Do we really need another ‘Gandhi’?

Israel/Palestine
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 Calls abound for another Gandhi — particularly when the subject is the Palestinian struggle for human rights and self-determination. Nicholas Kristof is just the latest. The main reason why my business partner and I called our latest venture the Palestinian Gandhi Project is that this is the language used by everyone else. “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” they ask when I speak to almost any audience. Or, “if the Palestinians would just follow the lead of Gandhi….” (there would be peace, or Israel would have to give them freedom, is the unfinished end to that sentence).

That’s the reason I recently started the Palestinian Gandhi Project with a “business” partner – to respond with pictures and videos rather than with just words. But, as one friend recently pointed out, none of the individuals we showcase on our website — or even those who are leading the increasingly well-publicized marches in the West Bank — have the stature of Mohandas Gandhi (“Mahatma” means “Great Soul” and is not his real name, contrary to what appears to be popular opinion). That is true; Gandhi commanded a mass following and loyalty – and achieved an impact — that no Palestinian living today is close to emulating. (However, as I pointed out in my last post, some clearly have the potential and Israel is doing its level best to snuff them out.)

However, that is not where I believe the focus should be. Waiting for the next “savior” is an easy excuse that lets too many people off the hook, delaying the pain that all revolutions require from each of us. History has demonstrated repeatedly that personality “cults” are dangerous. The Barak Obama campaign is a very recent, clear case in point. So much adulation was directed his way by progressives and moderates alike — desperate for deliverance from the Bush years — that anyone sounding a note of caution or reservation was virtually shunned. I had just that experience during a book discussion group centered on Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope.” I sensed throughout the pages a lack of backbone, an unwillingness to take a stand and stick to it. But when I tried to express that concern, I was almost railroaded out of the house. That desperate hope for a “prince in shining armor” swept him into office. Many in the progressive movement disengaged, sitting back with a sigh of relief now that a new messiah had been found.

Now look where we are today. Obama has disappointed many, and the progressive movement is only now beginning to regain its former strength, through the “Occupy” movement. Rather, in my opinion, we all must look for, support and celebrate the Gandhian potential within us, and within others. As Clay Sharkey observed in his book, “Here Comes Everybody,” “many jobs that we regard as the province of a single mind actually require a crowd.” That is what the Palestinian Gandhi Project is all about – lifting up the budding leaders and contributors who just need a bit of a megaphone.

But that raises the question of just what we mean by “Gandhian.” Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territories,” wrote in his blog recently, “the espousal of nonviolent politics is a necessary but far from sufficient reason for christening a momentous political occasion as a Gandhian moment.” In addition, he writes, in order to be Gandhian, an individual or movement must demonstrate an “unconditional commitment to non-violence of the sort that Gandhi made the signature of his life and theory.” Using these criteria, he says, Nelson Mandela does not qualify, since he never recanted his support for armed resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa on the part of the African National Congress. And, likewise, I know of few Palestinians – even those who are active practitioners of non-violent protest — who will take violent resistance completely off the table in terms of future options, no matter how much they desire not to use it. Does that make Mandela, or Palestinian leaders such as Mohammed Khatib, any less deserving of the Gandhian mantle? I don’t think so.

Falk goes on to say that another defining characteristic of Gandhi’s legacy is his dedication to “the politics of impossibility” – that is, “dedication to goals that are beyond the limits of the feasible as they are conventionally understood.” This is indeed what defines the individuals we are seeking to highlight in the Palestinian Gandhi Project – Palestinians living under occupation or displacement but who work peacefully to make the impossible achievable, nonetheless.

About Pam Bailey

Pam Bailey is founder of WeAreNotNumbers.org and international secretary for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. She is based in Washington, DC, and travels to the Middle East frequently.

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