The recent attack on the Mavi Marmara has inspired discussions of the techniques of nonviolence in the mainstream media. Here at Waging Nonviolence, we have already lamented what appears to have been a lack of discipline on the part of the protesters. However, an interesting commentary by Lane Wallace in The Atlantic shows how misunderstandings about the basic principles of nonviolence play a role in skewing coverage of and opinion about the events.
Information is still murky, but what Wallace gets right in her piece is that Gandhi was insistent that one should always defend oneself with nonviolence, not physical force, if one is able. When the Israeli military raided the ship, they hoped to send the message that the blockade of Gaza would remain firm. In the aftermath, Israel has claimed the activists had terrorist connections.
By breaking from strict nonviolent discipline, the activists played into this narrative, giving it a measure of plausibility and shifting the field of interpretation. Wallace says, expressing the sentiments of many:
[T]here is at best a naivete, and at worst a disingenuousness, in provoking a fight and then complaining noisily that a fight broke out. The activists decided to take on the Israeli military. It doesn’t matter whether the military should have resisted their passage to Gaza, in a moral sense; the fact remains that Israelis had been very clear that they were going to take whatever measures were necessary to stop the boats. So the activists knew they were going to meet resistance. […] There are no lack of individuals, groups, or nations who use violence as a means to an end. But if you decide to step in that world, you can’t complain when your opponent uses violence in return.
Wallace is sympathetic to nonviolent activism and her piece is an indication of the extent to which the Free Gaza movement has lost control over the interpretation of the events. Even while inspiring worldwide condemnation of the unjust Gaza blockade, what has most disturbed me is the character of much of the outrage it has inspired. The Turkish president’s assertion that Turkey will “never forgive” the killing of the ten protesters, protests in Ankara featuring hardliners burning Israeli flags and offering chants of “death to Israel.” This in turn has predictably inspired protests by Israeli hardliners equating Turkey and Hamas and claiming, “We came with paint guns and got lynched.” Israel’s bellicose actions and statements are of course responsible for this, but the activists on the Mavi Marmara bear some responsibility as well.
However, Wallace makes a critical, faulty assumption in her analysis of nonviolence and one that is frequent among those who are casual observers of it. She writes that the problem with the flotilla was that it “went into the confrontation looking for conflict, to draw attention to their cause.” Citing Gandhi and King she says that “[q]uiet, uncomplaining courage is harder and less satisfying than provoking an opponent.” Unlike the Gaza protesters, when “Martin Luther King, John Lewis, the Freedom Riders and the rest of the non-violent protesters for civil rights set out, they knew what they were walking into. And if we admire their courage, it’s because they walked into a hailstorm without so much as a word of complaint.”
Both Dr. King and Gandhi were very keen to use nonviolence to inspire confrontation and they did so in conjunction with some of the most profound words of complaint the world has ever known. Even in particular instances of direct action, “complaining” was important (think of C.T. Vivian confronting Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma). They were also persistently held responsible for being agitators who caused violence. The purpose of nonviolence is to put the violence that is the lifeblood of segregation and colonialism on display and excavate the hatred and fear that drives it. The problem with the flotilla was not in provoking and revealing the character of Israel’s death grip on Gaza. The provocation worked perfectly in demonstrating that only deadly force can support Israel’s current policies. The problem is that by failing to stick to the principles of nonviolence the Free Gaza movement failed to take the opportunity that was given to them.
Nonviolent means usually have a more direct relationship to political outcomes than violent means. When militants fire rockets into Israel for the purpose of protesting the Gaza blockade, the substance of what they are doing is completely divorced from the political outcome. When a flotilla of aid tries to break the embargo, there is consistency between the means and the ends. But attacking commandos—even those trying to stop a flotilla—is not. Maintaining consistency in means and ends can be extremely difficult, but it is why Gandhi thought the methods were more truthful.
Wallace both underestimates how difficult it is to maintain nonviolent discipline in the face of highly trained uses of violence and misunderstands the purpose of nonviolent protests. But her impressions of nonviolence are not uncommon and something those of us who use nonviolent means should keep in mind going forward.
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Great points, Dustin, particularly about the role of conflict in nonviolent resistance and in the disappointing rhetoric that is coming out from so many since the Mavi Marmara incident.
However, I had a somewhat different reading of Wallace’s fine article, which I think deserves to be given a bit more credit if only for raising the issue of nonviolence in a major publication like The Atlantic. When she talks about “looking for conflict,” I felt that what she means is “looking for violence”—as what she is criticizing is the decision to fight back against the IDF by some aboard the Mavi Marmara. I support this reading with words of hers you also quote, that King and others “walked into a hailstorm.” She clearly understands that civil rights leaders were not out to take a walk in the park, and that the conflict they fully intended to arouse was meant to shed light on structural nonviolence.
