Civil Awakening

Ariella Azoulay

…and while you are returning home,
your home,
think of others
don’t forget the people of the tents…

(Mahmoud Darwish, tr. Fayeq Oweis)

One summer day in July 2011, without any particular previous sign, masses of civilians appeared in the streets and public squares all over the State of Israel. Nothing in their  presence, in their civil claims and protest, was predictable. Not because they were not oppressed by the regime, or by what many now prefer to call “the system”, they certainly were. For many years, the “state of emergency” declared by the State and never abolished, made all those justified claims become less important than the “urgent security needs” that devoured the public budget. In the past decade, with the implementation of neo-liberal economy in Israel, the majority of the citizens learned that “security”—if not always, at least now—is an alibi for privatization.

Levinski encampment (southern Tel Aviv), photographer: Dafna Talmon

The tent, spontaneously chosen as the elementary form of this protest, quickly became part of a rich civil language of an orchestrated claim to share the public space. As many signs and banners in various encampments indicated overtly, the immediate reference and source of inspiration for the outburst of multiple encampments in Israel were the Egyptian protest tent camps of last spring, with the individual tent as an elemental and symbolic component.  Like mushrooms, the ready-to-use tents had started to spread throughout shadowy areas in parks and boulevards, and formed condensed encampments where, facilitated by local tent dwellers, vivid open discussions take place. From mid-July to the beginning of September, this new use of public space became part of the Israeli landscape, surprisingly unhampered by municipal agents and representatives of the law.

From the very beginning, rumors of possible evacuations made the rounds. Surprisingly, the days passed and the space claimed by citizens continued to be managed with hardly any sovereign interference or disturbance. The protesters regained their citizenship by being part of a community which they contribute to shape and in which they can express their claims, voices, ideas, needs and creativity.

Tent city dismantled by police, Jesse Cohen Neighborhood, Holon, photographer: activestills

Tent city dismantled by police, Jesse Cohen Neighborhood, Holon, photographer: activestills

On 4 September, the day after the “one million protest”—attended by half a million people—and a few days after a squatting action in several abandoned public buildings, several encampments began to be evacuated by force, followed by arrests and several violent incidents. As protestors refuse to be evacuated from public space, the civil awakening seems to be moving on to a new phase whose outcome is unclear as yet. Independently of the nature and results of this second phase, the continuous presence of tens of thousands civilians occupying public space in Israel, and the continuous absence of state agents to “protect” them from “suspect” Palestinians, is in itself a remarkable civil performance, unprecedented in Israel’s militarized public space. This duality made possible the relatively quick transition from a mere few tents to an encampment, and from tents to light construction.

Light construction, Jesse Cohen encampment, Holon, photographer: Daniela Orvin

The encampments soon hosted sofas, tables, chairs, mattresses, refrigerators, connections to electrical power, children’s toys, and special corners were assigned for various services: legal advice, food, discussion areas, water supply etc. This escalation is echoed in the protesters’ rhetoric: “If they sweep away tents, they’ll get shacks, and if they clear out the shacks, they’ll get houses,” as well as the determination not to be evacuated, as Shula Keshet, the leader of the Levinsky (southern Tel Aviv) encampment declared: “We’ll sit inside our tents, we will not be evacuated. We do not intend to be violent, our resistance will be passive, but we will not budge from the encampment, plain and simple.”

The presence of those private spaces—the tents—serving as nightly sleeping places at the center of public spaces constitutes a blatant statement about the flawed nature of both private and public space in Israel.

The initial coming-out of young people on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, demanding fairly-priced public housing, soon turned into a rich civil discourse joined by Jews and Palestinians, men and women, secular and religious people, workers and members of the middle classes, and every one of their specific demands echoes an essential, general need to restore access to both private and public space.

