MLK and the peace process

Israel/Palestine
on 29 Comments
MLK Jr
MLK Jr

I would like to focus on a word that, when employed by defenders of Israel, is meaningless. The word is “peace.” Assisting me in interpreting this word today are Martin Luther King and the pro-Israel group StandWithUs.

Martin Luther King offered his interpretation of peace in his 1958 book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, which described the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56. At that time, King had been a new pastor in town:

Montgomery was an easygoing town; it could even have been described as a peaceful town. But the peace was achieved at the cost of human servitude.

Many months later, an influential white citizen of Montgomery was to protest to me:

“Over the years we have had such peaceful and harmonious race relations here. Why have you and your associates come in to destroy this long tradition?”

My reply was simple: “Sir,” I said, “you have never had real peace in Montgomery. You have had a sort of negative peace in which the Negro too often accepted his state of subordination. But this is not true peace. True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice. The tension we see in Montgomery today is the necessary tension that comes when the oppressed rise up and start to move forward toward a permanent, positive peace.”

The same incident was described earlier in a 1956 sermon entitled “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious”:

I had a long talk with a man the other day about this bus situation. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes, it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be a peace boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.

If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it.

If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.

If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.

If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace. So in a passive, non-violent manner, we must revolt against this peace.

Contrast this with how StandWithUs prefers to interpret peace. In the February 9, 2009 Dayton Jewish Observer, high school senior Miriam Mogilevsky recounted her awesome experience at an “Israel advocacy training retreat.” She learned valuable tips from then–StandWithUs Campus Director Dani Klein, such as the following:

“Always include the word ‘peace’ in your answer,” [Klein] told us. “If the Israeli side says ‘peace’ more times than the Palestinian side says ‘peace,’ we will win the PR war.”

Remember this the next time you hear the same tired arguments against your Palestine activism:

“BDS is not working for peace.”
“How does this serve peace?”
“You’re undermining the peace process.”
“We’re working for peace, and we see that what you’re doing is harmful to peace.”
“Your actions are so negative. What are you doing for peace?”

For StandWithUs, the expression of peace is reduced to a rhetorical weapon—a “peace-ing contest”: by mentioning the word peace more times than your opponent, you assert ownership of that term and thus claim the moral high ground. Because you own the term, you establish yourself in contrast with your opponent who is, by corollary, anti-peace.

While King sought to clarify the meaning of peace and demonstrated that peace alone is not inherently desirable (particularly in the absence of justice), StandWithUs and other defenders of Israel prefer to keep peace an abstract word whose only meaning is in the virtue of uttering it. Everything they do is “for peace,” and everything Palestine activists do is “against peace.”

As Noam Chomsky has often said, “Everyone wants peace, even Hitler and Genghis Khan. The question always is: On what terms?”

Defenders of Israel never need to define their terms, as the peace they seek to defend is the peace of the status quo. Their positions rely on the following misconceptions about peace:

  • Peace, independent of justice, is the ultimate goal.
  • Peace is strictly defined as the absence of conflict.
  • Conflict is considered a negative, counterproductive presence.
  • One can only work for peace by not causing conflict and by not offending anyone. If you violate this, you are no longer being peaceful and are instead being counterproductive.

Opponents of BDS capitalize on these mistaken concepts when they criticize BDS for being “divisive.” Divisiveness itself is a silly argument. It essentially says, “I am opposed to this move because it is divisive. It is divisive because I am opposed to it. And since divisiveness is a bad thing, you must oppose it too.”

In contrast, the principles that King laid out more than fifty years ago, and which remain foreign to our conventional understanding of peace, are the following:

  • Peace by itself is not inherently good.
  • Conflict and tension are not inherently bad.
  • If you want to change the status quo, you will be divisive, you will offend people (namely those who prefer the status quo), and you will have conflict. That is necessary to create change.

When the Olympia Food Co-op decided to honor the BDS call last year, supporters of the boycott were accused of being outside agitators, of creating conflict, of being divisive, of employing the “negative” tactic of boycott, and of “destroying the community.”

In Montgomery, King was confronted with the exact same charges.

Although King’s story about the “influential white citizen of Montgomery” was impressive, it later evolved into a much more impressive document, his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” By then, King was no longer responding to an “influential white citizen of Montgomery,” but ostensibly to seven Christian pastors and one rabbi in Alabama. These white clergymen issued an open letter to King and his fellow activists that appeared under the headline, “A Call for Unity.” I will quote from the letter and provide translation:

In Birmingham, recent public events have given indication that we all have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems.

