Friday, June 4, 2010

What Else? Budrus and the Gaza Flotilla ...

It's intensely ironic to read my last post in light of what happened last weekend.

For some, the attack on the Mavi Marmara proves that when nonviolence fails, the consequences are deadly. For others, it's proof that nonviolence is useless against military force, that without armed self-defense, more people would have been massacred.

What I think is more true than either of those things is that in our violence worshipping culture, only those who are willing to use violence are taken seriously. And because of that, more than because of any inherent virtue in the tactics, violent confrontation often succeeds in creating an incident of global proportion where nonviolence fails to do so.

Consider the fact that last week's was not the first maritime convoy or even the second to try to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Eight previous missions set out for Gaza; two even made it through, which arguably, should have been the biggest news of all. Yet there was relatively little attention paid to those actions, especially here in the U.S. Hence very few of my coworkers, for instance, even knew about them. And that fact enabled the attack on the recent flotilla, because no one said, "Why are you treating these ships so differently from the previous ones." Especially since they have been building up to this - previous ships were rammed, disabled, sabotaged, towed, passengers arrested, all provoking very little outcry at any level likely to have any impact.

The difference? On all of those boats, the passengers adhered to strict nonviolence, what Americans always claim to admire the most. Yet when they did that, no one was interested in their story.

Another thing to consider: Palestinians were engaging in nonviolent resistance throughout the years of the Oslo process (1993-2000). There were tree plantings and attempts to block construction of settler roads; there were Israeli-Palestinian occupations of homes scheduled for demolition, some very dramatic; people sat in front of bulldozers just like Iltezam Morar and Rachel Corrie; Palestinians refused to carry permits and ID cards just like the activists in South Africa; thousands of people participated in these actions and no one heard one word about them. Came October 2000, a very few people blew themselves up in Israeli towns, and it was suddenly an "Intifada," all over the international media.

So you tell me: Do we really admire activists who use nonviolence? Or is that just another way to silence people whose militance we fear?


  1. Kate, I won't answer for "we," but I'll answer for myself. I admire activists who use nonviolence because that set of tactics engages in political struggle from a moral position (with respect to avoiding commission of harm) that I respect. On the other hand, I think it would be naive to expect that nonviolent protest guarantees nonviolent response. History teaches the opposite lesson, as you know at first hand. I also think it would be naive to expect that measured deviation from strictly nonviolent engagement with the Israeli military would result in a measured response. The history of the struggle in Gaza and elsewhere in the neighborhood teaches precisely the opposite lesson, as you also know from closer experience than mine.

    Perhaps it's a tired metaphor, but much political struggle -- and certainly political struggle of stateless against state actors -- seems to me a lot like salmon swimming upstream..

    Not all the fish make it. But salmon have to try.

  2. I actually think what happened with the flotilla was a classic instance of real world (as opposed to theatrical) non-violent action. The weaker side chose to act for justice; the side with the vast preponderance of weapons and available force chose to use them. People died and it was awful (and some people resisted, relatively non-violently). This is what it takes for non-violent action to break through to the consciousness of most people who would much rather just look away from injustice.

    It is a terrible prospect to contemplate that this is what it takes, but it was ever thus: see also Salt March, lunch counter sit-ins, voting rights protest. The weaker party takes the casualties. Sometimes this does some good; sometimes it does not.