Non-violent action in Israel, the Middle East and abroad

On this Christmas break I thought it made sense to discuss the most essential part of Jesus’s teachings – non-violence. As outlined in his sermon on the mount and by his actions towards the Roman occupation, non-violence is perhaps the bravest and most powerful form of combatting injustice.

Non-violence is the active attack of injustice using a wide range of methods – boycotts, petitions, sit-ins, strikes – but with the common element of absolute refusual to use physical violence. I have no doubt that non-violent resistance and civil disobedience are by far the most effective method for the long term improvement of society.

The natural urge to use violence to right an injustice is innate to all humans. In fact, it is so innate we see the use of violence in humans right from the moment we enter this world. Studies have clearly shown that children are in fact much more violent than adults and our use of violence decreses as we age. It is in fact society that breeds violence out of us, not the other way around. This point is clearly documented in Steven Pinker’s new book, “The Better Angels of our Nature“, for which there is an excellent free summary here at the The Edge.

Today, more than ever, it is clear that society breeds violence out of us through education, law, and common justice; Hobbes was right.

It is through disciplined systems that we manage to create a society without violence. In the same way, it is through disciplined systems that social activists must maintain a non-violent course when fighting injustice. It is so easy to stray from the non-violent path – it takes a single gunshot to undermine an entire movement. When Nelson Mandela confronted the Indian Congress during the South African fight for justice with the claim that non-violence had failed the movement, JN Singh of the Indian Congress retorted that  “Non-violence has not failed us, we have failed non-violence”. In my opinion, non-violence is much, much harder to realize than violent confrontation.

The benefits of a non-violent path are however much richer. First and foremost, non-violence limits the loss of life, something worthy in and of itself. Secondly, non-violence allows you to organically build up a civil society that can progressively take over roles that a government typically plays. Once the government has either been sufficiently changed or has been completly replaced, the non-violent actors can continue to act in their societies. In contrast, an insurgency that uses violence as its principal weapon typically lacks the diversity to create an inclusive democratic government after the conflict has ended. Lastly, and in a more pragmatic sense, by using violence as your means of attaining a change you are playing to the strength of the state, which has an army, police and a monopoly on force. Non-violent action plays to the state’s weakness and allows you to build up sympathy in the population. Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the success of non-violence are the concrete examples unfolding as we speak.

In 2011, both Egypt and Tunisia changed their governments with little loss of life and Syria has made significant progress towards a new system (though it may yet descend into civil war). Other governments have recently changed dramatically due to the efforts by non-violent activists, Bahrain, Yemen and Liberia. In fact, this year’s three Nobel Peace laureates were non-violent activists. Perhaps most promising is what is happening in Israel.

Israel

Julia Bacha, director of the excellent film Bodrus, gives a compelling argument for media coverage of non-violent protests and actions.

Perhaps the most promising non-violent action today are the actions by Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank. Inspired by the events in Egypt and Tunisia, Palestinian protesters have finally found a path to liberation: non-violence. With the mass border crossings, the freedom flotillas and regular protests in the West Bank, Palestinians and their supporters are striking fear into the heart of the Israeli establishment. It is easy to bomb armed insurgents and demonize suicide bombers, it is much harder to shoot unarmed civilians (though even a tear gas canister can kill a protestor).

For each dead protestor, Israel further isolates itself on the world stage. In fact, the only country that still stands by Israel without reservations seems to be Canada, but that is largely due to our Prime Minister. There is no doubt in my mind that the shift towards non-violent non-cooperation and protests will lead to greater Palestinian autonomy. As with any non-violent movement, the key is willpower and discipline – can the protestors continue in the face of casualties and injury or will they resort back to violence? One simple suicide bomb would undermine the entire movement. Even Hamas (recently covered here by the Globe and Mail) has understood the power of non-violence and though they often still support violent action, there is evidence that is changing.

If the Palestinians they can match the tenacity of the Syrian protesters and if the media covers their actions, Israel may very well have to re-evaluate their options. Israel is quickly approaching an untenable situation of isolation and disrespect. We shall see what comes of it, but no meaningful change is likely to come with Netanyahu at the head of the government. Israel needs a F.W. de Klerk and Palestinians need a Mandela. Only non-violence will free the Palestinians and when they do succeed, no one fighting for injustice will be able to deny the power civil disobedience.

It is hard for me to add much to the experts in the field, so I will leave you with some fantastic resources that will hopefully convince you of a non-violent path.

Bibliography

There are no shortage of books to convince you of the merits of this method. “Non-Violence, the History of a Dangerous Idea” gives you an excellent overview of the history and various movements that have successfully employed non-violence. The auto-biographies of Gandhi and Mandela are also excellent. To better understand the philosophy behind the idea, you can read “The Kingdom of God is Within You” by Tolstoy, and many more.

Beyond the philosophy of non-violence it is essential to focus on concrete actions that can lead to social change. Perhaps the most influential book in that regard is the non-violence user manual by Gene Sharp, “From Dictatorship to Democracy“. This book, with its concrete examples and clear explanations has been translated into numerous languages and has been employed by activists around the world, most recently in the arab world and middle east, where it is having a very real impact. Gene Sharp was even shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize and is being profiled in an upcoming movie, How to Start a Revolution. And of course, the young 18 year old Étienne de la Boétie’s essay Discours sur la servitude volontaire, written in 1549 is simply mind blowing.

Published on December 26, 2011