Missing Mahatma: Last Thoughts (for Now)

Gershom Gorenberg

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 don’t claim that one day represents every Friday – though descriptions of other days at Bilin – like this one, and this one – portray a similar picture.

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.

18 thoughts on “Missing Mahatma: Last Thoughts (for Now)”

  1. Gershom – thank you for the Weekly Standard article and this essay too. I’m creating a link to both on the course wiki site for my course on Judaism this semester (we’re tackling the issue of the ethics of war in relation to the Gaza War – not that we’ll settle that issue!).

    By the way, I’m going to be in Israel this summer, arriving on June 15, and would love to see you and the family when I’m there (I’ll be there until August 6).

  2. I get the impression from your writing that you believe there is a kind of balance in the situation that keeps things from moving in a positive direction. From where I sit here in the US, I don’t see a balance.

    Instead I see a relentless expansion of settlements that varies only in the its pace. I don’t see the driving force behind these settlements having a connection with violence by the Palestinians. In other words, the move toward a Greater Israel is independent of anything the Palestinians do, peaceful or otherwise.

    There is a call for the Palestinians to behave themselves and stop the violent acts of Hamas. Is there any evidence this would make a difference in settlement activity?

    On the other hand, there is a call for Israel to stop the expansion of the settlements in the West Bank. There is occasional half-hearted action on this by the government with no long-term deterrent effect.

    It’s true that longer range or more powerfully armed rockets may pose a more serious threat to Israel by Hamas in the future, but the expansion of settlements is largely a done deal. Tens of thousands of settlers are in place and I see no evidence of their readiness to remove themselves or of the government to remove them.

    So in this way I see no balance in the situation. One side has not only prevented the other from attacking it while at the same time it has moved with determination to take over the land of those it holds at bay.

    True, violence doesn’t work but I don’t share your hope for a peaceful initiative to do any better. Where is the incentive to stop, let alone roll back the settlements?

    M.L. King Jr. succeeded in shaming the white population of America. He made it crystal clear, non-violently, that hypocrisy was the rule and Americans were daily treading on the foundation of the Constitution in the way they treated blacks.

    Pictures of police attacking blacks and firehoses being used to throw blacks to the ground who were doing nothing but voicing their protest, incensed the country. Black children being prevented from attending white schools brought federal troops to Arkansas so there could be no doubt who was in charge.

    I’ve seen plenty of pictures of armed bulldozers destroying Palestinian property, of evictions for code violations that end up in demolished Palestinian homes that are replaced with developments for Israelis, of olive groves destroyed for a new settlement. The world is incensed, but where is the outrage in Israel? Where is the Israeli government acting to show who is in charge? It seems to be doing its best at the moment to thumb its nose at even the idea of a Palestinian homeland.

    To whom would Palestinian non-violent action appeal if such things as have happened already, have in fact become routine, bring no effective opposition or shame?

  3. Well-said. Thank you for this. I’m quite moved by the distinction between resistance which aims to destroy the oppressor, and resistance which aims to transform both the oppressor and the oppressed. There’s something transcendent about it — by which I mean, it seems to me to transcend the us/them binary in a compelling way.

  4. Gershom – I have been reading and writing about the death of Bassem Abu Rahman in Bil’in, and have seen the video of the event. This troubles me beyond words. This is the sort of thing that is supposed to mobilize opposition to the wall – has it done so, or has it mobilized opposition to non-violent action?

    The wall and the settlements. They leave me depressed about the possibility of peace, and even more so about Israeli seriousness about peace.

  5. I have no problem with progressives imagining a better future for both peoples. But I DO have a problem with you imagining such a future without having your fantasy based on any semblance of reality as we know it.

    It’s no accident that a neocon publication published your piece since it reflects fairly their notion that if only there could be a Palestinian Gandhi, then the Middle East would become a peaceful place. While you acknowledged some element of blame for the Israeli side in this, the title & preponderance of your text made clear which side you blame overall for the failure to realize this fantasy.

    I assure you that I have not been coarsened by anything. On the contrary, unlike you I am clear-eyed about what is happening in the Middle East. I do not believe either side needs a Gandhi to realize peace. Waiting for Gandhi, or Martin Luther King is a recipe for waiting for the Messiah–that is forever.

    You didn’t nearly grapple with the seriousness of my critique of your piece. You merely dismiss it with an elegant wave of the hand.

