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In Defense of Nonviolence

Today’s participant blog post comes from Becca Garfinkel, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. Becca’s group is living, learning and volunteering in Lod, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was originally posted on Becca’s personal blog.

This past Monday, we commemorated the life and work of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. This day has long been one of my favorite holidays, especially in the past four years at the University of Michigan. The Ann Arbor campus holds a symposium of speakers and events celebrating Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. In past years, students have taken the opportunity to demonstrate against racism on campus, to great effect.

This year on MLK Day, I found myself thinking of nonviolence a bit differently. I had always taken nonviolence as a given—it seemed obvious that the most effective road to change was through peaceful protest. But recent experiences in Israel have suggested otherwise. There was the Palestinian activist who told me that his people are justified in using deadly force out of desperation. There are reports of Israeli soldiers raiding homes after the deadly shooting in a Tel Aviv bar this month. And there is the constant military presence, at checkpoints and train stations, that reminds me that the only way to deal with threats of violence is with more guns.

MLK preached nonviolence, even in desperate times. He stuck to this belief through police brutality at Selma and during his imprisonment in a Birmingham jail. But that was a different country, and a different time. Palestinians often relate their struggle to the African-American Civil Rights movement, but all signs point to the fact that this conflict is infinitely more complex than racial struggle (a significant issue nonetheless).

This is something I’ve struggled with for a while. What exactly is the right response to violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And who am I to say? Nonviolence seems natural to me, but that’s only because I have lived an incredibly nonviolent life. I have never found myself pushed to a point where violence was necessary. That either means I am incredibly patient or incredibly sheltered—I suspect the latter is true. This fact has been thrown into sharp relief during my past conversations with Palestinian activists who, although they may not practice violence themselves, refuse to condemn Palestinian violence. They defend Palestinian terrorists on the grounds that their lived experience may be so desperate, so extreme that they are justified in seeing no other option for resistance. In their minds, subjective morality indicates privilege, and those who condemn violence while remaining sheltered from it are not only ignorant, but in denial of the lived experience of those who aren’t.

Stay with me here. I am not condoning violence—taking the life of another human being is a crime no matter what the circumstances. But when a crime is committed, we tend to empathize solely with the victim. My question is, why not the perpetrator? If we take as a premise that humans are not born to harm each other (a bold assumption, but there you have it), we must find some other explanation for the headline of this week’s news, in which a 15-year-old Palestinian boy murdered a Jewish mother in front of her home. And if your response is that he learned it in one of those “Palestinian schools-turned-terror factories”, you can save your breath. Until you have been to Hebron, or Gaza, or any of the villages in the West Bank, you can’t realize that you don’t need a school to teach you how to hate. These places are centers of violence because the people in them are already treated like criminals. They live in poverty, with scarce running water and electricity, and are subject to frequent raids and military checkpoints.

You’re still not convinced. And neither am I—Arab Israelis receive many benefits from the Israeli government, including a free university education and marked infrastructural support. But generating empathy for the perpetrator as well as the victim is, I believe, the first step in remedying violence.

I’ll admit, these ideas are not mine. I gleaned them from a talk I attended last Monday at BINA, a secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv. In the spirit of MLK, the yeshiva invited a Palestinian non-violent activist to share his thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His name is Ali Abu Awwad, and he is one of the most prominent Palestinian voices on the world stage. His nonviolent strategy is unique to the conflict—and his personal story to get there is one of the more incredible I’ve heard thus far.

Ali grew up in a village near Hebron, and was raised by a family of political activists. At the age of fifteen, he was sent to jail for throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers during the First Intifada. In jail, he received what he calls the best education that a Palestinian can get. He learned English and Hebrew, read poetry and philosophy, and developed his political views. He also had his first experience with nonviolent activism when he and his mother staged hunger strikes to protest the fact that they were not allowed to visit one another. The strike was successful, and he realized for the first time that violence is not essential to change.

When Ali was released from jail, he returned to his political activities, but was still not expressly nonviolent. Tragedy struck when his brother Yousif was shot to death at point-blank range by an Israeli soldier. As Ali describes, his first thought was revenge. The hate and pain he felt was so strong that he wanted to inflict it on others in order to rid himself from its grip.

Then, everything changed. Ali was invited to a bereavement group for families who had lost relatives to the conflict. He was stunned when, over a cup of tea, he watched a Jewish man cry while mentioning the death of his young son. In Ali’s thirty-two years of life, it had never crossed his mind that Jews—the same ones who administered checkpoints and raided his home—could cry. So began a journey of developing his political philosophy to one of nonviolence.

Awwad says that the biggest threat to peace is fear- the biggest threat to the Palestinian cause is fear of the Jewish nation, and vice versa. This fear is rational; it was brought on by years of violence and tragedy that have culminated in a narrative of victimhood on both sides. They hate us, so we hate them. They kill us, so we kill them back. It doesn’t take any sophisticated political analysis to figure out that this thinking isn’t getting us anywhere. For the past four months, this is as far as my own thinking has gotten: it is fear, and hate, and revenge, that stops any real progress. But I didn’t know what to do about it, because the fear is legitimate, so it seemed to me that any compromise would involve a denunciation of such fear, in turn nullifying the pain from the thousands of tragedies that have occurred throughout the history of this conflict.

Ali says that this is not the case. He still has fear, and he still has pain. His brother’s murder is always on his mind. But so is the encounter with the Jewish man, who made himself vulnerable so that Ali could see his pain mirrored in the eyes of a Jew. That vulnerability was transformative for Ali, and I think it can be for us too. The worst thing we can do in a conflict is to disengage, and see the other side as infallible, not even human. That is how we justify taking a life.

Nonviolence is not a denunciation of pain—quite the opposite. Reconciliation gives dignity to the victim, which is what he desperately craves. But instead of revenge, he is offered a constructive path to justice. He accepts it not for the sake of his enemy, but for himself—the chance to heal, to progress, and to avenge the source of his pain by making sure it won’t happen again. That is how Ali honors Yousif’s memory. As he puts it, nonviolence is not giving up the fight. It is transforming the fight into one we may actually win. And there is no better revenge than success.

Every MLK day, I reread King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. In one of my favorite passages, King expresses confidence in the Civil Rights struggle despite myriad obstacles. He says they will succeed because the dream of the United States is freedom, and the African-American destiny “is tied up with the destiny of America”. I certainly have my doubts about the level of freedom guaranteed at the establishment of the Jewish state. But it is true that its fate is tied up with the fates of every single one of its residents, be they Jewish, Palestinian, Ethiopian, or a recent college grad from Michigan. We are all victims of this conflict, in one way or another. We all have the same pain. We all have the same fear. It’s true that this pain and fear is borne disproportionately by some and not others. But Ali himself is an excellent example of the potential of unspeakable tragedy to transform into unspeakable strength. Who says anger means violence? Why don’t we start using the intensity of our anger to fuel the intensity of our peacemaking, and not the extent of our hate?

May we sign off all of our conversations (or blog posts) about this conflict the same way that Dr. King concluded his historic letter:

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,


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