April 09, 2014

Memo From the Wretched: Enough About Nonviolence

No people has been the recipient of more unsolicited advice than the Palestinians. The exemplars of barbarity to neoconservatives and the subjects of anguished progressive reprimands, the Palestinians often serve as a pretext for blowhards of all political affiliations to dust off their soapboxes. A particularly egregious form of sermonizing to which the Palestinians are subject is the admonition that they undertake nonviolent modes of resistance. I would like to argue that this sort of admonition is both ignorant and immoral.

I do not want to explore whether or not nonviolence is the best strategic or moral form of anti-colonial resistance. The difference between violence and nonviolence is not as trenchant as most commentators imagine. Violence and nonviolence, both amorphous terms, are in constant dialectic, and no historical example can be found of either of these approaches being effective without the other present. Undertaking nonviolent resistance is an ethical and strategic decision with which I have no quarrel. In fact, I have tremendous admiration for those who practice this method at the risk of their personal safety and in the service of national liberation.

I dislike the frequent lecturing from Western liberals to Palestinians about the merits of nonviolence, an act as misguided as it is patronizing. Michael Tomasky of The Guardian, for example, posed the following hypothetical amid Israel’s January, 2009, massacre of civilians in the Gaza Strip: “A hypothetical question for you. Suppose the Palestinian liberation movement, going way back to the founding of the PLO in 1964, had been dedicated to nonviolent struggle as opposed to armed struggle, and the Palestinians had had a Gandhi, and not an Arafat.” The Palestinians, Tomasky surmises, would have had a state over twenty years ago. His colleague Gershom Gorenberg argues that “[t]hrough violence—from airplane hijackings to suicide bombings and rocket fire—Palestinians have failed to reach political independence…. So why not adopt the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience, the methods of Gandhi?” Gorenberg wonders, “Is that kind of radicalism imaginable in Islam?”

On CommonDreams.org, Marty Jezer explains, “Palestinian nonviolence seems a romantic fantasy, an idealistic dream. But perhaps idealism is the most realistic approach at this time; and nonviolence the solution most grounded in reality. I challenge anybody to come up with an equivalent strategy, one that assures Israelis their security and Palestinians their state.” Michael Lerner asks what he imagines to be a self-evident question: “Who are Palestine’s friends? Those who encourage a path of non-violence and abandoning [sic] the fantasy that armed struggle combined with political isolation of Israel will lead to a good outcome for Palestinians.”

It would be too time consuming to respond to all the problems in these passages, but in them we can identify some useful points of analysis. The most important point is that the Palestinians do practice nonviolence. They have done so ever since Zionists began settling their land, a process that is by its very nature violent. Today, as throughout the twentieth century, one can find ample examples of intrepid and imaginative civil resistance. I have met very few Westerners who have traveled to Palestine and didn’t return home inspired.

An interesting feature of Palestinian nonviolence is that it usually evokes a ferocious response by Israel. During the 1980s, peaceful demonstrators had their bones broken at the behest of Yitzhak Rabin. Earlier generations were deported and had their homes demolished. Today’s nonviolent activists are often shot, imprisoned, or beaten. The village of Bi’lin in the West Bank has done a weekly protest for over four years. During the course of these peaceful gatherings, the Israeli military has been utterly brutal. In April, 2009, soldiers shot and killed an unarmed demonstrator, Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahmah. Abu Rahmah was hit in the chest with a tear-gas grenade, the same weapon that earlier in the year cracked open the skull of American demonstrator Tristan Anderson. In June, 2009, one of the leaders of the Bi’lin demonstrations, Adeeb Abu Rahme, was arrested and kept in military detention without due process. The breathless appeals by concerned Western liberals for the Palestinians to practice nonviolence are both ludicrous and immoral in light of the historical record and the invidious violence of the Israeli state.

The Palestinians have always mixed violence and nonviolence, like all anti-colonial movements. It is through a host of racist presuppositions and an inherent commitment to Zionism that American liberals imagine that somehow Palestinians are a special case, that their reliance on violence is culturally innate (Gershon Gorenberg) or that they are motivated by factors other than liberation, such as anti-Semitism and civilizational envy (Alan Dershowitz). The inability or unwillingness of so many liberal intellectuals to recognize the long tradition of Palestinian nonviolent resistance bespeaks tacit racism in addition to a hypocritical devotion to Israel’s normative and continuous state violence.

These calls for Palestinian nonviolence pretend to be ethically disinterested, but they are entangled with troublesome politics that are fundamentally destructive and undemocratic. For instance, they are often accompanied by appeals to avoid criticism of Zionism (Norman Finkelstein), to eschew effective nonviolent tactics such as boycott and divestment (Michael Lerner), and to reject counterproductive things like binationalism and right of return (Finkelstein and Lerner). In other words, the Palestinians should reject violence, and while they’re at it go ahead and give up all of their legal entitlements and decolonial aspirations.

My good friend, the philosopher Mohammed Abed, pointed out to me recently that the grueling endurance of life under military occupation—waiting hours at checkpoints, being denied medical care, having universities shut down—is itself a testament to an unusual commitment to nonviolence. I suspect that when many Western liberals urge the Palestinians (and other colonized people) to undertake nonviolence, they are using a truncated definition of the term informed by a poor or distorted understanding of the concept. In this usage, they conflate nonviolence with passivity. It is a great convenience to the liberal advocates of colonization to have a colonized population comprised of passive resistors. But colonized people are never as stupid and gullible as their liberal saviors imagine them to be.

The Palestinians, anyway, are far too evolved to listen to those who would use their courage and diligence to dispossess them of their right to active resistance. Violent or nonviolent, their choice of resistance isn’t the business of liberal armchair ethicists. Those ethicists are fond of claiming that if the Palestinians resisted nonviolently they would have already achieved their liberation. This claim is factually untrue. It is just as likely that if liberal commentators would assess their own profound support of violence they would have a lot less to say to others and more time to devote to their own failed selves.

Steven Salaita’s latest book is The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought.


  1. Palestinians can choose their form of defense. I understand that violence is sometimes the only way.in fact nobody gives out their privileges for free. you have to take it from them.israel uses violence non-stop and is commiting a genocide against the Palestinians. To ask the palestinians to just sit there and plead is ridiculous.We should advise the Israelis that their day of reckoning will come.that is the only certainty in this conflict

  2. Off topic. Thanks for letting me know. Updated and good luck.