Once, while writing an article on Abu Nidal, leader of the most extreme Palestinian faction in the 1970s and 80s, I went to speak to one of my favorite wise men, political scientist Yaron Ezrahi. I was asking about Franz Fanon, the revolutionary theorist of the Algerian revolution, whose views on the necessity of armed struggle were adopted by the early PLO. I was interested in Fanon because Abu Nidal was the most unbending of believers in Fanon’s theory of violence.
Yaron immediately compared Fanon’s approach in The Wretched of the Earth to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The difference between the two philosophies of liberation, Yaron said, is this. For King, liberating blacks in America also meant liberating their white oppressors. For Fanon, eliminating mastery had to be physical: The masters had to be eradicated. Fanon could only imagine liberating one side. King believed in liberating both.
Their views on violence reflect the way each sees liberation. For Fanon, killing the oppressor wasn’t a problem, because the act of violence also healed the oppressed from his oppression. It made him human. (I deliberately use the male pronoun here, because Fanon’s conception of liberation was totally tangled up with macho.) For King, violence dehumanized. But non-violent resistance would end the alienation between two sides previously locked into the relation of oppressor and oppressed:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
Fanon was influenced by a long European tradition that elevated struggle for its own sake. The difference between his view of violence and the view of European fascists shrinks to nothing on close examination. Sartre’s breathless preface to Fanon, with his description of the revolutionary -
The child of violence, at every moment he draws from it his humanity -
is nearly as much a scandal for Western philosophy as Heidegger’s endorsement of the Nazis. Read those words carefully: they foreshadow glorification of the the suicide bomber.
In my essay, The Missing Mahatma, I described – and criticized – the fascination of both Jewish and Palestinian nationalism with the use of force as a way to reverse the shame of being oppressed. I explained (basing myself on Yezid Sayigh) that adopting a strategy of armed struggle
galvanized the support of Palestinians themselves and transformed the PLO into a state without territory. It forced the Arabs and the world to accept the PLO as “the sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinians -
but at the same time, armed struggle
failed miserably at liberating Palestinian territory.
I also dared to imagine that discarding Fanon for King might have the potential for leading the Palestinians to independence alongside Israel, and sought to understand why it hasn’t happened.
The exploration pleased some of my progressive friends (and strangers). It also got some people very upset. Among them are people who reacted furiously to the idea that anything but violent fury could bring liberation. I’d guess that most – though not all – of those defenders of violence are armchair revolutionaries, followers of Che chic, ready to fight to the last Israeli and Palestinian, and have never seen what a street looks like after a “martyr” has blown himself up in a cafe.
There were others who asked whether I as an Israeli had any right to suggest that Palestinians risk their lives, and quite possibly lose them, in nonviolent struggle. Richard Silverstein, for instance, raised that question, in an astoundingly sour screed at his Tikkun Olam site attacking my “fantasy” of non-violence. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has coarsened both sides to the point that an Israeli would just as soon kill a Palestinian as look at him (and vice versa),” Silverstein wrote.
To which I have several responses: First, it seems to me that Silverstein, at great distance from real Israelis and Palestinians, is the one that has been deeply coarsened about both sides – as shown by the ease with which he assigns one mentality to all Israelis and all Palestinians. Besides that, I think that progressives are people who dare to imagine a better future and work for it, who “have a dream” – not people who mock such “fantasies.”
It’s true that the escalated brutality of recent years has also led to escalated suspicion. As I wrote in my most recent American Prospect column:
For the traumatized, time stand stills, and every new incident confirms the danger. Writing about the second intifada, Israeli historian and dove-turned-hawk Benny Morris argued, “Each suicide bomber seemed to be a microcosm of what Palestine’s Arabs had in mind for Israel as a whole.” This is poor political analysis… But it is a succinct summary of how a very large portion of Israeli Jews responded to the second intifada.
The reality, though, is that most Israelis, like most Palestinians and most sane people in general, hold a number of contradictory opinions at once. The goal of effective political action isn’t so much to change people’s mind as to get them to put one set of their views in the foreground and push one to the background. For a good mapping of the contradictory views on both sides, it’s worth reading the report on the recent One Voice survey.
Many Israelis believe both that continued rule over the Palestinians is untenable – and that there’s no chance of making peace with the Palestinians. The challenge of effective Palestinian political action is to make Israelis pay more attention to their misgivings about the occupation – while alleviating their fears that peace is just the prelude to the next attack.
Suicide attacks fail on both counts. Non-violent struggle could succeed on both counts. Sari Nusseibeh argues this view with all of his brilliance in his essay “The Archimedean Lever: Right in the Face of Might.” Non-violence, he says, can attract “gravitational pull” on the opposing side; it
presupposes the ability to positively transform the identity (and position) of [one's] protagonist.
How do I have the right to suggest such a thing? For one, I think it would work better, and liberate both Palestinians and Israelis from the occupation. Violent resistance, and especially terror against civilians won’t accomplish that. Israelis are not Englishmen in India or French in Algeria; they will not go away beyond the sea. The occupation will end only if they are convinced that they can survive its end.
For another, I regard the philosophy that has driven armed struggle, and especially terror against civilians, to be immoral. The Palestinians have not been mere objects of Israeli oppression, they have also been actors in this drama, and their actions have contributed to the current stalemate. I spend more time criticizing Israel because I expect I have more ability to influence my own side. But I have no obligation to refrain from criticizing the other side.
Palestinians, quite obviously, have been willing to lay down their lives for liberation. I have every right to argue that the way they’ve done so is both a moral and a strategic failure.
Other critics have suggested that I ignore what they describe as the nonviolent tactics used by Palestinians at Bilin and the violent response. The failure at Bilin, I’m told, shows that nonviolence won’t work.
I alluded to Bilin, without mentioning it by name, at the end of my essay. I said that some Palestinians were trying out nonviolent tactics, and ” If wider change eventually comes, they may be counted as its harbingers.” I described a low-key demonstration in one village, and wrote that “Other villages have tried similar protests against the fence, aiming for nonviolence, hewing with less than success to that ideal.” I had Bilin in mind.
When I went to Bilin, I met with organizers who spoke with great commitment about nonviolence. But when protesters strode out toward the fence that day, teenage boys came with slingshots. Older voices tried to convince a young man not to use his slingshot and failed. He flung rocks, the Border Police responded with tear gas. The injured person evacuated in an ambulance that day was a Border Policeman.
I’d like to see the Bilin organizers succeed. To do so, they’d need to get their message across more effectively to the young people who take part in the protests, and to a wider audience. They’d have to create a momentum of non-violent protest. I tried to explain why they and others like them have so far had a hard time. Nonetheless, I dare to dream that they can overcome the obstacles, so that Palestinians and Israelis can be liberated, and can finally live next to each other as human beings. And at the same time, every Israeli committed to peace should also try to change attitudes and policy in Israel.