Monthly Archives: January 2009

Michael Neumann on the meager record of nonviolence as a tactic for social movements

Below I’ve reproduced a chunk of Michael Neumann’s book The Case Against Israel where he discusses the meager record of nonviolence as a tactic for social movements. (FYI: If you read one book on the P-I conflict, make it this one.)

He raises this in the context of defending the Palestinians’ use of violence to resist the Israeli settlements. Still, it’s a good general treatment of nonviolence as a tactic. It is of interest, for example, to the debate between revolutionary socialism versus social-democratic “socialism by ballot.”

In brief, Neumann looks at the “nonviolent trinity” of Gandhi, MLK, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, arguing that, contrary to popular perception, non-violence (or at least non-violence alone) didn’t win the day. Ergo, the historical record doesn’t support the tactic.

[From pp. 130-34]

“No one can say with certainty that…a strategy [of nonviolence] would not work, especially if the Palestinians were prepared to die in large numbers to effect it. But do the Palestinians, or anyone else, have rational grounds for supposing it would work? Such expectations would have to be based on past experience, and the past is not accommodating. Non-violence has never “worked” in any politically relevant sense of the word, and there is no reason to suppose it ever will. It has never, largely on its own strength, achieved the political objectives of those who employed it.”

“There are supposedly three major examples of successful nonviolence: Gandhi’s independence movement, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the South African campaign against apartheid. None of them performed as advertised.”

“Gandhi’s nonviolence couldn’t have been successful, because there was nothing he would have called a success. Gandhi’s priorities may have shifted over time: he said that, if he changed his mind from one week to the next, it was because he had learned something in between. But it seems fair to say that he wanted independence from British rule, a united India, and nonviolence itself, an end to civil or ethnic strife on the Indian subcontinent. What he got was India 1947: partition, and one of the most horrifying outbursts of bloodshed and cruelty in the whole bloody, cruel history of the postwar world. These consequences alone would be sufficient to count his project as a tragic failure.”

“What of independence itself? Historians might argue about its causes, but I doubt any of them would attribute it primarily to Gandhi’s campaign. The British began contemplating—admittedly with varying degrees of sincerity—some measure of autonomy for India before Gandhi did anything, as early as 1917. A.J.P. Taylor says that after World War I, the British were beginning to find India a liability, because India was once again producing its own cotton and buying cheap textiles from Japan. Later, India’s strategic importance, while valued by many, became questioned by some who saw the oil of the Middle East and the Suez Canal as far more important. By the end of the Second World War, Britain’s will to hold onto its empire had pretty well crumbled, for reasons having little or nothing to do with nonviolence.”

“But this is the least important of the reasons why Gandhi cannot be said to have won independence for India. It was not his saintliness or the disruption he caused that impressed the British. What impressed them was that the country seemed (and was) about to erupt. The colonial authorities could see no way to stop it. A big factor was the terrorism—and this need not be a term of condemnation—quite regularly employed against the British. It was not enough to do much harm, but more than enough to warn them that India was becoming more trouble than it was worth. All things considered, the well-founded fear of violence had far more effect on British resolve that Gandhi ever did. He may have been a brilliant and creative political thinker, but he was not a victor.”

“How about the U.S. civil rights movement? It would be difficult and ungenerous to argue that it was unsuccessful, outrageous to claim that it was anything but a long and dangerous struggle. But when that is conceded, the fact remains that Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement was practically a federal government project. Its roots may have run deep, but its impetus came from the Supreme Court decision of 1954 and from the subsequent attempts to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The students who braved a hell to accomplish this goal are well remembered. Sometimes forgotten is U.S. government’s almost spectacular determination to see that the federal law was respected. Eisenhower sent, not the FBI, not a bunch of lawyers, but one of the best and proudest units of the United States Army, the 101st Airborne, to keep order in Little Rock and to see that the “federalized” Arkansas national guard stayed on the right side of the dispute. Though there was never any hint of an impending battle between federal and state military forces, the message couldn’t have been any clearer: we, the federal government, are prepared to do whatever it takes to enforce our will.”

