My post about nonviolence vs. violence and the Gaza Flotilla unleashed a heated debate. Max Ajl, David Bromwich, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Ken O’Keefe elsewhere, Max Ajl again, and Norman Finkelstein outside this forum have spilled many impassioned electrons on this topic, not to mention the dozens of thoughtful comments below each post.
Good. This is a debate we need to have. "We" being "anyone who cares about Palestinian and Israeli equality and coexistence, which necessarily includes freedom for Palestinians from being oppressed, and freedom for Israelis from being oppressors."
Although this won’t be an all-encompassing effort to followup on all those electrons, I’ll tackle below the following major themes…
- What is Nonviolence?
- Success vs. Work
- Principled Nonviolence vs. Pragmatic Nonviolence
- An Accurate Portrayal of Gandhi and King
- The First Intifada — Some Success, Some Work
- The Second Intifada — No Success, No Work
- The Third Intifada — It’s Succeeding and Working
- Why Israelis and their Psychology Matter
- Mavi Marmara, Take Two
- What Would Gandhi Do? (Response to Mavi Marmara Passenger Ken O’Keefe)
- Mainstream Media Coverage of the Mavi Marmara
- Nonviolence Succeeds and Works Despite Parallel Violence
- The Future and Conclusions
- P.S. – About Jewish Privilege and Palestinian Voices
- Nonviolence Education and Resources
Warning: this is more a book chapter than a blog post. The topic’s complex enough that it deserves this level of depth. The post’s only blog-like quality is the light level of editing. It could be tighter and less verbose.
Many people assume nonviolence means "not being violent." Simple, right? Wrong.
Here’s a definition of nonviolence:
Nonviolence is a powerful method to harmonize relationships among people (and all living things) for the establishment of justice and the ultimate well-being of all parties. It draws its power from awareness of the profound truth to which the wisdom traditions of all cultures, science, and common experience bear witness: that all life is one.
It’s important that we have some idea of what nonviolence is if we’re going to debate it.
Michael Nagler coined a way to understand the difference in efficacy between nonviolence and violence in the context of a social justice struggle:
Violence sometimes succeeds but never works; while
Nonviolence sometimes succeeds and always works.
Success means the immediate and obvious effects, while work designates the resulting underlying and fundamental shifts brought about by nonviolence… All action has consequences on various levels; a nonviolent actor always takes into account the intended long-term objectives and consequences and not just the more expedient or visible results. Because nonviolence can take time to address root causes of violence or injustice, people seeking immediate objectives often reject it on the grounds that nonviolence doesn’t (in their view) succeed. Often they embrace violence because it (may appear to) satisfy an immediate need, while ignoring the long-term adverse consequences, thus lurching from crisis to crisis instead of improving things.
Consider for example Algeria’s violent revolution, which succeeded in driving out the French colonists, but at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. Since then Algeria has indeed lurched from crisis to crisis, including a civil war, and relations with the French remained strained for years. The armed rebellion did not work to help transform the culture of violence into one of coexistence and reconciliation:
For Algerians of many political factions, the legacy of their War of Independence acted to legitimise and virtually sanctify the unrestricted use of force in achieving a goal deemed to be justified. Once invoked against foreign colonialists, the same principle could be turned with relative ease also against fellow Algerians.
On the other hand, renowned British historian Arnold Toynbee said this about Gandhi’s methods:
"He made it impossible for us to go on ruling India; but he made it possible for us to leave without rancour and without humiliation." Nonviolence dignifies and humanizes as it works: it humanizes those who offer it, those to whom it is offered and the "reference publics" looking on.
Gandhi’s movement succeeded in ending British colonial rule over India, and it also worked to establish reconciliation and positive relations between India and Britain.
India in the immediate aftermath of Gandhi’s movement was in much better shape on every level than it would have been had an Algerian-style armed uprising been the dominant feature of the freedom struggle. Had India stuck with Gandhi’s program consistently, it’s also reasonable to believe it would be far better off today.
Max Ajl’s main premise is nonviolence is "not a principle, it is a tactic." On the other hand, Peace and conflict studies theorists recognize two distinct types of nonviolence: principled and pragmatic. To claim nonviolence cannot be a principle is a dismissal of a vast canon of research and scholarship on the topic based on the real-world lives and achievements of Gandhi, King, and others.
Principled nonviolence is the nonviolence of those who feel that it is a calling… In this view nonviolence is not merely a strategy nor the recourse of the weak, it is a positive force that does not manifest its full potential until it is adopted on principle. Often such practitioners feel that it expresses something fundamental about human nature, about whom they wish to become as individuals or as a people….
Probably the most important lesson we have learned since – and from – Gandhi is that nonviolence is a positive force. It is a way to alter violent situations and influence others by persuasion rather than coercion, a way to resolve differences so that all parties grow in the process as human beings – and become more open rather than more closed to each other.
Almost everyone today is familiar with the principle that “the ends don’t justify the means.” It is this recognition that differentiates a principled nonviolence-based effort, which is a mutual learning process for change, from a power struggle. “Means are ends in the making,” Gandhi explained, meaning that the kind of means we use – violent or nonviolent, with secrecy or transparency, democratic or authoritarian, deceivable or truthful – are already building the foundations of the society we want to live in…. In the case of a revolutionary struggle, for example, he held that “violent revolution will bring violent swaraj [independence].” Nobel Prize-winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel was just as emphatic: “Nonviolent action implants, by anticipation within the very process of change itself, the values to which it will ultimately lead … it does not sow peace by means of war.”
This concept, sometimes written today non-violence [with a dash, as opposed to nonviolence without the dash, which signifies the principled variety], refers to the kind of commitment that regards nonviolence as a strategy, to be adopted merely because it is thought to be more likely to succeed than violence (see success vs. work) or because violence is not a practical possibility. Those adopting nonviolence in this way often reserve the right to go back to violence if they do not meet with success, and some theorists believe this limits their effectiveness. Pragmatic nonviolence is usually a better choice and often requires more courage than violence. It can cause problems, however, if people think that this is the only form of nonviolence. Then if it does not succeed they are left with no recourse but violence (or submission), whereas principled nonviolence is not only more effective in the short term but can move humanity toward a new paradigm as it involves an other order of belief regarding human nature and human relationships.
Pragmatic nonviolence, for example, still presupposes that the means can justify the ends, whereas for Gandhi, “Means are ends in the making:”
Ajl misrepresents the views of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a way of advancing the argument that violence is a helpful component of the Palestinian freedom struggle.
In his post David Bromwich quotes Gandhi accurately on this topic:
I advocate training in arms for those who believe in the method of
violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her
honour than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour. But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment.
In summary: Nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, and violence is preferable to cowardice. What more needs to be said?
But Ajl quotes Gandhi out of context:
I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence.
Notice that this quote is consistent with the previous one. But by leaving out the previous quote affirming the "infinite superiority of nonviolence," Ajl creates the impression that Gandhi might have perhaps supported Palestinian violence in achieving liberation instead of nonviolence. Such an idea would have the Mahatma rolling in his (metaphorical, he was cremated) grave. Robin Yassin-Kassab quotes Gandhi on his prescription for Palestinian resistance:
I wish they [the Palestinians] had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regard as an unacceptable encroachment upon their country.
Were Gandhi alive today, his recommendation would no doubt be even more strongly worded. It’s fine for Ajl to disagree with Gandhi, but unfair to misrepresent Gandhi in service to such an argument.
On the topic of nonviolence as a principle, Ajl writes:
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.
The word "principle" does not automatically indicate an absolute prescription for every situation. Here’s one definition of principle:
A standard or rule of personal conduct.
A standard or rule need not always be absolute. Considering Gandhi’s comment that nonviolence is "infinitely" superior to violence, it’s hard to see how it was not a principle. Gandhi wrote massive volumes of text about his devotion to and faith in nonviolence, both as a way of life and as a superstructure guideline for all his and his followers’ revolutionary activities. Gandhi endorsed the use of physical force as regrettably the most advisable choice only in the very narrowest of criteria and rarest of circumstances (I believe his example was a "madman running through the village with a sword"). So far as I know, Gandhi never endorsed the use of physical force as preferable to nonviolence in any situation even remotely comparable to the Palestinian freedom struggle.
Peruse, for example, Gandhi’s beautiful treatise Truth is God, a collection of Gandhi’s writings that clearly settles the question of Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence as a principle. Examples:
My faith in truth and nonviolence is ever-growing, and as I am ever trying to follow them in my life, I too am growing every moment…
Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man. Destruction is not the law of the humans. Man lives freely by his readiness to die, if need be, at the hands of his brother, never by killing him. Every murder or injury, no matter for what cause, committed or inflicted on another is a crime against humanity…
I believe myself to be saturated with ahimsa (the Sanskrit word for nonviolence). Ahimsa and Truth are as my two lungs. I cannot live without them.