Having “access to a home” is prerequisite to sharing public space.[1] In a civil discourse, the question of owning private property is less at stake than the affordable access to a private place where one can feel at home and retire there on a daily basis from commonly shared space; such access to a private space is vital for the existence of public space as the latter can be constantly renewed by those assembling in it, shifting and changing at random. Public space, it is often forgotten, is not only about openness of shared space and its principle accessibility to all , but also about the random nature of encounters in it due to everyone’s access to private spaces. What actually emerges as a civil claim from the “Israeli summer” is that the preservation of public space as shared space depends on the fact that individuals assembling there have access to a home of their own, and that shared space will not be occupied by tycoons, who have been allowed by the governing power to permanently occupy more and more areas of public space with their own private property. The Israeli summer should therefore be understood as targeting these two types of space alike. Access to home as a pre-condition for the existence of public space, and shared access to the public space as a pre-condition for acquiring affordable access to a private space. The access to a private space is not a condition meant to limit the actual entry of individuals into public space or determine who is entitled to partake in it. It is a condition that ensures that the individual would not turn shared space into his or her own in a way that would exclude others. Both access to home, like access to shared space, then, are not mutually exclusive but condition and enable each other. The relation between private and public space is mandatory, and the two kinds of space—private and public—cannot exist properly unless each and every one of the inhabitants have access to both.

Since the Israeli regime has demolished close to two hundred thousand homes since its foundation in 1948, private space in Israel cannot be considered safe shelter.[2] Massive house demolition has always been rationalized and justified on grounds of security and targeted only Palestinians. Until this summer, Israeli Jews were not urged to question the nature of their political regime responsible for this devastation, nor did they bother much with public space that has become an un-shared space, where sharing space with others  becomes possible only in the presence of soldiers, policemen and security guards. This summer, even if the majority of protestors allude to the neo-liberal economy as the source of their inability to secure a home for themselves, no one in the street doubts that the political regime has shirked its responsibility to guarantee a safe home for the entire

governed population. The extent of the protest and its heterogeneity require a hermeneutic effort that goes beyond local and specific claims and seek the general drive of this general awakening. This should no more be reconstructed solely from Jewish encampments, for civil claims of the same kind against abuses of private and public spaces are voiced all over, in Arab localities in Israel, in mixed cities as well as beyond the ‘green line’. The picture to be drawn from these accumulating protests is of a comprehensive system of abuse of private and public space. Connecting the various formations of this civil awakening and its various geographic areas, one realizes it expresses an all-out rejection of the regime.

If the Israeli summer bears any tidings, these would be an answer to the analysis made by Michael Hardt, who—following the World Social forum in Porto Allegro—pointed to two positions: “in response to today’s dominant forces of globalization, either one can work to reinforce the sovereignty of nation-states as a defensive barrier against the control of foreign and global capital; or one can strive towards a non-national alternative to the present form of globalization that is equally global. The first poses neoliberalism as the primary analytical category, viewing the enemy as unrestricted global capitalist activity with weak state controls; the second is more clearly posed against capital itself, whether state-regulated or not.”[3]

A “state of all its citizens,” a model formulated in the 1990s by Azmi Bishara would neither reinforce the nation-state (it will necessarily lead to its abolition), nor support one global democracy. The source of sovereignty of a welfare state of all its citizens will not be the nation, and its membership in international organizations will not be based upon mutual agreements and treaties that guarantee military and free market idols. Its source of sovereignty will be located in the entire governed population, continuously re-naturalized in order to guarantee and renew universal conditions for sharing the common world. This could not be achieved without addressing the crimes of the past perpetrated by the former nation-state and inventing new ways to welcome back as full citizens all the dispossessed and uprooted populations the nation-state produced. If the Israeli summer bears any tidings it will be in this perspective.

Astonishingly, the tent, the most fragile of dwellings, has become a symbol of civil power and even more—a tool for civil empowerment. The tents, the signs and the banners used by the protesters are part of a civil language that differs from the sovereign power gestures in public space symbolized by demarcation strips, security guards, and checking points. Israeli Jews, who for decades have collaborated with the need to contract universal citizenship into a Jewish one, and in turning open public spaces into private spaces secured by force of arms and dependent upon market favors—perform outright, in the open street, the possibility of life liberated from the chains of the security idol.