“This message is an undercurrent throughout the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Though Martin Luther King still had to overcome vicious, sometimes deadly resistance, he himself remarked that surprisingly few people were killed or seriously injured in the struggle. The surprise diminishes with the recollection that there was real federal muscle behind the nonviolent campaign. For a variety of motives, both virtuous and cynical, the U.S. government wanted the South to be integrated and to recognize black civil rights. Nonviolence achieved its ends largely because the violence of its opponents was severely constrained. In 1962, Kennedy federalized the National Guard and sent in combat troops to quell segregationist rioting in Oxford, Mississippi. Johnson did the same thing in 1965, after anti-civil rights violence in Alabama. While any political movement has allies and benefits from favorable circumstances, having the might of the U.S. government behind you goes far beyond the ordinary advantages accompanying political activity. The nonviolence of the U.S. civil rights movement sets an example only for those who have the overwhelming armed force of a government on their side.”

“As for South Africa, it is a minor miracle of wishful thinking that anyone could suppose nonviolence played a major role in the collapse of apartheid.”

“In the first place, the African National Congress was never a nonviolent movement but a movement that decided, on occasion and for practical reasons, to use nonviolent tactics. (The same could be said of the other anti-apartheid organizations.) Much like Sinn Fein and the IRA, it maintained from the 1960s an arms-length relationship with MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe), a military/guerilla organization. So there was never even a commitment to Gandhian nonviolence within the South African movements.”

“Secondly, violence was used extensively throughout the course of the anti-apartheid struggle. It can be argued that the violence was essentially defensive, but that’s not the point: nonviolence as a doctrine rejects the use of violence in self-defense. To say that blacks used violence in self-defense or as resistance to oppression is to say, I think, that they were justified. It is certainly not to say that they were nonviolent.”

“Third, violence played a major role in causing both the boycott of South Africa and the demise of apartheid. Albert Luthuli, then president of the ANC, called for an economic boycott in 1959; the ANC’s nonviolent resistance began in 1952. But the boycott only acquired some teeth starting in 1977, after the Soweto riots in 1976, and again in 1985-1986, after the township riots of 1984-1985. Though the emphasis in accounts of these riots is understandably on police repression, no one contests that black protestors committed many violent acts, including attacks on police stations.”

“Violence was telling in other ways. The armed forces associated with the ANC, though never very effective, worried the South African government after Angola and Mozambique ceased to function as buffer states: sooner or later, it was supposed, the black armies would become a serious problem. (This worry intensified with the strategic defeat of South African forces by Cuban units at Cuito Cuanavale, Angola, in 1988.) In addition, violence was widespread and crucial in eliminating police informers and political enemies, as well as coercing cooperation with collective actions. It included the practice of necklacing, with a tire set around the neck of the target and set on fire.”

“Though much of the violence was conducted by gangs and mobs, it was not for that fact any less important politically: on the contrary, it was precisely the disorganized character of the violence that made it so hard to contain. And history of the period indicates that the South African government fell not under the moral weight of dignified, passive suffering, but because the white rulers (and their friends in the West) felt that the situation was spiraling out of control. Economic problems were caused by the boycotts and the administration of apartheid was a factor, but the boycott and the administration costs were themselves, in large measure, a response to violent rather than nonviolent resistance.”

“In short, it is a myth to suppose that nonviolence brought all the victories it is supposed to have in its ledger. In fact it brought none of them.”

“How does this bear on the Israel-Palestine conflict? In that situation, success is far less likely than in the cases we have examined. Unlike Martin Luther King, the Palestinians are working against a state, not with one. Their opponents are far more ruthless than the British were in the twilight of empire. Unlike the Indians and South Africans, they do not vastly outnumber their oppressors. And neither the Boers nor the English ever had anything like the moral authority Israel enjoys in the hearts and minds of Americans, much less its enormous support network. Nonviolent protest might overcome Israel’s prestige in ten or twenty years, but the Palestinians might well suppose they do not have that long.”

