Palestine and the Tactic of Non-Violence

By Ray Zwarich

Response to Ramzy Baroud’s article Non-Violence in Palestine: Timing and Intentions – The Palestine Chronicle and CounterPunch.

The tactic of non-violence has certainly been highly propagandized, to the point that many of us have erroneously come to believe that it was non-violence, as practiced by Gandhi, that freed India from British colonial rule, and that it was the non violence of Dr. King that won the victories for minority rights in the US. The lessons suggested by the actual history of these struggles is obscured when we elevate this propaganda to accepted dogma, as so many of us seem to.

In reality, the Indian struggle against British rule was characterized by the release of significant degrees of civil violence, which had a great effect upon the decisions made by the British. To suggest that Gandhi’s non-violence was the only factor in winning Indian independence is simply false, and even arguing that it was the most important factor is highly problematic.

Gandhi himself was a controversial figure among many factions that were a vital part of this struggle. He was often highly criticized, and sometimes even reviled, by others in this movement, for the decisions he made, and for the actions he took, which many considered to be highly counter productive to the movement. Often huge amounts of resources and energies that were invested into building actions of resistance were wasted when Gandhi pulled out at the last minute if the least degree of anger, suggesting possible violence, was expressed during preparations. He was perceived by many in this movement as completely undemocratic in this regard. If he did not have his own way, he would (figuratively) take his ball and go home.

The role that Dr. King played in the American civil rights struggle is likewise greatly exaggerated. Like Gandhi against the British, the role he played was clearly crucially important, (and I am NOT suggesting that these men do not deserve our reverence; I, myself do revere them), but as in India, considerable degrees of violence were released in the course of the civil rights struggle, and this violence played a significant role in the victories that were won.

We are clearly under the influence of propaganda, (which, as Mr. Baroud points out, certainly seems to serve the ‘powers-that-be’), when we pretend that the non-violence advocated and practiced by Dr. King played a greater role in the victories that were won by the American Civil Rights Movement than the efforts of people like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rapp Brown, and, of course, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and their cohorts in the Black Panthers.

Most of us, in fact almost all of us, are able to imagine situations in which violence is the most appropriate response to a perceived threat. Any of us who are parents, for example, would surely not hesitate to use violence if it were the only way to protect our children from a violent threat. Few of us would hesitate to use violence to protect ourselves from the same. In the context of a political struggle, violence, as an expression of people’s angry response to a threat to their safety, is generally commensurate with the degree of the threat. An immediate and deadly threat will more likely provoke a violent response that a milder and/or more remote threat. It certainly seems to me that people who are suffering under degrees of oppression are themselves best qualified to judge the degree of threat they face, and therefore the most appropriate response.

The political tactic of organized non-violence can be very effective in certain situations of political oppression, but we must recognize that it depends entirely, for its efficacy, on the basic moral sense of human decency on the part of the oppressor. The rationality of non-violence is that the oppressed will inhabit a position of moral superiority, by suffering under the miseries of the oppressor without responding in kind, and will therefore, over time, cause the oppressor, under the influence of his basic moral decency, to perceive the injustice and cruelty he is perpetrating, which will eventually cause him to desist from it.

Surely we can recognize that when the oppressor is devoid of a sense of moral decency, this tactic of non-violence is not likely to be effective or appropriate. Would non-violence have been effective against the moral depravity of Hitler and the Nazis?

This question was often posed to Gandhi himself, and he affirmed his belief that satyagraha, (the doctrine of non-violent struggle), would be effective against any evil, but he warned that it always involved great sacrifice. We may or may not agree with Gandhi that non-violence could have been effective against the Nazis, but common sense tells us that when an oppressor is morally depraved, (and who would argue that Hitler was not?), the suffering he will wreak on those who would struggle against him non-violently will be horrible.

As much as I revere Gandhi, my own common sense tells me that the idea of using non-violence to oppose a morally depraved monster, (like Hitler), is completely absurd. But even if we do accept, for the sake of argument, the highly questionable assumption that non-violence would be the morally superior response to egregious social depravity, we must surely recognize that real world human beings are simply not capable of that degree of moral nicety. Masses of real world human beings would simply never agree to restrain their own angry and violent responses when treated with depraved cruelty. And we must also recognize that whenever people do suppress legitimate and entirely appropriate anger, there is often a heavy psychological toll to pay.
Mr. Baroud’s reference to the poll of Palestinian youth, 70% of whom are reported by the poll to consider that using violence to resist their oppression by Israel is "not helpful", is very interesting for the manner in which many might think this poll illustrates the psychological toll of unnaturally suppressed anger.

