Non-Violence? Finkelstein and Gandhi

By Robin Yassin-Kassab
When Western liberals call on the Palestinians to renounce violence and to adopt Gandhian passive resistance instead, I usually become enraged. My first response is, they’ve tried non-violence, and you failed to notice. 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 organizing 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. 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 recognize the injustice of occupation and dispossession, at least not enough to end it. 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. Then the Intifada was militarized.

Was it really, or only, non-violence which liberated India? In colonized 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. The British people certainly 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 Gandhi, a tide that would dominate if Gandhi’s method failed. Likewise in the American civil rights struggle: behind Martin Luther King stood Malcolm X. It’s a lot easier to deal with the nice guy when you see the nasty guy rolling up his sleeves.

My third point: I’ll listen to the call for non-violence if it comes from the mouth of a genuine pacifist. From someone who believes, as Ghandi did, that Nazism could have been better resisted non-violently. From someone who would himself engage only in peaceful action after seeing his own child killed, his own flat bombed. And of course from someone who realizes that Palestinian violence is as nothing when put next to the staggering violence of Zionism.

Another problem is that not all Palestinians are capable of suppressing their desire for revenge. I’m not insulting them; God knows that I, comfortable in front of my screen many miles away from the trouble, am thirsting for revenge. In the Palestinians’ circumstances, violence is natural. So if the Palestinians have to prove they deserve justice by acting nice, there will never be justice. We have to get beyond condemning the inevitable violence of a traumatized refugee population to condemning the causes of the violence – dispossession, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, occupation, massacre.

Norman Finkelstein’s reading of Gandhi (I’ve never read Gandhi, so I’ll have to trust Finkelstein) settles many of my reservations. Gandhi argues that violent resistance is acceptable by the conventional moral standards of our times. He says that an oppressed and humiliated population must resist its oppressors violently if it is incapable of non-violent resistance. According to Gandi, the worst of failures is to submit.

With specific reference to Palestine, Gandhi said this in 1938:

“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.”

In his lecture, Finkelstein suggests what could be done:

“A massive mobilization of Palestinians building on the non-cooperation tactics of the first intifada (commercial and tax strikes, popular committees) could again make the Israeli occupation ungovernable. Is it so far-fetched to imagine an “army” of Palestinian satyagrahis converging on the Wall, their sole “weapons” a pick in one hand and a copy of the ICJ opinion in the other? The ICJ stated that the Wall was illegal and must be dismantled. The Palestinians would only be doing what the world should already have done a long time ago. Who could fault them for enforcing the law? No doubt Israel would fire on Palestinians and many would be killed. But if their supporters in North America and Europe publicized the ICJ opinion, and if Palestinians found the inner wherewithal to persevere nonviolently, it seems probable that far, far fewer than 5,000 Palestinians would be killed before Israel were forced to desist. No one writing abroad from the comfort and safety of his study can in good conscience urge such a strategy that entails so much death. But Gandhi’s point nonetheless stands: if Palestinians have repeatedly shown a willingness to pay the ultimate price, doesn’t it make sense for them to pursue a strategy that has a better likelihood of success at a smaller human price?”

Dismantling the wall. Gazans dismantling the border fence. Marches of Return from the West Bank and Gaza and Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to the border fences and the Israeli bullets. The numbers would have to be huge, and the coordination with the world’s official and alternative media incredibly efficient. It would require a mobilization that neither the corrupt and collaborative PA nor the hunted and secretive Hamas could command. It would take a concerted simultaneous effort by the Palestinian people and their supporters around the world to shine the light on Israel and on Palestinian history. As Palestinians marched and died, people in the West would have to boycott and divest. It seems farfetched in the present blood-soaked bitterness, but it’s worth thinking about.

The latest massacre has changed things. Perhaps the world is ready to see now. Perhaps.

I don’t agree with Finkelstein’s desire to limit discussion to the two state solution, although I understand his tactics. For reasons that I will write of later, reasons of justice but more importantly of pragmatism, I am a supporter of some kind of one state solution. I speculate a world in which a non-violent campaign against the wall spawns a non-violent campaign for Israeli passports.

In any case, I support bringing injustice into the light. 94% of Israeli Jews supported the Gaza massacre. 40% – an incredible statistic – believe Jews were a majority in Palestine at the end of the 19th Century. We have to engage Israeli ignorance and paranoia, the dark products of Zionist indoctrination. The 6% of Israeli Jews who can think more critically could be our allies in this.

I continue to believe that Zionism is the enemy, but by Zionism I mean the Iron Wall Zionism of Jabotinsky that has come to determine the character of the mainstream, from the Labour Party to the openly fascist fringe. Those Zionists, however, who are interested in a cultural home and refuge in Palestine on terms of equality and brotherhood with the Palestinians – those could be allies.

I feel something has snapped in mind and heart since December 27th. I’m trying to get beyond the snapping. I find the concluding paragraph of Finkelstein’s lecture both educative and humbling:

“The Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire once wrote, “There’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory.” Late in life, when his political horizons broadened out, Edward Said would often quote this line. We should make it our credo as well. We want to nurture a movement, not hatch a cult. The victory to which we aspire is inclusive, not exclusive; it is not at anyone’s expense. It is to be victorious without vanquishing. No one is a loser, and we all are gainers if together we stand by truth and justice. “I am not anti-English; I am not anti-British; I am not anti-any government,” Gandhi insisted, “but I am anti-untruth—anti-humbug, and anti-injustice.”(188) Shouldn’t we also say that we are not anti-Jewish, anti-Israel or, for that matter, anti-Zionist? The prize on which our eyes should be riveted is human rights, human dignity, human equality. What, really, is the point of ideological litmus tests such as, Are you now or have you ever been a Zionist? Indeed, it is Israel’s apologists who thrive on and cling to them, bogging down interlocutors in distracting and endless intellectual sideshows—What is a Jew? Are the Jews a nation? Don’t Jews have a right to national liberation? Shouldn’t we use a vocabulary that registers and resonates with the public conscience and the Jewish conscience, winning over the decent many while isolating the diehard few? Shouldn’t we instead be asking, Are you for or against ethnic cleansing, for or against torture, for or against house demolitions, for or against Jews-only roads and Jews-only settlements, for or against discriminatory laws? And if the answer comes, against, against and against, shouldn’t we then say, Keep your ideology, whatever it might be—there’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory?

May we all, seekers of truth, fighters for justice, yet live to join the people of Palestine at the rendezvous of victory.”

– Robin Yassin-Kassab’s first novel The Road From Damascus was recently published by Hamish Hamilton and Penguin. He is also the co-editor of He contributed this article to Visit his blog.

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