As for King, this quote makes clear his similar devotion to nonviolence as a principle, and his respect for Gandhi’s example:
…I had almost despaired of the power of love in solving social problems. The "turn the other cheek" philosophy and the "love your enemies" philosophy are only valid, I felt, when individuals are in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations are in conflict [I thought] a more realistic approach [was] necessary. Then I came upon the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. As I read his works I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. The whole Gandhian concept of satyagraha (satyta is truth which equals love and graha is force; satyagraha thus means truth-force or love-force) was profoundly significant to me….My skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom…. Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a way of life.
If a way of life is not a principle, what is? One more King passage to share, compiled from two different commentaries about his trip to India. Notice how King’s remarks elucidate how nonviolence not only succeeds, but also works:
It was a marvelous thing to see the amazing results of the nonviolent struggle… The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign is found nowhere in India. Today a mutual friendship based on complete equality exists between the Indian and British people within the commonwealth… And this is only because Gandhi followed the way of love and nonviolence, refusing to hate and refusing to follow the way of violence… The aftermath of violence is always bitterness; the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community so that when the battle is over, it’s over, and a new love and a new understanding and a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.
As noted by Ajl and Yassin-Kassab, the First Intifada’s was largely non-violent (mostly pragmatic, as opposed to principled). Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian-American and one of the fomenters and organizers of the First Intifada, tells stories of traveling through the West Bank with his mobile Gandhi and King library and educating fellow Palestinians on the ins and outs of nonviolent resistance in the mid 1980s, helping to seed the social sphere for the uprising. The First Intifada was hardly "pacific" as Ajl writes — Gandhi described nonviolent resistance as the most active force in the world. The "shaking off" was characterized by civil disobedience and other forms of non-cooperation – tax refusal, boycotts of Israeli products, illegally flying the Palestinian flag in the plain view of Israeli soldiers, and illegally planting olive trees on threatened land, as well as constructive programs to achieve greater self-sufficiency like planting victory gardens and organizing professional and cultural associations.
There was also plenty of stone-throwing and other forms of "lightly armed" resistance, which according to scholars such as Prof. Mohammed Abu-Nimer, falls into a gray area in-between violence and pragmatic non-violence. (Abu-Nimer called it "nonlethal force.") Stone-throwing was a controversial aspect of the First Intifada as it was the most clear and direct deviation from nonviolent discipline and produced a variety of reactions amongst Israelis. A summary comment on stone-throwing:
In assessing the effect of stone throwing, we can recognize that those who are the targets are likely to perceive the act in different ways: this is a difficulty with all symbolic acts.
As a whole the First Intifada was much less disciplined in its non-violent character than other, more successful nonviolent social movements such as the Philippines People Power Movement or Serbia’s Otpor uprising. Still, the Intifada’s largely non-violent nature had a powerful effect on both international and Israeli attitudes toward Palestinian legitimacy:
The Palestinians established the legitimacy of their aspirations in the minds of people around the world, built internal commitment and solidarity, created social structures, inspired left-wing Israelis to work on behalf of a resolution to the conflict, and achieved recognition of their political leaders.
This is an example of both success – recognition of their political leaders was one of the stated goals of the Intifada – and work, in helping to influence the general Israeli public’s view of the Palestinian cause for the better.
Typical of skeptics of nonviolence, Ajl dismisses the First Intifada due to its limited success:
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?
This is reminiscent of Theodore Roszak’s comment on the impatience of such critics:
“People try nonviolence for a week, and when it ‘doesn’t work’ [eg doesn’t succeed], they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.”
Lack of follow through was a major problem with the First Intifada, although it would be quite wrongheaded to characterize it as laziness. I’ve spoken to Palestinians, Israelis, and academics who say the biggest failure of the Palestinian liberation movement was to not return to the ways of the First Intifada when it became clear that the political negotiations were co-opted and ineffective in the mid to late 90s (even before Camp David). Additionally, I’ve been told by Palestinians who were involved in organizing the First Intifada that when Israel offered to negotiate directly with the grassroots leaders, the Palestinians insisted instead that Israel must talk to Arafat, who wasn’t in Palestine at the time and had no involvement of any kind in organizing the First Intifada. The grassroots leaders later regretted that decision. The Palestinians were understandably burnt out after the First Intifada, having suffered massive losses, but the resistance did in fact succeed in gumming up the machinery of occupation. Otherwise Israel never would have made the phone call to negotiate. Some Palestinians and Israelis have claimed that if there’d been a unified message — "We will continue the nonviolent Intifada until we get a state" — in the mid to late 90s, today there would either be some kind of two-state solution, or at the least, much better groundwork for it than what happened during, as a result of, and after the disastrous Second Intifada.
There’s no factual evidence to support the idea that violence has accomplished much of anything for the Palestinian freedom struggle. Any supposed gains seem more illusory than real, and came at the expense of other, far bigger losses.
Take for instance the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, which started out somewhat like the First Intifada with the "nonlethal force" of stone-throwing as its most violent feature but quickly became a suicide bombing campaign. The slaughtering of civilians vastly increased Israeli public support for the land-confiscation wall (under the rhetoric of "security") and pushed Israeli public opinion far to the right. I condemn any form of violence/terrorism that targets civilians, perpetrated by any party (state or non-state), on moral grounds. Israel’s military is responsible for oppressing the Palestinian people, and Israel’s theft of Palestinian land is responsible for creating the conditions where Palestinians have resorted to such actions. But speaking purely in terms of effectiveness, the suicide bombing campaign was a counterproductive disaster of epic proportions, one from the Palestinian freedom and justice campaign has yet to fully recover, given how deeply entrenched Israelis are (both psychologically and with facts-on-the-ground infrastructure) in the wake of that experience.
Simply put, while the First Intifada succeeded somewhat in moving Palestinians toward a state and worked somewhat to move Palestinians and Israelis toward coexistence, the Second Intifada didn’t succeed or work.
One senior Israeli Peace Now organizer told me that prior to the Second Intifada, she could get tens of thousands to show up for demonstrations, but the suicide bombings "sent everyone home." She also said the Second Intifada set back Israeli attitudes toward Palestinian freedom and justice by twenty years. Say what you will about the level of commitment of mainstream groups like Peace Now – it seems far better to have them at least somewhat on your side than not.
To rebut comments like this one on the 2005 Gaza withdrawal:
Hamas and other groups drove Israel out of Gaza. They didn’t defeat the IDF on the battlefield but over time killed in small numbers enough colonists and IDF to convince Sharon and enough of the Israeli political establishment that allocation of colonization resources to Gaza was wasteful… If there had been no intermittent violence engendering an omnipresent threat, the IDF would not have had to invest resources highly disproportionate to the number of colonists, and the colonies would still be there.
Even supposing that Palestinian violence contributed in some way to the withdrawal (a dubious claim), it’s reasonable to assess that a disciplined nonviolent campaign would not have succeeded in influencing a withdrawal, and worked to create better terms for the Palestinians.
But more to the point, we can’t know for certain that Palestinian violence actually caused the withdrawal, or even contributed in any way to the withdrawal. As numerous international relations experts and conflict analysts said at the time, it appeared from start to finish to be a purely rational calculation of self-interest in order to address Israel’s so-called "demography problem," solidify its control of the West Bank, and delay if not kill the two-state solution all in one fell swoop, in sum Sharon’s greatest pro-colonization move ever. See Dov Weisglass’ famous formaldehyde comments:
"Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda… [The Gaza disengagement] supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."
Weisglass elaborated further:
“What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest would not be dealt with until the Palestinians turned into Finns. This is the significance of what we did…. All with a Presidential blessing and ratification of both houses of Congress…. What more could have been given to the settlers?”
Had the Second Intifada’s character remained more like the First, the Palestinian cause would be in much better shape today, perhaps including a Palestinian state. And this is not an argument of one state or two states being superior, just an acknowledgment that to the extent that many Palestinians want a Palestinian state, it’s quite plausible that it would exist today had the Second Intifada not taken a wrong turn into suicide bombing.
When I traveled through the West Bank in the Summer of 2005, Palestinians told me that while at one time "martyrdom operations" enjoyed widespread support among the Palestinian public, that support was dwindling rapidly as Palestinians came to the conclusion that the operations harmed the cause. I have heard that many Palestinians today view the operations in hindsight as a strategic failure.
As Tal Palter-Palman presciently observed five years ago, we are now in the midst of the Third Intifada. Fortunately, the Third is much more like the First than the Second. The Third Intifada began with and is defined by two primary events: organized non-violent resistance to the land confiscation wall in various West Bank villages such as Budrus starting in 2003, and the Palestinian Unified Call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions in 2005. (Rachel Corrie’s March 2003 death resisting a home demolition also coincided roughly with the start of the Third Intifada.)