First of all, the facts reported by Mr. Baroud leave out some crucial information. We are left to presume that if Palestinian youth do not think that violent resistance to Israeli oppression is "helpful", they must therefore favor non-violent resistance. Perhaps they do, (and I have no idea what they think or favor), but Mr. Baroud does not report this. It is entirely possible that these same youth, a stunning 80% of whom are reported to be "depressed", (with a staggering 55%, a majority of Palestinian youth, reported to be "extremely depressed"), also do not think that non-violence would be "helpful". Recognizing that feelings of extreme hopelessness are a major characteristic of clinical depression, it is certainly not hard to imagine that people who are feeling hopeless might not think that any tactics, violent or non-violent, would be "helpful".

Virtually any psychologist would tell you that "depression is anger turned inward". Likewise, any psychologist would tell you that the expression of anger is almost always the first sign of a person’s emergence from clinical depression. When we do not find ways to adequately express our legitimate and appropriate anger, we somehow pervert that anger against ourselves, and we punish ourselves through self-deprivation. We deprive ourselves of good feelings. We feel gloomy and sad. As we sink deeper into the depths of clinical depression, we deprive ourselves of Hope itself. We shut our feelings down. We feel emotionally dead. We don’t feel at all.

As we contemplate this tragedy of 80% of an entire nation’s youth in some stage of depression, it is interesting to consider, in regards to our discussion of non-violence, the relationship between anger, violence, and depression. We could speculate that since the practice of non-violence involves suppression of anger, those who try to practice it might very well be more prone to depression over time. We could also speculate that people who are actively expressing their anger in a violent response to oppression, would not likely be feeling ‘depressed’. But people who have felt and expressed extreme anger without having their anger ‘rewarded’ with a rectification of its causes, might also be very prone to depression, as they turn their anger on themselves and punish themselves for their failure. 

While the above is no more than speculation into the possible mechanisms of the depression of Palestinian youth, surely we have little difficulty in instinctively understanding the tragedy of the staggering fact of the mass depression of this population. Surely we can instinctively understand that the constantly oppressive humiliation that these people are forced to endure would engender anger in any human person, and that when that anger is unable to find a solution to its causes, and the humiliation simply continues, depression in the humiliated population would naturally follow.  

The decision of whether an oppressed population should employ violent or non-violent tactics, at any given time, belongs to that population alone. It is the height of arrogance for people living in relative safety and comfort to judge people who are suffering under severe oppression for the tactics they use in their struggle against that oppression. And I think that Mr. Baroud is entirely correct in his implications that the widespread propaganda supporting non-violence serves the interests of the oppressive powers-that-be, who would much rather that people would respond to their oppression non-violently, rather than take up a violent struggle.

The question of whether or not the doctrine of satyagraha (non-violence) would have been effective in opposing Hitler is entirely relevant to the tragic plight of the Palestinians. All clear thinking people can see the morally depraved racism being exhibited by the Zionist oppressor. When we hear them express their belief that they are God’s own ‘chosen people’, it is easy to recall Hitler’s beliefs in the superiority of the Aryan race. When we witness the horrific and abject depravity of the Gaza bombardment, or when we remember the depraved massacres at Saabra and Shatilla, or the tens of thousands of innocents slaughtered by these crazed Zionists in Lebanon, (or any of dozens of major incidents of Zionist moral depravity), when we witness the ongoing cruelty of their daily humiliation of an entire nation of millions of people, it must surely be obvious to us that the Palestinians must face the question that was posed to Gandhi. Will the doctrine of non-violence, which depends on a sense of moral decency in the oppressor, be effective in opposing an oppressor whose racist beliefs have robbed him of moral decency?

I presume that the chances are that anyone reading this note is, like me, living in relative safety and comfort. It is just simply not ours to judge the actions, or state of mind, of those living in the aftermath of Gaza, (and all the other Israeli atrocities). How would any of us feel if our children were in immediate danger, or were made to suffer the humiliation of daily degradation? Or worse, how would we feel if we had dug our children’s bodies from the rubble? What do we think we would think, in those circumstances, of comfortable people telling us we must adhere to non-violence no matter how egregious the provocation?

I know what I would think. (And I have a pretty good idea of what I would do).

Height of Arrogance

I think that many people misunderstand the theory of non-violence as a political strategy and tactic, as it was created and practiced by Gandhi. Many people in the recent anti-war ‘movement’ in the US, for example, (I put the word ‘movement’ in hash quotes because it never really did rise to the status of a genuine movement), seemed to think that non-violence meant avoiding doing anything that might lead to violence. This misguided ‘movement’ was so keenly focused on ‘being good boys and girls’, to avoid any possibility of confrontations in which violence might occur, that it relegated itself to complete intellectuality.