    Your readers should note, for example, that you’ve used a rather sophisticated version of the right wing argument that dismisses criticism of Israeli policy by non-Israelis. Just because I am not IN Israel or Palestine does not mean that the value of my views should be diminished. In fact, if Israelis and Palestinians could listen more carefully to the views of those NOT directly involved in the conflict, they might gain some valuable insights into how to step away fr. it and reach a compromise.

    My blog’s name is “Tikun Olam.” You’ve confused it with the spelling of Tikkun Magazine.

  6. One final note: no one says you have no right to criticize Palestinians. I do so myself. I do not support violence as a tactic to end the Occupation. But unlike you, I refuse to put the onus on the Palestinians & see the victims as the one’s who must put down their slingshots in the fact of lethal tear gas canisters and heavy weaponry, as at Bilin.

    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gone far beyond the relative purity of the Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings. Israel is not the relatively benign British raj, nor is it even Bull Connor. It is something far more dangerous, far more toxic. And your thesis simply misses the boat.

  7. I am a peaceful bystander eagerly awaiting to read your reply to Clif and your rebuttal to Silverstein.

  8. Odd that Richard Silverstein should even attempt to compare the situations Gandhi and ML King faced with that of the Arab/Israeli conflict, even if he rejects it in the end. Gandhi never questioned the right of Britain to exist, he never organized celebrations in India while London was being bombed in World War II, as the Palestinians do when there are terrorist attacks in Israel. Same with King, he never thought the blacks should drive the whites out of the US, never thought that the blacks should rule the whites, either, he simply wanted everyone to have their fair share of political power. The whole comparison to the US Civil Rights movement is ridiculous because that was not a nationalist struggle between two different peoples over sovereignity.

  9. I must correct what I wrote in the previous comment. Richard Silverstein DID point out the differences in the situations, so I guess my comments should be directed more towards Gershom for attempting to make the comparison.

    Here is a question for those who do think a Palestinian “non-violent” mass movement could work. Let’s say you are an Israeli military commander and it is announced that 50,000 Palestinians are going to march from Ramallah to the Temple Mount (Al-Aqsa mosque), presumably to “liberate” it “peacefully”. Now, tens of thousands of Muslims do gather there all the time, under Israeli control , in order to pray, so such a march would have to increase the pressure by demanding more than just to conduct prayers there. If you were the commander at the crossing point north of Jerusalem, what would you do? Would you take the chance given that it could turn into a mob that would attack the Jews encountered on the way to their destination, especially since the Palestinians have no history of doing “peaceful marches” of this sort? Seth Freedman at “Comment is Free” points out that many of the Jews who come to demonstrate at Bi’lin against the security wall on Fridays justify Arab violence, saying that is the only way they are going to get anything (Freedman disputes this), and that the Palestinians should be the ones to define the nature of the confrontation and that it should be violent. So where is the pressure coming from to switch to a “peaceful” form of confrontation if Jews are willing to see the Palestinians use violence?

  10. Mr. Gorenberg, you are acting a bit like a glib politician (although an erudite one) by selecting only the simple and obvious problems with the arguments that clash with yours, and ignoring the real difficulties of your approach. as i wrote previously (and note the CHANNEL 10 VIDEO THAT KIND OF CONTRADICTS YOU POINT):


    Mr. Gorenberg, you did not give enough weight to the currently, presently existing (though on a low-flame) non-violent forms of Palestinian protest, which are hardly allowed any chance to develop by Israel.

    As I commented previously, daily protests against the Wall and land-grabbing have become more violent over the past few years due to the border police’s “dispersal”, and HAMAS ITSELF planned on several occasions to march thousands in Gaza toward its besieged border, and form a “human chain” around the border, but Israel threatened to take lethal action and nothing came of it.

    That is a prime example of how something sounds good in theory, but in reality verges on unfeasible. The fear of Palestinians to be chased away by the stinging tear gas, to be maimed by Magav beatings, to be arrested or shot cannot be waved away by saying that “the standard is not superhuman.”

    The Raj in India was doubtlessly brutal in its tactics- often more than israel – and there are definite similarities as between all colonial situations, but we cannot deduce from one given case how to treat another simply because of several similarities.

    The roadblock regime is a major hindrance on free movement. When Palestinians can’t get from village to village, city to city, without being stopped, checked, questioned, detained, there goes one of the building blocks needed for such a LARGE-SCALE movement to develop.

    When the Shabak threatens even SMALL-SCALE Palestinians who wish to protest land-theft, or organize rallies, when people are black-listed and face consequences that can affect their day-to- day lives in the most fundamental way, when they are beaten and arrested and shot at, there goes another building block, what you patronizingly call “courage.”