Translation: There’s a peace process under way, and peace is right around the corner.

However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders.

Translation: Outside agitators are trying to push their foreign agenda on our community. They are causing divisiveness.

We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.

Translation: Let’s dialogue. The good Negroes are already doing it.

[S]uch actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems.

Translation: BDS may claim to be nonviolent, but it incites hatred and violence.

We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.

Translation: BDS is an extreme measure that undermines the already established peace process.

It must be noted that these were not reactionary whites who issued the “Call to Unity.” Some considered themselves to be progressive on the civil rights issue, and they relied on their progressive credentials to label King an extremist.

If these men had had a melodramatic flair and access to YouTube, perhaps they would have made a video like this:

King’s response was similar to the response he gave in Montgomery seven years earlier. Here are some excerpts from the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Embrace of conflict and tension:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth….

Genuine negotations can only occur when the playing field is leveled. Notice how he flips their call for dialogue on its head:

The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

Liberal Zionists—I mean, white moderates—refuse to let go of the status quo and are thus obstacles to a just peace:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In Olympia, opponents of the Co-op boycott cast themselves as true “peacemakers” and attempted to promote an alternative to BDS. Instead of supporting a negative tactic like boycott, they said, Olympians could support a group like Jerusalem Peacemakers, which sponsors positive peace events such as the annual Jerusalem Hug:

MLK Jerusalem hug
The Jerusalem hug would create peace through “apotheosis”

The organizers of the Jerusalem Hug explained their goal:

The “Jerusalem Hug” is intended to evolve into an all encompassing apotheosis for peace in 2012, where Palestinians and Israelis will hopefully be united in peace for all times to come.

Such theatrics are what King described first in 1956, and then in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” as the “obnoxious negative peace,” cultivated and embraced by “white moderates.”

29 Responses

  1. Avi_G.
    January 17, 2012, 10:20 am

    Great article by the ever principled Phan Nguyen.

    I would argue that the word “peace”, though it sits at the apex of the rhetoric and the PR, it is merely the tip of the iceberg.

    Israeli PR is channeled through Hasbara. One of the tenets of Hasbara is the abundant use of platitudes, however hollow or meaningless their use may be; thus one finds terms like, “Defend, value, life, quiet, serene, community, children, etc.” that describe Israel and Israelis.

  2. dumvitaestspesest
    January 17, 2012, 10:41 am

    ” We must make them lavish promises and use extravagant phrases…..
    The opposite of what we promise may be done afterwards…..that is of no consequence”.

  3. Kathleen
    January 17, 2012, 11:00 am

    Dr. King would be all about the Palestinian justice issue. Al Sharpton really does not get this. When ever he mentions Israel it is all about full support. Sharpton clearly incapable of applying his alleged commitment to peace, justice and accountability does not apply to the Palestinians

    • MLE
      January 18, 2012, 9:04 pm

      I kind of feel like Sharpton is a bit of a fraud- he looks for opportunities for money and publicity. I think he cares very much about black issues, but on everything else, he follows the trends. I don’t think he’s a great candidate to support the Palestinian cause. I think the best people to represent the movement are young educated articulate Palestinians and anti Zionist Jews who do not fold under the tremendous pressure. Both groups are the ones most significantly affected, and it dispels the notion that there is some predetermined cause for Arabs and Jews not getting along, and that the source of this conflict is more political than religious.

      Also the one state solution needs to be promoted much more strongly as a serious and legitimate option. I think the Palestinian population at large, and not the political leadership, needs to be informed exactly how it is much more viable than a two state solution. Young people from both sides can come together and come up with ideas how to handle issues such as a national reconciliation, religious freedoms, refugee status, how to control extremists from both sides,etc so there’s a blueprint as to how this whole process will work and people will be less freaked out over the whole thing.

  4. eGuard
    January 17, 2012, 11:15 am

    The video is titled “Why BDS Scars Don’t Heal” (published June 24, 2011). The interviewees talk about “healing the scars”, and “hidden agenda”, and “reaching out”.