A home, private as it might be, often maintains a form of partnership.[4] This type of partnership needs privacy and the means to protect itself from the outside, but being a form of partnership, hermetic sealing can be achieved only through oppression. This civil awakening, I would claim, reveal the sedimentation of oppression in one type of passage that link private and public spaces in Israel. Based on my own biography, I shall present four general conditions under which a Jewish citizen in the State of Israel shapes her home.

 

1. Access to the past

The past is the home’s foundations. Unlike internal partitions, foundations must serve all the dwellers of the house and cannot become the private property of some of them. They cannot support only the northern room and let the southern room collapse. Erasing the past is a violent act that threatens the common foundations of the house and harms the dwellers upon whom such erasure has been imposed. The way the past is present and articulated depends on the dwellers. There is no standard tested formula for the ways and power of its presencing. Some prefer to store the past in cardboard crates in the attic and forget about them. Some profit by forgetting while others experience special pleasure in constant recall. Home is private space but, as said before, no less a certain type of shared space. Therefore none of its inhabitants can appropriate for themselves the past that should in principle be made accessible to others whom it concerns as well. Erasing, removing, lying or silencing—even when presented as protective measures—eventually prove to be damaging acts that injure others and do not enable those for whom this past is relevant to place themselves in relation to it and reshape themselves accordingly. This principle should be preserved even though equality—needed to maintain public space—cannot fully exist in the home, typically characterized by asymmetrical relations such as exist between parents and children, for example, or various restrictions on using different areas of such a space like “a room of your own” or shared areas the use of which should be arranged in consideration and responsibility. Of all the things that the dwellers share, the past in particular cannot possibly be privately owned of some of them. Growing up in a Jewish home in Israel—where the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians and the devastation and dispossession of their homes were not discussed—like my entire generation I was destined to become an unknowing accomplice to the crime of erasing the Nakba. In practical terms, ownership of the past—which the generation of the State’s founders claimed for itself—means depriving us, their descendants, of the right to access it, to interpret it differently and claim to recognize their deeds as crimes and injustices that need to be undone  and rectified. Building a house upon shared foundations helps to prevent forms of asymmetry or inequality inside it from being perpetuated as the exclusive form of relations. A home that does not maintain some kind of metabolism with the past, that does not enable one to open towards the past through the mediation of others and following their awakening to it, dooms the unequal relations that might exist within the home for limited periods of time to a fixed pattern of unspoken, denied and silenced oppression.

Dor Guez, video still from "Watermelons Under the Bed," 8':13''

However, not only the erasing of the Nakba lies at the heart of the Israeli Jewish home. Much has been said about erasure of the past that was required of the Mizrahi Jews when they came to Israel as immigrants and about the various dimensions of such erasure—of language, tastes, fragrances, music, art, poetry, climate, landscape etc. However, nothing has been said to date about the erasure of the past required of all Jewish citizens of the State. Only in recent years have we, descendants of this violent erasure, discovered that which was erased, and fragments of memory began to rise to the surface and, like holes in a net, mark the contradictions that erasing had left, designating the areas in which one might begin to complete the missing parts. I shall briefly present one such memory. About a year ago, artist Dor Guez told me he was directing a film about watermelons that his grandfather used to keep under his bed. Guez’s grandfather is a Christian Palestinian from Lydd.  My own grandfather, too, a Jew born in Rishon Lezion, is etched in my memory as the master of watermelons. Every year our table was replete with watermelons long after summer’s end and watermelon was not served anymore at my friends’ houses, all Jews. We had them only because my grandfather used to grow them under his and my grandmother’s bed.  Eventually I grew up and shed the illusion that watermelons grew under beds. But storing them there was a local custom that my grandfather acquired from his Palestinian neighbors and not from his own Bulgarian family roots, and it remained out of my own sight along with various other colorful ways of existence-together with neighbors of my family before 1948. Until the last decade, the management and control of history at home and outside prevented the appearance of questions regarding this past. Once the dams broke, questions proliferated and along with them, stuttering and silences. A year ago my mother passed away and it then became clear that I would never have an answer for the question I had asked her again and again in the past decade—how could she, and my grandparents have never inquired about the disappearance of the Palestinian washerwoman and the orange grove workers who’d worked for them. And if they asked, how could the answer they had received possibly satisfy them, and why, at least in their own home, did they not wish to preserve the memory of the friendly and neighborly relations they had had with their Palestinian neighbors. At any rate, had she been able to connect to the pain which I wish to believe that such massive displacement wreaks upon the remaining Jewish population, her answer to this question would remain only partial. One would still need to discover how the State managed to engineer the hundreds of thousands of Jews living here not to sense that the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of their Palestinian neighbors is a destructive, devastating event for the uprooters themselves.[5] Instead, the state organs provided grounds and justifications, for several decades sealing a discussion that never took place. Thus Jewish citizens grew up in homes where a secret had been buried, homes in which they were taught to say there was no secret, no expulsion, no disaster, and their world was shaped upon these foundations. Some of them grew up to be moral people who judge right and wrong in every aspect of life except for this chapter in history that they never got to know.