The Third Intifada is unique from the previous ones, as follows:
- Unlike the previous two Intifadas – which were almost exclusively Palestinian affairs – today’s Intifada involves Israelis Jews and Internationals working in solidarity side-by-side with Palestinians in the occupied territories to challenge the wall and home demolitions. An Israeli anarchist against the wall said to me something like this: "During the second intifada there was nothing for us to do — how can we even consider organizing and working with suicide bombers blowing up pizza restaurants and killing our friends? But the wall was so outrageous and awful, it was easy to go to those villages and join the protests."
- The international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement provides a serious threat to the political legitimacy of Israel’s apartheid policies, and is energetically in sync with the on-the-ground resistance mentioned above.
- Various Palestinian, Israeli, and International NGOs such as Bustan, B’Tselem, Holy Land Trust, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Sabeel, the International Solidarity Movement, Rabbis for Human Rights, and many others are directly and indirectly challenging Israel’s apartheid policies, including with various forms of nonviolent direct action.
- At the start, the Third Intifada’s Palestinian on-the-ground, non-violent resistance efforts were relatively small, primarily involving villages directly impacted by the wall. But now it is spreading fast across the occupied territories in the form of boycotts of settler products and other forms of non-violent protest:
"We are definitely committed to a path of nonviolent resistance and defiance in the face of the settlement enterprise, and we are defiantly expressing our right to boycott those products and I believe it is working," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has attended bonfires of settlement products, said in an interview last week. "We will continue to do more."
- More Jews than ever around the world are challenging Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies, and whether it’s fair or not, dissenting Jewish voices seem to matter more than gentile voices in changing the political calculus, especially in the U.S.
So back to the success/work frame…
Is The Third Intifada succeeding? This is hard to say as there’s no one clear statement about the goals of the Third Intifada. This uprising is far too diffuse, and in any case, the idea of a two-state solution and massive withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the West Bank looks more ephemeral every day (not due to the efforts of the Third Intifada, but due to the pre-existing momentum of the settlement enterprise). Is there a consensus on where we’re headed?
Let’s instead break the success/work question down instead into two pieces: the West Bank villages, and the BDS movement.
Budrus succeeded in recovering a fair bit of its land, and Bil’in won an Israeli Supreme Court ruling (thus far ignored by the state) on part of its claim. But most of the villages lost.
On the other hand, look at the work that was accomplished – many members of the Israeli public (and global citizens) have come to see those struggles as legitimate, which is hard to imagine if the protests had devolved into armed struggle. The villagers’ campaigns have helped enroll many people in the Palestinian cause in a general sense — including an international network to support popular nonviolent resistance. Bil’in’s website tells a powerful story, as does Shai Carmeli Pollak’s film, Bil’in My Love. The anti-wall campaigns would be even been more effective at success and work if stone-throwing was fully abandoned and the commitment was to at least a consistent baseline level of nonviolence. That said, even with the distracting and largely counter-productive mixed message of stone throwing, the anti-wall campaign has achieved real success and real work.
Now let’s look at the BDS Unified Call goals such as:
• To strengthen and spread the culture of Boycott as a central form of civil resistance to Israeli occupation and apartheid;
• To formulate strategies and programs of action in accordance with the 9 July 2005 Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS;
• To form the Palestinian reference point for BDS campaigns worldwide;
• To form the national reference point for the anti-normalization campaigns within Palestine.
Certainly judging from the rapid spread of BDS around the world, this campaign is highly successful. Of course, a bigger question (not addressed by the BDS call) surrounds medium and long term goals like the end of occupation, Palestinian sovereignty/state, civil/equal rights, rights of refugees, and so on.
BDS is working. As only one example of the work of BDS, I believe that the growing mobilization of leftist world Jewry to end Israel’s apartheid policies is both a cause and an effect of the BDS movement’s progress. In other words, leftist Jews are helping BDS gain traction — just look at Jewish Voice for Peace’s efforts. And the more BDS notches up victories, the more it stimulates and excites Jews to come out and support a cause that used to feel like a despair-ridden, unwinnable dead end. (Has anyone else noticed that suddenly we feel more powerful than AIPAC? Not because we’re bigger, but because we’re inevitable.)
Here’s another way of looking at the work of the Third Intifada. I once asked a long-time Palestinian nonviolence grassroots organizer what he thought would cause the end of the occupation. His response: "The international community will come to our rescue, as it did with South Africa." At the time the idea seemed over-wishful, but now it appears to be an effect of the Third Intifada… if it maintains nonviolent discipline. A new wave of suicide bombing or something like that would be a huge setback for the growing international consensus that the oppression must end. But as long as internationals (including and especially Jews) can envision and be inspired by village elders marching to recover their land as the symbol of Palestinian nationalism instead of scary masked people blowing up buses and cafés, this Intifada is on the path to victory and will continue to snowball the level of support for the Palestinian cause. The prediction "the international community will come to our rescue" seems prescient given the Mavi Marmara incident. But before addressing the M.M, let’s consider a more in-depth psychoanalysis of the Israeli people and why that matters.
Can we seriously expect to win Palestinian freedom if we do not deploy some major group psychotherapy on the Israelis?
I recall an image in Adbusters a few years ago that perfectly illustrated the catch-22, self-reinforcing problem of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and why it never ends. It depicted a soldier (symbolic of all Israel) with a boot on the neck of a prone and dominated elderly man (symbolic of all Palestinians). The photo caption said something like this: "I can’t remove the boot because if I do he will jump up and hurt me, thus, I must continue to keep the boot in place."
Please take a moment and contemplate this metaphor.
Israel is a nation of scared and traumatized people. Yes, they are responsible for inexcusable, inhumane oppression of another people. But they also know – or think they know – that a) most of the world always has hated Jews and inevitably will again hate Jews someday (a few recent golden decades in the U.S. notwithstanding), and b) the people they are oppressing are thirsty for revenge. Both of these beliefs are partially exaggerated or distorted, but they are also both partially if not largely based on history and reality. Those of us who seek to end the oppression of the Palestinians ignore these beliefs and these aspects of reality at our own peril.
During my travels in Israel Palestine, many Israelis I met brought up the specter of "another Shoah" (Holocaust). "Godforbid there will be another Shoah!" is a common Israeli expression, often brought up in reaction to any suggestion of making concessions to the Palestinians. Comments like Helen Thomas’ don’t help. Palestinian rockets launched indiscriminately at Israeli civilians don’t help. Hamas statements about deporting every single Jew who emigrated after 1880 don’t help. (The senior Hamas politician in Bethlehem told me he wanted to see that happen.)
The fact that most Palestinians want to live in equality and peace with Israelis — a conclusion repeatedly affirmed by all the opinion polls — can easily get drowned out.
I once asked a senior leftist Israeli negotiator and political analyst about what it would take to end the occupation and achieve a two state solution with justice for the Palestinians. He had two things to say:
1) "This is going to sound crazy and counterintuitive, but Israel needs a hug";
2) "In addition to the hug, it will take a massive unjustified slaughter. A whole bunch of innocents are going to have to die."
Let’s consider each of these provocative claims individually.
Point #1 – "This is going to sound crazy and counterintuitive, but Israel needs a hug"
I can already imagine the rebuttals to #1: "To hell with that – the Palestinians need to not get killed by white phosphorous and cluster bombs! I’ll be damned if I give a rat’s ass about Israel’s victim mentality and their childish self-absorbed whiny need for a freaking hug."
If that’s your attitude – and from what I saw of the comments to the previous posts, it’s the attitude of quite a few readers of this blog – I think you’re missing a serious opportunity to understand why the oppression continues to this day and how we can end it.
It’s easy to forget, unless you know the history, that the Nazi Holocaust took place decades after the birth of both political Zionism and the virulent military Zionism responsible for the Nakba and the Naksa, and that today runs Israel. The most extreme violent strains of Zionism were born in the crucible of experiences such as the Russian pogroms and the collective memory of centuries of cruel and unjustified persecution of Jews throughout Europe. See for example the life history of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the spiritual father of Likud and author of the Iron Wall doctrine. Wherever Jews went, they eventually received the following message: leave or die.
So this is what the Israeli political analyst is pointing at, I think: the entire world, especially Europe and Russia, must give Israelis and the Jewish people some sort of of ultimate, clear, final, and comprehensive apology for centuries of persecution, and some kind of collective assurance of "Never again." (I can imagine a lot of other kinds of "hugs" the world could give Israel, but this is the one I’ll focus on for purposes of this post.)
I remember meeting an old Jewish couple in Tel Aviv, secular artists who came across as fairly reasonable folks, who quoted Hillel the Elder’s famous words when I asked them for their views about the Israel/Palestine conflict:
"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?"
Translation, in the context of Israel/Palestine:
"Jews can only trust Jews, and no one else. It’s up to us and only us to prevent another Shoah. We cannot give an inch to the Arabs, or assume anyone’s got our back."
