This is in large part an amalgam of other pieces I’ve written on the topic. It’s a response to a debate unfolding at the indispensable Mondoweiss.
In his contribution to the debate on the rights and wrongs of violent resistance to oppression, David Bromwich tells us that non-violent action is supposed to be “visible and exemplary.” In the case of Palestine, this chimes with the dominant Western narrative that the Palestinians would have achieved liberation long ago if only they had avoided mindless acts of terrorism. Much of the mainstream media goes a step further to suggest that the Palestinians are hindered by their culture and religion – which are inherently violent, hysterical and anti-Semitic – from winning their rights. If only they would grow up a little. If only they’d set a good example.
Leading liberal clown Bono has also asked where the Palestinian Gandhis are. The problem here, though, is not the absence of Gandhis but their lack of visibility – the visibility which Bromwich says is so important. For the first two decades after the original ethnic cleansing of 1947 and 48, almost all Palestinian resistance was non-violent. From 1967 until 1987 Palestinians resisted by organising tax strikes, peaceful demonstrations, petitions, sit-down protests on confiscated lands and in houses condemned to demolition. The First Intifada was almost entirely non-violent on the Palestinian side; the new tactic of throwing stones at tanks (which some liberals consider violent) was almost entirely symbolic. In every case, the Palestinians were met with fanatical violence. Midnight arrest, beatings, and torture were the lot of most. Many were shot. Nobel Peace Laureate Yitzhak Rabin ordered occupation troops to break the bones of the boys with stones. And despite all this sacrifice, Israeli Jews were not moved to recognise the injustice of occupation and dispossession, at least not enough to end it.
The American public didn’t see the non-violence because the Zionist-compliant media either didn’t report it or found ways of pretending that it was in fact violent. The first weeks of the Second Intifada were also non-violent on the Palestinian side. Israel responded by murdering tens of unarmed civilians daily, and the US media blamed the victims (to the extent of wondering why Palestinian mothers didn’t love their children enough to keep them in the house). These facts undercut Bromwich’s argument that “the power may desire the approval of other powers.” If the other powers which count are complicit in the oppression (because of the lobby, and Christian Zionist discourse, and racism, Islamophobia and orientalism), then the oppressive power can count on approval whatever the oppressed may do.
Which recent siege-busting ship was more visible, the Mavi Marmara or the Rachel Corrie? The unarmed activists on the Mavi Marmara quite correctly and lawfully resisted the piratical hijacking by Israeli forces in international waters. (Does anyone remember the heroes of United Airlines Flight 93?) On the Mavi Marmara, nine activists were murdered. Their sacrifice was not in vain – in the following days Israeli criminality was exposed as never before, and even the White House and Downing Street were enabled to make anti-siege noises.
The passengers on the Rachel Corrie, on the other hand, announced in advance that they would not resist. As a result, only keen observers noticed the ship at all. (Readers of Ha’aretz may remember a photograph of a middle-aged European lady smiling as a gallant stormtrooper helped her disembark in Ashdod.) Unwittingly, the ‘non-violent’ activists (whose commitment I salute) handed Israel ammunition for its propaganda – ‘when civilised, peaceful activists arrive we deal with them peacefully. When mad Islamist Turks attack us with sticks, we have no choice but to shoot them many times at close range in the back of the head.’
Bromwich and Taylor’s unfavourable comparison of Palestinian armed resistance with Gandhian non-violence in India is unfair and illogical for two more reasons – firstly because conditions in India were much more favourable to a successful campaign of non-violence than in Palestine, and secondly because Gandhi’s campaign was only one factor in achieving Indian independence, and certainly not the decisive factor.
In colonised India there were hundreds of thousands of Indians to each British officer, so the cause of independence had sheer numbers on its side as well as time. Many British people came to love Gandhi and to respect the moral courage of his non-violent strategy, but the British officials who counted could also see the tide of violent anti-imperialism rising behind him, a tide that would dominate if Gandhi’s method failed. It’s a lot easier to deal with the nice guy when you see the nasty guy rolling up his sleeves.
The single most important factor in ending British rule was Japanese militarism during World War Two. By the end of the war, British popular attitudes to Indian independence were quite irrelevant. Britain simply did not have the money or the manpower to rebuild its own society, let alone to reassert control over the subcontinent.
Nevertheless, Gandhi is lionised and the children of the West learn that India would still be a colony had it not been for the passive efforts of the nice man in the loincloth. This pernicious narrative is very useful for those guarding the status quo, including America’s first black president.
In one of the most contentious sections of his thoroughly contentious Cairo speech, President Obama declared:
Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”
It’s difficult to know where to start with this. Perhaps by registering just how insulting it is for the representative of the imperial killing machine – responsible directly and indirectly for well over a million deaths in the last decade, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia – to lecture the dispossessed and massacred Palestinians on their occasional attempts to strike back. We can be sure that the sleeping children Obama is concerned with here are the Israeli children who live above the destroyed villages of Palestine, not the unsleeping, traumatised, anaemic children of Gaza, several hundred of whom were burnt and dismembered in the massacre of 2008/2009. Then it’s worth remarking how the erudition and intelligence shown in Obama’s pre-presidential book ‘Dreams from my Father’ were immediately crushed on his assumption of the presidency. How otherwise could his historical vision be so partial and simplistic? There was certainly a key non-violent aspect to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, but pretending that violence played no role in the process makes it necessary to ignore the American Civil War (half a million dead), Nat Turner, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and rioting Chicago. When it became necessary for the American military to occupy American inner cities, it became necessary to grant African-Americans their rights.
Violence, or the threat of violence, was important in South Africa too, and certainly in Obama’s ancestral Kenya, and was the dominant anti-imperial strategy in Vietnam and Algeria. Max Ajl has already pointed out that violence ended the brutal occupation of South Lebanon. I challenge readers to think of any situation in which colonial or racist oppression has been vanquished by the application of non-violent action in isolation from other forms of struggle.
To end his piece, Bromwich quotes Gandhi’s idea (in 1938) that a non-violent civil disobedience campaign by German Jews could have defeated Nazi anti-Semitism. In retrospect, is it possible for any intelligent person to believe this? Of course, some people will force themselves to believe for religious reasons, although I suspect that most would rapidly change their minds if they saw their own child killed, their own home bombed. When such things happen to you and your family, the issues become somewhat more urgent.
My purpose here is not to discount the usefulness of non-violence in every instance. Indeed, there is a good tactical case to be made for non-violent resistance in Israel-Palestine given that the Palestinians are so comprehensively outgunned, and given that the only possible solution is for the two peoples to eventually live together in one democratic state. Norman Finkelstein has made a good argument (which I don’t fully agree with) for Gandhian action against the Wall, and the villagers of Bil’in and elsewhere are doing essential work to delegitimise the occupation in the eyes of the world. But to suggest that violent resistance to violence is wrong in principle is as wrongheaded as blaming a raped woman for scratching the eyes of her rapist. Even the mahatma knew that violent resistance is better than no resistance at all. This is what he said about Palestine specifically:
Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French…What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct…If (the Jews) must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs…As it is, they are co-sharers with the British in despoiling a people who have done no wrong to them. I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regard as an unacceptable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.”