Gershom Gorenberg has done a Tom Friedman on us. This immensely intelligent and incisive commentator on the Israeli-Arab conflict has written a fantasy which imagines a Ghandiesque Palestinian non-violent campaign of resistance to the Occupation which succeeds in bringing down the hated Israeli system and replacing it with peace. It’s really worthy of late-career Friedman, an example of someone who encourages their imagination to reel off scenarios which it would like to be true, but which haven’t half a chance in Hell of coming anywhere close to being so.
It’s no accident that this was published in a publication founded by Bill Kristol, one of the bell-weathers of the neocon movement. Who else would be as interested in the trite question on the lips of liberal and rightist supporters of Israel everywhere: Why is there no Palestinian Gandhi?
After spinning such a wild scenario leading to an Israeli prime minister agreeing to negotiate for peace with a Palestinian Gandhi as a result of a single non-violent march from Ramallah to the Al Aqsa mosque, Gorenberg writes a telling statement:
To sit in my study in Jerusalem and to imagine recording this chronology as a historian is to be filled with the wild hope that fantasy can bring and with the pain of knowing it is fantasy.
There is nothing wrong with HAVING such a fantasy. But there is something wrong with believing that such fantasies are tough enough or real enough to deserve to see the light of day.
Here is the basic presentation of his thesis, which includes within it the reason why it is a fatally flawed premise (at least Gorenberg has the honesty to include this):
So why not adopt the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience, the methods of Gandhi? That question has been asked for years, by moderate Israelis and by Westerners with sympathy for both sides. It comes packed with assumptions. It implies that Israelis accept a civilian death toll like that in Gaza only when they believe it is the unavoidable price of self-defense. It presumes that Israel remains a society whose citizens would not long allow their government to use deadly force against masses of nonviolent demonstrators. And it suggests that if Palestinians succeeded in shedding the image of terrorists and appeared internationally as saints, they would succeed in bringing unbearable Western pressure against Israel.
But even if patronizing, the question remains valid: Sainthood can work. Britain abandoned India; Montgomery’s buses were desegregated.
Yes, indeed. The notion is patronizing. Why would anyone in their right mind presume that Israel would NOT use deadly and massive force against masses of nonviolent Palestinian demonstrators? Of course it would and it has. The truth of the matter is that Israel is not colonial Britain. 1948 is light years removed from 2009. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has coarsened both sides to the point that an Israeli would just as soon kill a Palestinian as look at him (and vice versa).
The analogy to Martin Luther King’s non-violent campaign for civil rights is also flawed as I’ve written here before. In that situation, the American South was not a discrete country and so could not go its own way. It was part of a nation that ultimately became horrified by the evil acts of segregationist thugs. The conscience of Americans outside the South eventually impelled national political leaders to act. And the jig was up.
There is unfortunately no longer (if there ever was) an Israeli conscience regarding Palestinian rights or ending the Occupation. The Israeli left is either dead or in suspended animation. The values it used to represent are no longer ones embraced (at least consciously) by most Israelis. In short, it is simply impossible to rouse Israel’s conscience to the justice of the Palestinian struggle. As hard as it is for me as a progressive Zionist to write this, such a non-violent march as the one described by Gorenberg would be met with massive and lethal force. Scores, if not hundreds would die. Demonstrators would be scattered to the winds. The Israeli government would call them rabble-rousing Arab scum who entered a closed military zone in order to deliberately provoke the IDF to act. They’ll say they got what they deserved. And hardly anyone but the usual suspects within Israel will raise a peep in dissent.
The truth of the matter is that there ARE Palestinian Gandhis, peace activists who adopt a non-violent approach to confronting the Occupation. Among the most prominent are Mustafa Barghouti, Sari Nusseibeh, Mubarak Awad (who he mentions), Sam Bahour and many others. But there is no figure comparable in stature or influence to Mahatma Gandhi. And that is hardly the fault of the Palestinians. For the plain fact of the matter is that Israel is no Imperial Britain as Paul Woodward makes clear in his sharp critique:
…The parallels between British India and Israel are beyond tenuous.
Gandhi’s resistance to British rule galvanized the support of a massive population governed by a tiny colonial elite who never had the pretense that Britain was reclaiming a long-lost homeland. To the British, India was a land brimming with resources that could be shipped back to the actual homeland and traded for handsome profits. By the end of World War Two, Britain was bankrupt and in a rush to free itself of what had become its colonial burdens. With or without a gentle shove from the Mahatma, the sun had already set on the British Empire.
As for Gandhi’s nominal success in non-violently waving goodbye to colonial rule, we should not forget that it was accompanied by the horrific failure of partition and a bloodbath in which as many as a million people died.
