Notes from a normal country
In Tel Aviv, in Acre, in Nazareth, in Jerusalem, in Hebron
I went to Hebron because of what I’d seen in Florentin. Florentin is a cool part of Tel Aviv. For a good chunk of the twentieth century it was a slum, a semi-industrial tract full of metal workshops and cheap seedy housing. One-room concrete shacks; old men eating alone behind open windows. Flophouses for desperate workers who’d smuggled themselves over from Gaza. Today, it’s another Brooklyn. The artists started moving in by the late 90s, because the rents were cheap and it was close to the beach; now, a six hundred square-foot apartment in Florentin will set you back the best part of a million dollars. Some of the old workshops are still there, but they’re sandwiched between lots of tasteful pop-up galleries and interesting brunch places that do interesting things with eggs. The new residents hang Pride flags from their balconies. They like the neighbourhood for its buzzing arts scene and its lingering sense of gritty authenticity. It feels real. They also like the graffiti that’s been sprayed across every building. That feels real too. Messages like this:
fuck onlyfans fuck wolt fuck netflix fuck police fuck capitalism and go VEGAN
I think I must have stared at this thing, dumbfounded, for five minutes. It’s not that I disagree with this graffiti. Wolt is a Finnish meal delivery app that seems to have cornered the Israeli market; on a Saturday, when the entire country shuts down for Shabbat, when the trains stop running and all the shops are closed, the only vehicles on the street are Wolt bikes: furiously pedalled by African migrants, delivering food made in ambiguously legal dark kitchens by other African migrants, so the secular types who live in places like Florentin can have their sushi and tacos on the holy day of rest. You may have already encountered OnlyFans, Netflix, capitalism, and the police. All of these things strike me as broadly bad and exploitative, and while I’m not sure spraypainting ‘fuck capitalism’ on the side of a building achieves much, it’s not as if I have any better ideas. But this is a deeply, deeply strange list of things for some anarchist in Israel to be prefixing with the word ‘fuck’—because there’s something missing. No ‘fuck the occupation’? No ‘fuck the settlements’? Not even a ‘fuck apartheid’? It’s less than fifteen miles from Florentin to the West Bank, not much further than the length of Manhattan. Here in Tel Aviv, you can eat the interesting eggs and look at street art. There, less than a week before I arrived in the country, an Army sniper put a bullet through a teenage girl’s head. I don’t think the person who painted this mural supports this. They just don’t think about it very much. It’s not in front of them, which means that when it’s time to write a list of that which must be fucked, the forty-five-year occupation doesn’t seem as immediate an evil as OnlyFans and Netflix and Wolt.
In other words, this mural was the work of someone who thought they lived in a normal country. And in a way, they were right.
Liberal Israelis are obsessed with this idea: of being a normal country, like Denmark, maybe, or New Zealand. A Jewish state, but not a Jew among states, some special case sequestered in its own private ghetto and subject to different rules. A normal country is at peace with its neighbours and itself. In a normal country, you can hang out on the beach and eat falafel and spraypaint angry messages about veganism in a gentrifying downtown neighbourhood. In a normal country, political disputes are about normal things: the tax rate, the health system, the trains. It’s there in the stuff you hear from Israel’s advocates abroad. Why are you singling out this country, when you should be criticising China or Iran instead? How would you expect any other country to respond to Hamas and its rockets? Because that’s what they want to be. Not a messianic hope. Not a light unto the nations. Not a sign of the End Times. Just a normal country, like anywhere else.
And this is very nearly what they are. Israel is a normal country. Like most normal countries, it gained independence from Britain in the middle of the last century. In its first months, Israel nearly experienced a civil war between rival Zionist militia, which would have been normal too. Look at Ireland. Look at South Sudan. Like most normal countries, it was initially supported by the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc states, before becoming an eager American puppet in the Cold War and beyond. Like most normal countries, especially in the Middle East, it spent a few decades toying with a kind of non-Marxist socialism, before making sweeping capitalist reforms in the 1970s and 80s, and then increasingly coming under the sway of hardline religious movements. Like most normal countries, its once-hegemonic left is now almost entirely extinct. Like most normal countries, over the last few decades its politics have been dominated by the ambitions of one individual, a charismatic right-wing strongman, thuggish and corrupt, increasingly desperate, possibly criminal, utterly despised by the liberal classes, but whom the electorate will simply not stop voting back into office.
