The day after a Ma'ariv poll was released that showed 90% of Israelis in favor of continuing the wholesale bombardment of southern Lebanon, 2500 Israelis poured into Tel Aviv's Yitzhak Rabin square to demand a ceasefire. According to Ha'aretz, the demonstrators chanted, "We will not die, we will not kill in the service of the United States" as well as several anti-Bush slogans. To be sure, the protest was organized by a coalition of left-wing groups and Israeli Arab organizations historically opposed to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights. Nevertheless, this protest was significant for a number of reasons.
First, the demonstration was staged especially early in Israel's military campaign. The first protest during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 did not occur until nearly two weeks into the war. Many of the groups involved in yesterday's protest were veterans of the movement against the occupation of Lebanon during the 1980's and 90's. Memories of that disastrous quagmire have lent them an apparent sense of urgency.
Perhaps the most notable group involved in yesterday's protest was Yesh Gvul, or "There Is A Limit." Yesh Gvul was founded during Israel's first invasion of Lebanon, in 1982, to support the ranks of IDF soldiers and officers refusing to follow what they considered patently illegal orders. Its members rejected service in Lebanon and accepted jail sentences, giving rise to the refusenik movement. As the war dragged on and Hezbollah's guerilla attacks grew increasingly deadly, the number of refuseniks, most of whom came from the officer corps, reached a critical mass. The Israeli public was forced to recognize Lebanon as their country's version of Vietnam.
The second reason yesterday's demonstration deserves recognition is that it appeared to attract Israelis from outside established anti-war circles. Among them was a woman whose neighbors were killed in a Hezbollah Katyusha attack. She told Ha'aretz, "This war is not headed in the right direction. The captured soldiers have long since been forgotten, so I came to call for an immediate stop to this foolish and cruel war." The latest incarnation of the Israeli anti-war movement, though very small, could foreshadow an eventual fracturing of the pro-invasion consensus.
Finally and most importantly, the protest undermined the notion advanced in the US by so many self-appointed defenders of Israel that criticizing Israel's leveling of Lebanon is an anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic position. The spectacle of Israeli Jews protesting a blood-drenched (think twice before you click on this link) war of choice should give the Alan Dershowitzes of the world pause before they accuse all critics of Israel's military policies of bigotry. And Americans, particularly American Jews, who care about Israel but are disgusted by its extreme militarism should feel encouraged by yesterday's protest to say that there is a limit to what they will support.
As Susan Sontag said just before her death at a ceremony honoring Yesh Gvul founder Ishai Menuchin, "Those of us abroad who wish for Israel to survive cannot, should not, wish it to survive no matter what, no matter how."