Under the regime which, since its onset in 1948, has imposed a tent-dwelling existence upon hundreds of thousands of Palestinians—first as part of the state-founding project, and later as a part of what became the ongoing project of demolishing Palestinian homes—the choice of the tent as a means and as a symbol of civil awakening in Israel cannot be interpreted merely in keeping with the intentions of those who chose to dwell in it. The tent has a history in the relations of the Israeli regime with a part of this country’s inhabitants, whether it recognized them as its governed (even if as non-citizens) or expelled them from their land and turned them into non-governed. Choosing the tent, even prior to determining the contents it expresses, is a performative act by which the citizens appear to the regime from an unexpected place. This is a place that contests one of the separation lines essential to the existence of the regime in Israel – between the Jewish Israeli as a protected homeowner whom the ruling power, through its citizens, does everything to protect, and the Palestinian fated to live as a temporary tenant in his/her own home, constantly threatened by destruction. The tents that have covered the land were the place from which, for the very first time since 1948, civil discourse has burst forth that does not heed the lines of separation between Jews and Palestinians.

A framework is still missing to conceptualize the continuity between the civil struggle waged by Palestinians beyond the ‘green line’ and the civil struggle begun in July 2011 within it. However, when one listens to the civil language spoken in both, it is difficult not to realize that it is one and the same language, and that it is beginning to produce the conditions needed for its further development. These conditions cannot tolerate the violent administration of borders and demarcation lines for which a differential sovereign rule is responsible. One hopes that “Tent 48,” erected in the heart of Rothschild Boulevard, will develop to provide such a framework.

Tent 48, photographer: activestills

2. The way in which home is tangential to the space outside.

Space outside the home is not only public. It also consists of the private space of others, the ways in which the private home relates to other private homes, to others who also have a home, to neighbors. In this context one should speak not only of neighborly relations but of the actual access to a home of those with whom the space is shared. The demand for obtainable housing heard in the streets through the two words “social justice” is not—and cannot be—a demand by individuals for a home while tolerating its denial for others. It is a universal demand by individuals who realize that the struggle for a home, although it is a struggle over private space, is a shared, public struggle. It expresses the understanding which the present regime has lacked since the day it was founded—that a home cannot properly exist if its foundations contain its denial for others. Beyond the walls and locks that designate the private domain, homes erected since 1948 have necessitated fortifications such as fences, walls, alarm systems, flags and security guards until the State has practically taken on the shape of a lordly fortress rather than that of shared space that preserves the right of citizens to access a home of their own.

