Letter from an Israeli (Birmingham) Jail

By Dallas Darling

If Martin Luther King would have been a Palestinian, I sometimes wonder how Israeli authorities would have treated him. This came to mind again when it was reported that an Israeli military court sentenced Palestinian nonviolence activist Abdullah Abu Rahmeh to one year in prison. Evidently, the military tribunal found him guilty of “incitement” and for organizing illegal protests. It also fined him $1,400, a stiff penalty for someone who lost over half of his farmland to land seized by Israeli settlement programs.

Similar to Martin Luther King, Abdullah Abu Rahmeh has experienced years of racial oppression and religious intolerance. Like Martin Luther King who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to help achieve equality for blacks, Abdullah Abu Rahmeh is the coordinator of the Bilin Popular Resistance Committee against the Wall and Settlements. Since 2005, the movement has nonviolently challenged Israeli segregation and exclusive religious laws. It has also peacefully resisted Israeli bulldozing of Palestinian homes and annexation of Palestinian villages and land.

As Israeli security and military forces fire teargas canisters into the marching crowd, some of the protests have turned violent. Israeli rubber bullets have killed several protesters too. Still, Palestinian teens have thrown stones at soldiers while protesting. The Israeli military claimed several Palestinian teens confessed Abdullah Abu Rahmeh told them to throw stones. They have accused him of inciting violence and riots. However, Abdullah Abu Rahmeh has denied such charges and instead, he claims to have pursued nonviolent strategies while encouraging the youth to stop throwing stones.

In 1963 and before the Jobs and Civil Rights March on Washington, Martin Luther King brought the movement for equality and freedom to Birmingham, Alabama. President John Kennedy was embroiled with the effects of the Cuban Missile Crisis and appeared distant from the urgent need to initiate a courageous civil rights law for America. After watching newsreel footage of false arrests, police beatings, attack dogs ripping apart protesters, and the city’s fire department hosing passive marchers with enough force to break their bones, some were finally convinced-including President Kennedy-that segregation had to end.

Like Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, Martin Luther King was jailed for his nonviolent direct action campaign in Birmingham. A group of white Alabama ministers put an ad in the New York Times condemning Martin Luther King of being an “agitator” and wanting only to evoke violence and to start a riot. They tried to convince him to end his campaign and to wait, that the future would be better for black Americans. His response, or the Letter From A Birmingham Jail, was written on scraps of paper and in the margins of a newspaper. Can the contents of the letter be applied to Abdullah Abu Rahmeh and Palestinians and Arabs living under Israeli rule and in Occupied Territories?

Therefore, if Martin Luther King was a Palestinian and had been arrested and jailed, like Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, this is what the Letter From An Israeli Jail would say:

I am in Israel because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus says God’ far beyond the boundaries of their home town, I too am compelled to carry the message of freedom beyond my particular home town. Moreover, I am aware of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by and not be concerned about what happens in Israel. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. (1)

Israel is probably one of the most thoroughly segregated and intolerant nations. Its ugly record of police brutality and military incursions are known in every section of the Middle East. Its unjust treatment of Palestinians and Arabs in the courts is a notorious reality, as are the numerous false imprisonments of men, women and children. There have been more unsolved bombings and bulldozing of Palestinian homes and attacks on mosques in Israel than any nation in the Middle East. There have also been unsolved killings and a complete disregard for basic human rights and civil liberties. (2)

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a nation that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I have worked against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. It is the kind of tension that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and unity. (3)

Nations and groups are more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was “well timed,” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation and religious intolerance. For years now, I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Palestinian with a piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never!” We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied. (4)

But when you have seen vicious mobs kill your mothers and fathers at will and bulldoze your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled security forces kick, brutalize, bomb, use as human shields, and dance around and humiliate your Palestinian and Arab sisters and brothers with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your people smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of despair. (5)

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” There are, in fact, two types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation and religious intolerance statues are unjust because they distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator and intolerant a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, segregation and intolerance substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship, and ends up relegating person to the status of things. Segregation and intolerance are existential expressions of man’s tragic separation and awful estrangement. (6)

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” I was “illegal” to aid an comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. (7)

But the Jewish and American moderates are more devoted to “order” than to justice: who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which his the presence of justice. Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. I had hoped that Jewish and American moderates would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail to do this they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. (8)

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of global opinion before it can be cured. (9)

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what happened to the Palestinians and Arabs. Something within has reminded them of their birthright of freedom; something without has reminded them that they can gain it. Consciously and unconsciously, they have been swept in by what the Germans call the Zeitgeist, and with their black brothers of Africa, and their brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, they are moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice and religious tolerance. (10)

(Note: Many international human rights organizations have already denounced Israel’s arrest and sentencing of Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. During World War Two, Arabs and Palestinians also assisted Jews fleeing Germany and the Third Reich.)

– Dallas Darling is the author of Politics 501: An A-Z Reading on Conscientious Political Thought and Action, Some Nations Above God: 52 Weekly Reflections On Modern-Day Imperialism, Militarism, And Consumerism in the Context of John‘s Apocalyptic Vision, and The Other Side Of Christianity: Reflections on Faith, Politics, Spirituality, History, and Peace. He is a correspondent for www.worldnews.com. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit: www.beverlydarling.com and wn.com//dallasdarling.


(1) Young, Ralph F., Dissent In America, The Voices That Shaped A Nation. New York, New York: Parson Longman Publishers, 2006., p. 551.
(2) Ibid., p. 552.
(3) Ibid., p. 553.
(4) Ibid., p. 553, 554.
(5) Ibid., p. 554.
(6) Ibid., p. 555.
(7) Ibid., p. 556.
(8) Ibid., p. 556.
(9) Ibid., p. 556.
(10) Ibid., p. 558.

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