    When it difficult to leave the West Bank -let alone Gaza — to receive some western education and know you will be allowed to return to your home (as the case of Awad partially shows), the key need for an educated leadership is dwindled greatly, as it is by dismal economic conditions (far worse in Gaza than the West Bank).

    And finally, you ignored violence against the Raj in India, such as the 19th century rebellion, that eventually lead to gradual British moderation. You ignored violence and sabotage against the Brits before and during Gandhi’s peaceful efforts.
    The ANC in South-Africa was considered a terrorist group, and indeed acts of terror were carried out by blacks against the whites. Only when the apartheid regime began ceasing to consider the ANC and Mandela terrorists could reconciliation rapidly progress.
    And closer to home (this rant is written by an Israeli), you ignore that Algeria was helped freed largely by terrorist bombs and cruel slaughter of thousands of French soldiers and settlers.

    Unlike our own military leaders like Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon, if I were asked what I would be if I were a Palestinian I would not say I’d like to be a terrorist or fighter. I too believe their violence is self-defeating, vicious and unhelpful — ultimately.

    But so far it has got them Israeli recognition, the Oslo accords, the (foolish) Gaza disengagement — in addition to thousands of dead, right-wing governments and more settlements. A secret survey commissioned by Sharon, revealed a year or two ago on TV, showed that violence, AND PLEASE NOTE THIS – actually made Israelis more willing to make concessions.

    Before the theory, establish the reality in an unbiased, un-patronizing way.

    for mr. gorenberg and anyone else who understands hebrew — i suggest you take a look at this fascinating 2007 report on channel 10 which i refered to — it’s very relevant.


  11. Mr. Gorenberg – I must agree with Richard Silverstein (whom you criticized unfairly) and with others here regarding your advocacy of “Ghandi tactics” for the Palestinians. I couldn’t help but notice that your article on the subject in The weekly Standard has become something of a rallying cry for right wingers of all sorts, including settlement advocates in the US – both jewish and not. Many have asked you to try to first “walk a mile in their shoes” . My argument, earlier on which I got no reply (any more than others did here) asked you to take a closer look at your own side (as you do have one) before making a blanket judgement on what the impact might be of a fully ‘non-violent” resistance by palestinians.

    I’ll submit to you again, that from your privileged position in israeli intellectual circles you cannot assess the true positions and potential reactions of your countrymen (and women) who perhaps do not quite share your lofty positions. You keep assuming they are like you – a peaceful bunch at heart (everyone wants peace, right?). But you seem to have completely failed to internalize what really happened in Gaza and the following Israeli elections. The dream you were talking about before indicates that sometimes the sub-conscious knows better.

    maybe you should talk some more to Russian immigrants and to members of the settlers groups (especially ones not so surrounded by inteligencia). That’s well over 1.5 M people represented in Israel by these groups alone.

    I’d also present benny morris as exhibit #1 – the ‘dove turned hawk” which you implied is because of the trauma of suicide bombings. It’s not that he changed – it’s the magnitude and depth of the change, coupled with the smug sense of entitlement, exceptionalism and triumphalism he displays lately, that is so common now in israel’s streets. it’s not about Morris. it’s that he seems to have internalized the changes israel’s character has undergone more deeply than you have. It’s long past time to wake up and smell the flowers of evil that have sprouted in the not-so-holy-land.

  12. Thanks Alon – also for that channel 10 report. Most enlightening. You made many good points, but it all seems to no avail as Mr. Gorenberg appears rather taken by the strength of his own arguments.

    My own advise to the palestinians (seeing as I am not one) has always been just this – look after your own house as much as possible – and learn from the jews. That which is not written (and [much] talked) about does not exist (lessons learnt from the fate of the Gypsies – and the Kurds, of course). The more that is written the more effect it will have – not instantly, but eventually (insert smart chinese saying here. something about stones being ground by water drops). As for the Jews in America, I keep harping on the same theme – there’s has been profound damage to the collective psyche of israelis as a result of the occupation (nothing original here but a truth that needs deeper consideration than it gets). Cognitive dissonance that goes on too long has consequences. I get lots of tortured silence in response. I guess it’s hard to face. ideologies, idealizations and all that.

    You are lucky – it’s easier in israel, where they talk about everything all the time. Of course, it’s fun and may even look (deceptively?) open minded. Though when I visit, it somehow seems a bit like the chatter in an asylum (specializing in paranoic schizophrenia?).

