Resisting despair: non-violent resistance in Israel Palestine
In the first of a New Formations occasional series of short interventions, Lynne Segal reflects on how people in Israel Palestine find ways of continuing to survive, endure and resist in the face of overwhelming odds.
‘I hope she doesn’t get lynched’, one member of the audience was overheard saying, after my talk in Tel Aviv in December 2014. I had been speaking at a conference on ‘Non-Violent Resistance’ in Tel Aviv, hosted by Psychoactive: Mental Health Professionals for Human Rights, based in Israel.1 It was held in honour of Dr Eyad El-Sarraj, the pioneering and charismatic Palestinian psychiatrist who founded the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme in 1990. He had died the previous year, having devoted his life to searching for non-violent means to create peace in Israel-Palestine, while working daily to overcome the trauma caused by the Israeli occupation and control over Palestinian lives. Given Israel’s ever-expanding military occupation and expropriation of Palestinian land, it remains hard even to envisage an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Forty-seven years of military occupation and annexations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, alongside recent intermittent bombardment, continuing siege and the wreckage of Gaza, undermine not just the sovereignty but the most basic civil and human rights of Palestinians. In this situation, many have come to support the tactic of Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) in the hope of highlighting the plight of the Palestinians. BDS has proved an effective, if controversial, ideological tool, but it is hardly the sole tactic for those seeking peace and justice between Israelis and Palestinians. Given the massive imbalance of power in this conflict, imagining peace in the region must also encompass differing forms of dialogue, co-operation and planning between Palestinians, Israeli Jews and their supporters elsewhere, working out pathways towards a just resolution. Though wielding little power in the political mainstream, there have always been numerous organizations in which both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians work together for peace. Amongst their number is Psychoactive, formed in 2008 following the second Lebanon war, consisting of (mainly) Jewish and Palestinian clinicians and academics and their supporters, jointly seeking social and political change to end the impact and trauma caused by Israel’s perpetual and destructive militarization, war and occupation. Eyad El-Sarraj had been a key inspiration for Psychoactive from its inception, hence this conference to honour his memory.
At this seventh international conference of Psychoactive, a few Palestinians had managed to get permits to come from Gaza and the West Bank, but the majority of the audience were Jewish Israeli clinicians. It was many of them who heard my words as provocative - insufficiently supportive of their own hopes, however distant, for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through promoting awareness of the psychic harms of violence and conflict, while treating each other with civility and respect. Perhaps they were right. Despite the inspiration Eyad had offered right up to his death the previous year, I found it hard to stay hopeful, even while sharing with my audience his dream of a just and peaceful future. Eyad himself could always grasp at the tiniest thread of hope. I recall him feeling hopeful when Hamas won the municipal elections in Gaza in 2005, suggesting - with some evidence - that Hamas, like other radical movements, had begun to moderate its militant stance with its rise to power, and was now likely to focus more on security and welfare. We know what did happen next, when the USA and EU joined Israel in trying to smash this newly elected government, withholding both tax revenues and foreign aid. As so often in Palestine, this produced the ‘surreal situation’ whereby, in Avi Shlaim’s words, economic sanctions were imposed ‘not against the occupier, but against the occupied, not against the oppressor but against the oppressed’. Things could only get worse, and quickly did, even as Eyad himself struggled to embody the position of an early British New Left British thinker, Raymond Williams, who in his last book, Resources of Hope, declared: ‘To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing’.2 That is what I wanted, but found so hard, to do.