The entire world must say to the Jewish people: "We apologize. We apologize for centuries of persecution. We apologize for not saving you from the Nazi Holocaust, from the Pogroms, from the Inquisition. We give you the assurance and take responsibility to guarantee to you, ‘never again.’ Those of us who are Christian are striking any reference to ‘the Jews killed Christ’ from our texts, as we realize this a crazy and horrific allegation that was primarily responsible for those centuries of persecution. Jews are welcome in our lands, and we will establish special laws to make Jews a protected minority if you choose to live here, as reparations for our past persecution. Furthermore, we will open our doors to unlimited immigration of Jews if any Jew ever seeks a safe haven from future persecution."
That’s the hug: Coordinated and cohesive international apology and reparations for long centuries of unjustified persecution of Jews, primarily by Europe, Russia, and Christian institutions (example: the Russian Orthodox Church, probably the Roman Catholic Church as well) with established histories of anti-Jewish ideology and oppression.
And no, the establishment of the state of Israel, without appropriate protection for the indigenous Palestinian population, was not and is not the hug. (It’s more like a crushing vise). Tthe creation of the state of Israel was a covertly if not overtly anti-Jewish act, a way for Europe to once and for all dispose of its "Jewish problem." It was both anti-Jewish and anti-Arab, as any of the political leaders who supported the establishment of the state of Israel could easily see the flames of violent conflict that would inevitably engulf the region, as evidenced by Zionist terrorism (Palestinian violence as well), growing inter-communal conflict, and the fact that every single Arab state opposed the manner and circumstances of the state of Israel’s founding. It was a convenient way for Europe to wash its hands of centuries of horrific crimes against Jews and dump the Jews into the laps of the Arabs, whose lands, property, and polities Europe carved up for colonial purposes in the wake of Wold War I. Israel was not a European colonial imposition in the regular sense, but certainly a European colonial solution to a European-generated "problem" – the problem of anti-Jewish oppression.
Going back to the metaphorical image, yes we want the soldier to stop being scared of the elderly man to whose neck he has affixed his boot. But we must treat the source of the illness, not only the symptoms. This soldier was scared out of his mind before he’d even met the elderly man, much less put a boot on the man’s neck. Any doctor will tell you if you do not cure the source of the illness, it will never go away, and you will just continue to treat the symptoms with medications that will cause side effects, sometimes even worse than the effects of the original illness. Israel’s apartheid policy is the medication currently being used to treat the fear-based symptoms of the original illness; the original illness being centuries of global anti-Jewish oppression.
If a scared, angry soldier who has suffered from centuries of unjustified abuse is controlling a nuclear arsenal with his finger on the button, what are you going to do: yell and scream at him and tell him how horrible he is, or offer him a hug and an apology for what was done to him in the past (even if you personally didn’t commit those crimes, but perhaps your ancestors did)?
Point # 2 "In addition to the hug, it will take a massive unjustified slaughter. A whole bunch of innocents are going to have to die."
What would it take for the soldier to stop feeling scared of the old man? If we give the soldier a hug and help him feel less afraid because we help him to deal with and heal from his past trauma, that’s helpful. But we still have a problem. The soldier says, "I’m afraid of this old man, because his brother blew up a restaurant and killed my brother. How can I trust that when I stop kicking this old man’s ass, he’ll treat me with respect?"
How indeed? Why would he? The soldier looks at the old man and thinks, consciously or unconsciously, "If I were that old man, the moment the boot was lifted, I’d want to grab a gun and blow me away. Better keep the boot in place."
Israelis make no secret of such views. I can’t keep track of how many times I’ve read in the Israeli media the theory that if the occupation comes to an end, Jenin will turn into a launching pad for rockets directed at Tel Aviv.
I’ve noticed readers of this blog have a tendency to dismiss the suffering of Israelis traumatized by Palestinian violent attacks. That attitude and 12 shekels might get you a latté at a nice Israeli café, but it won’t get you anywhere in understanding Israeli psychology when the café blows up, and it certainly won’t help you understand how to change Israeli psychology to help the Palestinians.
Here’s Bradley Burston on Israeli psychology and the 2009 election of Israel’s most right-wing government ever:
The Racist Israeli Fascist in Me
[The thousands of rockets launched from Gaza] put a sudden end to the idea of land for peace, because no one, even some of the most ardent advocates of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, was about to agree to leave Ben-Gurion airport, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within range of the rockets….
Entire communities, whole cities, suffer from post-traumatic stress. But unless 10 Israelis are killed, or 20, that rocket never existed. 10,000 rockets, fired at civilian areas, unprotected by anything — I am truly ashamed to acknowledge — other than miracles….
[We Israelis experience] an anger which no one outside Israel can know or fully comprehend, an aching, soul-deep frustration, an always humming fear, a sickness and fever over the nearness of true disaster, as well as a sense of abandonment by those abroad who cannot be expected to know what these people, my friends, are going through or why.
Now I don’t "blame" the Palestinians for the rockets, in the sense that I see essentially everything the Palestinians do these days to resist colonization (whether it’s a march against the wall or a suicide bombing) as a reaction to Israeli oppression. But whether those reactions are legally valid, morally appropriate, or strategically wise is another question. I will focus here only on the strategy. Just as the suicide bombing campaign’s primary result was to push Israeli public opinion to the right and increase support for the land confiscation wall, the rocket campaign pushed Israelis even further to the right and created not just support, but fervent demand, for Operation Cast Lead.
I don’t buy the idea that it’s impossible for Palestinians to make choices about what they do — that seems pretty insulting to the Palestinians, don’t you think? I suspect the Palestinians who organize nonviolent resistance would agree. Yes, there are structural constraints to agency. But Hamas has proven repeatedly it is capable of restraint if it chooses.
Compare the above column with what Burston wrote about the recent outbreak of nonviolent resistance in Gaza:
A prayer for the Gazan armed only with a flag
To my friends in Gaza, with admiration:
God bless the Palestinian who, armed with nothing more than courage, plants a flag.
The Gazan who, week after week, marches to the front line and without a shred of cover, stands in the face of soldiers, gas guns, machine guns, threats and helmets, warning shots and shots to kill – armed only with conviction and a rectangle of cloth on a stick….
In acts of great bravery, there is great hope. In acts of non-violent resistance, there is unlimited might.
God protect you from us, and from your own people. You will be scoffed at even as you are shot at. There are people on both sides for whom non-violence causes a sense of unease, a sense of being, forgive me, emasculated.
Teach us to grow up.
Teach us what we have lost. Our sense of shame….
Stand fast. No rocks. You will change every soldier you face. You will change history. You will be the end of this occupation. You will give all of us, life.
Compare the two posts, again. Could the message be more clear? Let’s return to the soldier, with his boot on the neck of the old man. That soldier is Bradley Burston, and thousands like him. Violence will be met with the boot, as the soldier continues to feel afraid. Nonviolence will help the soldier feel safe to remove the boot and maybe even give the old man a friendly hand as he gets to his feet.
So now that we’ve set up that contrast, what was the political analyst talking about with his forecast of a slaughter of innocents being necessary to end the occupation? This may be the hardest thing ever said about Israel/Palestine, but I think it’s true. To move the mass of Israelis to feel comfortable removing the boot — to get mainstream Israelis to think like Burston does in his second column — it will take an event (perhaps several) like the unarmed Gazan with the flag committing civil disobedience in the no man’s zone, but on a much larger scale, and with much more severe consequences.
One of the grassroots organizers of the First Intifada, told me he had proposed the following to the refugees (paraphrased):
The refugees who wish to press the Right of Return should burn down the refugee camps and march nonviolently toward the location of their villages of origin, with open hands, with the basic message of "We are exercising our Right of Return as enshrined in international law and U.N. resolutions. We wish to live in peace and rebuild our villages and we have no desire for revenge against Israelis for 60 years of dispossesion. Either stand aside and let us return or shoot us all dead."
This was proposed before the Wall, but perhaps it could still happen via flooding and overwhelming a checkpoint. In such an event, Israel would have to either honor the Right of Return, which would begin to unravel military Zionism, or massacre a large number of peaceful, unarmed Palestinians. In such a scenario, it would be helpful if Jews and Internationals were amongst them — Johan Galtung calls this the Great Chain of Nonviolence, in which those who are psychologically closer in space are more likely to influence an oppressor. This is why a Jewish ex-military officer risking his life in solidarity with the Palestinians carries more weight with the Israeli public, just as white northerners were more likely to influence white southerners in certain cases in the Civil Rights Movement.
Norman Finkelstein proposed something similar, his idea being massive numbers of Palestinians attempting to dismantle the wall (built on stolen Palestinian farmland), while holding copies of of the ICJ ruling againt the wall in their hands. Finkelstein argues that pushing demands that are already socially recognized as legitimate has a greater chance of success (eg two states, return of stolen West Bank land currently enjoys a greater level of international consensus than the right of return – although right of return was official US policy not so long ago).
