Our western privilege is the legacy of historical violence

Israel/Palestine
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For the last week we’ve been running pieces responding to Matthew Taylor’s statement that the Gaza flotilla should have been committed to nonviolent resistance. We’re almost done. Max Ajl is at bat.

David Bromwich has responded to my comment about non-violence and violence with a strong, textual case for non-violent mobilization. Engagement is welcome. There is space for tactical and conceptual clarification and discussion. First, though, several mistakes, misinterpretations, and mis-directions demand correction. Bromwich insists that “For Gandhi and for King non-violence was a principle,” and proceeds to lay out their ideas, appending a post-script with extended quotations. I do not know why Bromwich brought up King, who was anyway not the dogmatic pacifist he presents, and whose non-violent activism achieved its partial successes against the specter of violence in American urban centers and the threat of revolutionary militancy from the Black Panthers and the social spirit they stood for. Anyway, I did not bring King up. Here I will stick to Gandhi:

I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence. Thus when my eldest son asked me what he should have done, had he been present when I was almost fatally assaulted in 1908, whether he should have run away and seen me killed or whether he should have used his physical force which he could and wanted to use, and defended me, I told him that it was his duty to defend me even by using violence

Bromwich placed this quotation at the end of the piece in which he insists that Gandhi’s non-violence was principled. Similar statements abound in Gandhi’s work. Clearly, Gandhi was not a principled adherent to non-violence in the sense that I used it, or in the vernacular sense that most would understand principled non-violence. If I say that non-violence is my principle, and then advocate punching someone, then the reasonable conclusion is that non-violence is not my principle. Principles that one deviates from are like quitting smoking between cigarettes. Non-violence as a principle I adhere to except when I don’t is not a principle, it’s a tactic that I sometimes advocate and sometimes don’t, sometimes practice and sometimes don’t. Bromwich and I can banter back and forth over what the phrase “moral principles” or the word “principles” mean, but it is pretty clear that we are both using it in the sense stipulated above.

Moreover, the quotation precisely points up the problems of not recognizing the continuum on which violence and non-violence exist. Rigid bifurcations are problematic, both for obvious reasons—is pushing the Israeli soldier at Budrus violence or not?—but also for reasons that are less obvious. Non-violence and violence are only polar opposites in a realm of ideas which demands that they be so. Their sharp separation is in fact an ideology. Why this should be so I will get to below. I don’t understand why Bromwich insists that Gandhi was a principled practitioner or promulgator of non-violence is beyond me, although I do understand why he sidesteps the complications of drawing a clear, dividing line between even physical, immediate violence and non-violence. It can’t really be done. When violence and non-violence are understood as shading and melding not merely at the margins but throughout, the idea that non-violence is a tactic, an action, a way of implementing something rather than its essential character, and furthermore something that should be assessed consequentially, becomes obvious.

Next, Bromwich has taken my (I thought quite) obvious normative statement on non-violence being a tactic rather than a principle and confused it for a factual statement. I do not know why he did so.

The next issue is normative. Calling for non-violence when one is not standing by the non-violent is an attempted affirmation of purity, nothing more. Gandhi and King stood on the front lines of their efforts, whether or not they were correct (Michael Neumann has shown fairly persuasively that as practical matters both King and Gandhi’s efforts were failures). They were embedded organically in the social movements they sought to influence.

The ideal of spiritual transformation Bromwich discusses is one I partially agree with. In the Gandhian sense, it suggests something about our own transformative potential, saying that our lives, our desire to imbue meaning and dignity to them, can take precedence over plain physical survival. The idea was roughly that a supra-human essence could be achieved through non-violent action. Fuzzy stuff, but not totally mis-guided. It is clear that a person, a society, a state, a world created by violence will carry the birth-scars of that fire with it for some time, and we know this neurologically as well as historically. Violence has begeted violence, and wars ended by violence have not ended war. A.J. Muste pointed this out: “The problem after a war is the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence will pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?” And so it goes on, sociologically as well as psychologically.

The thing is, we already live in a world soaked with violence. The notion that we can remove, via spiritual transformation, the scars of violence while still living in a world totally riddled with it suggests that spiritual catharsis will be easier in a world where structural violence is reduced considerably, if not nearly eliminated. And this sort of thinking can move in another direction too—not that we totally reject violence, but that we cocoon ourselves from its damages. Violence will influence the character of the world we wish to create, sure, but it already does so, and if righteous violence can reduce the scale of constant, structural, morally unacceptable violence—the occupation, the siege—why on earth would we on principle reject its use, or morally privilege non-violence?