Trying to address my chosen topic, I grew anxious that I really did not know how to resist despair. Perhaps, right now, it is just a matter of surviving despair. That, of course, is a type of resistance. It is one thread of hope! I recalled John Berger’s powerful summary of his impressions on visiting Palestine eight years ago. Surrounded by rubble on all sides, including ‘the rubble of words’, he found what he called an ‘undefeated despair’ amongst many of the Palestinians he met. This despite the fact that over the last half century there is scarcely a Palestinian family that has not been forced to flee from somewhere, hardly a town in the occupied territory where buildings are not regularly bulldozed by the occupying army, and few families without one or more of their members imprisoned in the 800,000 arrests of Palestinians over those years. 3
Despair, surely, is what Israeli policy has been resolutely instilling in Palestinians from the beginning. It is pointless to resist! Abandon any dreams of justice and sovereignty. This is why, for many Palestinians, resistance is simply about surviving. It is what Eyad himself emphasized, observing ‘the long path of humiliation and despair’ that lies behind the creation of a so-called ‘terrorist’: ‘the struggle of many Palestinians is how not to become suicide bombers’, he wrote thirteen years ago.4 He tirelessly sought to prevent such destructive martyrdom, standing implacably against all forms of violence, whether from Palestinians or the infinitely deadlier modes of Israeli state violence: that ‘eye for eyelash’, as Shlaim put it. Eyad liked to insist that the Israelis and Palestinians needed each other:
… for only the Palestinians can release Israel from its moral guilt, from all that has gone wrong since those first Zionist dreams to the nightmare of living in a country permanently at war with its neighbours; while only the Israelis can negotiate a just peace with Palestine, allowing them control over their own affairs and thereby laying the basis for security, freedom and dignity for both sides.5
He was right. Yet, in the meantime, the inordinate imbalance of power can only be maintained through ruthless force. Worse follows, for the greater the violence needed to ensure Palestinian submission, the more totally the aggressors demonize their victims, those who might trigger guilt. As Fanon knew, in the colonial situation the black man - here we can insert, the Palestinian - is not recognized, and non-recognition shatters selfhood, rendering racism alive on the skin. Only genuine mutual recognition can resolve the resulting conflict: ‘I want the world to recognize with me the open door of every consciousness’, Fanon wrote.6 But mechanisms of denial and projection still drive mainstream Israeli perceptions of Palestinians, and of Arabs generally, and result in the normalcy of today’s endless cycle of violence. What else can one think when even Israel’s own Likudnik President, Reuven Rivlin, recently declared Israel a ‘sick society’? Despite the endless arrest of Palestinians and tens of thousands killed, the Israeli government sees no reason to change course, while 96 per cent of Israelis seemingly supported the renewed bombing of Gaza in summer 2014.7
I think of Martin Luther King, that other man who promoted resistance and direct action but rejected the use of violence, when he wrote from jail in 1963 of his despair about white moderates, suggesting that, ‘shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will’:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block … is not … the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice … who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’.
While survival is indeed the bottom line for Palestinian resistance, those whose spirits have not been entirely crushed by Occupation like to invert this slogan, asserting: ‘To Exist is to Resist’. Survival and resistance also underpin the angry but gentle writing of Raja Shehadeh, the inspiring lawyer who founded the independent Palestinian human rights organization, Al-Haq, in Ramallah, back in 1979. Recently, Shehadeh concluded another of his beautiful memoirs, Occupation Diaries, with the thought that while Israel may continue to plant its settlements in the best of Palestinian land, constraining his Palestinian growth at every turn, those policies can never succeed when Palestinians ‘have no intention of going anywhere’.8 His prose resonates with the sorrow created by that terrible Wall, cutting off Palestinians not just from Israel, but from each other, as in the once vibrant city of Bethlehem, where it shuts residents off from East Jerusalem.9 These walls, he notes, have little to do with security, but convey the menacing metaphorical message: YOU ARE TRAPPED! Watching how impossibly complicated, humiliating and painful Israeli restrictions render Palestinian lives - with businesses destroyed; orchards uprooted; water diverted; wells poisoned; fishing boats destroyed - Shehadeh concludes: ‘I became more & more convinced that we are living next to a mad people’, where even the ‘veneer of civilization and decency’ has entirely vanished.10 Giving the Edward Said memorial lecture in London in 2014, Shehadeh referred to Naftali Bennett’s contemptuous description of Palestinians as mere ‘shrapnel in Israel’s backside’. But he wondered, with its excessive violence and brutality, can Israel really live forever with the toxins it creates in its own backside?