In any case, perhaps either or both of these scenarios, or something like them, is the slaughter to which the politician referred. Not a slaughter of children sleeping unseen in Gaza homes, killed by cluster bombs, whose deaths can easily be blamed on Hamas rockets. Not a slaughter of armed militants. But a slaughter of those in the midst of active, out-in-the-open, disciplined nonviolent protest. This is what Mirsky refers to as a nonviolent moment:
A nonviolent moment is a climactic event in a campaign when all of the resistors’ forces are pitted against all of the oppressor’s forces in an open confrontation. The oppressor has two choices: escalate the oppression in a way that is repugnant to the rest of humanity, or back down and concede. Historical examples include the Dharasana Salt Raid during India’s anti-colonial struggle, the EDSA confrontation during the Philippines People Power movement, and Dr. King’s Selma march. Whether or not a nonviolent moment succeeds depends on numerous factors, some of which can be learned and practiced, such as the strategic efficacy of the resistors. However, not all factors are controllable and sometimes you can miscalculate, as in the Tiananmen Square massacre.
A nonviolent moment could seriously change the attitudes of many Israelis. For some it will be harder than others – the Kahanists are fairly entrenched in their racist/religious views. But many Israelis are susceptible to nonviolent persuasion. I believe history shows that even those who seem to be most consumed by religious, racist, and nationalistic ideologies can be reached on the heart level when true (principled) nonviolence is offered. As I remarked in the previous post:
Remember George Wallace, the famous Alabama Governor who declared "Segregation now, segregation forever," and subsequently apologized prior to his death? If we want the Zionists who currently enable the policy of occupation to someday see the light, I believe we will only win them over with true nonviolence.
Although I didn’t agree with all of his comments, Sam got my point here about the Israeli mentality:
Some comments have pointed to the article implying that Palestinians need to free themselves and their oppressor, and that this is ridiculous. Sadly, it is ridiculous, but yet, it is the only way. In some ways, crazy as it is, the Palestinians… are the Israelis’ salvation. The oppressed must make the oppressor understand equality and love and all that “junk.”
I’d just add that Jews and Internationals have a responsibility to support and collaborate with the Palestinians in this struggle.
Another frame to understand Israeli psychology and how we can change it is "demoralization." Demoralization as I use it here means, roughly, "I now realize that I am not acting as part of ‘the most moral army in the world’ as I once believed, and oppressing these people is against my/our deepest values."
To those who say: "Israelis cannot be demoralized" – not only is such a dismissal wrong, but there is evidence of growing demoralization in the ranks. How else to explain the refusers movement, an example of which is the famous Pilots’ letter:
We, who were raised to love the state of Israel and contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in Air Force attacks on civilian population centers. We, for whom the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force are an inalienable part of ourselves, refuse to continue to harm innocent civilians.
Refusal to carry out orders, it is argued and well-documented in the film Sir! No Sir!, led directly to the end of the Vietnam War. It could very well be part of how military Zionism unravels. Jewish tradition includes core values of social justice and fair dealing, and the state of Israel’s founding documents call for freedom, justice, and peace for all. These values are easily obfuscated amidst the rhetoric of "security" and the culture of fear, but these values may surface surprisingly quickly amongst Israeli Jews once we can help them move past their fears.
A final take on Israeli psychology from Sami Awad, a long-time organizer of Palestinian nonviolence with Holy Land Trust, who had this to say at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference:
I come with a deep heart and desire to share with you…my pilgrimage in wanting to look deeper into the core issues that have allowed and continue to allow violence, fear, hatred, mistrust and mass resignation to be the main mechanism of how Palestinians and Israelis are dealing with each other.
I am fully convinced that what we as Palestinians experience is only a product, not the goal, of something deeper that lies in the Israeli Jewish community, especially those who came from Europe. This of course does not mean I justify or excuse it, but declare that when we are able to understand deeply the cause and not the effect, then we are able to develop and engage in the right actions and in speaking the right words that would allow for violence to stop, and for racial and ethnic discrimination to end, for healing to take place and for new realities to be established.
Sami goes on to talk about what it was like for him to visit Nazi concentration camps, and his profound understanding that the psychological legacy of anti-Jewish oppression today drives Jews to oppress Palestinians — both inherited fear, and manipulation of that fear. Watch the video, it’s an amazing speech:
This experience transformed my life and transformed even my understanding of nonviolence… Where it is not just about resisting oppression but also deeply engaging in actions that heal those who cause it from their real or manipulated fear, and I want to say here that I distinguish real and manipulated fear not for the sake of excuses but also for the sake of wanting to develop the right language to address both… How do I deal with a person who is really afraid and how to deal with a person that is manipulating fear are two different questions? I believe the world has neglected addressing the real outcomes of the Holocaust by assuming that financial support and political support for Israel are the only way to deal with what happened, and by giving Israel political legitimacy to be over‐international law and human rights…
This kind of principled nonviolence is exactly the approach that can heal and help seed the ground for justice and peace.
First off, a preface: All of the M.M. passengers are heroes. What they did showed exemplary courage and determination in a humanitarian cause of deeply historical import. I can only wish I had such courage in the face of looming violent oppression. The passengers had every legal right to defend themselves with physical force in the face of an act of piracy in international waters.
My remarks are designed not to cast aspersions on these brave heroes, but to offer a way of looking at what happened that might provide for even greater potential for both success and work in the future. Some of these brave souls sacrificed their lives, and that is worthy of praise and song. But martyrdom does not automatically render one’s actions of maximal strategic value or immune from constructive critique for the benefit of the fu.
Here is my summary success/work analysis:
The Mavi Marmara incident succeeded somewhat in getting material supplies through to Gaza and undermining Israel’s grip on the Gaza blockade (as those were, I understand, the stated objectives), and worked greatly to shift international public opinion (less so with U.S. public opinion) favorably about the plight of both Gazans and the Palestinian people in a general sense;
However, the Mavi Marmara incident did not work — in fact, it mostly backfired — in shifting Israeli public opinion in regards to the plight of Gazans and the Palestinians in general.
Plenty has been written on this blog and elsewhere about the extent to which international public opinion has been positively affected by the M.M, so I will not reiterate those points in depth. Looking at this through the frame of nonviolent struggle — what happened approached a pseudo-nonviolent moment, from an international (non-U.S., non-Israeli) point of view. I think that even though the use of physical force detracted and interfered significantly with the message getting across (especially in the hasbara-soaked U.S.), on the whole, many global citizens clearly saw Israel’s actions to be in the wrong and saw the use of lightly armed self-defense as understandable. That said, had the M.M passengers not used physical force and resisted with nonviolence, international public opinion (especially U.S. public opinion) would been even more — probably much more — with the passengers and the Palestinian cause.
Keep in mind the way the U.S. Congress jumped to support Israel. Some might say that would been the case regardless of the M.M. passengers’ actions. I’d argue that had there been no footage of passengers beating IDF soldiers with sticks, the Congressional reaction would have been at least somewhat less sycophantic, and perhaps we’d have seen some real change. The actions of the M.M. passengers gave Israel this hasbara point (obviously exaggerated) – but still, why give them the point?
Debbie Wasserman Schulz (D-FL) insisted that "the Israeli Navy worked to plan a non-violent interception of the flotilla and only used force when soldiers’ lives were at risk."
And look at the reaction of the scared, traumatized, paranoid-of-terrorism Israeli public. Max Ajl notes:
In a recent poll, eighty five percent (85%) of the Israeli Jewish respondents indicated that Israel either did not use enough force (39%) or used the right amount of force (46%) during the attack. Only eight percent (8%) felt the Israelis used too much force. These numbers basically parallel the percentages of Israeli Jews who supported the winter massacre—there is near-unanimity on violence in Israeli Jewish society.
You probably saw Caroline Glick’s video — which was viewed over 3 million times before getting yanked for copyright infringement claims (and was then subsequently reposted). In any case, it’s a very important insight into collective Israeli psychology, and depicted Mavi Marmara activists repeatedly beating IDF soldiers with sticks. Check out this interview with IDF soldiers about their experience. Or read the IDF reports and watch the videos. In comparing with the IHH report it seems the IDF version contains a number of distortions and lies. But it also appears there is some factual basis about the passengers’ use of physical force (a lot of videos would have to have been doctored). I share all these links not because I view the IDF as a fountain of truthful information, but because we need to understand the stories Israelis tell each other that create greater fear and hostility.
Going back to the Adbusters metaphor, what is the impact on the soldier whose boot crushes the old man? Do the actions of the M.M. passengers help him feel safe removing the boot, or make him want to stomp down even harder? In light of the passengers’ actions, is the soldier more likely to trust the claim that the passengers are bringing humanitarian aid, or more likely to believe the hasbara that the passengers are terrorists trying to smuggle weapons into Hamas? Does the M.M incident impact the soldier more like the rockets (Burston’s first column) or the nonviolent Gazan with the flag (Burston’s second column)?