    Then, on September 2nd, a lawsuit was started against sixteen (former/current) board members of Olympia Co-op. Among the five plaintiffs, four names we recognize from the video: Kent L. and Linda Davis (pair sitting at empty table), Jeffrey and Susan Trinin (Susan with black hat). Later in the process, the name Tibor Breurer reappears.

    Clearly, the healing has not yet begun.

    link to olympiafoodcoop.blogspot.com

    overview lawsuit
    link to ccrjustice.org

  5. Richard Witty
    January 17, 2012, 11:22 am

    Peace is a primary valuable goal.

    In its truth, it incorporates the concept of consent, that is genuine, not subordinated going along, but actual consent.

    The presence of Zionism is a similar assertion. It is an assertion by Jews, by Israeli Jews, “We will never be content with quiet, meaning peace. We insist on a definition of peace that includes our genuine consent.”

    How does one pursue the rights of one group without subsequently impinging on the rights of the other?

    The seed of the pendulum swing is sadly inherent in your dismissal of the word “peace”. It implies “You are not entitled to consent. We will tell you what you will accept.”

    Is that justice? Is that peace?

    Lets get to real peace, to real consent, not punitive “justice”, not imposed “consent”.

    • john h
      January 17, 2012, 11:17 pm

      You are so blind, Richard. When will you apply what you say, first to Palestine and Palestinians?

      Never, of course, Jews always come first.

      How does one pursue the rights of one group without subsequently impinging on the rights of the other?

      That question was asked and answered in fine detail by a Zionist Jew well before Israel came into being. That man was Jabotinsky, that time was 1923.

      It is answered by you in many of your posts in much the same way. You know how you put it, but in essence it always is that the end justifies the means, as the need for a Jewish state trumps all else.

      The seed of the pendulum swing is sadly inherent in your dismissal of the word “peace”. It implies “You are not entitled to consent. We will tell you what you will accept.”

      Is that justice? Is that peace?

      No, it is gross injustice, it is a declaration of war.

      • john h
        January 17, 2012, 11:52 pm

        Just to ensure you get what I just said, what is in bold is effectively what Jabotinsky said, what you say, and what actually happened, and so the war continues to this day.

        Note too that this does not merely involve the ideas and actions of Zionist Jews. It perfectly describes the UN of 1947 and beyond, and the Western powers that still dominate it.

        And part of the Palestinian answer?

        “We will never be content with quiet, meaning peace. We insist on a definition [and actioning] of peace that includes our genuine consent.”

      • Richard Witty
        January 18, 2012, 6:51 am

        Its also what you say.

        I am UNLIKE Jabotinsky. Are you? (I know, you have no skin in the game, you are just solidarity. But, that can be the worst, egging on destructive attitudes from the sidelines.)

      • john h
        January 18, 2012, 12:38 pm

        Make up your mind, Richard.

        Its also what you say. egging on destructive attitudes from the sidelines.

        What you appear to say here is that you agree with what I wrote but yet are suggesting it is destructive. On the face of it that is a contradiction.

        I am UNLIKE Jabotinsky.

        Not at all. You share his rationale and his priorities, and the view that “there is no other morality” than what he stated. You just have your own way of presenting them to salve your conscience.

        You think your opposition to Likud is opposition to Jabotinsky. You can legitimately say you are unlike Jabotinsky when your opposition is to Zionism.

        And by the way, this is an MLK thread. Try and get your head around what he said about peace:

        You have had a sort of negative peace in which the Negro too often accepted his state of subordination. But this is not true peace. True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

      • Richard Witty
        January 18, 2012, 4:44 pm

        You don’t have a clue John H.

        Please stop shooting first, and then finding out later.

        Thank you for including the video. They made some very persuasive points, particularly about how unnecessarily divisive the boycott itself is, the tone employed, and the ethnically associated punishment imposed.

      • Citizen
        January 18, 2012, 5:27 pm

        Witty, we all know from your comments over the years here at MW blog that you a Jabotinski guy all the way, Mr Iron Wall himself, but you hold your nose so as not to smell the gas.

      • Richard Witty
        January 18, 2012, 6:31 pm

        You don’t have a clue either Citizen.

        Its laughable.

      • Phan Nguyen
        January 18, 2012, 7:33 pm

        Actually, Witty, I know all the people from Olympia who star in that video (five of the seven people who appear in the video). I have a long list of lies they’ve told, slanders they’ve made, racist comments they’ve uttered, events they’ve disrupted, and more.

