Memo From the Wretched: Enough About Nonviolence

No people has been the recipient of more unsolicited advice than the Palestinians. The exemplars of barbarity to neoconservatives and the subjects of anguished progressive reprimands, the Palestinians often serve as a pretext for blowhards of all political affiliations to dust off their soapboxes. A particularly egregious form of sermonizing to which the Palestinians are subject is the admonition that they undertake nonviolent modes of resistance. I would like to argue that this sort of admonition is both ignorant and immoral.

I do not want to explore whether or not nonviolence is the best strategic or moral form of anti-colonial resistance. The difference between violence and nonviolence is not as trenchant as most commentators imagine. Violence and nonviolence, both amorphous terms, are in constant dialectic, and no historical example can be found of either of these approaches being effective without the other present. Undertaking nonviolent resistance is an ethical and strategic decision with which I have no quarrel. In fact, I have tremendous admiration for those who practice this method at the risk of their personal safety and in the service of national liberation.

I dislike the frequent lecturing from Western liberals to Palestinians about the merits of nonviolence, an act as misguided as it is patronizing. Michael Tomasky of The Guardian, for example, posed the following hypothetical amid Israel’s January, 2009, massacre of civilians in the Gaza Strip: “A hypothetical question for you. Suppose the Palestinian liberation movement, going way back to the founding of the PLO in 1964, had been dedicated to nonviolent struggle as opposed to armed struggle, and the Palestinians had had a Gandhi, and not an Arafat.” The Palestinians, Tomasky surmises, would have had a state over twenty years ago. His colleague Gershom Gorenberg argues that “[t]hrough violence—from airplane hijackings to suicide bombings and rocket fire—Palestinians have failed to reach political independence…. So why not adopt the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience, the methods of Gandhi?” Gorenberg wonders, “Is that kind of radicalism imaginable in Islam?”

On CommonDreams.org, Marty Jezer explains, “Palestinian nonviolence seems a romantic fantasy, an idealistic dream. But perhaps idealism is the most realistic approach at this time; and nonviolence the solution most grounded in reality. I challenge anybody to come up with an equivalent strategy, one that assures Israelis their security and Palestinians their state.” Michael Lerner asks what he imagines to be a self-evident question: “Who are Palestine’s friends? Those who encourage a path of non-violence and abandoning [sic] the fantasy that armed struggle combined with political isolation of Israel will lead to a good outcome for Palestinians.”

It would be too time consuming to respond to all the problems in these passages, but in them we can identify some useful points of analysis. The most important point is that the Palestinians do practice nonviolence. They have done so ever since Zionists began settling their land, a process that is by its very nature violent. Today, as throughout the twentieth century, one can find ample examples of intrepid and imaginative civil resistance. I have met very few Westerners who have traveled to Palestine and didn’t return home inspired.

An interesting feature of Palestinian nonviolence is that it usually evokes a ferocious response by Israel. During the 1980s, peaceful demonstrators had their bones broken at the behest of Yitzhak Rabin. Earlier generations were deported and had their homes demolished. Today’s nonviolent activists are often shot, imprisoned, or beaten. The village of Bi’lin in the West Bank has done a weekly protest for over four years. During the course of these peaceful gatherings, the Israeli military has been utterly brutal. In April, 2009, soldiers shot and killed an unarmed demonstrator, Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahmah. Abu Rahmah was hit in the chest with a tear-gas grenade, the same weapon that earlier in the year cracked open the skull of American demonstrator Tristan Anderson. In June, 2009, one of the leaders of the Bi’lin demonstrations, Adeeb Abu Rahme, was arrested and kept in military detention without due process. The breathless appeals by concerned Western liberals for the Palestinians to practice nonviolence are both ludicrous and immoral in light of the historical record and the invidious violence of the Israeli state.

The Palestinians have always mixed violence and nonviolence, like all anti-colonial movements. It is through a host of racist presuppositions and an inherent commitment to Zionism that American liberals imagine that somehow Palestinians are a special case, that their reliance on violence is culturally innate (Gershon Gorenberg) or that they are motivated by factors other than liberation, such as anti-Semitism and civilizational envy (Alan Dershowitz). The inability or unwillingness of so many liberal intellectuals to recognize the long tradition of Palestinian nonviolent resistance bespeaks tacit racism in addition to a hypocritical devotion to Israel’s normative and continuous state violence.