It’s true that a small slice of anti-occupation liberal Israelis (the 8% mentioned by Ajl above) such as Gideon Levy criticized the IDF’s actions against the Gaza Flotilla. But Levy and the like are the choir. We need to reach the majority (67%) of Israelis who — on one hand — consistently state in public opinion polls they wish to end the occupation and achieve a two state solution, but on the other hand — also state they are afraid to end the occupation because they are convinced that if they do so, "Jenin will turn into a launching pad for rockets directed at Tel Aviv." This is the same majority that both wants Jerusalem to be shared, and also supports atrocities such as Operation Cast Lead not out of hatred of Palestinians, but out of fear of Palestinians.
Ken O’Keefe, a valiant Mavi Marmara passenger, had this to say about how the passengers’ actions fit into the legacy of Gandhi:
I would like to challenge every endorser of Gandhi, every person who thinks they understand him, who acknowledges him as one of the great souls of our time (which is just about every western leader), I challenge you in the form of a question. Please explain how we, the defenders of the Mavi Marmara, are not the modern example of Gandhi’s essence?
Answer: Had Gandhi organized and trained the M.M. passengers as he did the Satyagrahis in the Dharasana Salt Raid (a nonviolent moment at the height of the Indian freedom struggle), the Mahatma would have insisted on 100% complete and unbreakable nonviolent discipline, precisely the opposite of this pre-confrontation speech allegedly calling on the passengers to throw the IDF soldiers overboard. I cannot know whether that video is authentic and the translation accurate (I assume neither and would be surprised by neither), but the point is the same regardless. Gandhi would have demanded nonviolent discipline, and not permitted the use of physical force.
Another important point: Gandhi would not have left anything to chance, or relied on anyone’s in-the-moment judgment. Gandhi’s Satyagrahis spent months, years, even decades training and preparing for events like Dharasana. Gandhi would have rehearsed every possible scenario. He would have said, "If you board the M.M., you agree to embody true ahimsa (soul force, love in action, nonviolence) in your heart, words, and deeds. You will not raise a hand against the IDF soldiers no matter what they do, and you will accept self-suffering. You are prepared and willing to become a nonviolent martyr for the Palestinian people. Each of you should expect to die and do so with joy and gladness, knowing that your sacrifice will help liberate the Palestinian people from their suffering, and help the Israelis to finally see the brutality of their behavior and change. You all agree to be nonviolent soldiers under my command. If we hold fast to satya (truth) our campaign will succeed and work. Each of you must individually make this choice for yourself." Gandhi would only have permitted Satyagrahis to board; no one unwilling or unable to make the above commitment would have been allowed onto the ship (babies cannot make such a choice).
Two points people make about the M.M., that can be rebutted simultaneously… Some say "Muslims never embrace true nonviolence" (a prejudicial view to be sure), and/or "But Dharasana only involved beatings with clubs, not live ammunition — how do you practice nonviolence against gunfire?"
The double rebuttal: the so-called "Muslim Gandhi," Pashtun leader Badshah Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars, his nonviolent army.
On April 23rd, 1930, the British arrested Khan and a mass demonstration filled the main square of Peshawar to protest his arrest. In a moment of panic, British-led troops began firing into the crowd…. “When those in front fell down wounded by the shots, those behind came forward with their breasts bared and exposed themselves to the fire one after another, and when they fell wounded they were dragged back and others came forward to be shot at. This state of things continued from 11 till 5 o’clock in the evening.” An estimated two to three hundred Pashtun were killed. One regiment of soldiers refused to fire on the unarmed Pashtun and were court-martial and sentenced to long prison terms.
But Khan’s nonviolent Pashtun army remained nonviolent. Even Gandhi found it remarkable…
When a truce was signed two years later, Indians were given the right to elect their own provincial governments for the first time.
Note that the Gaza Flotilla apparently asked for a nonviolent commitment from its passengers:
We agree to adhere to the principles of non-violence and non-violent resistance in word and deed at all times during our mission.
Apparently not all passengers were on board with this commitment.
I take nothing away from O’Keefe’s bravery and poise in the face of violence and oppression. But courage does not equal Gandhi or nonviolence. Like Ajl, O’Keefe quotes Gandhi entirely out of context to advance his argument that he and the other M.M. passengers were carrying on Gandhi’s legacy. O’Keefe writes:
Read the words of Gandhi himself.
"I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence…. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour." – Gandhi
Once again, O’Keefe leaves out the part where Gandhi says nonviolence is "infinitely superior" to violence.
Despite his misperceptions about Gandhi, O’Keefe’s heart is absolutely in the right place. Gandhi said that if you are to ever use physical force, you must do it while loving the oppressor, never with hatred. In fact, you must seek to love the oppressor out of his oppression no matter what, in all circumstances. Dr. King said the same. O’Keefe writes:
In all this what I saw more than anything else were cowards… and yet I also see my brothers. Because no matter how vile and wrong the Israeli agents and government are, they are still my brothers and sisters and for now I only have pity for them. Because they are relinquishing the most precious thing a human being has, their humanity.
Gandhi said that those who are most courageous and capable of violence are the ones with greatest potential for extreme nonviolence. O’Keefe is a perfect example, and if he can build on his positive feelings toward his Israeli brothers and sisters and learn the truth about Satyagraha and principled nonviolence, he and others like him could perhaps someday come to embody "the modern example of Gandhi’s essence."
Finally, O’Keefe issues this challenge:
I challenge any critic of merit, publicly, to debate me on a large stage over our actions that day.
Challenge accepted. If it happens, I suggest we invite a Palestinian expert on nonviolence, such as Prof. Mohammed Abu-Nimer. His participation would be far more important than mine. I hope we would also include an expert on Israeli psychology, who could help shed more light than I could about the effect on Israeli public opinion of actions like those of the Mavi Marmara passengers.
One of the main arguments that’s been made about why the M.M. passengers made the right choices with their actions is the massive media coverage, turning a harsh spotlight not only on Israel’s treatment of the M.M., but also more broadly on Israel’s oppression of the Gazans and Palestinians in general. As Michael Nagler and others have noted, we tragically live in a "if it bleeds, it leads" media culture. And it is true that prior flotillas garnered little media coverage, and the subsequent Rachel Corrie boat was a footnote in the media.
However, the fault in the argument is the claim or implication that the M.M. passengers’ use of physical force was somehow absolutely necessary in creating this media attention. The first headlines and reports were about Israel’s killing of passengers, and that was the driving story and what gave it legs. Imagine if there had been no violent resistance on the part of the M.M. passengers, only nonviolent resistance. It’s well possible that a concerted, coordinated campaign of nonviolent resistance would still have provoked a massacre. The media coverage would have been just as big if not bigger, and there would have been far less opportunity for Israel to shape a coherent rebuttal.
You claim that without resistance there would have been no media coverage. But Taylor is not telling them not to resist or sacrifice their lives. He is just saying, from my interpretation, that in their resistance they should not be using pipes, knives or sticks, as at least some did. His point, from what I understand, is that this serves to split the media attention so that it is not entirely on Israel. I agree that there is little the activists could do that would not deem them terrorists, but I see Taylor’s call as asking for more commitment to pure nonviolence in our confrontation. Nothing wrong with that is there?
And Palestinians are calling for exactly the same thing with their confrontations in Bil’in where they resist Israeli violence with their bodies – dying in some instances.
It’s interesting to note the various interpretations of what came out of the Flotilla incident in terms of media and public opinion. maximalist Narrative said:
The lasting impact of the flotilla affair in the eyes of the world will forever be the video of the IHH cell beating the Commandos as they descended with metal bars.
Let me correct you : The lasting impact of the flotilla affair in the eyes of the world will forever be the display of Israel’s total disdain of international laws and institutions like the UN…
Both are true, and that’s exactly my point… When you mix violence into a nonviolent campaign, you get — at the very best — a mixed message (and all too often, the violence of the resistors drowns out the issues).
Some say that had the Mavi Marmara passengers resisted with nonviolence, there would have been no media coverage, because no one would have been killed. Others claim that the IDF was shooting live ammunition from the first moment even before the IDF boarded the ship. These claims appear contradictory.
I see only see two hypothetical scenarios here, assuming a re-imagined Flotilla in which the passengers offered disciplined nonviolent resistance:
Scenario One, the IDF still would have killed some people (perhaps less, perhaps more, you can argue it both ways), it still would have been an international incident with massive media coverage, and it still would have benefited the Palestinian movement – but without handing the IDF a hasbara gift to further scare and enrage Israeli public opinion. It might well in fact have helped turn Israeli public opinion in the right direction, exactly the "unjustified massacre of innocents" (or one of them) that the senior Israeli analyst told me would be necessary to get Israeli psychology on the track towards Palestinian equality and freedom. In other words, it could perhaps have been a true nonviolent moment akin to the Dharasana Salt Raid.