Returning to the idea that Gorenberg’s notion is “patronizing,” I find it astonishing that I only hear this question raised by liberal or rightist Israel supporters. The assumptions behind it are illuminating. The notion that if only there were a Palestinian Gandhi presumes that Palestinians are a people which has made a conscious, deliberate and intentional choice to embrace violence. It accompanies a whose series of prejudicial notions that Arabs are angry, violent and treacherous. And if only they embraced non-violence, that this would resonate so with the good-will of the Israeli public that the walls of hatred would topple and everything would be for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
Further, let’s turn this notion on its head (some of my thinking on this was inspired by Svend White’s post): where is the Israeli Gandhi? What major Israeli figure has embraced non-violence and come anywhere near creating a viable political movement? Sure, there have been the Abie Nathans and Menachem Fromans and we salute them for their enormous courage. But Israelis view them as Don Quixotes, good-hearted visionaries perhaps a bit soft in the head, rather than as hard-headed, practical leaders able to forge a mass movement like Gandhi or King.
Gorenberg himself seems to recognize the limitations of his enterprise here:
…To imagine Nasser a-Din al-Masri [the Palestinian Gandhi] is disturbing for another reason: This is a fantasy of a political savior who comes from the adversary’s side because one’s own has no answers. Israeli politics has become a junkyard of broken ideologies…We have failed to manufacture hope. Let the Palestinians do it.
In my view, Israeli supporters have absolutely no right to place the onus on the Palestinians by saying: “if only they embraced peace then Israel would surely respond in kind.” This is a hopelessly romantic notion and a deeply deluded and destructive one as well. If we’ve learned anything at all about this conflict and the nature of the two peoples, it is that neither has the right to demand of the other something it can’t or won’t do itself.
So if there is no accompanying movement for non-violence from Israel, there can and should be no expectation of the Palestinians. I also find it immensely hypocritical that a people which has chosen to use massive amounts of force to maintain its evil, illegal Occupation of millions of Palestinians should complain that the other side doesn’t embrace non-violence. I’d say when the IDF and Israeli leaders show they can embrace restraint, that is the moment when we should expect this of Palestinians.
One of the more telling passages in Gorenberg’s piece is this one which attempts to explain why neither Israeli nor Palestinians have ever taken to the path of strict non-violence:
Neither Palestinians nor Israelis are unusual for using deadly weapons to achieve political goals, or for making warriors into heroes. What may make Palestinians and Israelis stand out is the overwhelming place of victimhood in their national memories. In very different ways, the experience of powerlessness made picking up the gun a goal for both–an end, not just a means.
But despite this acuity, he insists on lapsing back into wishful thinking here:
…To conduct negotiations successfully with Israel, the Palestinians need a means other than arms to create pressure and “gravitational pull.” If once-sacred values have failed, the time seems ripe for a heresy. Perhaps, at last, there could be the opening for nonviolence.
Once again, this is a total pipe dream without an accompanying call from Israelis and there is no such call.
In appealing to the “great man” theory of history, Gorenberg, a religious Jew, seems to be appealing to a supernatural or romantic ideal to bring him such a hero to lead Palestinians (and Israelis) out of their valley of despair to the Promised Land of peace:
What is lacking …is a “charismatic leader,” the figure who pulls crowds after him…The great-man theory of history has been maligned, but [it] is right.
This is a cop-out. How often in history do we get Gandhis or Martin Luther Kings (or Obamas)? Putting faith in a great man to get us out of the jam we have gotten ourselves into is a recipe for eternal hopelessness. I’m afraid, imperfect as the rest of us are, we will need to do the job ourselves (or not do it at all).
It is telling and interesting that in his search for the “mythical” missing man, he overlooks someone who is actually a real flesh and blood figure: Marwan Barghouti (“At the end of a search for a missing man, I can imagine him. Earlier in his life, he would have believed in armed struggle. He would have acted on that belief and served time in an Israeli jail–so that he fit the myth before he sought to change it and so that his own life embodies what he asks of his followers.”) Now, I am not saying that Barghouti believes in non-violence or that he is by any means a holy figure or even the perfect leader. All leaders, both Palestinian and Israeli seem immensely flawed.
But Barghouti is someone who could unify both Palestinian factions. Someone who, like Mandela, spent years in the jails of the enemy, who speaks his language, understands his psychological identity, both its strengths and weaknesses. Until he is released from prison, we will not know whether Barghouti is just another corruptible thug, or a powerful leader with a vision for ending the conflict and securing his people’s future.
But the fact that Gorenberg concludes his article imagining a mythical man, when there is a real one (albeit not one committed philosophically to non-violence) right in front of him betrays the severe limitations of his thesis that a solution for the conflict lies only in the hands of an imagined national champion of non-violence.
Finally, and perhaps most decisively, we should remember the fates of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who fell to the bullets of those who didn’t quite share their faith in the non-violent ideal. Does Gershom Gorenberg or any Israeli have the right to even suggest that Palestinians should lay their lives down for an ideal not embraced in any significant way by Israelis?
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I do not embrace or sanction violence. I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and detest the notion that violence or war successfully resolves conflicts. My devoutest wish would be for Palestinian AND Israeli Gandhis together to lead such a non-violent protest march ending in a triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But this is a vision for Messianic times I am afraid, and not for the rather horrid times in which we live.