“The Palestinians will continue to choose, sometimes violence, sometimes nonviolence, most often a mixture of the two. They will presumably base their choices, as they have always done, on their assessment of the political realities. It is a sort of insolent naivete to suppose that, in their weakness, they should defy the lessons of history and cut off half their options. The notion that a people (in any sense of the word) can free itself literally by allowing their captors to walk all over them is in historical terms a fantasy.”

“In short, the Palestinians had to use violence of some sort: it might not work, but there was at least some historical precedent for it working. This, of course, does not license all types of violent resistance..”

Obama fulfills his first campaign promise—invading Pakistan

On his third day in office, Obama ordered cross-border attacks on Pakistani tribal areas using missile-firing drones. 22 people were killed, including four children. The attacks violate international law and various treaties to which the US is a party (so they’re unconstitutional also). This makes Obama a war criminal.

(It also makes him a poor strategist. Pakistan notes that the attacks have only further endeared the local tribes to al-Quaeda. This is plausible. This kind of effect on local populations by “our” violence is, to my knowledge, predicted or confirmed by every Pentagon study to date on the War on Terror.)

The victims may or may not have had something to do with fighting in Afghanistan. Of course, these “terroristey” types are precisely the sort we lock up in Guantanamo, and the the quality of “evidence” on which the attacks were ordered is precisely the sort we use to put them there. This should prove the token nature of Obama’s effort to shut down Guantanamo: We can kill them but not lock them up? (And really, “shut down” just means relocating the residents to another prison and diverting new suspects to one of the several interrogation camps we aren’t shutting down).

Despite Obama’s inaugural promise to stop executive secrecy, the new White House refused to comment on the attacks.

On the spurious idea of a nation’s “right to exist”

A bit about this whole “right to exist” that preoccupies Israeli political discourse:

Assuming any sense can be given to the concept of a “right” at all—it probably can’t; it certainly hasn’t—the origins of virtually any nation-state are so noxious, and so certain to have violated many hundreds of thousands of “rights” in the process of their establishment—that no state has the “right to exist.”

Of course, Israel and its defenders assume that to deny a “right to exist” is to endorse the dissolution of that the thing being denied. But this doesn’t follow. “Right” or not, the state of Israel does exist—and so do all the other states without the “rights” to do so. The question is not whether these entities have a right to exist, but whether it would be moral to dissolve them. Removing Israel as a national entity would be so reprehensible, cause so much pain and chaos—violate so many “rights,” if you like—that any such program would be immoral. The Israeli state—any state—should be suffered to exist not because it has the “right,” but because bringing about the alternative to its existence would be wrong.

For this reason, demanding that Hamas recognize Israel’s “right to exist” before any negotiations or concessions can proceed is unreasonable—because the concept is unreasonable. But even if it were reasonable—that is, even if Israel actually had a “right to exist”—it wouldn’t mean that a demand that others recognize that fact is reasonable. I mean, if Israel has a right to exist, it has many other things as well—say, lush hillsides. Should we demand that Hamas recognize Israel’s lush hillsides before anything can happen? Again, since a right to live in security, or defend itself, does not depend on any “right to exist,” we should no more care how a political party in a neighboring region feels about Israel’s “right to exist” than we should care how it likes its eggs in the morning.

Noam Chomsky’s analysis seems to me correct: An abstract “right to exist” is unique to the Israel-Palestine conflict; it isn’t talked about anywhere else in political science. It emerged in the 1970’s when the Arab states accepted Israel’s “right to live in peace with secure and recognized boundaries.” This, of course, is something all states are minimally granted—it’s more or less a part of the very definition of statehood.

When certain Israeli political elements sought to obstruct meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, they elevated the standard from the usual “right to live in peace (etc.)” to this goofy “right to exist.” They knew that Palestinian negotiators would feel a “right to exist” would validate of the origins of Israel—the dispossession of Palestinian lands out of which Israel was carved. They knew this was too much for the Palestinians to swallow, and would buy Israel time to create new “facts on the ground”—namely, the settlements, which make negotiations, and concessions of land by Israel, even harder.