Scenario Two, the Mavi Marmara would have been handled like the rest of the Flotilla, and yes the incident would likely have received scant media attention. But that doesn’t mean something like this wouldn’t have happened eventually. Israel’s Gaza blockade is unsustainable, and the extreme oppression built into the policy would eventually have resulted in an incident of this nature and an opportunity for a nonviolent moment, given consistent international pressure and more flotillas. Israel is caught in a paradox of repression that requires Israel to continue to apply more and more oppression just to maintain the status quo of its blockade and other forms of mistreatment of the Palestinians, and increasing oppression strengthens support for the resistance and — with nonviolent discipline — will eventually lead to the regime’s undoing.
Gandhi said he does not believe in short-violent-cuts:
I do not believe in short violent cuts to success…. However much I may sympathize with and admire worthy motives, I am an uncompromising opponent of violent methods even to serve the noblest of causes. There is, therefore, really no meeting-ground between the school of violence and myself.
Beating IDF soldiers with clubs for the sake of media coverage based on the calculation that they’re likely to react by killing people — if we’re arguing it entirely from the perspective of "what gets the most media attention" — seems like a short-violent-cut, which backfires with the Israeli public from a strategic perspective, regardless of whether you subscribe to the principle as does Gandhi. The wisest approach — from both a strategic and principled perspective — is to keep throwing determined, disciplined nonviolent resistance at Israel until they react with a slaughter of unarmed civilians, preferably including Jews.
Returning to some of the broader discussion of nonviolence raised in the ongoing debate, Robin Yassin-Kassab – like many skeptics – argues as follows:
Gandhi’s campaign was only one factor in achieving Indian independence, and certainly not the decisive factor… Many British people came to love Gandhi and to respect the moral courage of his non-violent strategy, but the British officials who counted could also see the tide of violent anti-imperialism rising behind him, a tide that would dominate if Gandhi’s method failed. It’s a lot easier to deal with the nice guy when you see the nasty guy rolling up his sleeves… The single most important factor in ending British rule was Japanese militarism during World War Two. By the end of the war, British popular attitudes to Indian independence were quite irrelevant. Britain simply did not have the money or the manpower to rebuild its own society, let alone to reassert control over the subcontinent.
This despite British historian Toynbee’s quote laying the credit/blame for Britain’s withdrawal directly at Gandhi’s feet, and numerous academic experts who concur.
Nonviolence skeptics regularly point to the existence of a parallel violent movement as obvious evidence that nonviolence cannot succeed without complimentary violence. Yassin-Kassab makes the same claim about the U.S. civil rights movement:
There was certainly a key non-violent aspect to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, but pretending that violence played no role in the process makes it necessary to ignore the American Civil War (half a million dead), Nat Turner, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and rioting Chicago. When it became necessary for the American military to occupy American inner cities, it became necessary to grant African-Americans their rights.
If we’re going to go all the way back to the Civil War, the counter-argument to those who glorify it is that a long campaign of nonviolence would have led to slower but deeper change without the negative results of so many dead bodies, without generations of north-south bitterness, and true liberty for African-Americans instead of the fake liberty of Jim Crow. Remember success/work? A short-violent-cut, the Civil War succeeded but it did not work.
But sticking with more recent history — Gandhi’s freedom struggle, the U.S. civil rights movement — plenty of respected academics dispute Yassin-Kassab’s assessment that these movements succeeded because of parallel violent campaigns, and argue quite the opposite, that these movements succeeded despite parallel violence.
One of the problems of living in a culture of extreme violence — which most of us do, one way or another — is from a very young age, our brains are wired to understand everything through the frame and lens of violence. We are all taught in preparatory school what violence is and how it succeeds. But virtually none of us – unless we seek it out – receive even the slightest education in how violence doesn’t work, much less an education in what nonviolence is or how it succeeds and works.
So when we see nonviolence and its successes and work, it doesn’t compute in our violence-suffused synapses, we don’t really get it, and we seek out an explanation for what we’re seeing that fits more closely into our extant educational background. Thus arguments like Yassin-Kassab’s that Gandhi succeeded because of, not despite, the parallel violence.
One major problem with Yassin-Kassab’s argument is that it leaves out the fact that dozens of nonviolent social movements around the world have both succeeded and worked without the presence of any sort of parallel violent campaign (or one large enough to show up on any historian’s radar as even arguably relevant). Examples: the Philippines People Power Movement, the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution, Poland’s Solidarity, Serbia’s Otpor, and the list goes on, there are dozens. The history books are suffused with these movements. But for the nonviolence skeptic, these facts are inconvenient and contradictory to the point they insist on asserting as undeniable truth – that nonviolence cannot succeed without violence. History just does not bear out this assertion.
I challenge readers to think of any situation in which colonial or racist oppression has been vanquished by the application of non-violent action in isolation from other forms of struggle.
So therefore, Yassin-Kassab implies that the mere existence of parallel violence proves itself as necessary and beneficial, and that we ought to automatically discount the idea that nonviolence alone can succeeded and work without the violence — despite the evidence of numerous nonviolent movements around the world, mentioned above, that have succeeded and worked without the presence of parallel violence.
Think of the moment when President Lyndon Johnson — reluctant to press civil rights legislation until the major actions of the civil rights movement (like the Selma March) — incorporated the motto "We shall overcome" into a major speech to Congress:
"What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement that reaches into every State of America. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."
What moved Johnson to such an extent that he passionately vocalized the slogan of the civil rights movement? Are we to believe Yassin-Kassab’s implied argument that Johnson did this out of fear, not out of love? That what paved the way was the threat of militant violence, as opposed to the courageous, self-sacrificing nonviolence of the civil rights movement that rehumanized African-Americans in the eyes of so many whites? The civil rights movement won because of principled nonviolence, not because of parallel violence, either in whole or in part.
But even assuming that in some cases, a violent campaign contributes in some way to the success of a nonviolent campaign (remember: violence sometimes succeeds), what are the implications to the work of the movement? Even the skeptics like Ajl recognize the problem of using violence as a means to an end:
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.
Look at India for example, with its growing culture of violence, its nuclear weapons arsenal, and its inflexible and uncompromising attachment to domination of Kashmir. Where do such problems likely trace, to Gandhi’s movement or to the armed campaigns mentioned by Yassin-Kassab?
Finally, and perhaps most ironically for Yassin-Kassab and other such skeptics, the experience of the Palestinian freedom struggle might be recent history’s most extreme evidence that parallel violence hinders, and does not help, the efficacy of nonviolent resistance. For example, the Third Intifada — with its resistance to land confiscation and growing BDS movement — has taken place in parallel with Hamas’ rockets launched indiscriminately at Israeli civilians. What did those rockets get the Palestinian people other than an Israeli public clamoring for Operation Cast Lead?
Here are three beliefs that I think members of the Israeli public must acquire for us to win Israeli Palestinian equality:
1) We see that the Palestinians are no longer interested in killing (or deporting) us to achieve their objectives, and their nonviolent approach helps us feel less afraid of them, see the validity of their cause, and desirous of a future in which both peoples live at some baseline level of mutual respect and coexistence in this land;
2) The world sees our treatment of the Palestinians as unfair and illegitimate and will make its relations with the state of Israel dependent on a major change in our policies toward the Palestinians, and that matters to us, because we want to be viewed as a legitimate part of the international community;
3) The entire world cares about the well being of the Jewish people and regrets its past/historical treatment of us, and has made a commitment to our well being. These apologies and commitments are solid, deep, genuine, and not dependent on what do or don’t do vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
We need to do the following three primary things to end Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and achieve some kind of acceptable state of Israeli Palestinian equality.
1) Support the Third Intifada’s nonviolent resistance component, and for that movement to maintain nonviolent discipline, including planning and training for a nonviolent moment (this contributes to belief #1);
2) Support the BDS movement (contributes to belief #2);
3) Give the Israeli Jewish people a hug, as previously described, and/or in other forms (contributes to belief #3).
(And there are more — like Truth and Reconciliation commissions — but good enough for discussion for now.)
All three are necessary, and none alone are sufficient. In tandem, these three — and the way they will affect Israeli psychology — will bring an end to military Zionism’s oppression of the Palestinian people.
It seems that most everyone on this site agrees with #2. Some commenters on this site think #1 is problematic because it should include violence "as necessary." And it appears most commenters on this site don’t even think about #3, and many would laugh at it or dismiss it.
Worse, many commenters don’t believe it’s even worth trying to influence Israeli views, based on a dehumanizing assessment that Israelis have no moral compass of any kind and cannot be reached by any means.
The level of dehumanization in this conflict has risen to an extreme level on all fronts. We all know how low some Israelis will stoop to ignore or degrade the humanity of the Palestinians. What is the benefit to the Palestinian people — or for that matter, the Israeli people — when we ignore or degrade the Israelis?
