Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Hard Road Before Sheikh Nasser a-Din al-Masri

When I was younger, I used to wonder why there wasn't a Palestinian equivalent to the Israeli peace movement. Israel had Meretz and groups like Peace Now -- where were they in Palestine? Palestinian politics, in my mind, was a battle between different varieties of terrorists: secular Fatah, Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Marxist PFLP and DFLP. It wasn't so much that I expected every Palestinian to adopt a Meretz-like line so much as the seeming lack of political diversity that confused and frightened me.

These were the opinions of a young kid, and of course today I recognize them to be too simplistic and ill-informed. Nonetheless, there remains the nagging question of why the movement to create an independent Palestinian state has so persistently remained within the confines of violent struggle?

Gershom Gorenberg (via) has a fabulous essay examining that precise question in, of all places, The Weekly Standard. It explores the idea of a Palestinian Gandhi or Martin Luther King -- the history of Palestinian nationalism, the persons promoting non-violent ideologies, and the barriers to seeing such a dream become reality. It is a stellar piece of work, and I highly recommend it.

There is one more obstacle to the emergence of a non-violent Palestinian resistance movement that Gorenberg doesn't really address. Palestinians want an independent state and an end to the Israeli occupation -- both just goals that persons worldwide ought support. But for some of them, including many of the political leaders, that is not all they want. Some want to destroy the state of Israel. Some want to slaughter the Jewish inhabitants. Some might be willing to allow Jewish inhabitants, subject to Palestinian domination or Islamic theocracy. Some might settle for expelling the Jews (or the "Zionist" Jews -- the Jews who can't trace their ancestry in Israel/Palestine prior to some arbitrary date). These goals, of course, should not be supported by anyone concerned with justice or progressivism. The general problem is that these agenda items bleed together: when Hamas kidnapped an IDF soldier, were they trying to advance the goal of ending the occupation, or killing off the Jews? The answer is: both. The trouble is, I can support one, but I'm obligated to abhor the other.

Whatever support I have for the creation of a Palestinian state is tempered by the fact that -- even outside the tactics they use to achieve the goal -- many of the people pursuing such an outcome are also pursuing much darker and ignoble ends; ones I cannot support; ones that put my very life in peril were they to come to pass. And unfortunately, the tactics for the former are applied equally to pursue the latter.

When it comes to non-violence, however, the mixture of laudable and terrible ends does more than just muddy the waters -- it is outright poison. While Gandhi's satyagraha may have succeeded in getting the British to leave India, he never extended the principle to see if it could get them to leave London as well. I'm skeptical the expansion would have met with much success.

The point isn't to undermine the possibility of a Palestinian non-violent resistant developing. I believe one can, and I sincerely hope it does. The point is that the viability of such a movement will depend on disentangling various Palestinian political aspirations -- some of which are the sort which could be worthy heirs of King and Gandhi's legacy, and others which are nightmarish inversions of them.


Anonymous said...

Another problem is that anyone who advocates peace in areas controlled by Hamas or Hezbollah is very likely to find themselves dead.

It is worth remembering that while the British colonialism that Ghandi had to deal with was brutal in its way, it contained many elements of liberalism that Ghandi was able to leverage as "force multipliers" on top of, you know, being allowed by the British to continue living. Similarly, Martin Luther King's campaign of non-violence was enabled by the fact that he lived in a society that was relatively tolerant of protest (even the waterhoses of Birmingham are nothing compared to the deadly purges of Hamas).

chingona said...

Thanks for linking that essay. I don't read Yglesias on a regular basis, and I read the Weekly Standard, like, never, so I wouldn't have seen it otherwise, and it was very worthwhile reading.

I think you've got the cause and effect a little backwards, though, in raising the goals of a group like Hamas in the context of non-violence. I think the very existence of groups like Hamas is an outgrowth of a lot of the cultural and psychological forces working against the development of non-violent resistance that Gorenberg identifies.