By analogy: Let’s say you have built a house on my land without my consent. I’ve fought you for years about it but now I realize what’s done is done. You have a house and it isn’t going away. I agree to let you “live in peace and security,” which is little more than to recognize you as, indeed, my neighbor. But as soon as I endorse your “right to” live there, I suggest that it was OK for you to have stolen the land in the first place. This is another matter entirely.

On the nature of Israeli apartheid

John Spritzer has an older but relevant article on what just makes the Jewish state Jewish. To quote:

“The Jewishness of Israel is embodied in a set of laws which confer rights and benefits on Jews but not on others.” […]

“The second-class status of Arabs inside Israel is enforced by laws that privilege being Jewish, rather than by a formal denial to Arabs of citizenship or the right to vote and hold office. Thus the document says that Arabs shall have ‘complete equality of social and political rights’ and ‘full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its [Israel’s] provisional and permanent institutions.’ But the Law of Return, passed in 1950, begins: ‘Every Jew has the right to immigrate to the country.’ Yet one of the central grievances of Palestinians is that they cannot do the same thing; they cannot return to their homes of many generations in Israel. Even Arabs who never left Israel, but who only stayed for a few days in a nearby village with relatives to wait for the fighting in 1948 to end, are now categorized in Israel as ‘present absentees,’ a category in which they remain forever, and in consequence of which their homes and property remain in the possession of the Custodian of Absentee Property, who puts the property at the disposal of Jews.”

“Private organizations serving only Jewish interests hold quasi-governmental authority in Israel for policies that affect non-Jews. The main example of this is the Jewish Agency, which calls itself ‘the agency for Jewish interests in Eretz [‘the land of”] Israel…[it’s] role is defined…as a voluntary, philanthropic organization with responsibility for immigration, settlement and development, and coordination of the unity of the Jewish people.” The (Jewish) Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs describes the Jewish Agency as ‘a quasi-public, voluntary institution sharing many, often overlapping, functional jurisdictions with government.’ Yes, Arabs could set up a private ‘Arab Agency,’ but it would not have the quasi-governmental power, for example, to dispose of Jewish property the way the law allows the Jewish Agency to dispose of Arab property: the state’s Custodian of Absentee Property hands Arab property to the Jewish Agency, but it does not hand Jewish property to any Arab agency. Jews don’t have their property confiscated as “present absentees” because Jews, unlike Arabs, enjoy the “Right of Return.’”

“The U.N. Conciliation Commission estimated that about 80 percent of the land in what is today Israel is property formerly owned by Palestinians that was confiscated by Jewish organizations like the Jewish Agency. Palestinians are forbidden by Israeli law from owning it. Of all the land that may be legally sold in Israel, 67% of it may not legally be sold to Arabs, while none of it is barred from being sold to Jews. Thus, while Palestinians may be citizens in Israel, they are second class citizens, which is precisely what it means to live in a ‘Jewish state’ when one is not Jewish. Yet another feature of Israel that makes it an apartheid state is that it aims to separate Jews and Arabs on a personal level. For example, a Jew and an Arab cannot legally marry each other in Israel; such marriages, if performed outside the country, are not recognized under Israeli law.”

“Section 7A(1) of the Basic Law of Israel explicitly prevents Israeli citizens – Arab or Jewish – from using the “democratic” system of Israeli elections to challenge the inferior status of Arabs under the law; it restricts who can run for political office with this language: ‘A candidates’ list shall not participate in elections to the Knesset if among its goals or deeds, either expressly or impliedly, are one of the following: (1) The negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the State of the Jewish People. …’ In a 1989 Israeli Supreme Court ruling (reported in the 1991 Israel Law Review, Vol. 25, p. 219, published by the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) Justice S. Levine, speaking for the majority, ruled that this law meant that a political party could not run candidates if it intended to achieve the cancellation of one of the fundamental tenets of the State – namely ‘the existence of a Jewish majority, the granting of preference to Jews in matters of immigration, and the existence of close and reciprocal relations between the State and the Jews of the Diaspora.’”

[Spritzer’s full article here.]