Can it? I’m not sure either. Shehadeh’s conclusions are shared by ever more people worldwide. Celebrating the Jewish New Year in 2014 Netanyahu repeated his country’s favourite delusion that in this New Year, ‘Israel will remain a beacon of freedom and human rights in an intolerant area … [it] will remain a source of pride & strength for Jews, no matter where they live …’.11 That sounds from afar like madness. Huge protests against Israel’s war on Gaza occurred in almost every city around the world in summer 2014 (with 85 per cent of Britons critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza), and dissenting voices are growing even within Israel’s usual supporters. So why haven’t we been able to put more pressure on Israel to end its ‘madness’ and inhumanity, from the outside? Well, it has not been entirely for want of trying. But it is connected to who is not trying.
‘Sometimes, our best efforts at peace are betrayed’, James Baldwin, one of the heroes of my youth, wrote in 1979. It was the headline of one of his characteristically rambling but passionate pieces for The Nation excoriating the enforced resignation of the then US Ambassador at the UN for secretly meeting with Yasser Arafat. The sacked Ambassador was Baldwin’s old comrade-at-arms, the former Black civil rights leader Andrew Young, who under President Jimmy Carter had been sent to the UN. Why sacked? Carter felt unable to resist Israeli pressure, even though, interestingly, Young’s goal in meeting Arafat had been to persuade him to accept the delaying of a report calling for the creation of a Palestinian state that the UN’s Division for Palestinian Rights was planning to present to the General Assembly. Young arranged the secret meeting with Arafat when the Arab states proposing the motion would not agree to the delay unless the PLO also agreed. Hence the meeting, hence Israel’s anger, hence the sacking. Sometimes, our best efforts at peace are betrayed. And sometimes, as the decades roll by, that betrayal seems interminable. Back then, too, Baldwin noted that no-one really cared about the Jews when Hitler came to power, before concluding: ‘The Palestinians have been paying for the British colonial policy of divide and rule and for Europe’s guilty Christian conscience for more than 30 years’.12 Well, thirty-five more years have passed, and we are still counting. Power rules, and Israeli intransigence remains indomitable. All the major power blocs refuse to resist it, though Israel flouts the resolutions of both the UN and the International Court of Justice in the Hague, whether condemning the building of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory or declaring illegal the construction of the Wall, which snakes its way around Palestinian villages, stealing and destroying ever more land on its way.
One thing is surely now crystal clear, if it wasn’t before. The state of Israel has never been prepared to allow the world to recognize a Palestinian state, not on any of the land where Palestinians currently live, no matter how small a fragment of their traditional home. That land is occupied, not by its residents, but by Israel, even when no Israeli Jews have ever set foot in the place apart from soldiers with rifles. The reason for Israel’s refusal is not so much that it might threaten Israel - as in the resolution of all colonial struggles, that threat could be negotiated in various ways - but rather that it delegitimizes the goal of militant Zionism. This goal is not simply that Israel should be recognized as a Jewish state, belonging to the Jews who live there, extending civil rights to non-Jews (which is what Israel appears to stand for as a democratic state); but rather that Israel belongs to the Jews of the world happily settled elsewhere. It is this form of settler Zionism that underlies Israel’s protection of every new theft of Palestinian land in the Occupied Territory: the belief that the whole of historic Palestine belongs to anyone claiming Jewish ancestry, wherever resident - not just to six million Israeli Jews, but to us seven million non-Israeli Jews (six million in the USA), who mostly have no intention of ever settling in Israel (although if we visit for any extended time the state will try and force an Israeli passport upon us).13 Israel’s credentials as a democracy were further undermined when at the end of 2014 its Cabinet accepted a bill defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. We so-called diasporic Jews have the misnamed ‘right of “return”’ to a place where none of us have ever lived. Though far from alone in this growing global climate of racism and insecurity, Israel cannot be seen as a beacon of democracy, but serves more as an alarm bell to the world of what is essentially undemocratic, unjust, and for many us, intolerable.