One of the most interesting aspects of the article to me is that Palestinians who have talked about non-violence have focused on it from a tactical stance, rather than an ideological and philosophical stance. Now, from a tactical standpoint, I have often wondered if we would already have a Palestinian state if the Palestinian resistance movements had gone that route, but I think he's correct that it's very hard to stick with non-violence in the face of beatings and shootings if you don't have a very strong philosophical or ideological or religious reason for cleaving to it. And I didn't know enough about Islamic theology or Palestinian culture to really speak to why an ideologically nonviolent movement had never arisen. My take-away from the essay is that the basis for it is there, but the cultural foundation may not be very receptive to it at first, for reasons that are understandable.

All of which is to say, I think Hamas arises from that cultural context. It's not so much that Hamas' goals are antithetical to nonviolence (though they are), but that Hamas exists because of a cultural context that causes anyone interested in nonviolence to have a very tough sell.

David Schraub said...

But Hamas isn't the only Palestinian actor whose goals are anti-thetical to non-violence. Up until very recently (cynics and skeptics would say, up through today), Fatah was just as committed to destroying Israel as Hamas ever was. The PLO, as you know, was formed prior to 1967 -- it wasn't originally a response to occupation but a response to Israel existing, period. Hamas was originally differentiated from Fatah not because it had particularly different views about Israel (both were committed to destroying it, both affirmed only violent struggle was the way to destroy it), but simply because it was religious to Fatah's secularism, and it was relatively uncorrupted to Fatah's naked graft and croynism.

So I think I have the causation right. The political goals represented by major Palestinian political leadership were not, at the origin, amenable to a policy non-violence. The goals have to change (and to be fair, they are changing somewhat -- I'm a bit of a skeptic, but I genuinely believe that the top players in Fatah are willing to pursue a two state solution) for the tactics to be feasible.

chingona said...

I was using Hamas because you used Hamas in the post. I'm aware of the PLO's history and Fatah's history, and I would say the same thing about them.

In a Palestinian context, Israel still would have appeared as an occupying power prior to 1967. For people displaced from farms and villages in Israel proper, the very existence of Israel is going to read like an occupation. I don't think it's at all self-evident that the PLO wasn't a response to occupation.

But really, I think our point of disagreement is ... why did/do Palestinian resistance groups have the kinds of goals they have? I'm saying the goals arise (at least in part) from the culture and how the culture defines resistance. Sure, having established those goals, they don't lend themselves to non-violent tactics, but why did they conceive their goals in the way that they did? That's what I was trying to get at.

David Schraub said...

But the causation line remains the same. Why didn't the Palestinians develop non-violent resistance strategies? Answer: Because the political goals of the major Palestinian organizations weren't particularly compatible with non-violence.

An opposite causal line would be "Palestinian organizations developed political goals incompatible with non-violence because their previous political goals -- ones which could have been achieved non-violently -- had failed." But these "previous political goals" are entirely hypothetical. It wasn't like there was some stage of mainstream Palestinian political activism centered around peacefully co-existing with Israel (or even "recent Jewish immigrants") that failed. The main goals in the modern era have always been fundamentally militant in nature.

I agree that the Palestinians didn't develop these goals out of nothing and it's worth examining where they're coming from, but they do exist prior to the absence of a non-violent political tradition in the context of this conflict. So if we are going to try and unwind that history, we're going to have to change the goals first, and develop the non-violent resistance culture second.

chingona said...

So if we are going to try and unwind that history, we're going to have to change the goals first, and develop the non-violent resistance culture second.

If you're talking about moving forward, sure, I agree (though, obviously, it's not really for you or I to actually do that).

But this ...

they do exist prior to the absence of a non-violent political tradition in the context of this conflict

What does this even mean? How can something exist prior to the absence of something that never existed?

David Schraub said...

I wrote that passage with a wing and a prayer, because I knew it sounded non-sensical but I couldn't figure out how to express it sanely.

I mean prior in terms of precedence. Non-violence never sprang up because the goals the actors were trying to achieve were incompatible with non-violence -- hence, the goals come "prior" to the absence of non-violence (the goals are primary in relation to the subsidiary fact of the absent non-violence).