Here is the problem. I agree that forms of non-violence can, in theory, use carefully, produce a better world than that produced by what Bromwich means by violence. But how to test this theory? How to concretize what must seem like a fantasy to people under horrible oppression? The answer is actually clear. Organize with them. Believe your belief, work to share your belief with the oppressed, make it real. This is what Gandhi and King did, notwithstanding their practical failures, which can be useful for our own enlightenment—we learn, and we do better. It’s important to underline the situational, ethical component to this dialogue. It’s easy to juggle ideas on the internet, juxtapose elegant conceptions of non-violent practice with messy blood-struck guerrilla resistance, and move on from intellectual play to self-serious prescription. A prescription for Palestinian pacifism amounts to saying to a people under the gun: “Oppose the violence that I pay for, and throw your body on the machine. Some of you will die, but it will be better for you. Trust me. But I will not throw my body on the war machine. I will not throw my body on the war machine of which the war machine that is oppressing you is a cog. I have nothing to do with that war-machine.” The affirmation that non-violence is better than violence is one of faith rather than history. As should be clear from the lofty, maybe slightly ridiculous tone of the paragraphs above—more theological and ethereal than analytical—what we are dealing with here is a form of atheistic religion. The core doctrine is that non-violence by itself will lead to a better world than this one. At the very least, anyone preaching such a radical creed needs to practice it first.

To that end, the notion that “we” are practicing non-violence when “we” partake of non-violent resistance is unacceptable. Our tax dollars and our passive acquiescence, our quiescence, or quietude, our muted fury—all of this creates complicity in violence, and there is something hypocritical in advocating non-violence while we do not, at least episodically, throw ourselves on the machine that churns out Palestinian and Iraqi and Afghan and African bodies. Violence suffuses our societies, and the privilege we have to write and speak about non-violence is a privilege that is the heritage of historical violence. Let us look at the podium from which our voices and “values” sound out. It is made of bodies, and they are mostly brown.

Moving on from mostly abstract, normative questions, there is a serious tactical discussion to be had on the left: how to resist an army that has abandoned its morality? There is no evidence that militant non-violence can work against a military apparatus that has regressed to bestiality, the blood-and-soil worship of classical fascism, an element of genocidal ideology, as Ben Kiernan has pointed out. There is institution-building that is being done. People work hard to create parallel media apparatuses that can seriously contend with the narratives power produces. People work hard to use what resources they have to send ships to end this blockade, to seriously jam up the siege engines, and build up a critical mass to end the occupation and end Zionism. We Westerners, we white people, we affluent Jews, have the power and privilege to do this in a non-violent way, in our own societies, because of the legacy bequeathed to us by systems of violence and their ideological stabilizers—racism, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism. We seek state support for our goals—a Turkish naval escort, or EU putting pressure on Israel to lift the siege—and what is a state but an instrument created by and dispensing violence? If we want to create a new world relatively unscathed by the scar tissue left behind by violence, at the very least, we can stop inflicting the damage that will leave those scars. Then let’s talk about violence and non-violence, and practice non-violence when we can and violence when we must.

Those advocating non-violence write at a considerable remove from this history.

There’s a kind of psychotropic quality to that sort of writing, as though the conflict plays out in the realm of ideas and not in the realm of history, as though we can will history into being discursively, as though the memory of trauma is irrelevant to the prospects for popular mobilization, although James Scott calls the memory of oppression the central factor preventing further mobilization. The Palestinian 1st Intifada produced a thousand dead, over 100,000 injured and jailed. Overwhelmingly non-violent, Palestinians paid a remarkable price for their pacific resistance. Those who write on Palestinian non-violence, who write on Palestinians generally, generally ignore that uprising. The world ignored that uprising while it was going on. If Palestinian non-violence could “work” in an abstract trans-historical sense, where is the Palestinian state? Was it Palestinian laziness for not persevering in Intifada for another couple years to really thoroughly gum up the machinery of occupation? Nearly every Gazan I speak to thinks the buffer zone marches are amazing (on the basis of no successes whatsoever, I should add). They are terrified of participating. They don’t want to die. Historical sociologists acknowledge that you can’t simply re-write or postulate the course of history according to fantastical what-ifs except as an impotent—and in this context, delirious—mind-puzzle, that there are structural constraints to agency. 

Bromwich, writing as though he is innocent of a literature discussing the occupation, the blockade, the way they are ideologically stabilized in the West, representations of Palestine and of Muslims, of Palestinian resistance, and of non-state violence, goes on to assert: “In Israel today, the story is that the blockade and the occupation are necessary because without them the Palestinians would subject Israel to an ungoverned series of terrorist attacks. Does terrorism or non-violent resistance seem a likelier method for disproving that assumption?”

But who assumes this? Israeli leaders? No, they know the truth: that the blockade is meant to unseat the elected Hamas government and that the occupation is meant to destroy Palestinian nationalism. The Israeli populace? It generally accepts the moral soundness of Zionism, an ideological conditioning that overrides or readily accommodates the real reasons behind the blockade and the occupation, and will itself not shatter easily. The American public? Since when do we contribute to policymaking, and since when is Palestinian non-violent resistance adequately reported here?