Militant Zionism cunningly ensnares criticism of Israel with accusations of anti-Semitism. No one has ever called me a self-hating Australian because I abhor the current Australian government, with its savage treatment of asylum seekers and brutal economic policies. But I am named a ‘self-hating’ Jew for my abhorrence of Israeli policy. The idea is as ludicrous as it is tragic: displacing criticisms of Israel from the injustice it perpetrates onto those who refuse to be bystanders to brutality. Earlier this year Eva Illouz commented:
Open Haaretz on any day and half or three quarters of its news items … invariably revolve around the same two topics: people struggling to protect the good name of Israel, and people struggling against its violence and injustices.14
Equating condemnation of Israel with anti-Semitism is all the more absurd when many critics have been careful to argue in the name of their Jewish identity. Ironically, among their leading figures is the great anti-identitarian philosopher, Judith Butler, who supports all forms of non-violent resistance to Israel’s Occupation, and counters her numerous traducers with the words: ‘I was taught at every step in my Jewish education’, she declares, ‘that it is not acceptable to stay silent in the face of injustice’.
Like others before her, Butler notes that Israel today not only fails to provide any safe home for Jewish people, incites conflicts between Jews, and helps trigger anti-Semitism globally, but also wilfully betrays Jewish traditions. She is right that many of Israel’s fiercest critics are Jews, our numbers growing daily - another small ray of hope, alongside Palestinian resilience. It is precisely as Jews that many condemn Israeli policies, the position Butler elaborates most fully in Parting Ways: Jewishness & the Critique of Zionism.15 Starting from Edward Said’s reflections on Jews and Palestinians as both ‘scattered peoples’, who have suffered historical injustices, she draws upon diverse Jewish thinkers to develop an ethics of cohabitation. As did Jacqueline Rose in her powerful text, The Question of Zion, Butler turns in particular to Hannah Arendt, as well as Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, and Primo Levi.16
I too have pondered Arendt’s writing on Zionism and anti-Semitism throughout the 1940s. During that monstrous decade, three things distressed Arendt above all. First, the failure of the Jewish Agency, the operational branch of the world Zionist organization based in Palestine, to support the creation of a Jewish army to resist Hitler and rescue the Jews of Europe. Second, the Jewish Agency’s support for Irgun, the fiercely anti-Arab Jewish terrorist organization operating in Palestine, when in her view Jews and Arabs should have been trying to work together. Finally, she opposed the idea of a Jewish homeland, without reference to Arab Palestinians. That, she said presciently, along with other Jews at the time (my Australian grandfather included17), would amount to a declaration of war on the Arabs. Instead, Arendt was closer to the defeated hopes of the Unity movements, such as Ihud, founded by the Rabbi Judah Magnes, to establish an Arab-Jewish state as two equal parts in a binational political confederation. But Arendt hoped to see something grander, a ‘federation of peoples and nationalities, all of them having their own, if very restricted rights, none of them privileged and none of them dominated’, rather than a partition creating two tiny warring states.18
This is a notion of binationalism that Butler, among others, is revisiting today. It would not resemble today’s de facto binationalism, with Israel ruling by military force over millions of Palestinians. Instead, Butler dreams of a radically democratic binationalism, capable of building upon the immense heterogeneity of both Jews and Palestinians occupying their contested land. Here, Israeli and Palestinian citizens alike would share civil rights and protection from all forms of violence, military or otherwise, which can only occur ‘once colonial rule has come to an end’.19 For Butler, cohabitation is the true ethical obligation of Jewish identity: ‘To be a Jew is to make one’s way ethically and politically … within a world of irreversible heterogeneity’ (p15). Again echoing Arendt, Butler insists that to deny heterogeneity and try to maintain the homogeneity of the nation will always be to follow the logic of fascism. Today I read other plans for creating a peaceful future from Israelis who support the ‘One Space, Two nationalities’ initiative, carefully working through the slow and complex political and juridical programs needed to make such a confederation work and create a shared cherished homeland for both Jews and Palestinians.20