    So how does one get the Gorenbergs of this world to take a real hard look at what there is?

  13. I disagree with Richard and Dana and have posted my response on Richard’s blog piece. I don’t read Mr. Gorenberg’s essay as putting the onus on Palestinians. It does not. It only pleads for a change in the dynamic, even if adopted more broadly but imperfectly. As well it does not ( contrary to a comment by Alon above) erase past memory of violence ( suicide bombing, rockets) nor the possibility of future violence if a period of non-violence fails. The problem is, though, coordination… which Israel prevents.

    The “coarsening”, for me anyway, has to do also with being at war here: ie with the Weekly Standard and those who comment on there merely for being. The challenge is not only to change the dynamic in Israel and amongst the Palestinians, but to change it here too. There is no reason why Gorenberg should be crucified for daring to place his piece in a place where it should be read and discussed and perhaps taken on board on the Israeli side. Since this conflict is half Israel, what would non-violence ( or a change of 180 degrees in tactics/strategy) look like on the Israeli side?

    That Morris has turned ugly along with many others ( I agree) is exhibit #1 of what exactly? it either makes Gorenberg’s case against violence or for ratcheting up the level of it to some fantasy level from the Palestinian side.

  14. Richard, since I brought you into this discussion, I feel some obligation to respond to your comments. On the other hand, your egregious misreading of my essay makes it difficult to do so. Alas, an occupational hazard of journalism is having one’s work misread egregiously, especially by the doctrinaire class.

    I never argued that we should wait for a Gandhi to make peace. Rather than “blame” either side, I explored the mutually reinforcing Palestinian and Israeli attraction to violence. I mapped the patterns of misunderstanding, humiliation and rage on both sides that have carried on the conflict. My goal in this essay, as in my other work, was to understand people and the tragedy of their situation in order to find a way out.

    In a rightwing magazine, I argued forcefully against the belief Islam is the source of terrorism – rejecting what may be the most basic tenet of neoconservative thinking in recent years. I likewise rejected the simple formulation that the ongoing conflict is the entirely the fault of the Arab side. This is not what Standard readers expected in their mailboxes

    (When the New Republic ran its Bell Curve excerpt or its assault on Hillarycare, it did not prove that the writers of those articles had become liberals. It showed that TNR was publishing pieces outside its expected ideological slot.)

    I seem to have disappointed you, however, by refusing to put the “onus” entirely on the Israeli side. Victims can also be perpetrators; people can both suffer and cause terrible suffering. This is something that both the doctrinaire supporters and the doctrinaire critics of Israel refuse to see. Mirror images of each other, they argue endlessly, and uselessly, over who is the righteous victim.

    I will not bother with your description of British colonial rule of India as “relatively benign” or your underestimation of furies of the Jim Crow South. Such descriptions, however, do not add to the seriousness of an argument.

    It’s true that people not directly involved in the conflict may be able to offer advice. There’s some superb advice, for instance, in Jay Rothman’s book Resolving Identity-Based Conflict and in Marc Ross’s Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict.

    It’s also true – as our friend YBD shows – that one can be close to the scene and describe it in black and white terms. Nonetheless, distance obscures detail, and those further away do face a greater risk of simplification. This is equally true of the Mort Kleins of the US Jewish community, and of some of Israel’s critics who profess to be progressives.

    And a last comment to Clif: Palestinian actions and Arab actions in general have had a clear effect on settlement effort since its beginning. The Palestinian-backed “Zionism is Racism” resolution helped create political backing for Gush Emunim’s original settlement efforts in the West Bank (as I detail in The Accidental Empire). Palestinian extremism has built support for the Israeli right, just as the Israeli right has built support for Palestinian extremists. When peace appears unachievable, the hardliners gain more public backing. One challenge of peacemaking is to break that cycle.

    And with that, I’m moving on to new subjects for a while. Enough rehashing.

  15. frankly, mr. gorenberg, i have followed your writings for a while, and it is quite disappointing that you fail to respond to the serious problems with your thesis, and instead do all the “rehashing” yourself by playing this ping-pong of recriminations and self-vindications! if you want a serious debate, how about trying to answer the less superficial arguments?

  16. MLK and Gandhi liberated the oppressor, huh? I must have missed something.

    Maybe those that shout “death to the Arabs” at soccer matches should be lectured on liberating themselves and the oppressed. I look forward to an essay from you describing what tactics they should use.

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