends. A 25-year- old restaurant manager I meet in Haifa, who openly identifies as an anarchist, says in all seriousness that he “loves” violence. “The state uses violence against us every day,” he says, giving taxes as a somewhat dubious example. “If I don’t pay my taxes, the authorities will arrest me and force me to go to prison,” he says. Therefore, regular people have the right to resist the coercive government.
But his views are not typical of most Israeli anarchists ‒ most take a more nuanced view of the need for violence. Unity, for example, which has about 30 members, says it eschews violence under all conditions except one: self-defense.
Levin, the swarthy Ukrainian-Israeli who co-founded Unity in 2010, tells me that, when the revolution comes, he believes “bosses, politicians and rich folks” will “try to fight and destroy the revolutionary masses.” Therefore, it’s justified for the people to defend themselves, says Levin, 29, who was an IDF officer during the Second Lebanon War and adds that he had right-wing political views that were “close to fascist” before he became an anarchist seven years ago. He says his change of heart occurred after witnessing “the injustice that Zionists do to Palestinians” in the West Bank and Gaza.
But anarchism is mostly a peaceful ideology—or at least that’s what the anarchists say. "It's not human nature to fight,” said a socialist writer in his middle ages who I met at the Unity protest in May.
“Sure, there is some arguing that happens between people who live together,” he said. “But when millions of people go and kill millions of other people—that can only happen when there are big institutions organizing it.”