Since the founding of the State, its blue and white flag has become the marker of a barrier between the private and public domains. The size of the Israeli flag that my mother used to hang on our balcony made me increasingly uneasy, as a child. Without understanding why, I regarded it as an act of provocation. The past which many took the trouble to silence was not entirely erased, and the signs that it left, which no one bothered to remove altogether, were registered quite as they were, unspoken and unexplained, but still called by names whose dissonance was not supposed to grate the ear. Thus, for example, as a child I accompanied my mother to the “Oumchaled” (correctly Umm Khaled) health clinic without sensing that the name I repeated was an Arabic one, without knowing that the building had been the former home of the local sheikh. The flag I recall as a place of unexplained unease, stemming perhaps from the fact that it did not make me feel what I was taught to feel—partnership. By the time I made a home of my own I already had the words to say why I refuse to hang the Israeli flag on its front.

One flag missing, private photographer

The flag, I believe, was the first object through which my children experienced the particular exile that our home demanded of all its dwellers through the actual refusal to present at its front that which had become a fact—“we” deserve a home and others do not. For me, the refusal to fly the flag was my own retreat from the display of Jewish sovereignty in a mixed land where Arabs and Jews had previously lived under different formations. The refusal to display on our house front a flag in the name of which hundreds of thousands of homes had been demolished and their dwellers denied the right to come back and rebuild them, was a refusal to have our relations with the space outside become such that perpetuate the domination violently acquired in 1948, turning any home owner in Israel into the owner of public space.

Now there are people in the boulevard who do hoist a flag, but it is concealed amidst proliferating signs that deny its status as a symbol of national sovereignty. The civil awakening of summer 2011 has created a type of point-zero where citizens speak to each other, suspending the point of view of the ruling power and its symbols and reshaping the nature of their partnership. It is a dramatic moment because for the very first time since 1948, it reopens the possibilities facing the governed to shape their partnership without letting the ruling power deprive them of the most fundamental of their rights—not to be

perpetrators, not to become those who harm others governed alongside them. Even if not all those seen on the streets now raise the banner of reshaping Jewish-Palestinian partnership, they all refuse to hail the need to remove Palestinians and harm others in order to preserve their own life. This is so eloquently expressed in the slogan heard time and again during these weeks—“Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”

Demonstration, Aug. 2011, photographer: activestills

"One million demonstration," 3 Sept. 2011, photographer: Yochai Avrahami

Every tent resounds with the understanding that there is no public space without regulating relations, mutual agreement and partnership. The greatest threat that now hovers over the shared space that citizens have created for themselves is the sovereign one made by the government, as it intends to remove the tent encampments in order to prepare for the Palestinian declaration of sovereignty, to be made in September.

3. Access to outer voices.

Home, being a closed space where for certain periods of time relations of dominance are maintained, can potentially create a homogenous narrative while silencing other voices. In the State of Israel, due to the flaws I have described in the way that home relates to public space and the private space of others, public space has become accessible especially to those who have accepted the demand to publicly presence “our” exclusive “entitlement” to a home in the shared space.

The expulsion of Palestinians from their homes involved treachery and deceit, rejecting that which was shared, expropriation of common space from those who had moved through it freely before. Thus, in fact, it was turned into private space the access to which became administered and limited. The lie about the expulsion of Palestinians by the hundreds of thousands from their homes, the takeover of their property, and the refusal to accept their demand to return here, have turned public space into a certain type of private space from which voices must be removed that threaten this takeover. The voices that now resound in the streets—all the voices—are such that signify to the present regime that we do not want to be its soldiers. If one day an enemy appears, perhaps some will mobilize to remove him. In the meantime, the crowds assembling in the streets, sleeping in vulnerable structures in public squares and boulevards, publicly expose this regime’s great secret and declare—we have no enemy.

Rotschild Boulevard, Aug. 2011, photographer: Eldad Rafaelie

And if we do, it is present only in the form of this regime that has robbed us of public space, placed security guards everywhere and made obvious the fact that public space is and must be governed and administered by the ruling power for the maintenance of its own agenda. The rulers’ agenda is not our own, we— the inhabitants of this place. The ruling agenda is meant to preserve the rule and power relations between the governing classes and the governed. These are demarcated along divisions of class and capital as well as ethnicity. In both arenas, citizens have been defeated by the ruling power and recruited to preserve it. Citizens have not done this without the assistance of security guards who have been placed over them to “protect” them, lest we expose the fact that the rule that robbed the Palestinians actually robbed Israeli Jews, too, of their most cherished asset—universal citizenship.