These calls for Palestinian nonviolence pretend to be ethically disinterested, but they are entangled with troublesome politics that are fundamentally destructive and undemocratic. For instance, they are often accompanied by appeals to avoid criticism of Zionism (Norman Finkelstein), to eschew effective nonviolent tactics such as boycott and divestment (Michael Lerner), and to reject counterproductive things like binationalism and right of return (Finkelstein and Lerner). In other words, the Palestinians should reject violence, and while they’re at it go ahead and give up all of their legal entitlements and decolonial aspirations.

My good friend, the philosopher Mohammed Abed, pointed out to me recently that the grueling endurance of life under military occupation—waiting hours at checkpoints, being denied medical care, having universities shut down—is itself a testament to an unusual commitment to nonviolence. I suspect that when many Western liberals urge the Palestinians (and other colonized people) to undertake nonviolence, they are using a truncated definition of the term informed by a poor or distorted understanding of the concept. In this usage, they conflate nonviolence with passivity. It is a great convenience to the liberal advocates of colonization to have a colonized population comprised of passive resistors. But colonized people are never as stupid and gullible as their liberal saviors imagine them to be.

The Palestinians, anyway, are far too evolved to listen to those who would use their courage and diligence to dispossess them of their right to active resistance. Violent or nonviolent, their choice of resistance isn’t the business of liberal armchair ethicists. Those ethicists are fond of claiming that if the Palestinians resisted nonviolently they would have already achieved their liberation. This claim is factually untrue. It is just as likely that if liberal commentators would assess their own profound support of violence they would have a lot less to say to others and more time to devote to their own failed selves.

Steven Salaita’s two latest books are Israel’s Dead Soul and Modern Arab American Fiction: A Reader’s Guide. Read other articles by Steven.

24 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Ismail Zayid said on September 8th, 2009 at 1:04pm #

    Steven Salaita deserves full credit for this excellent analysis of the questions raised about violence in the resistance of the Palestinian people against the foreign and oppressive occupation they are subjected to. The tragedy and suffering of the Palestinian people was planned and effected long before any Palestinian lifted a finger. Their ethnic cleansing from their homeland was programmed at least since Theodor Herzl in 1897, at the First World zionist Congress in Basle, put forward the plan to spiritt out the Palestinian people from their homeland, a programme that all subsequent Zionist leaders effected with such ferocity and brutality. It is the height of hypocrisy for anyone to suggest that the Palestinian people should take this suffering lying down.

  2. Jack Robinson said on September 8th, 2009 at 2:42pm #

    Where are the liberal cries for Israel to practice nonviolence? They are buried under the rubric of “a state’s right to defend itself.”

  3. B99 said on September 8th, 2009 at 6:13pm #

    I always try to beat the Zionists to the punch – I ask, “where is the Israeli Mandela, the Jewish Gandhi?”

    I was in Occupied Palestine pre-first Intifada. That’s during the quarter-century period of almost total non-violence on the part of the Palestinians. The Israelis were then, as now, busy Judaicizing the West Bank (and Gaza for that matter). Palestinians responded with strikes, non-compliance, and the emplacement of Palestine-First leaders into political office. The Israelis responded with batons to break arms, legs and skulls. And at times the Occupiers also responded with bullets. Once in a while – or even more often than that – Palestinian ‘moderate’ leaders emerged. One would have thought such leaders would have been appreciated by the Israelis. But no, moderate Palestinian leaders were always arrested or killed by the IDF. The idea of course, was that the Palestinians should not be permitted to present a moderate face to the world. That’s still the case today. Much of the resistance Palestinians engage in today is day to day non-compliance. It has not netted then one acre (or dunam) of land.

