The Missing Mahatma: Searching for a Palestinian Gandhi

Gershom Gorenberg

If Palestinians adopted a Gandhian nonviolent strategy, could they reshape the entire conflict with Israel and finally realize a two-state solution? If so, why haven’t they done so? Or perhaps they really have at certain times and places, and Israel has broken that form of resistance as well?

Those questions have been asked for years, in variations of tone and wording, by moderate Israelis and Palestinians and by concerned outsiders. A while back, a colleague suggested that I investigate the issue in depth.

The question lead to a intellectual journey. My essay on that journey of exploration has at last appeared.

Here’s the opening:

They marched southward from Ramallah one windy morning in March 2012. Sheikh Nasser a-Din al-Masri led them–a slim man with a short black beard that half-hid a puckered scar on his neck. They filled the road to Jerusalem, a long procession of men, women, and children wearing white robes to show they were on a pilgrimage and that they had no pockets in which to hide weapons. They carried their flat bread in clear plastic bags for the same reason. A Reuters reporter said they numbered 20,000. They chanted as they walked.

When the sheikh saw the Israeli troops massed across the road in the distance, he turned and spoke into a megaphone. “Remember the two brothers, the sons of Adam,” he said, and then quoted the Koran. “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.’ ”

The river of marchers streamed forward. From the troops came the voice of another megaphone, proclaiming “Halt!” in Arabic and Hebrew. Al-Masri answered, “We come in peace to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque, as is our sacred right.” Soldiers lifted their guns.

You can read the full essay at the Weekly Standard, and come back to South Jerusalem for conversation about it.

(An aside: Yes, the Weekly Standard is a surprising venue for me. The reasons the essay appeared there have everything to do with boring technicalities of publishing schedules and magazine staffing, and nothing to do with politics. Suffice it to say the WS was absolutely respectful of my perspective and writing.)

24 thoughts on “The Missing Mahatma: Searching for a Palestinian Gandhi”

  1. I have written on this topic, as well:

    “…let us turn to the great Spanish-Jewish poet and philosopher Yehuda HaLevi (c. 1075-1141.) About nine hundred years ago, he wrote what became a central text of medieval Jewish thought—The Kuzari. Apparently based on a historical incident, it describes how the king of a tribe in the Caucasus, called the Khazars, invited scholars from the three Abrahamic faiths to come before him. He posed questions to each of them. And, ultimately, being most satisfied with the answers offered by the Jewish scholar, he converted himself and his entire tribe to Judaism.

    The Kuzari is a philosophical work, written in the form of a dialogue between the king and the Jewish scholar. In most cases, the king is satisfied with the answers he gets. But twice in the book, the king asks questions which the scholar can not answer satisfactorily. In one case, he asks about the deep connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. If the land is so crucial to Jewish faith and practice, then how can we explain the fact that most of the Jews live outside of Israel? To which the Jew replies: “You have found my Achilles heel.”

    To be fair to HaLevi, we should indicate that he drew a personal conclusion and set out for the Land of Israel. Popular legends offer two different versions of how he met his death—either he died en route or he reached Jerusalem, but, when praying at the Western Wall, was trampled by an Arab horseman. The story is a sad one, but in both cases, it does show that he took his expressed convictions most seriously.

    In the other case, the king asks about Jewish morality, which developed historically in a situation of powerlessness. If you were to acquire military power, asks the king, wouldn’t you then become just as violent as any other people? Or, as the text so chillingly states, “If you had power, you would slay.”

    To this also the Jewish scholar has no adequate answer, responding, “I am embarrassed, as you have discovered my weak point.”

    It does not appear that HaLevi himself drew any connection between these two difficult questions. Unfortunately, in our own time, there seems to be a connection between the two issues—the centrality of the Land of Israel in Jewish life and the moral use or abuse of power. We have returned to the land, and it is within that context that we must confront the challenge of military power. There is a distinction to be drawn between using power for self-defense and inflicting punishment as an act of revenge. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “Zionism means that the Jews must get our hands dirty. But there’s a difference between getting your hands dirty and wallowing in the mud.” Thus the dialectic of powerlessness and power seems to be part of the religious meaning of the Land and certainly of the State of Israel.