Levinski encampment, Sept., photographer: Liat Halwani

In the name of universal citizenship, civil awakening has been generated in the streets, and refuses to continue carrying out the ruling agenda. In the name of universal citizenship, civil awakening has been inviting more and more voices, mixed and heterogeneous as they might be, they express the dual understanding that the only rule they will accept is:

  1. rule under which all governed will participate in its ongoing shaping;
  2. rule that does not destroy the public space in which the governed—all becoming citizens—will continue to shape for themselves frameworks whereby they say to the ruling power—“this here is out of your rule.”

The regime created in Israel has necessitated the exile of other voices from public space, and their blurring into private spaces that cannot demand neighborly relations with the other governed. The regime constituted in 1948 did not act for the good of the entire citizenry but rather sought to impose and preserve itself and the lies that were involved in creating the model of its basic power relations—survival of the strongest. Thus, the Palestinian military defeat in 1948 was used to justify the refusal to enable their return—after all, they were the ones to “run away” so they should pay.

This is a double lie and thanks to its preservation, civil awakening such as was just now seen in the streets has waited silently for decades until it burst forth. The better-known part of the lie concerns that which was done to Palestinians—exiled, displaced, dispossessed, denied return. The less widely known part of this lie, however, was and still is that which was done to Jewish Israelis—made compliant keepers of the lie, without any access to the most elementary information about it. The fundamental right which this civil awakening enables us to claim is the right to not have crimes perpetrated in our name unbeknownst to us, the right not to have to regard them as an existential must, the right not to have to remain frightened and believe that without them our very existence is in peril.

The civil awakening proves that it does not need security guards, or soldiers, or rulers. This awakening breaks out of the self-segregation that characterized private and public spaces, their closeness, the stifling effect of too many keepers of the secret, soldiers and security guards who distance anyone daring to publicly display any of the secret’s details.

Take a look around the various encampments throughout the country—when has such a day of independence from foreign rule last been seen where individuals celebrate their shared existence with others, conduct debates, yell, disagree, insist, all in view of a horizon that says—no matter how deep the controversy, there is no choice but to reach mutual agreement of all the voices, without a-priori removing a single one.

Notes to conclude.

One on exile, a second on the new right that must serve as the basis for any civil contract, the third on why it is superfluous to argue whether this civil awakening is political, and the fourth—on revolution as a civil language.

Exile.

This civil awakening, emerging in all parts of the local spectrum, reveals how homogeneous public space has been, or in other words, to what extent a proper public space has been missing. Homogeneity was a kind of recruiting order, and any withdrawal from it was a form of exile. I chose this exile because I chose to reject the rules of the game of the commonly shared space. It was an exile-by-choice since I did not wish to be made a collaborator, but it was not a willing exile. Under circumstances created by the regime, I had no other choice but internal exile. Had circumstances been different, given a real choice, I would prefer to live and raise my children in an open society where I did not have to tell them—whenever they went out to celebrate with Jews—that they were perpetuating previous dispossession and robbery. As a mother, the choice of exile that I made for myself has become increasingly difficult and painful. One has had to share with them from early on the troubling information about the various ways in which the school system robs them of their citizenship whenever it promises them protection in the form of a “secured” public space, a public space that is “theirs.” But alongside the price, it holds out a gift, one now publicly sought by all those coming out into the streets—the gift of not participating in a regime or system that harms others.

The right not to cause harm, not to be a victimizer.