  4. Annie Ladysmith said on September 9th, 2009 at 12:06am #

    i have often thought, as i see some ‘crazed’ Palestinian on the cover of a periodical or t.v., if i had to try to live in the midst of these insane Zionists and be treated no better than an animal by them, and i would think of all the people i knew who died in violence, and live in a war zone, and see children murdered and maimed…, i would be just like the guy on the cover, i would look and be completely crazy! There is no place for Palestinians to go except crazy! They have nothing left, especially when they see that even their children’s lives mean nothing to the enemy and the rest of the world. It is ethnic cleansing plain and simple. Any response from the Palestinians is going to be a desperate action based on their desperation with the root being DESPAIR.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain said on September 9th, 2009 at 1:17am #

    Well as far as I could see, all these grotesque hypocrites demanding that the Palestinians abjure violence and patiently endure the Herrenvolks’ boots grinding into their faces, forever, are Jews. This must be a branch of the famous ‘Jewish sense of humour’. I think the real Zionist attitude to Ghandi is deep hatred, as he refused to endorse the establishment of Israel, because it was based on stealing another people’s land. Perhaps a sign of this contempt was the insulting nickname ‘Ghandi’ given to the arch-racist Israeli bigot Rehevam Ze’evi, as near to the living antithesis of Ghandiji as it is possible to imagine. These sorts of calls are just a particularly cynically vicious form of hatemongering and obscuring the facts, that the vastly greater proportion of the violence is committed by the Judaic racist invaders, and the violence of Palestinian resistance, is, if regretable, entirely justifiable as the lesser evil.

  6. Rick said on September 9th, 2009 at 1:26am #

    This article appears to lump Finkelstein together with those liberals who oppose violent Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. Finkelstein is mentioned here with regard to his positions on criticism of Zionism, right of return and binationalism. On the issue violent Palestinian resistance Finkelstein is unequivocal in his defense of the right of Palestinians to violently resist their occupation and displacement by Israel, and that nobody else has any right to tell them to not exercise this right.

  7. dino said on September 9th, 2009 at 4:36am #

    I think that if Palestinians would choice an other way instead that of resistance, today whole Palestine would be occupied and all the Palestinians expelled..Israelis people understand only power and they say this openly.They say often times that without Intifada 1+2 even the “peace process”would not exist.But i’m surprised about what is written on Finkelstein.

  8. mary said on September 9th, 2009 at 6:45am #

    Another 500 settler homes are being built in E Jerusalem in addition to the 450 in the West Bank announced last week.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/8246434.stm

  9. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on September 9th, 2009 at 7:00am #

    I have stated many times that it is morally and obligatory for an occupied people to resist its occupation by any means.
    However, pal’n resitance had not, unlike partisan resistance, won back an inch of their territory.

    armed resistance or not, pal’ns left to own devices, cannot prevent utter destruction of expalestine.
    For that is, i educe, intention of the christo-talmudic ad hoc alliance. Even some arab lands are now cooperating with that alliance. Russia and china have own indians and pal’ns to deal with and may wish that pal’ns go away: east, south, or west of expalestine.tnx

  10. kalidas said on September 9th, 2009 at 7:20am #

    Imagine how the Russians must feel about the morphing demoniacs.

  11. KL5 said on September 9th, 2009 at 1:18pm #

    Qassam “rockets” haven ‘t helped Palestinians, since firing rockets is a terrorist activity, where in western distorted judgement there is no Israeli terrorism . Neither would a Palestinian Gandhi help, since he would have to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. Did Gandhi recognize the right of the government of her Majesty to rule India for an indefinite period?
    The Palestinian misery can only be solved in Washington, nowhere else. This means the Palestinians are waiting for the return of the the Messiah, which is pretty soon !

  12. Shabnam said on September 9th, 2009 at 2:10pm #

    Neither India nor China in addition to ALL STATES IN THE REGION
    INCLUDING GREECE, TURKEY AND IRAN did not vote for the partition of Palestine to erect a terrorist and racist apartheid state.
    There is no solution except one palestinian state for ALL. No country in the region will accept a phony ‘jewish state.’ Israel has
    no right to exist.

  13. B99 said on September 9th, 2009 at 3:35pm #

    Shabnam – ALL countries in the region – and beyond – now accept an Israel within pre-’67 borders – so do Hamas and Fatah. Israel is a member of the UN and is now almost 62 years old.

    There will be no ONE state for ALL in my lifetime or yours. Best the Palestinians can expect – and the best outcome those who support Palestine should work for – is a state of Palestine in the 22% that remains of historical Palestine. That’s how the Jews did it – they accepted Palestine piecemeal and eventually over ran the rest of it. Palestinians too, can ‘over run’ the rest of it demographically but it will take time.

    The one-state-solution is and has been for some time – dead in the water.