    Debbie W.

  2. A very interesting article. The historical summary was fair-minded, too, which is a rarity in articles on this conflict.

    There seemed to be an implied assumption that a future passive resistance movement would demand the liberation of only part of Palestine, i.e., the part that was conquered in 1967; at least that’s what I get from the positive tone of the article together with the author’s own Zionist position. But Gandhi combined extreme demands with nonviolent means; in fact, the more extreme and less “pragmatic” the demands, the more effective the means. As you say, “Without the commitment, sticking to the tactic is hard.” Would the Palestinian Gandhi do otherwise? Would he couple such uncompromising passive resistance with such a half-ass demand as an end to part of the occupation, letting the Zionists keep what they stole in 1948 if they’ll just give back what they stole in 1967? Maybe I just read the article too carelessly, but with all the discussion of nonviolent means, I saw little about the specific goal of the struggle other than ending the “occupation” – a term which generally seems to refer to 1948 in Palestinian discourse.

    I also didn’t notice any mention of the Arab citizens of Israel. What role will they play? It’s hard to imagine their just sitting out a nonviolent struggle for statehood the way they mostly sat out the violent struggle.

    But my guess is that if there will ever be a Palestinian Gandhi, he will be an Israeli citizen born in Israel, a Westernized Arab who speaks the Israeli Jewish vernacular and, more importantly, has a relatively educated and Westernized base of Arab citizens of Israel. Or maybe not a Gandhi demanding Palestinian statehood, but a Martin Luther King demanding an end to the Zionist “apartheid” regime in Israel proper and the constitution of Israel as a non-Zionist “state of all its citizens,” including especially the repeal of the “racist” Law of Return. If this happens, then the Palestinian Gandhi/MLK will be to some extent totzeret yisra’el, just as Gandhi was to some extent a product of modern British culture.

  3. A sensitive and thought provoking analysis of a complex and important issue.

    This question is near to my heart as a Muslim who believes in nonviolence, but I am often struck by how little moral standing so many of those who pose it to Palestinians have on the matter given how rare a commitment to nonviolence is.

    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. Such leaders don’t grow on trees.

    Anywhere. Avrum makes a good point that I would extend far beyond the region: Where are the NON-PALESTINIAN Gandhi’s? Where are the leaders of American and European countries (which are not wracked by conflict, poverty and second-class citizenship) who promote nonviolence in anything other than empty rhetoric?

    Are Americans, Britons, Frenchmen, Israelis, ad infinitum, any more demonstrably committed to nonviolence than Palestinians? Once you factor in circumstances, I’m not sure the answer’s a yes.

    This doesn’t apply to Mr. Gorenberg’s piece, but I would argue that much of the MSM talk about the absence of a “Palestinian Gandhi” is so politically one-sided and morally inconsistent that it actually undermines the cause for peace in the Middle East. You don’t promote peace by chiding one side for not being Gandhian while the other is still actively pursuing its goals militarily.

  4. I think an interesting counter point to the Gandhi image is Nelson Mandela. He did not start out non-violent (and of course Gandhi himself gave up on South Africa) but ultimately realized that there was no military way to bring down the apartheid government. Of course, this is why people have hope that someone like Marwan Barghouthi will see the light — since he has both the charisma and street cred. This may sound fatuous, but how could anyone else fend off the militants in Fatah and Hamas?

  5. You conflate non-violence as a tactic with moderate political goals. What about non-violence in support of an extreme political goal as Ploni Almoni suggests? Perhaps someone committed to non-violence as a tactic would be committed to the value of peace and would recognize the necessity of a two state solution.

  6. It’s the Jews responsibility! They must unilaterally act non-violently!

    Otherwise Obama will make you!