The demand for social justice is a demand for justice that does not begin and end with the individual, represent the individual or the individual’s immediate affiliation group. The term “social” is a neutral form that enables one to demand justice for all in a society torn asunder by the regime along ethnic and national separation lines. However, the demand for social justice contains more than the call for a fairer allocation of resources. This demand embodies the fundamental right that has been denied us, the State’s Jewish citizens, on the day it was founded— the right not to harm others. Some of us have been deprived of this right knowingly—those who were there during the first decade of the State. Those who were then adults cannot say without lying, “I didn’t know that 750,000 people were expelled,” or “I didn’t know that over four hundred villages, towns, and neighborhoods in mixed cities were destroyed.” Their descendants can and do say to this very day—“I didn’t know.” And most of them, indeed, did not know.  Hardly a decade has passed since the term Nakba entered the Hebrew language (to a great extent thanks to “Zochrot,” an association that has forged a significant channel for this important chapter of the past). Its appearance has revealed how many layers of deceit and distortion have made the Nakba’s existence inaccessible as a disaster. As a descendant of the generation that was a passive or active accomplice to the founding of the State, a generation that for many years denied me access to the historical narrative, I wish to join the civil awakening in my demand to restore the right of every single citizen not to be a perpetrator, my right not to harm anyone by my mere existence.

Why there is no point in wondering whether this revolution is political.

Political is our mere existence together with others It seems like a very unusual notion of the political, that would need to be defended: an existence ensuring that we cannot accomplish our deeds without others being involved in them in some way or other, making us take them in account and remember that we are not alone in this world, and that the world of people is never mere matter in the hands of the creator. Political is not the way in which people speak of reality or represent it to themselves, but rather the way in which they are, exist with each other, share a world.

In Israeli public discourse, “political” came to describe anything regarding the Occupation or Palestinians, as though political existence could split along national and ethnic division lines. Those who claim that this awakening “is not political” because not enough is being said about “the Palestinian issue” actually accept the outline dictated by the regime that pulls citizens apart and prevents them from freely inventing forms for their mutual existence. That which has been taking place in the streets is an attempt to re-create a space in which citizens assemble without the ruling power. The space they have been creating for the first time since the devastation of the civil home that existed here until 1948—is a civil one in which the ruling power does not have an immediate, defined, role par excellence in organizing shared space, nor is it the addressee of the goings-on.

The civil awakening is not merely a statement or claim to sheltered housing or a home. It is a practical, concrete demand—that cannot wait to be fulfilled by someone else—to restore spatial and civil organization in such a way that we can begin again to feel at home in our own homes and share with others a public space that is common to all in the fullest sense of the word.

The crowds gathering in the streets who had earlier been identified or represented as sectors which the ruling power had constructed as opposed and hostile to each other—Jews versus Palestinians, the religious against the secular, middle class and workers, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi—are now forming new coalitions of interest groups that clearly cut across these lines: those demanding safe shelter, mothers claiming their economic rights, victims of the banking system or those seeking a way to turn the ongoing disaster of 1948 into a point of departure for a regime change. Every group expresses its claim and the picture of oppression that arises from the various demands is shocking in its depth and breadth. Most important of claims, perhaps, is the one that binds them together— the claim to voice any demand alongside the others without canceling or excluding them, so that a new space is formed in which the regime would appear just as all its governed conceive of it. We are witness to the formation of a new civil space that promises distance and liberation from the point of view of the sovereign state. It is a space that transcends the priorities that the state created, the ideals, goals and language it imposed, and no less—the omnipresence of all those soldiers and security guards that have now miraculously vanished from the common space.

"Egypt is here," Aug. 2011, photographer: activestills

The presence of signs, flags, claims and expressions of protest in Arabic increased as the days went by even in spaces where Arabic had hardly exceeded a mere line in street signs. The bi-lingual sign photographed by ActiveStills during a demonstration in the streets of Tel Aviv is written in Hebrew—“Egypt is here.” In Arabic it shows the call which Egyptians had flung at Mubaraq—Irhal—meaning “go,” “leave.” The sign does not name a leader, and indeed Binyamin Netanyahu did not become the target of the civil awakening. All those participating in it are aware of the fact that no one in the existing political system is capable of generating the desired change once Netanyahu is gone. The civil struggle has a broader focus—it does not wish to replace the Prime Minister but rather the “system” as whole, or more correctly termed—the entire “political regime.” Adopting the civil language of the revolution in Egypt is part of a sweeping loss of confidence of the citizens in the Israeli regime. It is a regime that, ever since it was founded upon the expulsion of the Palestinians, has proceeded to isolate the Israeli society from its Arab surrounding. The new civil awakening has re-organized public space so that the heterogeneity of the country’s inhabitants, and their bond with the local space, with the civil tidings arriving from the East, appears as an alternative to its automatic bond to Europe and the United States.

