I thought the latest post by Matthew Taylor was out of touch. I have news for him: violence works. Violence pushed Israel out of southern Lebanon, and violence repelled the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 2006. Violence let the Bielski partisans save our people during the Holocaust. Violence defined the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, one of the prouder moments of Jewish history. Non-violence can only be assessed conjuncturally, within a dense mesh of sociology, history, politics, and ideology. Each situation is different. There are no formulas. But we can use a rough typology of tactics. Non-violence must be pitched to appeal to either the world’s conscience, or the humanity of the oppressor. It can also function as widespread civil disobedience—a general strike, for example, that can jam up the machinery of violence. These tactics are not exclusive of one another, but nonetheless it is clear that non-violence is not a principle, as Taylor raises it to. It itself is a tactic.
Taylor extracts his principle from a mis-reading of Gandhi, who supported violent resistance, and a mis-reading of Indian history. The British presence in colonial India was less than .05 percent of the population. The colonial apparatus mostly relied on the native “sepoy” army. Gandhian non-violence intended to sway that army, not the British colonizers. And that didn’t work either. Japanese violence ended British colonialism, not Gandhi, and even Gandhi’s non-violence worked against the looming fist of violent resistance taking place around the rest of the subcontinent.
Consider the feasibility of those options on the Mavi Marmara. Could the passengers rely on appealing to the conscience of Israeli commandoes while they were firing bullets at the activists? Taylor thinks so: “the true power of nonviolence to persuade the oppressor is unleashed with a commitment to pursue acts of courageous love.” This seems wooly to me. Palestinian nationalism will be dead under a Merkava tank well before the oppressor is persuaded by local non-violent action (BDS globalizes non-violence in an ingenious way and creates a different correlation of forces, but plainly Taylor is not talking about this). Taylor instead is glossing his professor, Nagler. To say, “The point is that even if they were – while terribly difficult – the passengers could have resisted nonviolently by refusing to comply with the soldiers’ demands without making any attempt to injure them,” is ridiculous. When someone is shooting at you and your friends, you must disarm them, and probably use violence to do so. If you can’t disarm them, you must use violence to stop them from shooting, one way or another. The demand a bullet entering your skull makes on you is for you to die, and if there is a way to “refuse to comply” with that demand, Taylor and Nagler should fess up quick.
In terms of the appeal of non-violence aboard the Mavi Marmara to the world’s conscience, what is there to say? Israeli commandoes were authorized to use deadly violence, according to Michael Oren. The nine martyrs and the dozens of injured made this a major news-story, far bigger than if there had been no resistance of any sort. Did it appeal to the humanity of the world? Manifestly. There have been explosions of unrest in previously quiescent populations. The Egyptian opposition’s mobilizational capacity was quite low before the massacre. In its wake the opposition has organized many amazing actions. In Istanbul and in other Muslim countries, Palestine is at the forefront of every demonstration. The Spanish government is discussing how to end the blockade. Civil society will not stop sending ships until the blockade is broken. What sort of response is Taylor looking for? A sudden “moment” when Americans rise up and overthrow our thug government for its complicity in the ongoing Nakba? Not going to happen, not yet—and those accustomed to accepting whatever hasbara Israel emits would not have changed their minds if the activists had stuck to non-violence. They wouldn’t have noticed, most likely. Nagler, Taylor’s mentor, acknowledges this, writing, “why was there virtually no coverage of the flotilla in the international media until the tragedy? Do we want ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ journalism to continue shaping our cultural narratives, constantly putting sales appeal ahead of political cogency?” (“We” don’t own the press agencies. If “we” did, as Marcuse pointed out a long time ago, the revolution would have taken place a long, long time ago). Nagler wants impotent purism raised to an operational principle of the solidarity movement. Good luck with that.
Finally, in terms of jamming the machinery of occupation or violence: the passengers on the Mavi Marmara apparently did a great deal of this. They used water-hoses and repelling poles to keep commandoes off the deck. On other ships, some activists formed human chains, or jumped into the water to buy time, as Paul Larudee did. This can work, but, again, we run into the problem: the blurring of non-violence and violence. Where does disarming gun-toting commandoes fall? Violent or non-violent? Repelling their boarding vessels? Forceful or non-forceful? The Palestinian women who pushed Israeli soldiers at Budrus? Violent or non-violent? Taylor later writes that breaking windows constitutes violence. By this logic, blowing up unoccupied tanks is also “violent,” and certainly, using a hammer to hit a soldier spraying bullets into civilians is also violence. Can Taylor possibly be serious about this principle, or the trouble that results when one maps non-violence and violence onto the ethical and moral spheres, and creates precise alignments between “non-violence” and ethical and moral rectitude, “violence” and ethical and moral disarray?