It seems that in blogosphere discussions of how to advance the cause of Palestinian freedom, the psychological state of Israeli Jews tends to be ignored or discounted. Or worse yet, at times, Israeli attitudes have been portrayed in ways that are at least factually inaccurate if not downright anti-Jewish (I refuse to use the term anti-Semitic but you know what I mean).
For example, this comment from my previous post:
Today, Judeo-Nazism, pure and simple, is the center of the Israeli universe.
Repugnant garbage like this gets us nowhere. Based on all my travels in Israel, I think I’m right on target when I saw that fear drives the majority of Israelis, not a Nazi-like view of Arabs as cockroaches. The Kahanists’ views are flagrant, but I see no factual evidence that they’re the majority. Yes, there’s a noxious racism amongst the majority — Haaretz reported a poll saying most Israeli Jews wouldn’t feel comfortable living in a building with Arabs — but to characterize such views as Nazism is a leap too far. If you want to take specific Israelis or Israeli groups to task for specific actions, go ahead. But to extrapolate the actions of a minority onto the whole of Israeli society is to head right down into the cesspool. The Israeli government does that all the time to the Palestinians.
Bottom Line: Where are we going? What does the future hold? And how the heck are we supposed to get there without Israeli Jewish consent?
Can you imagine Israelis and Palestinians living together in anything even vaguely like coexistence and equality without the consent of Israeli Jews? If so, how does that happen? Can you just force Israeli Jews to accept coexistence and equality?
Some might argue that BDS alone could achieve such a result. I disagree. Certainly it would be a vastly harder struggle without accompaniment of the other components.
Barbara Deming talked about the two hands of nonviolence, the NO and the YES:
Active nonviolence is a process that holds these two realities – of noncooperation with violence but open to the humanity of the violator —in tension. It is like saying to our opponent:
“On the one hand (symbolized by a hand firmly stretched out and signaling, “Stop!”) I will not cooperate with your violence or injustice; I will resist it with every fiber of my being. And, on the other hand (symbolized by the hand with its palm turned open and stretched toward the other) I am open to you as a human being.”
What does the future hold for Israeli Jews? What can we do to comfort and reassure those scared traumatized people? How can we create a shared vision of the future that they’ll want to say Yes to, too?
Johan Galtung has, I think, an interesting and possibly viable proposal – the so-called six-state solution in a Middle East Community. Galtung makes a considered analogy between the Middle East today and where Europe was immediately after World War II. No one could have imagined once-bitter enemies France and Germany in a regional association. Why not Israel and its neighbors?
Most Israeli Jews – the majority who want to end the occupation, but are scared to do so – are afraid that a post-occupation future would hold three things: rockets, civil war, and/or deportation (the last two especially in the case of a one-state solution).
We must develop and refine our maximally powerful NO and our maximally powerful YES if we want to win.
As counter-intuitive as it sounds, winning the hearts of Israeli Jews — not beating the crap out of them and scaring them — is the ultimate key to winning freedom, justice, and equality for Palestinians. And that’s why the M.M. was, in terms of that particular goal, a failure. Will we learn the lesson?
It bothers me that throughout the course of this debate, no Palestinians have been handed the microphone. I proposed to Phil that we invite a Palestinian academic expert and/or organizer of nonviolent resistance to weigh in, and he said no, given that he’d like to see this topic wrap up and move on. Okay, Phil’s choice, it’s his microphone.
Keep in mind that this started as a debate about the Mavi Marmara passengers’ actions, not Palestinians’ actions in the territories. I agree that we cannot tell Palestinians what to do, we can only offer input if it’s welcome and requested. But I think we as an international community – who are not living under occupation – have an obligation to be wise in what we do to assist the Palestinian cause from the outside, and be willing to critically examine the impact of said actions.
In any case, while this discussion started out only looking at the M.M, the conversation evolved to include the entirety of the Palestinian freedom movement, especially its nonviolent components. "Peace imperialism" is defined roughly as "when western intellectuals lecture oppressed peoples on how to resist oppression or transform conflict." If there were no Palestinians organizing nonviolent resistance on the ground, I might well be guilty of such an offense. However, there are many such Palestinian leaders. I only wish they were part of this discussion. I hope the Palestinians who are involved in nonviolent resistance organizing will be in touch if they see any words in this post as overstepping, unhelpful, or inaccurate.
I’m not interested in privileged Jews like me telling Palestinians how to organize nonviolent resistance. I’m interested in privileged Jews using their privilege to support, assist, uphold, collaborate with, brainstorm, and contribute to the Palestinian-led nonviolent movement, to the extent that it’s welcome.
Norman Finkelstein said the following about this issue, and I find this summary consistent with both my views and what I understand to be Gandhi’s:
Neither I nor anyone else has the right to tell Palestinians that they must renounce violent means to end the occupation. As already noted, during the Arab Revolt in the 1930s Gandhi asserted that “according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.” I cannot see grounds for revising this judgment, except to note that the “accepted canons” today would mean the current laws of war (e.g., the inadmissibility of targeting civilians). In fact, if they cannot find the moral reserves to practice nonviolence, according to Gandhi, then it is not only the right but the duty of Palestinians to hit back, and hit back hard, those who have wrecked their lives and violated their persons. Palestinians are not obliged to acquiesce in assaults on their human dignity; quite the contrary, they have a responsibility to defend their dignity against such assaults, nonviolently if they can, violently if they must…. If I propose that Palestinians adopt Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolent civil resistance, it is not because they should be held—or hold themselves—accountable to a higher ethical standard, but rather because of a compelling pragmatic insight of his. There is nothing violence can accomplish, Gandhi maintained, that nonviolence cannot accomplish—and with lesser loss of life… Gandhi’s point nonetheless stands: If Palestinians have repeatedly shown a willingness to pay the ultimate price, doesn’t it make sense for them to pursue a strategy that has a better likelihood of success at a smaller human price?
My only revisionary note to Finkelstein’s statement is I don’t see much evidence that violence has accomplished anything real for Palestinian freedom, and nonviolence can both succeed where violence cannot and work where violence cannot. Palestinians like Sami Awad and Mohammed Khatib who have been organizing and leading nonviolent resistance for years. I suggest we invite leaders like them into the discussion in the future.
Although there are places where Finkelstein and I agree and disagree about how to understand Gandhi’s words and legacy, and how to apply those lessons to the Israel Palestine equality struggle (I didn’t even bother to open that can of worms in this post – gotta declare an end somewhere), I find Finkelstein’s closing remarks quite touching, so I’ll repeat them here:
The Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire once wrote, “There’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory.” Late in life, when his political horizons broadened out, Edward Said would often quote this line. We should make it our credo as well. We want to nurture a movement, not hatch a cult. The victory to which we aspire is inclusive, not exclusive; it is not at anyone’s expense. It is to be victorious without vanquishing. No one is a loser, and we all are gainers if together we stand by truth and justice. “I am not anti-English; I am not anti-British; I am not anti-any government,” Gandhi insisted, “but I am anti-untruth, anti-humbug (nonsense), and anti-injustice.” Shouldn’t we also say that we are not anti-Jewish, anti-Israel or, for that matter, anti-Zionist? The prize on which our eyes should be riveted is human rights, human dignity, human equality. What, really, is the point of ideological litmus tests such as, Are you now or have you ever been a Zionist? Indeed, it is Israel’s apologists who thrive on and cling to them, bogging down interlocutors in distracting and endless intellectual sideshows—What is a Jew? Are the Jews a nation? Don’t Jews have a right to national liberation? Shouldn’t we use a vocabulary that registers and resonates with the public conscience and the Jewish conscience, winning over the decent many while isolating the diehard few? [Gandhi would say we shouldn’t give up on anyone, no matter how diehard, and continually seek to include all.] Shouldn’t we instead be asking, Are you for or against ethnic cleansing, for or against torture, for or against house demolitions, for or against Jews-only roads and Jews-only settlements, for or against discriminatory laws? And if the answer comes, against, against and against, shouldn’t we then say, Keep your ideology, whatever it might be—there’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory?
May we all, seekers of truth, fighters for justice, yet live to join the people of Palestine at the rendezvous of victory.
Nonviolence is a deep and complex field, representing a comprehensively different way to understand the world and social dynamics than what we learn in mainstream culture and education. One cannot spend a few hours reading blog posts like this one and the others in this debate chain and hope to gain more than a cursory level of familiarity. I offer the following resources as a baseline introduction to the topic, both generally and with regard to Palestine:
Souad Dajani, "Nonviolent Resistance in the Occupied Territories: A Critical Reevaluation," a chapter in Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographic Perspective edited by Stephen Zunes
Nonviolence and Peace Building in Islam: Theory and Practice by Mohammed Abu-Nimer (featuring the First Intifada)
The Road to Nonviolent Coexistence in Israel/Palestine by Nagler, Palter-Palman, and Taylor
P.S. – Stop by my website for more words.