This normal country seems to be lurching towards a new and very normal kind of government: democratic, in a way, but democratic with insistently bad vibes. Netanyahu’s new administration wants to let the Knesset override any Supreme Court decision with a simple majority—and, well, the Knesset is elected, while the Supreme Court is not. They want to let doctors refuse to treat gay patients, or unmarried women—and in a democratic society, should people really be forced to violate their religious beliefs? They want school curriculums to adhere to a narrow, sectarian concept of national and Jewish identity—and so, it seems, do plenty of the voters. There is still an opposition, but it’s an incoherent mush of religious parties, right-wing secularists, liberal centrists, and Islamists. Many of its members don’t even oppose any of this stuff; they just have a strong personal dislike of Netanyahu. And some of the new coalition’s smaller partners go further. The Noam party wants to institute the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as a ‘fourth branch of government.’ The Religious Zionism party wants to introduce Torah study as an alternate form of national service. The United Torah Judaism party wants Israel to devote state funds to genizah, the collection and preservation of any scraps of paper that might contain the name of God. They want sex-segregated beaches. They want the entire country to stop producing electricity on Shabbat.
In most countries, coalition agreements do not include suggestions that the entire national grid should shut down one day a week. This is unusual; this is why the people of Florentin are currently massing on bridges and demanding a return to normal. But it’s also part of a more general, more widespread transformation of the state. Liberals once saw the state as a neutral, secular institution for the administration for society as a whole. Not any more. Everyone now knows that the state is an instrument, a pointy stick which one group of grudgeful weirdos can use to poke at another, and democracy is when the biggest group of weirdos gets to hold the stick. Usually it’s not even about bringing a desired form of society into being; instead, the point is simply to remind your political enemies that you’ve got the stick. This may have something to do with what Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner have recently called ‘political capitalism’: as secular stagnation sets in, political parties can no longer offer competing programmes for growth. Instead, they begin to function as sectional patronage networks. They offer their preferred segments of the capitalist class better rates of return in a low-growth environment, through ‘an escalating series of tax breaks, the privatisation of public assets at bargain-basement prices, quantitative easing plus ultra-low interest rates—and, crucially, massive state spending aimed directly at private industry.’ This is not a hospitable environment for any kind of a left. And so you end up here. A weekly darkness over the cities; ICU units on the fritz; uniformed officials sweeping the gutters for the Tetragrammaton. Just a bigger, dumber version of what’s happening everywhere else. This too is normal. Israel—which was always already partial and sectional—simply got there first.
Outside Israel, coverage tends to focus on what this new government might mean for the Palestinians. Even for the most committed Zionists in the diaspora, Israel means the opposite of Palestine. But within Israel, the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are simply not a political object. All the major parties agree; the occupation will continue indefinitely. Why bother even talking about it? It hardly matters now; Israel hasn’t really depended on Palestinian labour since 1992, and a big chunk of Palestinian capital ends up being invested in Palestine’s only real growth industry, which is the construction of Jewish settlements. (This fact often surprises people. It shouldn’t. Palestinian capitalists might be Palestinian, but capital is still just capital, the same blind self-replicating protoplasm, everywhere in the world.) Israel’s political turmoil is the crisis of a scotomised society, turned in on itself, rotting in the closedness of itself.
Only echoes survive. I found myself thinking a lot about the last line of that graffitied manifesto. ‘Go VEGAN.’ So many liberal Israelis have started veering heavily into their veganism. They have the sense that something terrible is happening, that their ordinary consumer lives are structured by a great hidden cruelty, invisible behind concrete walls, unspoken, unacknowledged, something that seems to very faintly mirror the darkest episodes in recent Jewish history. Something is giving them the guilt. And so they decide that it’s the animals. All those harmless cows and sheep, funnelled into the slaughterhouse to meet the shochet’s knife.
But the occupation is still there. Things are not normal. These are some stories from my holidays.