Civil language.

The civil awakening is reviving a dead language that has been buried for years, as it had to make way for sovereign language. The sovereign language shielded a secret – the secret of its constitution—turning every dispossession and theft into a “state secret,” killing civil language, recruiting its speakers to protect the secret and justify the existing state of affairs, saying “there is no other choice” and accepting the regime. Since the onset of this awakening, masses of people have begun to discover on their own that they know how to speak civil language. Despite years of silencing, it is waking up in their bodies, mouths, hands, they speak it naturally, show extraordinary expertise and creativity in reviving its syntax, rejecting elements left over from sovereign language, weaving together different verbal, spatial and physical units into a framework of new grammar. In the past few weeks we have witnessed an enterprise no less important than the revival of the Hebrew language in the end of the nineteenth-century, an event I propose to call the revival of the civil language.

The space, access to it, the right to be present, to claim, to give it form, to claim its transformation and re-distribution—are all performed on a daily basis. Note this human chain around the white elephant of the central bus station in Tel Aviv in protest against the expulsion of “foreign workers” children who were born Israelis, speak Hebrew and go to Israeli schools. Or this one, where no external message is at stake beyond the simple gathering together, in a space from which citizens are expected to evaporate as soon as they pass through, in a junction where by their mere presence they seek to stop traffic, to stop the movement, displaying themselves—citizens—as that for which the “movement”—this idol of new-liberal economy—should be stopped.[6]

“Human chain” against foreign workers expulsion, Central Bus Station, photographer: Dafna Talmon

Like any living language, it too needs speakers to shape it and give it its own existence in time so as to create literature, art, poetry, law, and a form of civil regime. The condition for this existence is the suspension of sovereign rule and its language so that the city streets can become a space where people meet, practice and discuss the forms of their partnership. In the several weeks since its beginning we can already speak about a new vocabulary, idioms and expressions, created daily in the streets and re-appropriated soon thereafter by the protestors themselves, who combine them in the civil grammar based on one elemental rule set since the beginning—“exclusion (and messages of exclusion) will not be tolerated.”

Public Movement, Dance in the Street, photographer: Eyal Vexler

Public Movement, In front of the bank, photographer: Oz Mualem


Translated by Tal Haran.

[1]    The meaning of this “access” was changed through history and in relation to political regimes. In ancient Greek, the meaning of this condition was ownership of property, women and slaves included. For the historical context see Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1998). For new uses and form of claims see A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Possible?  Ed. Tom Mertes (New York, 2004).

[2]              It is quite impossible to find out the exact number of demolished houses in Palestine-Israel since 48. The accessible information is scattered, the category for counting is limited to full demolition, existent statistics do not explicitly include the demolition of housing units in the refugee camps (thus for example the 10,000 units demolished in the early 1970s in Gaza are not included). Some data can be found here: http://www.miftah.org/PrinterF.cfm?DocId=14882 , here  http://www.icahd.org/eng/projects.asp?menu=3&submenu=12 or here http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article2700.shtml.

[3]    Michael Hardt, “Today’s Bandung?” in  A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Possible?

[4] Virginia Woolf’s famous call to women, “a room of one’s own,” is focused precisely on a single room—a private space within a home that one may demand not to share with others.

[5]    See Ariella Azoulay, From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950 (London, 2011).

[6]    I’m referring here both to the name of this group “Public Movement” and to the appellation of the last decades’ protest “movement” or “movement of the movements” as Mertes’s book title indicate.

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