But what is remarkable about Butler’s radical vision is its grounding in her sense of Jewish belonging - the very same identification that generates its antithesis, the sense of militant Zionist entitlement which guarantees only Jews exclusive rights and privileges to the biblical land of Israel (with its fluid boundaries). This underlines both the power and perils of identity claims. Some of us, myself included, feel more strongly called upon to fight for justice for Palestinians because of our Jewish identity or descent. Others, more numerous, are propelled by the same identification into militant defence of the ‘Jewish state’. Butler is well aware that by presenting her resistance to militant Zionism in terms of ‘Jewish’ values she is in danger of claiming superiority for them. Some have criticized her for doing just this. But I believe we can never leave our identifications and personal histories out of our political trajectories, even when we imagine they are dictated by calm logic alone. For those of us who refuse to turn our back on the Palestinians, it is obvious that occupation brutalizes both the occupier and the occupied, especially when every form of non-violent resistance from Palestinians meets with massive arrest, and worse. Yet, despite everything, resistance continues: most famously in the ongoing ten years of weekly protest marches persisting in the West Bank’s Bil’in against the building of the Wall through their village. Despite some Jewish Israelis and international supporters coming regularly to Bi’lin, the Israeli response varies only in its ferocity - as armed soldiers threaten the lives of unarmed civilians and imprison their community leaders. Similar demonstrations continue in other Palestinian villages, meeting the same response.21
During the fifteen years I have worked with various Jewish groups for peace, including Jews For Justice For Palestinians, and Independent Jewish Voices, the situation has only deteriorated. Yet, to borrow again from John Berger, though one fails to get the world to act:
one protests because not to protest would be too humiliating, too diminishing, too deadly. One protests … to save the present moment, whatever the future holds.22
And one protests to support others battling cruelty and injustice. I hear the desperation in the poetry of some Jewish Israelis, such as Aharon Shabtai: ‘The pure words I suckled from my mother’s breasts:/ Man, Child, Justice, Mercy, and so on, are dispossessed before our eyes,/ imprisoned in ghettoes, murdered at checkpoints …’.23 Yet some people do see reasons for hope today, and I try to hope with them. Our UK and other European parliaments recently expressed support for a Palestinian state, and the EU has finally been persuaded in principle to recognize a Palestinian state. Even John Kerry expresses frustration with the only country the USA unstintingly sustains and arms.
Hardly known for his optimism, in his latest book Method & Madness Norman Finkelstein suggests criticism of Israel has reached a tipping point. Concretely, he proposes encouraging Gandhian-style nonviolent demonstrations of Palestinian resistance, such as a million Gazans marching on the Israeli crossings under the banner, END THE ILLEGAL BLOCKADE OF GAZA, headed by the children of Gaza. That, he writes, was how the Black Civil Rights Movement broke the back of segregation in the USA in the 1960s. Simultaneously, he sees the vast numbers of Palestine’s international supporters, including Jewish Israelis, converging in our hundreds of thousands on UN headquarters everywhere. It’s worth thinking about.24
Non-violent resistance requires huge inner resources, especially near the borders of Israel, where it provokes frightening aggression. But resistance can be expressed in words as well as deeds. ‘Poetry and beauty are always making peace’, Marmoud Darwish once wrote.
When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down … I always humanise the other. I even humanised the Israeli soldier.
This he did in poems such as ‘A Soldier Who Dreams of White Lilies’, written just after the 1967 war.25 I close with a poem for Eyad, by Taha Mahammad Ali, because it reminds me of him. It is called ‘Revenge’.
At times … I wish I could meet in a duel the man who killed my father and razed our home, expelling me into a narrow country. And if he killed me, I’d rest at last, and if I were ready - I would take my revenge!
* But if it came to light, when my rival appeared, that he had a mother waiting for him, or a father who’d put his right hand over the heart’s place in his chest whenever his son was late even by just a quarter-hour for a meeting they’d set - then I would not kill him, even if I could.
