MLK and the peace process

Israel/Palestine
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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.”

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