When organisers from the International Solidarity Movement, which aims to support and strengthen Palestinian popular resistance to the Israeli occupation, consulted us at the California-based Metta Center for Nonviolence about attempting to break the naval blockade of Gaza in 2007, its first year, we advised them not to bring both humanitarian aid and people whom Israel had declared persona non grata on the same voyage.
Our point was that non-violence is a form of conversation which is reduced to a relatively crude, symbolic language, so absolute clarity and simplicity of one’s statement is essential. Therefore, in non-violence, as in many other activities, it’s a bad idea to do two things at once.
However, mixing aid with controversial delivery people is nothing compared to what must be avoided at all costs: confusing non-violence with violence. While there are extremely rare occasions when one must in fact use force, under normal circumstances even the “smallest” acts of violence can ruin the character of non-violent action.
It is still hard to say exactly what happened when passengers aboard the Turkish vessel, the MV Mavi Marmara, clashed with Israeli commandos as they rappelled onto the boat from helicopters. Had the soldiers been firing live ammunition? The point is that even if they were – while terribly difficult – the passengers could have resisted non-violently by refusing to comply with the soldiers’ demands without making any attempt to injure them.
This point apparently did not go unnoticed by the larger flotilla aid movement, who responded non-violently to the boarding of the MV Rachel Corrie this weekend.
In non-violence you act against injustice, never against persons.
Up until the recent attack it looked as though the flotilla, with its 600 passengers and many tons of humanitarian supplies for the beleaguered citizens of Gaza, was a perfect example of non-violent action. Organisers’ intentions were advertised well in advance and it put the Israelis in the difficult position of deciding between two unfavourable choices.
As Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said before the attack, "If we let them throw egg at us, we appear stupid with egg on our face. If we try to prevent them by force, we appear as brutes."
However, as Gandhi often said, non-violence requires, if anything, more training than violence.
Violence is almost a knee-jerk reaction in most of us, and is reinforced by individuals and groups at most levels of society – including our governments. Non-violence, to be sure, resonates with the deepest core of our being; the scientific evidence for this is impressive. But it is so deep that without systematic practice it will not come to the surface when we really need it. This is why the peace movement must be alert and well trained to contain outbreaks of violence in its midst.
As a global community we should pause to consider one other thing: why was there virtually no coverage of the flotilla in the international media until the tragedy? Do we want “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism to continue shaping our cultural narratives, constantly putting sales appeal ahead of political cogency?
So let us pause to absorb our pain and grieve for our friends – and the world in which they had to die for justice. Then let’s make use of the narrow window tragedy has given us to make our message ring out: this violence cannot go on.
As Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood said recently in Ha’aretz, “time is running out” to resolve the deadly struggle between Israeli and Palestinian peoples. It must be resolved not only politically but, as Palestinian non-violence advocate Sami Awad recently said, through person-to-person reconciliation, without which no boundaries, no political arrangements and, most of all, no barrier can bring peace.
If Israel’s plan was to make an example of the flotilla by meeting it with such force that others would not dare to follow, that plan has failed, as evidenced by the subsequent boat that arrived this weekend.
While activists so far have failed in delivering aid to Gaza, they have succeeded in drawing the world’s attention to its people’s plight. If non-violent actions, like those of the MV Rachel Corrie’s passengers, continue, we can dare to hope that not only will the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians be transformed, but also that in some minds a realisation will dawn that violence does not work. This would not only serve as a defeat for violence but a spiritual victory for all of us.
* Michael N. Nagler is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, where he founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, the author of The Search For a Nonviolent Future, and Founder and President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Berkeley (www.mettacenter.org). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service