February 14, 2023
The Washington Post last week headlined with these words, “Car-ramming attack near Jerusalem settlement kills 2, including 6-year-old.” This was just recounting for us “the latest in a spiraling cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Tensions are rising fast amid the return to power of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads Israel’s most right-wing government to date as he wages a battle for constitutional reforms, alongside a deepening political void and insecurity among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. From a distance, it is easy, as the Washington Post does to link the violence to these political changes and the Hungary-like “constitutional reforms” the new government seems hell-bent on implementing. But that connection covers over a more difficult part of the tragedy unfolding across that disturbing part of the world. “
The current Israeli government is the most right-wing in that nation’s almost 75-year history. The policies that this government is putting in place have caused a great disruption in the Israeli political landscape and have unsettled many in the American Jewish Community. The direction of this new government has brought tens of thousands of Israelis into the streets to protest, decrying that their government is threatening Israel’s democracy. As The Guardian described it earlier this week, “The protests have become a weekly fixture on Saturday evenings since the prime minister’s new government – dubbed the most rightwing in Israel’s history – took office in late December. Local media reported that protests were held in 20 cities across the country and said tens of thousands gathered in Tel Aviv alone. Among the crowd in Haifa was the former Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid, who said in a video posted to social media: ‘We will save our country because we are unwilling to live in an undemocratic country.’”
But these protests and this political battle are about which Jewish citizens will control the Israeli government. The violence we are seeing is more a statement about a very different understanding of what that word, DEMOCRACY, actually should mean. For both the government and those Jewish citizens protesting its policies there is an agreement about what democracy in Israel should be about. For them, Democracy does not include the Palestinian citizens of Israel, nor the Palestinian non-citizens ruled by Israel who live in East Jerusalem and those controlled by Israel in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. These millions of men, women, and children are not included as equal citizens within this understanding of Israeli democracy, nor in the policies of this government no matter which Jewish citizens control it, nor in the streets as some protest the actions of others.
In the words of veteran Israeli-Arab journalist Atallah Mansour, as reported in a recent issue of Haaretz, “The Israeli left doesn’t want Arabs to be a part of the fight, certainly not publicly. They still don’t see Arabs as legitimate partners. If I as an Arab want to be a partner and express solidarity and join in the struggle, and they tell me no, what do they expect me to do? Arab protesters want to express their pain and not just the Jews’ pain. It’s impossible to protest without mentioning the Palestinian issue. It has to be a joint Jewish and Arab struggle because we have to arrive at a solution and political settlement with the Palestinians.”
The violence we are now witnessing, which we have been witnessing for decades is a result of these two visions of who are entitled to be fully a part of a democratic Israel.
So what do marginalized people do when they face a powerful and intractable force that controls their lives and dictates their future? What does a marginalized people do when they face those controlling them who are willing to use all of the power they control: the law, the courts, the government bureaucracy and their mighty army to keep them in their subservient place and to steal their land and their property?
This is, for me the question of the moment, the question that this crisis in Israeli politics is really about.
Ibram X. Kendi, writing about the history of Black Americans, another people facing this clash of who is part of national democracy in another time and place, captured the plight of the marginalized in “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” “No matter what African people did, they were barbaric beasts or brutalized like beasts. If they did not clamor for freedom, then their obedience showed they were naturally beasts of burden. If they nonviolently resisted enslavement, they were brutalized. If they killed for their freedom, they were barbaric murderers.”
So, what are a marginalized people to do?
This a question that many of those we revere for their leadership of broad movements, effective movements for their marginalized and oppressed people have a strong disagreement about. For some, the answer has been clear, protest loudly, strongly, and non-violently.
Mahatma Gandhi, leading an uprising against the rule of Great Britain, the answer was to protest non-violently and a rejection of violence even in the face of violence. “My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God. None-violence is the means of realizing him.” ““I cannot teach you violence, as I do not myself believe in it. I can only teach you not to bow your heads before any one even at the cost of your life.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr built his approach to challenging the powerful on behalf of the powerless on the principles of Gandhi. . “Constructive ends can never give absolute moral justification to destructive means, because in the final analysis the end is preexistent in the mean…As I delve deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform…The phrase ‘passive resistance’ often gives the false impression that this is a sort of ‘do-nothing method’ in which the resister quietly and passively accepts evil. But nothing is further from the truth. For while the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong…A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding…this [nonviolent resistance] method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.”
But for others, violence was necessary, perhaps unfortunate but necessary.
Nelson Mandela, fighting against the power of South Africa’s ruling white minority saw the need for violent responses in the face of overwhelming violence on the part of his government. Speaking before the national court that ultimately sentenced him to prison as a terrorist, he explained “I must deal immediately and at some length with the question of violence. Some of the things so far told to the Court are true and some are untrue. I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the Whites...I and some colleagues came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”
Malcolm X, looking at the same reality that MLK, JR had approached from a Gandhian perspective told us “I would have taken violence for violence to force the white man to compromise their stand and give freedom and justice to the black man.” He also denounced non-violence as “the philosophy of a fool”…While King was having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare.”
From the moment I began to speak out and challenge those in power I have never chosen the path of violent protest. But I have never lived in the shoes of those for whom I was raising my voice. I have not faced the realities faced by Black Americans, by those living under South African apartheid or as a Palestinian. I can only imagine what it means for year after year, decade after decade to pass with little progress in marginalization. I can only imagine what it feels like when oppressive leaders speak of democracy and the rights it conveys, except for me and my people. I can only imagine what it feels like when Kendi’s observation about being dammed no matter how you speak out becomes true; when for example peaceful protests like calling for BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) are ruled out and when civil disobedience brings out the water hoses of Bull Connor or the bullets of the Israeli army.
At some point, the voices of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela may be heard as speaking truth to power in a language that those in power and those seeking to influence power can hear. Writing these words leaves me shivering. But if no one hears the peaceful voices of those who are oppressed is it not the deaf ears that are those responsible for what follows as horrific as those outcomes may be?