My article on why there hasn’t been a Palestinian Gandhi has stirred a wave of commentary. Jim Sleeper at TPM Cafe wrote to me to ask why I’d published it in the Weekly Standard (If you care, my answer is in his post). Svend White, an American Muslim, offered some thoughtful criticism, commenting here and on his own blog (which I recommend). And then of course there are the rants.
Fair enough, but kindly direct me to all the non-Palestinian Gandhis out there today…
As much as I hope and pray for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, I don’t think it’s a big mystery as to why a Palestinian Gandhi has yet to emerge. In how many other of the world’s conflicts have we seen such an ethic take root? Gandhi and MLK were extraordinary leaders whose charisma and vision could change the rules of the game.
I agree that leaders who can lead a nonviolent liberation struggle are rare. Nonetheless, such leaders have existed. The standard isn’t superhuman. Not only Israelis and outsiders, but some Palestinians have raised the argument that adopting a nonviolent strategy could be successful where other Palestinian strategies have failed. On a practical level, it’s reasonable to ask why a movement at a political dead end hasn’t looked for a more successful strategy. Were I covering a conflict elsewhere, I’d ask the same question. I ask it about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because that’s the one I write about.
Besides that, I don’t exempt the Israeli side from criticism of the methods it has adopted, and I don’t see any reason to exempt the Palestinian side from tough questions. As I’ve written before, both parties deserve their far share of blame.
Why the palestinian first? how about a Jewish non-violent movement?
And in a tone more furious, Paul Woodward claims that I
chose to lend… support to the Israel apologists who happily massage their consciences by pretending that Palestinian violence is the one insurmountable obstacle to ending the conflict.
Well actually, Paul, I didn’t do that. I can’t cram all of my writing into every article, but I’m fairly well known for arguing that Israel has created an incredible obstacle to peace in the settlement enterprise. I’ve also argued that Israel has resorted to military means when diplomatic options were available.
On the other hand, uh, yes, Palestinian violence has been a serious obstacle to ending the conflict. (My, how’s that for understatement?) Every rocket from Gaza, every bomb in a cafe confirms for Israelis that they are they victims and that their existence is threatened. All the old nightmares come back to life. Traumatized, scared people make poor peace negotiators, especially when they have the military capability to flail at those hurting them.
A Palestinian nonviolent struggle has the potential to get around this obstacle. When asked to explore why Palestinians have failed to seize the opening, I thought it was a reasonable journalistic assignment. A major obstacle to nonviolence, as I explain in my article, is that Palestinian identity has an equally strong measure of victimhood. On both sides of the conflict, “righteous victims” have made force into a value.
As for why there hasn’t been a Jewish nonviolent movement: The answer depends on what’s meant by the question.
Within Israel politics, opponents of the occupation could have done and can do much more. The marches and rallies of the peace movement are a ritual, not a tactic. I don’t propose massive civil disobedience in Israel, because it would legitimize the settlers’ stance that law can be ignored. But boycotting all settler products, all settler schools, all school trips in the territories, etc., could have more impact than demonstrations – just for a start.
On the other hand, a state can’t adopt total non-violence. To explain, I have to first note a moral flaw in the radical non-violence stance.
Usually, people think that the most radical example of nonviolent commitment is refusal to defend oneself – as portrayed in Quranic version of the story of Cain and Abel:
“One said, ‘I will surely kill you.’ The other answered, ‘If you stretch out your hand to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against you to slay you. For I fear Allah, the Lord of the worlds.’ ”
However, there’s a more extreme case: Refusal to use force to defend someone else. A person may have the right to sacrifice her/himself rather than legitimate violence. But does someone have the right to remain passive while one person murders another before his eyes? Can the onlooker say, “I won’t legitimize violence by saving the innocent victim?” In my view, that’s much more morally questionable.
A key purpose of the state is to protect the innocent from attack – be it highway robbery, rape, or an invasion. In an unredeemed world, a non-utopian world, if the state abdicates all use of force, it is likely to release a Hobbesian war of all against all.
The state, any legitimate state, can’t absolve itself of using force in certain cases. Its aim should be minimal force: A commitment to adjudicate and relieve internal conflicts, to negotiate external ones wherever possible; to develop and use nonlethal force in maintaining internal order; to make force the absolute last resort in foreign affairs.
To apply that: I don’t propose that Israel disband its army and police. I do think that we use our army far too often, for historical and psychological reasons that cause us to misinterpret threats and ignore other solutions.
Were Palestinians to achieve statehood through a nonviolent struggle, their new government would still need to have a capability for violence – or it would abandon the street to crime and violent political extremists. A total nonviolent strategy is more tenable for a substate force with a specific political goal than it is for a state.
Given my questions about absolute nonviolence, how can I propose that Palestinians might use it? Herein is a quandary. I think it might work. I think it could defuse the deep psychological barriers to a solution. Yet such a strategy could work, I suspect, only if its practitioners believed in it as a principle, not just a tactic. I apologize: I have no pat answers to this problem.
Then there are the rants. If you want to find the ones that appeared elsewhere, you may do so yourself. I don’t have the time to spend on screeds by supposed progressives who are offended by dreaming of a better way of getting to a better world, or self-proclaimed advocates of peace who can justify the murderous tactics of one side in the conflict, or for distant observers who claim to know exactly what Israelis think.
I will, however, respond to a couple of comments in my previous post. Raed Kami, who has identified himself elsewhere as a Palestinian living in London, performed his usual act of racist negation of Jews as human beings. On this blog and elsewhere, Kami regularly serves Israeli rightists by uttering parodies of what they would like to believe that Palestinians believe. He’s a good example of the Diaspora syndrome:
Diasporas have a tendency to promote passion over good sense and not just among Jews. The late Edward Said’s fulminations against compromise with Israel represented the Palestinian mirror image of the armchair extremism of some American Jews. A Boston Irish friend once told me, “In my family, we named our dogs after the British royal family” — or rather, that’s the printable version of what he said. His family, at least, did not contribute to Irish terror groups.
Part of this is guilt at work: Some Diaspora activists feel a contradiction between their commitment to the homeland and their comfortable absence from it and compensate by shouting louder. Besides that, distance turns a reality into an abstract cause. A cause is something you defend with unyielding argument…
Yes, Kami’s frothing is offensive. It’s a style that exists. Read my article, and you’ll get a much wider range of Palestinian views.