There is more to the issue than Spritzer covers. To quote something I wrote some time ago:

Resource allocation [in Israel] is skewed toward the Jewish ‘sectors’.  Examples of this could fill books (and indeed do).  Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the Jim Crow nature of the state, calling Arab schools and neighborhoods “separate and unequal” as a matter of policy. (See HRW, “Second Class: Discrimination against Palestinian Arab Children in Israel’s Schools” here.) Another report notes the many Arab neighborhoods in Israel which, despite housing thousands, have been declared “unrecognized” by the state and hence remain ineligible for public goods (like electricity and water) altogether. (There are no cases of “unrecognized” Jewish-majority neighborhoods, and there are “recognized” Jewish neighborhoods further out on the periphery of the country than non-recognized Arab ones, indicating the problem is deliberate and not logistical). (See also Lustick, “Arabs in the Jewish State: Israel’s Control of a National Minority.”)

The greatest American president

blog-greatest-american-president1“He did the least possible harm.”  -Alexander Cockburn

There is self-determination and then there is ethno-tyranny (the Jewish state is the latter)

Following up the last post:

Israel indeed has laws that apply only to, and favor, Jews (ergo, discriminating against non-Jews). These mostly concern ownership of property. (For example, most of the land in Israel cannot be legally sold to non-Jews.) This is why the “only democracy in the Middle East” does not have its own constitution, with anything resembling a Bill of Rights; declaring universal equality before the law would run counter to the content of those laws.

None of this should be surprising given Israel’s nature as a “Jewish state” whose founding document declares the “sovereignty of the Jewish people” to govern. What is puzzling to me is why this strikes almost nobody as nastily racist.

The typical defense against such a charge is to cite the virtue of “self-determination,” arguing: The State of Israel is the product of the Jewish self-determination struggle, which is parallel to and just as valid as the self-determination struggles (Vietnamese, Haitian, Philippine, etc.) that gave birth to many other nations.

But this strikes a flawed analogy: There is a key difference between a group of regional inhabitants throwing off colonial shackles and forming a nation “on the spot,” as it were—and a group of persons, scattered all over, gathering on a spot where another group of regional inhabitants already lives, and declaring legal rule over them.

It’s the difference between painting the house I already live in, versus somebody’s breaking into another’s house to paint it, against the owner’s objections—and then defending it by saying there is no real difference between the two scenarios: “We’re both just painting—if he can do it, why can’t I? Everybody paints, right? Why are you picking on my painting?”

The problem, of course, is not the painting but the breaking in. The problem with Israel, of course, is not the “self-determination” but the circumstances under which it was undertaken.

Whatever other reasons might be given in favor of Jewish supremacy in Israel, the “self-determination” analogy does not work. Determination on the basis of ethnic or religious or any grounds other than shared geographic locality is, all things being equal, immoral, not to mention tyrannic.

What’s going on with Israel and the Gaza Strip?

The current hostilities: The bigger picture

The current fighting in Gaza can only be understood in context of the broader Israel-Palestine conflict; and that conflict is only understood in light of a few basic facts:

First, Israel’s long-term goal—laid out in its founding documents and affirmed by every Prime Minister since—is to annex the Occupied Territories. This is why Israel still refuses to declare its own borders after fifty years.

Second, being the world’s only apartheid state—with one set of laws governing (and favoring) Jews and another for Arabs—the key challenge to this plan is maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel. A nation “by Jews, for Jews”—to paraphrase the founding Declaration—should probably mostly be Jews. Anything less than that in the Territories makes annexation a problem.

Since the late 1960’s, one strategy for “Jewish-ifying” (read: ethnically cleansing) the Territories has been to build Jewish-only settlements there, to compress the Palestinians further and further toward the east and gobble up the western land as it is vacated. Another strategy, used in tandem with the first, has been to create enough violence, misery and mayhem in the lives of Palestinians to make them simply leave (or perish in sufficient numbers).