    We In America Will Stop You!

  7. Good post as I find most of yours. Good also that you published at the Weekly Standard, which rather than a surprising venue for you I find appropriate. Why preach mostly to the choir? Why can’t we find in our familiar watering holes ideas, questions, world views different from ours that offer new ways of understanding that we might have overlooked or been un(der) exposed to.

  8. Great article. I’ll be curious to see what regular Weekly Standard readers make of it.

    According to my library catalogue, Jawdat Said’s book has been translated into English, under the title “Non-violence, the basis of settling disputes in Islam.” ISBN: 1575479974

  9. monumental essay. but it would have been more realistic had you given more attention to the current daily and weekly protests against the Wall and how they have become more violent over the past few years due to the border police’s “dispersal”. or how hamas ITSELF planned on several occasions to march thousands in gaza towards its besieged border, or form a “human chain” around the border, but israel threatned to basically shoot any “swarming masses”, and nothing came out of it.

    and that israelis — pushed by a simple-minded media’s blind use of IDFspeak — often relate to the smallest of protests by palestinians or even left-wingers (see hebron, nilin, bilin etc) as “hafarot seder” — as a violation of what they see as “order”.

  10. An explanation for the absence of a ‘Palestinian Gandhi’ can be found in the Palestinians’ very identity and origin. Rather than being a regular nation with its own culture, religion and history, the socalled ‘Palestinians’ were invented out of thin air, back in 1928. They just serve as a strategic instrument of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic organization whose stated goal is not the ‘liberation’ of any national fatherland, but rather the establishment of Allah’s reign and Sharia laws over the entire Earth (not limited to the land of Israel).

    If the ‘Palestinians’ would ever commit to peaceful ways, such as being honest in keeping their promises to non-Arabs, they would betray the Islamic mission of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even though Mubarak Awad appears as a Christian preacher, as an Arab he simply wishes to hitch a ride with his victorious jihadist Muslim colleagues. Therefore, I consider his ‘non-violent resistance’ campaign to be a fraud.

  11. I’m not at all surprised that the Weekly Standard decided to publish this article. It is a critique of Palestinian nationalism, that implicitly rationalizes Israeli occupation because the Palestinians aren’t civilized enough to resist in a way that you find appropriate. It reproduces a general theme in colonial discourses – the problem with colonialism is that the colonized aren’t civilized enough to rule themselves.

    Have you ever marched unarmed into throngs of soldiers who have shown that they have no problem killing unarmed civilians? You seem to have no problem telling other people that that’s what they need to do.

    Instead of lecturing the Palestinians on their need to be naked among their enemies, why don’t you become the Israeli Ghandi? Raise up a non-violent Israeli movement large enough to end the conflict.

  12. The reason that there has not been a Palestinian Gandhi is because you dont deserve one. The British, who Gandhi opposed, were an enlighteened people. Israelis in contrast are barely human. We have a saying “The wild ass cannot appreciate fine barley”. The same holds true for you. Our Gandhi was Yahya Ayyash, and you killed him

  13. Gershom do you think Raed Kami’s comment that “Israelis in contrast are barely human” is helpful?

  14. I enjoyed Vince Hill’s delicate sense of humor:
    He says he has “street credit”…. a polite way of saying he is serving FIVE life sentences for first degree murder. Of course, our very own leader of MERETZ “Jumas” Haim Oron just visited his pal Barghouti in the clink. He is proud of his friendship with this assassin. Can you imagine what the Israeli media would say if an MK wanted to meet “his friend Yigal Amir in prison?” Jewish blood is cheap to the Left, I see. Killing Jews is nothing to get excited about. Yossi Sarid wrote an article saying “his eyes are burning in their sockets” when he read that something like 30% of Israelis think Yigal Amir sould eventually get parole, just like all other murderers serving life sentences. Just a couple of days later he was advocating releasing Barghouti because “there are no saints here in the Middle East”. For Leftists like Jumas, Sarid and others, they have nothing but love and affection for murderers of Jews.