        They are not the helpless creatures they purport to be, and their depiction of how things went down in Olympia conveniently omits the active roles they played in spreading lies and trying to take down the Olympia Food Co-op.

        One of the concerned Co-op members in the video wasn’t even a Co-op member when the boycott was approved.

        I will expose the nature of the video and of the people who star in the video at some point in the future.

      • john h
        January 18, 2012, 7:46 pm

        When you can’t stand the heat, this is your pathetic way of getting out of the kitchen:

        You don’t have a clue John H. You don’t have a clue either Citizen.

        Please stop shooting first, and then finding out later.

        Citizen is right, you hold your nose so as not to smell the gas.

        You got something right, it’s laughable.

      • Citizen
        January 18, 2012, 8:35 pm

        What’s laughable, Witty, is your worship of yourself as a member of a self-chosen people who collectively you see as nearer to, or actually, god relative to the rest of humanity, and so entitle to exist on earth forever as they please, no matter the expense to the rest of humanity.

      • Shingo
        January 18, 2012, 9:54 pm

        That’s right Witty,

        In spite of 11,600 posts by you, no one has a clue what you’ve been trying to say all along – and yet you claim that your posts are clear and factual.

        The fact is that we all see through your racist supreacist ideology and every time we do, you complain about it.

        It’s you that has no clue.

      • Shingo
        January 18, 2012, 9:55 pm

        I know, you have no skin in the game, you are just solidarity. But, that can be the worst, egging on destructive attitudes from the sidelines.

        What skin do you have in the game Witty? Where do you live? When was the last time you went to Israel? Yeah for 2 weeks 20 years ago.

        You’re as much in the sidelines as everyone here.

      • Shingo
        January 18, 2012, 9:57 pm

        True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

        And as Witty has made clear many times, he is opposed to justice because justice implies accountability.

      • Shingo
        January 18, 2012, 10:10 pm

        Very well put John,

        Though Witty often uses words out of context, Witty’s choice of words should not be dismissed entirely. Some are carefully chosen to sound benevolvent, but have an entirely different agenda.

        Witty likes to use the word “consent” becasue it suggests democratic, but it isn’t. Consent is effectively mob rule or domination of the majority over the minority.

        He alos likes to use the refer to “opposing”, as in opposing the occupation or the settlements, which suggests he rejects both. In actual fact, what he means is that he is prepared to tolerae criticism of both but does not endorse ending the occupation or dismantling the settlements.

      • Richard Witty
        January 18, 2012, 10:57 pm

        Phan,
        Given the tone of your commentary here, at least part of their assertions are substantiated.

        I’ve seen the phenomena they’ve described played out many places elsewhere, not just around the Israel/Palestine question, but definitely including.

        As the BDS demands are in fact vague, and the targets of BDS are in fact ethnically homogenous, there is a true ethnic based element to the boycott movement. You want to dodge around that being racist, wonderful, that they didn’t “mean” racism, they just made somewhat arbitrary distinctions of what to boycott that happen to apply to one ethnicity.

        As much as the South Africa boycott is lauded here, it was not that different. It was periodically mean, excessive, divisive, until the co-op movement dropped it. Then they did proceed to neglect South Africa after the victory.

        Both South Africa, and the Chavez grape boycotts were very different than the BDS campaign, mostly in that the focus of the boycotts were communities that are dear to a not inconsiderable minority of residents. Relative to South Africa, a very few had friends and family there, and few had friends and family that were farm workers. But, MANY have friends and family in Israel, have visited Israel, feel a religious sentimental attraction to Israel.

        A different nature than South Africa boycott.

        I’m certain that more than a few pro-BDS participants became new members as well.

        The significance of excluding non-related political movements from co-op issues, is that the co-op movement is significant as the co-op movement, and any issue that slices away 20% of the audience, is a distraction from the movement itself, and then a threat to coop itself, then to the supporting coop warehouses, etc.

        For 10 years, serving natural foods coops (and others) was my professional world. I’ve seen it over involvement in coops for 40 years.

        Just for reference 5 of 7 is not “all”. Would that be an example of exageration, an example of the untruth that they told? Its not for blame, as so much to regard the individuals that spoke up humanely, even if they did so somewhat desparately.

        Co-ops are designed to be inclusive, not exclusive, is the point. 99/1%, not 90% acceptable (because they don’t oppose this boycott), 8% zombies for opposing the “majority”, 1% elite?