Taylor probably thinks that resistance on the Rachel Corrie followed his proposed path (although he doesn’t mention the Rachel Corrie. Funny, that ship was barely in the news. Could that have had something to do with the presence or absence of forceful resistance?). Anyway, on the Rachel Corrie, the passengers were understandably scared and horrified, and resisted so little because they didn’t want to die. This is no judgment on their bravery. But the sort of non-violence Taylor supports is the sort that castrates resistance, and takes resistance out of the realm of history and into the realm of religion. What would Taylor have recommended to the Vietnamese? There is nothing nefarious about defending oneself from armed attack. Making it nefarious writes the Palestinian right to resist out of history, reserving righteous violence and force for the Western powers that already almost monopolize it. Taylor wants to turn the fact of an imbalance of forces into a principle: don’t resist. He wants to willfully “try to raise ourselves to such a cultural and moral level, both as individuals and as a community, that we would be able to control this reflex”—the resort to violence, as Chomsky wrote 40 years ago. But what Chomsky was talking about intra-communal oppression, and so intra-communal resistance.
Taylor is talking about something else entirely. He is talking about resistance to policies supported by an ideology that de-humanizes those whom it oppresses. Taylor thinks we should appeal to “Israeli public opinion,” and not act as if it is “irrelevant; to do so is both a strategic and moral blunder. There’s a reason that so many Israelis demonstrated in support of the IDF’s actions, and I think the violence of the resisters was a huge part of it.” Who is guilty of this blunder? Of course Israeli public opinion is relevant. That’s precisely what BDS targets. But it targets it using a measure of coercion, because the Palestinians can’t afford to wait while a militarized Sparta comes to its senses. Israeli articulate opinion is mostly upset that the assault on the Mavi Marmara didn’t conform to its expectations. Does Taylor read the mainstream and right-wing Israeli press? This is a thoroughly brainwashed, militarized population. Yes, scared, not eager to join the military to brutalize and be brutalized, except the hard-right Zionists who disproportionately occupy the officer corps and make operational decisions in combat situations, but with a bunker mentality, and often, deeply racist—last week MK Ahmad Tibi was nearly assaulted in the Knesset by racist thugs for trying to deliver concrete to people without homes. Taylor writes that “We must design our activism campaigns to both end the oppression of the Palestinians AND help Israelis to feel less scared and more recognized for their humanity.” What could he mean? Israelis aren’t acting in a humane manner, for the most part. We can’t recognize something that isn’t there. And we are fantasists if we choose to believe otherwise. It is not the job of solidarity activists to heal Israeli culture. Israel is not fence-sitting. It is actively carrying out horrible crimes with the passive or active complicity of the overwhelming majority of its population. The men who wield power in that society should be facing war crimes trials, not quibbles about whether the solidarity movement is hurting their feelings.
There is far more to say: on how Western media frames resistance, on how it accepts the Israeli narrative or the imperial narrative, on how to acknowledge this as we plan tactics and strategy until such time as we can control the narratives, on the nature of institutional and non-institutional racism vis-à-vis Western solidarity activist-based resistance and Palestinian resistance, on the naturalization of state violence, Israeli and American aggression rights, and the relentless transformation, via dominant narratives, of just resistance into unjust terror, a narrative that unfortunately Taylor strengthens.
Summing up, here’s what I think. Those who resisted violently were brave. Those who resisted non-violently were brave. All were right. All were just. Solidarity organizations can agree in advance to resist or not to resist, as Taylor instructs us. But most oppression in human history has been thrown off by horrible violence. Frankly, if a man has a gun pointed at my head on my own territory and has shot the person standing next to me, and I can disarm that man, I will disarm him. And there is something surreal, if not pitiful, to demand not only that I abjure that basic human response, but furthermore, abjure it when the gun is pointed not at my head but at the person standing next to me. Writing about it admittedly makes for good copy and good employment for those living and writing in Western countries where power is eager to dissolve an internationally-sanctioned right to resist. For those living under the gun, Taylor’s prescriptions may seem a little odder.