  14. Dick Reilly said on September 10th, 2009 at 10:49am #

    Like it or not, support for a one state solution is alive and well and growing in popularity – both inside occupied Palestine and abroad. — in large part because the material conditions have changed since the Oslo Accords. Accelerated settlement expansion, land confiscation and the creation of a Vichy puppet regime subservient to the US and Israel making the “two state” option increasingly untenable. The growing international recognition of the apartheid character of the Israeli state itself, both inside the 1948 territories and in the West Bank and Gaza underscores this reality daily — despite the liberal discomfort with this frame. As for dictating forms of struggle to the Palestinians living under occupation – they and they alone have the right to determine what course to take. The distinguishing feature of the First Intifada ( and I was there as well until being expelled ) was never its’ “non-violent” character, but the level of popular self organization and mass participation in varied forms of resistance. – including tossing pavement stones at the occupier.

  15. jon s said on September 10th, 2009 at 11:51pm #

    Today, being September 11, let us all reflect and remember the victims of terror.
    If Israel’s actions can be condemned if unjustified, so can acts carried out in the name of the Palestinians, and if they -or anyone – use terror , deliberately targetting innocent civilians, they should be condemned.

  16. mary said on September 11th, 2009 at 12:30am #

    I assume that would be the millions of victims of the USUKIsNATO wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Palestine and in all the other places where their vile and revolting acts of war have taken place.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain said on September 11th, 2009 at 1:03am #

    Sure jon s, let’s reflect on the deaths caused by terrorism, but let’s do it every day, not just on one day that suits your supremacist agenda. Aside from the near certainty that 9/11 was a ‘black flag’ provocation, even assuming that it was Arab terrorists that caused these 3,000 deaths, when will you pause to reflect on the millions of Moslems and others killed by Western state terrorism? When will you find the time to commemorate the thousands killed in the Nakbah of 1947-8, murdered by Judaic terror gangs in order to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian population? On what date will you remember the thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians killed by Judaic terrorism emanating from Israel, from 1968 to the present day? What date will be most appropriate to pay our respects to the millions of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Somalis and Iranians slaughtered by US state terror working to Zionist orders? In fact I think 9/11 might be the most inappropriate day imaginable to ‘reflect and remember’ the victims of terror, unless you see some victims as more worthy than others, based on their race, religion or nationality. I suspect that that is your personal position-please advise me if I am incorrect.

  18. MEBOSA RITCHIE said on September 11th, 2009 at 1:51am #

    US state terror working to Zionist orders

    a quote from mugla—mugla,please explain to me,a gollum,whatever that is,why the most powerful state in the world,population 330 million etc should take orders from a bunch of zionists,numbering 10 million at most
    i am sure there are good reasons but you will have to tell me what they are

  19. Noisy Tappet said on September 11th, 2009 at 2:26am #

    MEBOSA, why do senior US politicians (and their UK shadows) repeatedly swear undying allegiance and cast-iron support for such a vile, racist entity like Israel, whose leaders would be locked up if they plied their trade anywhere else?

    Filthy lucre does the trick, dear boy, especially at election time.

  20. Ronnie said on September 11th, 2009 at 2:35am #

    The success of a nonviolent struggle depends on the ethical level of your oponents. Ghandi could nonviolently oppose the then-moral British Army (turned later into a bunch of torturers and murderers in Iraq and Afghanistan). Had he been facing the Wehrmarcht or the Tsahal, he’d been crushed to a pulp.

  21. MEBOSA RITCHIE said on September 11th, 2009 at 4:30am #

    thank you noisy
    so it would appear that a few zionists can pay for the entire foreign policy of the USA and the UK.
    i the arabs have more money than a few zionists or am i wrong

  22. MEBOSA RITCHIE said on September 11th, 2009 at 4:32am #

    sorry the above last line should have read

    i thought the arabs have more money than a few zionists or am i wrong

  23. Noisy Tappet said on September 11th, 2009 at 10:53am #

    No MEBOSA, the Zionists pay the election costs. US and EU taxpayers are then forced to pay for the war.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain said on September 11th, 2009 at 5:15pm #

    Ronnie, you see the British response to non-violent protest at Amritsar, on April 13, 1919, just as you saw it at the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada, where even Israeli Arabs were targeted for massacre. The essence of racism is contempt for the untermenschen, and nowhere on earth is this plainer than in Israel.