Reframing non-violent resistance: An act of moral piracy

When we allow non-violence to be distorted as illegitimate, we fail to uphold our most cherished principles.

It is not a strange phenomenon for morality to be the object of contestation. Competing groups often battle for the moral high ground when presenting their case to the outside world in a customary appeal for support. Far from being an exception to this rule, Israelis and Palestinians are its standard bearers, constantly providing their accounts for the entire world to see, hear, and sympathize. The tragedy is that this game has been played for so long, with arguments crafted in such minute detail, that reality has been reduced to the level of “competing narratives,”—each given its equal weight and legitimacy—as if that is what the conflict is all about.  Still worse is when a traditional bulwark of morality in the arena of conflict, such as non-violent resistance, is reinterpreted, reframed, and demonized.

Growing up in the United States, I can remember yearly school lessons about the African-American Civil Rights Movement that took place between the mid-1950s and 60s. From a young age we were taught the moral superiority of the tactics employed by those courageous men and women who staged sit-ins in White-only restaurants, boycotted the Montgomery, Alabama bus system and held marches and non-violent demonstrations throughout the American South, often to the response of naked racism and brutal repression. This type of resistance model was idealized as the most moral and effective way of bringing about change to an unacceptable system of inequality.

Several years later, after having graduated from university and starting a career as a journalist, I moved to Palestine. For maybe the first time in my life, I encountered meaningful non-violent resistance first hand when I went to report on Palestinian villages that were being dispossessed by the steady growth of Israeli settlements and the construction of Israel’s Wall. Every Friday, activists from Palestine, Israel, and countries abroad would flock to these locales to offer up some form of counter to the unmitigated pace of colonization and apartheid that are taking place on a daily basis. Although often futile, they were full of symbolism, as if only to declare that some people oppose what is being done with more than the hollow words and empty sentiments of politicians. Above all else, though, it was designed to raise awareness and highlight the case for moral superiority.

Despite the Palestinians having a long and proud history of non-violence and civil disobedience dating back to the earliest years of the conflict, these forms of resistance have unfortunately played second-fiddle to the much more sensationalized episodes of armed fighting, suicide-bombings, and high-level diplomatic negotiations.

For decades those dramas played themselves out in the media headlines, leaving observers to question where was the Palestinian Gandhi or King. Now, in the absence of widespread violence or negotiations, the steady reemergence of non-violence is poking its head above water once again—and this time with a vengeance. Readers may be familiar with the development of an international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign modeled on the successful South-African crusade against apartheid. Others will have surely heard of the flotillas and flytilla—attempts by sea and air to break Israel’s siege of Gaza and the West Bank—that were aimed at raising the profile of Israeli policies toward Palestinians. The most recent example was the campaign to reinvent the Freedom Rides—when Civil Rights activists rode the segregated bus system in the American South—by traveling on the buses in the occupied territories that are intended for Jewish use only and exposing the practice of racism and restriction of Palestinian access to Jerusalem.

For their efforts at non-violence and civil disobedience, the mainstream media has often, and unquestioningly, adopted the Israeli narrative, which seeks to portray these forms of resistance as illegitimate. Peaceful demonstrations are labeled riots, justifying the use of over-zealous crowd control maneuvers that have led to the deaths of several activists from live and rubber bullets, toxic smoke inhalation, and the blunt trauma of direct hits from tear gas canisters to the chest and head.

Demonstrators are dehumanized as hooligans, thugs, and sometimes as terrorists. The latter label was used liberally when referring to the people that sailed on the first flotilla to the Gaza Strip, which was boarded by armed Israeli soldiers in international waters and led to the death of nine activists. Maybe the most fascinating of all, however, is the use of the term ‘de-legitimization’ to describe the campaign to boycott Israel.

Boycott has always stood out to me, sin qua non, as the archetype of civil disobedience. What is boycott but the voluntary act of refusing to use, buy, or deal with any person or organization as an expression of protest? The act can be personal or collective, private or public, and has a rich and moral history around the globe. Israelis, in fact, just finished boycotting the manufacturers of cottage cheese over the exorbitant rise in the price of this staple of their diet. But when it comes to Palestinians the use of boycott becomes a reprehensible act that should be demonized. Israel has gone as far as to put in place legislation that makes boycotting—even of the settlements—illegal, punishable by fines and jail time. In a real sense, Palestinians are prohibited from initiating a boycott against products made in the very Jewish settlements that are stealing their land and resources in contravention of international law. Israelis that want to protest the actions of their government and society—like the Boycott from Within campaign—are not only subject to cries of treachery, but fiscal and punitive measures from the state.

The howl of “de-legitimization” has reached such a fever-pitch, that the American president used it in his latest speech at the United Nations to condemn the acts of all those who would oppose Israel in a non-violent manner and put pressure on it to reach more equitable terms at the “holy” negotiating table.

But in the end, was de-legitimization not the point? Were not those heroes of the Civil Rights movement trying to de-legitimize the system of racial superiority in the South where a white man was worth more than a black one? For Palestinians and their supporters, “de-legitimizing” Israeli occupation and the unequal treatment of Palestinians based on their ethnicity would appear to be a moral task.

It is clear that this type of struggle is not a battle that Israel is prepared to fight—maybe nobody is and that is why it can be so effective. Yet the attempt to portray these tactics in a negative light creates a potentially dangerous historical dilemma because of the legitimacy and moral superiority often conferred to them. One can side with the Israelis or the Palestinians—that after all is the prerogative of the individual. But letting Israel’s PR machine tarnish the time-honored tactics used by Gandhi and King, that is something we should all raise our voices about.