    Gandhi was, regarding the Jews, nothing more than a typical British-style genteel antisemite. He loved dead Jews, but had little use for live ones who were trying to survive. He wrote that he had little respect for Judaism as a religion, didn’t like the Bible (“too warlike”), yet like so many others, was very forgiving towards Muslim violence. He even justified Arab violence in Palestine, saying he could understand why they were violent. So much for this “principled proponent of non-violence-satyagraha”. Many Indians grew tired of him, viewing him as an apologist for Muslim violence, calling him “Muhammed Gandhi”.
    Yes, I agree with Orwell that he was a major improvement on other revolutionary leaders like Mao, Stalin, Lenin, and he deserved credit that India did not become a totalitarian dictatorship as did other undeveloped large countries.
    Having said, this I stand by my assessment of him as an antisemite.

  15. I would like Gershon’s thoughts on comment 13, presumably a real Palestinian, unlike the fantasy that Gershon has cooked up

  16. Y. Ben-David: Plenty of poskim consider Hinduism avodah zarah; does that make them anti-Hindu?

    In reality, of course, Gandhi said he thought that “the Jewish religion is a very fine religion” and that “[a]nti-Semitism is really a remnant of barbarism[.]”

  17. I was particularly heartened to see this essay in The Weekly Standard. Differing political camps can respectfully hear out one another’s views, based on a mutual love of reason as the basis of a free society.

    I wonder, though, whether your question is framed properly. Do we need a Palestinian Gandhi, to shame Israel into withdrawal from the territories, an eventuality that I also personally hope to see occur? Or do we simply need Palestinian moderates, who will refrain from attacking Israel, and focus instead on building their own society, albeit under challenging political and economic conditions? What if Palestinians in Gaza had simply desisted in attacking Israel after it had forcibly uprooted its own citizens in Gaza, rather than escalating their bombardment? That demonstrable willingness to live peacefully in a contiguous state would alone have been sufficient, I believe, to carry the momentum of popular sentiment further in favor of a total withdrawal from the territories, with the concurrent establishment of a recognized Palestinian political entity. This would not have entailed marching unarmed into a phalanx of tanks, but only a willingness to begin the arduous process of creating the institutions of state. In short, I suppose I’ve become enough of a pessimist to believe that you have given them too much credit by reducing their available options to either peaceful or violent resistance. Why can’t they just try co-existence, even in the face of hardships imposed by the Israeli military presence? At the very least, it would not have provoked the war in January.

  18. There can be no Palestinian Ghandi because Islam teaches “hate, kill and conquer” instead. That “love your neighbor” thing is not part of their dogma.

    I see the quote from Al-maeda (Quran) above. In case you don’t know, that is the chapter that authorizes Muslims to kill and brutally torture anybody that opposes them (5.33) and is dedicated to teaching hate and violence against non-Muslims. Of course, Muslims never consider the hate and violence in the Quran or the evil deeds of Mohammad. Perhaps verse 101 explains this attitude (” O ye who believe! Ask not questions about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble”).

    That is right. Never think, never ask why, never consider the facts… Just believe, hate and kill.

    There is no hope for the Middle East. Jews will not offer their throats to be murdered and Muslims will not stop the hate.


    about L-MAEDA

  19. Just to draw your attention to the essay by Dina Jadallah-Taschler, Palestinian Resistance in Context, Between Non-Violent & Armed Struggle at

  20. Deborah, I can live in America, because the state of Israel exists. If it didn’t I would be there creating a Jewish state.

    Ghandi’s response to the Holocaust was to tell Jews to commit mass-suicide to awaken the conscience of the world. Do I want a Palestinian Ghandi? I don’t think so.

  21. Susan; “I can live in America because the state of Israel exists.” You have a choice for no other reason than that you are Jewish, but millions of Palestinian refugees are prevented from returning to their ancestral homes for no other reason than that they are not Jewish. What kind of morality is that?

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