Bromwich proceeds to create a set, “terrorism” vs. “non-violent resistance,” that erases the right—the transcendental right—to armed resistance. If there is no right to armed resistance, the Palestinians may not ethically use violence. But what it is that Palestinians may not use is likewise obscure, because Bromwich dodges the problematic of conceptualizing or defining “violence.” Understandably. He will find doing so quite hard. Do Palestinians have the international-law-sanctioned right to resist? If not, why not? And what is a sound tactical and mediatic strategy for highlighting Palestinian non-violence so as to recode the symbolic structure of the conflict? Those advocating non-violence don’t have much of an answer for that. It’s a problem. Probably most writing on Palestinian issues, even from a sympathetic perspective, don’t know that huge numbers of Gazans engage in non-violent marches, or that someone named Ahmed Salem Deeb died in one. This is not their fault. The US press doesn’t report non-violent resistance in Gaza. The mainstream presses in fact refuse to report that non-violence, since we inform them of that resistance every time it occurs.

How is Palestinian non-violence in Gaza supposed to proceed when the foreign press ignores it and the IDF has no interaction with the protesters? Even were the foreign press to pay attention, inevitably some boys would throw stones, and the Israeli and American press would assert that such stone-chunking was “violent,” thereby contaminating Palestinian satyagraha-or-whatever. The problem isn’t the Palestinians. It’s our press. It’s us. Palestinians have conceded the anti-colonial struggle that the Algerians undertook 50 years ago. They conceded 78 percent of their land in 1988, and courageously conceded terror even as Israel reserved the right to destroy their population centers. Who are we to demand more and more and more concessions? We are no one. They will determine their goals and strategies, not us.

Maybe I will try another example. Presumably those who might advocate non-violence for Palestinians also cherish the heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Those Polish Jews fought desperately, bereft of much solidarity except a bit from the external resistance, which didn’t dare to offer its counsel. Through their resistance, little happened to the mindsets of the surrounding Polish population. Survival rates for the partisans in the ghetto were, however, amazing. Would King or Gandhi have suggested non-violence? How appropriate is it, anyway, to excise the texts of King and Gandhi from their historical contexts and treat their works as scripture? Was it violence when in Warsaw those who knew death was imminent committed suicide? Is “violence” the use of force to kill, the use of force in self-defense, the use of force against an enemy? Is the violence of those incinerating Nazi soldiers—or fending off an occupying army—condemnable on principle? Is it “non-violent” to refuse to use violence when that refusal’s immediate effect will be someone’s death? Is it possible that “violent” and “non-violent” aren’t much more than mercurial proxies for value judgments, that perpetually end up working to the detriment of the global South, to the purpose of securing the privilege of the global North?

The Palestinian plight is not academic. Israel has the moral and physical capacity to destroy the territorial basis of Palestinian nationalism. Palestinians are fighting for their lives, and to those who assert the feebleness of non-violence or the impotence of violence, there is a simple response: the Palestinians are still there; they have not won, and they have not lost. As far as I know no one has tried to write out the tally showing which increment of their current status is due to the gun, and which to sumoud. Now may be a moment to focus on non-violence, a non-violence in part meant to appeal to a violent world. Anyway, I am not sure at all, and they shouldn’t and don’t listen to me—correctly. Most importantly: the notion of implementing “transfer” is perpetually prepared for deployment from the Zionist armory. If what it takes to stave off politicide are Hamas rockets capable of incinerating Merkavas, yallah. And if what it takes to stave off politicide are Hamas rockets capable of attacking Israeli population centers, then before clamoring to join the Western lynch mob of moral judgment, we should acknowledge that when you put a people in hell, they will learn from their surroundings. And then we should acknowledge that we have put them in hell.

That is if we are feeling sententious or self-pitying. There are other options. Western writers live amidst the center of this world’s power. Bromwich and I inhabit the center of that center. We non-violently could stop the Israeli war machine dead, and our non-violence in Western societies would I suspect be met with far less violence than the militant pacifism of those on the outskirts of the empire—especially because all we would be challenging would be a satrap of the empire, and not its core. Instead of seeking to direct the Palestinian struggle, here’s something to make it easier: make the costs of Zionism intolerable to our thug government. Most of us are not up for it. We have more important things to do. We take breaks from our work secure in the safety of structural barriers created and maintained by violence to lecture a struggling people on the immorality of their resistance to the violence we produce that permeates their lives. We refuse to seriously look at the horrible efficacy of some—not all—of the counter-violence, the tragic and inevitable result of a people being backed into a corner (Yes, Hezbollah and Hamas rocketry have bought Lebanese and Palestinians breathing space, and uttering this truth does not necessitate moral or ethical judgment). Gandhi would have reluctantly approved. We accede to terror daily, but reserve the epithet “terror” for the desperate acts of those we put through hell. How dare we.

About Max Ajl

Max Ajl is a writer and activist. Follow him on Twitter: @maxajl.

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