And while literally it isn't for us to create a non-violent Palestinian resistance, we certainly are quite entitled (perhaps obligated) to use whatever leverage we have to try and create such a world where that sort of resistance happens (or better yet, where it isn't necessary).

chingona said...

It wasn't like there was some stage of mainstream Palestinian political activism centered around peacefully co-existing with Israel (or even "recent Jewish immigrants") that failed. The main goals in the modern era have always been fundamentally militant in nature.

With the way you put this, I'm not sure if you think you are refuting me with this statement, or just stating an opinion.

The founding of the state of Israel represents a rejection of non-violence, both tactically and philosophically. Which is NOT to say that all the blame for violence lies with Israel, but that it's not like there ever was a magical period made up entirely of peaceful co-existence that needed to be broken to get to a position of militancy.

Maybe on some level, and I'm about to sound just as nonsensical as you, there is no "before," unless you want to wind back to before the first Zionists started immigrating to Palestine, in which case there would be nothing to talk about.

Non-violence is the exception when it comes to responses to violence. Violence is the norm, the rule. What is remarkable is that there is ever non-violent resistance, not that oppressed people arrive at a position of militancy.

And, as I'm sure you know, peaceful co-existence and non-violent resistance are not the same thing.

PG said...

The founding of the state of Israel represents a rejection of non-violence, both tactically and philosophically.

Are we talking about the UN partition plan? That doesn't seem to me to be any more a rejection of non-violence than the British partition plan for India was. It sparked violence (in the case of India, apparently simultaneous on the part of both Hindus and Muslims; in Israel/Palestine, allegedly commenced by Arabs against Jews both informally and then by the invasion of Israel by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq), but I'm not sure why a partition plan is a rejection of non-violence. Generally, the international community/ British did this on the idealistic belief that now that each side had something to call its own, there wouldn't be violence.

Certainly there was a great deal of violence committed by Jews and often against civilians in order to obtain an independent Israel, but my understanding was that this was done against the British more than the Arabs.

chingona said...

I don't mean the UN partition plan. I mean that Zionism is not a movement that operated or operates under the principles of non-violence. Which is not to say that it is inherently violent or that it must be inconsistent with peaceful coexistence with other peoples, but on a basic philosophical level, it doesn't buy into non-violence.

David Schraub said...

Zionism doesn't "buy into" or not "buy into" non-violence. The principle behind Zionism is not one fundamentally incompatible with non-violence in the way that anti-Zionism today functionally is. That isn't to say it is functionally non-violent (it clearly isn't), only there is nothing inherent in the Zionist agenda that requires it to be violent. The political goals of a goodly chunk of politically powerful Zionists could be achieved without resort to violence (I've actually often wondered what would happen if Israel declared a one-year policy of satyagraha -- if it lifted all barriers, blockades, checkpoints, everything; and did not respond in any way to any attack or provocation. Either it would end the conflict then and there or it would represent a massive PR coup; one or the other).

(Moreover, practically speaking Zionism never predicated its own identity on violent struggle, whereas the PLO and like groups have repeatedly and explicitly affirmed that they only recognize armed struggle as legitimate -- it was imbued into the fabric of the ideology.)

chingona said...

I'm not using "non-violence" to mean the opposite of violence. I mean Zionism, at least in any mainstream form that I've ever heard of, does not advocate for non-violence as a principle. Zionism advocates for self-defense. And it has historically positioned itself in opposition to the supposed passivity of the shtetl Jew in the face of violence. Zionism advocates for self-defense, and is itself a form of self-defense.

I'm not insulting or besmirching Zionism, and I'm not saying Zionism must be or inherently is violent. Here I am, in the comment, right above yours: "Which is not to say that it is inherently violent or that it must be inconsistent with peaceful coexistence with other peoples ..."

I don't consider myself a violent person, but I don't believe in non-violence for myself. When I was a wee chingona heading off for my first day of school, my dad told me not to start any fights, but if someone were to hit me, I should hit them back. (And don't tell the teacher, he added. No one likes a tattletale.) And I still consider that pretty good advice. But I don't think that makes me a violent person or someone who relies on violence to achieve my goals.