Non-violence, as a strategy and tactic of resistance, does NOT entail avoiding violence. It is an aggressive strategy that involves planned disruptions of the oppressor’s administration of society. It recognizes that these disruptions will almost surely evoke a violent response from the oppressor. It involves the willingness to make the sacrifice of submitting oneself to the oppressor’s violence. Its ethos is that when the violence of the oppressor is ‘absorbed’ without responding in kind, the oppressor will be forced to come face to face with his own barbarity, and his innate sense of moral decency will then cause him to desist from his oppression. 

A genuine anti-war movement that was determined to practice non-violence would have sought out ways to disrupt society in order to deliberately provoke a violent response. Deliberate disruption of status quo policies is the whole point of non-violent resistance. The practitioners of non-violence must be willing to submit to being arrested and imprisoned, to be sure, but they must also be willing to submit to being clubbed, gassed, or even shot, without desisting from their determination to resist the oppressor, and without responding in kind.

This kind and degree of sacrifice was at the root of Gandhi’s theory. When this idea of Satyagraha, (which translates roughly as ‘soul-force’), is perverted into the careful avoidance of violence by going to great lengths to avoid making the oppressor angry, so that he won’t become violent, (as it was in the recent US anti-war ‘movement’), it is no longer the theory of Satyagraha, it is no longer genuine non-violent resistance, that is being practiced.

If the Palestinians were to take up the practice of Satyagraha, of genuine non-violent resistance, it would involve perpetrating deliberate disruptions of the Israeli occupation that would be sure to provoke violence against them. To consider a hypothetical example, say tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered and announced their determination to pass through an Israeli checkpoint without submitting to examination. (This may not be a realistic physical possibility, but it is just intended as an illustrative example). There surely can be little doubt that if they did this the Israelis would respond with violence. They would gas them, club them, and likely even shoot them.

But if these people were committed to this action as a ‘soul-force’, they would continue to advance on the check point to try to complete their objective. They would continue to submit themselves to Israeli violence. They would make the sacrifice of absorbing this violence, without fighting back, with the objective of forcing the Israelis to become so barbaric that they could no longer avoid ‘seeing’ their own barbarity, (which is the ‘hidden’ force behind their occupation). When the Israelis exhibit this degree of barbarity, (so the theory goes), their own deep seated moral decency will be so egregiously offended that they will desist from the barbarity. 

When Gandhi claimed that Satyagraha could be effective against any evil force, (even Hitler), he warned that great sacrifice would be involved. (Indeed). Against an oppressor whose moral decency has been buried under thick layers of moral depravity, the degree of sacrifice would obviously, by necessity, be commensurately greater. Hitler was obviously capable of murdering millions of people without provoking a sense of moral decency in either himself, or from the German people. How many Palestinians would be required to sacrifice their lives, in a campaign of non-violent resistance, before the moral sensibility of the Israelis would overwhelm their crazed sense of themselves as the ‘chosen people’, and their determination to possess the ‘promised land’? And further, does Palestinian culture even allow the remotest possibility that the masses of Palestinian citizens would be at all inclined to behave this way?

When various parties, (such as Barack Obama, for example), demand that the Palestinians must "renounce violence" as a condition for ‘peace negotiations’, (which the Palestinians, of course, know by now, from their long and tragic experience, are not genuine negotiations at all, but are rather ruses that are only meant to buy more time for more Jewish settlements to be built on Palestinian land), I don’t think that what these parties have in mind is that the Palestinians should take up the practice of non-violent resistance instead. I think that Ramzy Baroud is correct. I think that what these parties mean is that the Palestinians must submit. They must give up all resistance. They must surrender to Israeli violence, and ‘negotiate’ from a prostrate position with the Israeli jackboot on their neck.

If the Palestinian people were culturally inclined to practice Satyagraha, if they were willing to make the required degrees of sacrifice, this strategy of aggressive non-violent resistance could very well be effective. But recognizing the degree of moral depravity of which the Israelis are capable, as exampled by the many shockingly horrific atrocities they have perpetrated, the sacrifice that genuine non-violent resistance would require would be huge.

To restate what I said in my earlier comments, I simply don’t believe that it is my place or prerogative to dictate to a people in struggle, from my position of safety outside that struggle, what strategy and tactics they should choose to employ. And to glibly suggest, from a position of relative safety and comfort, that they should make the huge sacrifices that would be required to practice Satyagraha, is, in my opinion, the height of arrogance.

In a sane world it would go without saying that to expect that the Palestinians should give up ALL resistance, that they should submit, as a condition of negotiations, while the Israelis are free to continue their daily violence against these long suffering people, is completely ludicrous. But do any of us think we are living in a sane world?

– Ray Zwarich contributed this article to

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