A change of strategy in Gaza

However, Gaza, being the most Arab-dense, radicalized, and “ungovernable” of the Territories, has proved unready for settlement. Sharon’s “disengagement” of 2005—dismantling the settlements and removing IDF ground troops from Gaza—was not about abandoning the annexation goal (much less about “peace”) but about tweaking the strategy and timetable for achieving it. Israel simply traded a settlement strategy in Gaza for one of (increased) conventional violence.

“Disengagement” accomplished two things: First, it freed Israel to expand the settlements elsewhere. In Sharon’s words, “[t]here is no chance of establishing a Jewish majority” in Gaza, so “we are turning our resources to the most important areas, which we need to safeguard for our existence: the Galilee, the Negev, Greater Jerusalem, the [remaining] settlement blocs, and security areas.”

Second, clearing the Jewish settlers from Gaza, along with the soldiers that protected them, opened the way for a massive escalation in violence and state terror against the remaining Palestinians (in essence, “warming up” the region for settlement down the road).

At the time of disengagement, Israel publicly reserved the right to invade Gaza whenever it wanted. Not three weeks afterward, Israeli planes knocked out Gaza’s infrastructure, hitting power grids, roads, and bridges. Near-daily air strikes have continued ever since. These always kill civilians, as do Israel’s artillery shell attacks into Gaza, which were escalated also. In the April following evacuation, Israel lobbed more than 3,000 shells into Palestinian villages in Gaza.

And Israel added a perverse new weapon to the arsenal: the sonic boom. Low-flying jets break the sound barrier, producing a massive shockwave across the region, disrupting sleep, bloodying ears and noses, inducing miscarriage and heart attacks, and causing general fear and disorientation. This could never have been attempted when the settlements were in place.


From Dec. 28, 2008, when Israeli air strikes killed 200 Palestinians in a single day. (Hamas rocket fire has killed 28 Israelis since 2001.)

Direct violence is not the only issue. Israel retains total control of Gaza’s borders, coastline, and air space. It takes a tax bite from every product that enters. It forbids Palestine to negotiate its own trade and foreign policy. Israel uses border closings as a weapon, halting food and medical imports and blocking people from accessing work or medical care. After the Palestinians voted for the “wrong” party in January, 2006, Israel cut off water to Gaza—water-starved as it already was—and kidnapped a third of the new Palestinian legislature. Israel continues to kidnap civilians from Gaza, holding them in Israeli prisons without ever charging them with a crime. (About a thousand Palestinians remain in this predicament.)


This, keep in mind—all of the above—is why Hamas is led to fire those rockets into Israel.

Four points follow from this analysis:

(1) The rocket fire is not an intransigent part of daily life in Israel. The current hostilities are not “complicated” or “delicate.” Hamas’s violence is not “senseless” or primarily ethnically or religiously motivated. You can call Hamas assholes, you can critique their strategies, but their demands are legitimate, and any reasonable person would share them in the same situation.

(2) Since Israel continues to control all aspects of life in Gaza, it makes no sense to quibble over “who fired the first shot” in the current wave of hostilities. If I have broken into your house, locked you in the basement, and camped out in your living room, it matters little who casts the first blow when we get into a fight.

(3) Even if you don’t want to call the situation in Gaza an “occupation,” nobody, including Israel, denies that there is an occupation of the West Bank. And, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky, since the West Bank and Gaza are a single unit, if resistance is legitimate in the West Bank, it is legitimate in Gaza. Again, if I limit my “occupation” of your house to the living room, it still makes sense to throw things at me from the den. The house is “a unit” and if one room is occupied, the house is occupied.

(4) Finally: If you don’t like the Palestinians using violence to resist, ask yourself what else they are supposed to use. They have no other leverage. They have nothing to concede to Israel except cessation of violence. Everything else they either cannot do without, or Israel has already taken from them.

Demanding Palestine cease its violence before any peace negotiations can proceed is one-sided. The occupation is violence—Israeli violence; if both sides renounced their own violence, the Territories would be vacated and there would be nothing to negotiate over. So the ball is firmly in Israel’s court, as it has always, basically, been. (There wouldn’t even be a court if not for Israel’s behavior.)