Do you see how I'm not setting non-violence and violence up as opposites? If you accept non-violence as a principle, you voluntarily give up your right to self-defense. It goes beyond just not being violent or not being an aggressor.

I know you know this, and I'm frankly a little surprised we're arguing about this.

PG said...

But I thought there were Zionists who were committed to non-violence -- basically those who not only refused to join Irgun but who were appalled by their actions and helped turn them in to the British.

chingona said...

Irgun was a terrorist organization. If the standard for commitment to principles of non-violence is "not joining a terrorist organization," then yes, lots of Zionists were non-violent. I'm putting that in the necessary but not sufficient category.

David Schraub said...

I'm not sure we're actually arguing. I don't that Zionism as practiced is non-violent (I also, like you, am not necessarily invested in non-violence as a fundamental moral principle). My only argument here is that Zionist ideals aren't incompatible with non-violence -- that is to say, it is possible to imagine a practice that adhered to non-violent principles while still also being in pursuit of Zionist ends (such as my "Israel spends a year of satyagraha" idea).

Outside Greater Israelism, any modern Zionist ideal could be pursued through non-violence (which isn't to say that it is, or it should be). This is in distinction to the set of Palestinian political goals we were talking about earlier, which are inherently incompatible with non-violence (i.e., it's not just a tactical decision to use this strategy over that one -- non-violence is not a viable strategic candidate for this set of political goals).

PG said...

I'm puzzled as to why a Jewish liberation movement is incompatible with non-violence, but the Indian liberation movement wasn't. Of course, the majority of Indians didn't take non-violence as a guiding ethos the way Gandhi did; they still slapped the guy who slapped them. But they did detect that Gandhi had had some success with the tactic in South Africa, and that they sure as hell couldn't outgun the Brits, so they'd have to find another method. The people with a true commitment to non-violence as an end in itself (the Gandhi "the Jews can just submit to the Nazis" line) are few and an evolutionary dead end. The number of people who can use nonviolence where it serves their purpose is much larger. But non-violence as a tool is effectively saying, "Y'all have bigger guns, so I'm going to make you feel guilty." As with the Nazi reference, it only works if your enemies can feel guilty -- as the British dealing with Gandhi and as white Americans (particularly under a federal system where whites in the rest of the country could get self-righteous on Southerners) dealing with MLK, could feel guilty.

chingona said...

In the essay, Gorenberg seems to say that if your only interest in non-violence is tactical, that it's hard to sell and harder to sustain. He argues that MLK and Gandhi had strong spiritual/religious/philosophical reasons for sticking with non-violence and that grounding made it possible them to stick with it in the face of violence against their side.

That makes an intuitive kind of sense to me.
But it seems to be the opposite of what you're saying, PG - that large numbers of people are capable of making a purely tactical decision to respond to a fair amount of violence with non-violent resistance. And the facts would seem to be on your side. You certainly can't look at Partition or some of the things that have happened in India since independence and say it's a society that embraces non-violence in a general sense.

Hmm.... Gorenberg also mentions that none of the Palestinians who have been advocates for non-violence have been particularly charismatic, so ... there's that.

PG said...

"But it seems to be the opposite of what you're saying, PG - that large numbers of people are capable of making a purely tactical decision to respond to a fair amount of violence with non-violent resistance."

It's not quite the opposite of what I'm saying, because I think a charismatic leader with a soul-deep commitment to nonviolence can inspire other people to follow him for political purposes, to achieve a particular goal; he will be able to influence them not to go toward violence in achieving that goal even when violence is tempting. But he cannot just transmit his own conviction in nonviolence as a way of life to the masses. He especially cannot do it if there are competing leaders -- as there were in India, and in the civil rights movement particularly with the rise of the Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, etc. -- who are saying that this nonviolence is both useless in achieving the goal and is an insult to pride because of the inherent "you have bigger guns so I'm going to rely on your guilt" aspect of nonviolence-as-tool-rather-than-philosophy. Not to get too Nussbaumian, but insulted masculinity gets pulled into this too -- what kind of man submits to the blows of his enemies instead of defending his women and children against them?