      • Citizen
        January 19, 2012, 1:53 pm

        Gee, Witty, one would think that those directly related to those who are oppressing natives would be more sensitive to the plight of the natives, not less so. Why do you cheer the insensitivity of those you applaud as having skin in the game–don’t the oppressed have skin in the game too? And, back when you were a flaming liberal attacking the fascist government during the Vietnam Era, what similar skin did you have in the game as what you sell now? Ditto re your empathy with the MLK movement back in the days of Jim Crow? If we take your logic all the way, Witty, why should there have been any “righteous gentiles” at all? You’re quite a little mean fella, eh?

      • Phan Nguyen
        January 19, 2012, 8:41 pm

        Witty: “Just for reference 5 of 7 is not ‘all’. Would that be an example of exageration, an example of the untruth that they told?”

        My God, you’re right! It’s a good thing I wrote the following instead:

        “Actually, Witty, I know all the people FROM OLYMPIA who star in that video (five of the seven people who appear in the video).”

        This means that two of the seven people who appear in the video are NOT from Olympia, and I don’t know them.

        As for the rest of your non-arguments, you’ll have to be patient, and the whole story of the Olympia Food Co-op boycott will unfold, substantiated with evidence, not conjecture. When that happens, you can then dispute everything I write again, as if you actually read what I write.

        Until then, I have a lot on my plate.

      • Richard Witty
        January 20, 2012, 6:49 am

        I’m sorry I misunderstood your post.

        Did you read the rest of my post besides that error on my part.

    • Citizen
      January 18, 2012, 7:23 am

      A very young Jewish man decides 2 decline the self-choseness of his tribe and join the human race as an equal, nor more, no less: link to gilad.co.uk

    • Shingo
      January 18, 2012, 9:46 pm

      In its truth, it incorporates the concept of consent, that is genuine, not subordinated going along, but actual consent.

      The presence of Zionism is a similar assertion.

      How can that be when Zionism has only ever been expressed as subordination of Palestinians?

      It is an assertion by Jews, by Israeli Jews, “We will never be content with quiet, meaning peace. We insist on a definition of peace that includes our genuine consent.”

      We get it Witty. Peace is ok with you, but it’s secondary to Israeli Jewish (not Israeli Palestinian) consent. In other words, if the consent of Israeli Jews was to maintain he status quo (i. Opeace) – that would be fine with you too.

  6. Citizen
    January 17, 2012, 11:49 am

    Re: “And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation.”

    The current AIPAC v Weiss debate adds an extra dimension to this chess game, i.e., that not only should curative meetings be so restricted, but they need to be held in a backroom, away from the 98% of the USA that is goy. In short, the “don’t do Jewish laundry in front of the goy public.” That the Jewish Establishment in the USA still clings to this medieval condition in 2012 is a measure of their narcissism. Bill Kristol fiddles with his supremely arrogant fingers why Rome burns. His type should be called out for what they are: Traitors.

  7. pabelmont
    January 17, 2012, 1:36 pm

    Terriffic essay.

    The anti-BDS want only their own (very slight) scars to heal. They have no concern for the festering and long-term open wounds of the Palestinians living in Israel, in OPTs, and in diaspora.

    The privileged never give up privilege without a struggle. Therefore, to secure a “just and lasting peace”, there must be a struggle. QED. In a conflict between equals or near-equals there may be a bargain. Between vastly lop-sided unequals, negotiation makes no sense at all. BDS is an attempt to harness some of the energy of the “outside” to change the circumstances for Israel, to change, as it were, the chemistry of the water in which it swims and in which it gobbles Palestine and spits out the bones.

    The BDS attempt is small, but if it bears major fruit it will do so when nation-states join the effort. So far they have not done so being, as Israel is, part of the “1%” or subject to it. It is with the states that BDSers must work.

  8. john h
    January 18, 2012, 8:51 pm

    The humiliation the “peace-process” involves, and reaction to it:

    Collaborating with the humiliation inherent in VIP status conferred by the occupier is part of the PA’s whole concept.

    It’s no coincidence that a group of young Palestinians now organizing protests in the West Bank against a return to negotiations is called ‘Palestinians for Dignity.’

    link to haaretz.com
    link to occupiedpalestine.wordpress.com

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