* Likewise … I would not murder him if it were soon made clear that he had a brother or sisters who loved him and constantly longed to see him. Or if he had a wife to greet him and children who couldn’t bear his absence and whom his gifts would thrill. Or if he had friends or companions, neighbours he knew or allies from prison or a hospital room, or classmates from his school … asking about him and sending him regards.
* But if he turned out to be on his own - cut off like a branch from a tree - without a mother or father, with neither a brother nor sister, wifeless, without a child, and without kin or neighbours or friends, colleagues or companions, then I’d add not a thing to his pain within that aloneness - not the torment of death, and not the sorrow of passing away. Instead I’d be content to ignore him when I passed him by on the street - as I convinced myself that paying him no attention in itself was a kind of revenge.26
- Psychoactive is a group of Jewish Israeli and some Palestinian therapists and other academic and professional mental health workers who wish to be involved in broader social and political concerns, especially around the enduring Palestinian-Israel conflict. Believing that living with conflict affects everyone in the region, though of course impacting most brutally on Palestinians, the aim of this conference was to discuss ways of working to end violence and find pathways for peace.
- Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope, Verso, London 1989, p118.
- John Berger, ‘Undefeated despair’, 13.1.06, Open Democracy, downloaded 10th December, 2014.
- Eyad El-Sarraj, ‘Bombs and madness: understanding terror’, Index on Censorship 4 2001, p7.
- Eyad El-Sarraj, ‘Addressing the violence: my roadmap to peace’, accessed 20.11.14.
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1967, p232.
- Greer Fay Cashman, ‘President Rivlin: Time to admit that Israel is a sick society that needs treatment’, 19.10.14, The Jerusalem Post, accessed, 20.10.2014.
- Raja Shehadeh, Occupation Diaries, Profile Books, London 2013, p204.
- Ibid, p20.
- Ibid, pp23, 32.
- CBN News, ‘Netanyahu: Israel a Beacon of Freedom’, in CBN News: Inside Israel 5.12.14:
- James Baldwin, ‘Sometimes, our best efforts at peace are betrayed’, The Nation, 29.9.79, accessed 1.12.14.
- Mira Bar-Hillel, ‘There’s nothing new about conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism’, 25.7.14
- Eva Illouz, ‘47 years a slave: A new perspective on the occupation’, 7.2.14:
- Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, Columbia University Press, New York 2012.
- Jacqueline Rose, The Question of Zion, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 2005.
- Lynne Segal, Making Trouble: Life & Politics, Serpent’s Tail, London 2007, chpt 6.
- See Eric Jacobson, ‘Why did Hannah Arendt reject the partition of Palestine?’, Journal for Cultural Research, 2013
- Judith Butler, op cit, p4.
- See, ‘Together and Separate: One state, two homelands: Principles
- Colleen Toomey, Nonviolent Resistance to Israeli Occupation: Peaceful Protests in the West Bank, Fordham University Press, Bronx, New York 2010.
- John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook, Verso, London 2011, pp80, 79, italics in original.
- Aharon Shabtai, quoted in Adina Hoffman, ‘Two for the road’, Boston Sunday Globe: ideas section, 10.11.02, accessed 13.12.14
- Norman Finkelstein, Method & Madness: The hidden story of Israel’s assaults on Gaza, O/R Books, London and New York 2014.
- Marmoud Darwish, quoted in Maya Jaggi, ‘The Profile: Mahmoud Darwish - Poet of the Arab world’, The Guardian, 8.6.02, accessed 5.12.14; ‘A Soldier Dreams Of White Lilies’ in Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, trans and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché, University of California, Ewing NJ 2003, p165.
- Taha Muhammad Ali, ‘Revenge’, trans.Peter Cole, 21.12.06, accessed 12.11.14; see also Taha Muhammad Ali, So What: New & Selected Poems: 1971-2005, trans.Peter Cole and Yahya Hijazi, Copper Canyon Press 2006.