I’d similarly suggest that “complaint” could be understood in different ways. The “complaint” that she’s explicitly criticizing in her piece seems to be the idea that the IDF’s violence justified the activists using violence in self-defense—not complaining in general. Early on in the piece, after all, she frames her argument by quoting one of the activists who said, “Well, you can understand that they [the protesters] were going to defend themselves.”
In any case, though, you’re absolutely right to clarify these important points where perhaps Wallace could have been clearer.
The skirmish last week drew the world’s attention to Gaza; now is the time to keep it there and to show that a better way forward is possible. When the Rachel Corrie was boarded over the weekend, there was no repeat of what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara. It has gotten far less press, but this latest episode should be celebrated, not ignored. It speaks loudly against the Israeli claim that the blockade runners are terrorists and extremists. No; these activists, sailing unarmed into the clutches of one of the world’s most powerful militaries are showing the courage of King at Birmingham and Gandhi in Bombay.
With the world watching, Palestinians and their supporters have a choice: satyagraha or intifada. The latter will always give Israel the excuse to respond with bloodshed and drown out matters of justice with the rhetoric of security. This pattern has repeated itself over and over. The former, though, will force Israel to hear and consider the question that a Palestinian woman asked Israeli soldiers during a recent nonviolent protest in the West Bank: “What will you tell your children?”
Thanks for your piece!
Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. Just to add a further wrinkle to this, one of the other interesting things about Wallace’s piece is that she says that there is a slippery slope of violence that she worries the activists on the Mavi Marmara started to slide down. It seems that on both sides of this particular conflict the slope is extremely slippery — for instance, the rock throwing of the intifada, which some argue is a form of nonviolence, becomes the Qussam rockets and the paintball shooters of the IDF, which is clearly an attempt to curtail deadly force, quickly gives way to killing activists.
This can be seen in her claim that the civil rights movement involved silent suffering as well. While clearly she is wrong about that, on the other hand there were times and places when activists did, specifically march silently in order to prevent any escalation into violence.
Finally, your point about the Mavi Marmara incident getting more attention than the Rachel Corrie is as troubling as it is expected. Sophisticated advocates of violence such as Machiavelli, were keen to explore it’s possibilities for making the world a better place because of the awe performances of violence can inspire. And indeed, even Gandhi said that history was a record of all of the interruptions of the even working of the soul. It’s a serious and difficult challenge, but of course violence has many weaknesses as well.
You both seem to forget the Ghandi and King are both dead! If you’re good enough at inciting conflict with nonviolence, you’re dead whether you fight back or not. I can’t wait until we’re all dead.
I guess it goes without saying that India was independent by the time Gandhi died and the Civil Rights Act had passed by the time King had died… But yes, hopefully we have much to look forward to in the afterlife.
And Dustin—yes, more great points. Your mention of rock-throwers and paintball-shooters is another reminder of a confusion about what nonviolence means. It isn’t simply non-lethal violence, or non-military violence. (We regularly criticize the latest generation of “non-lethal” weapons on this site.) It is a kind of action that refuses to let a matter of justice get distracted by a contest of power.
Nathan, I think you’re seeing it now.
This is a very telling paragraph and illustrates my position clearly:
“The decision of at least some activists to tie off one of the commandos’ rappelling ropes to an antenna on the Mavi Marmara, leaving the commandos able to descend only one at a time and in a vulnerable position, then taking away the weapons of the first to descend and attacking them with pipes or clubs … is akin to provoking a grizzly bear. What, I found myself asking repeatedly, as I read and listened to the coverage, did the activists think was going to happen when they did that? Commandos who see their comrades under attack and outnumbered 300 to 1 (or even 20 to 1) are going to do what commandos are trained to do. They’re not trained negotiators. They’re going to use force to gain control of the situation. Deadly force, if they think it’s necessary. You can count on it. And if they then arrest you, they’re not going to be nice about it.”
This leads me to question the motives of the Flotilla and the organizations supporting it. As the peaceful seizure of the Rachel Corrie illustrate, passive resistance will generally not make world news. Had the Mavi surrendered in the same way, I for one would not be talking about it or would I likely have ever heard of it.
Propaganda is a key tool in the war Israeli/Palestinian conflict and terrorism in general. Both sides know this. If Hamas fires some rockets at Israel and Israel retaliates and 3 children are killed in the counterattack, the world is outraged at Israel and wrongly so, but it’s a propaganda win for Hamas. If the Israelis fire into an unarmed crowd that it misidentifies as hostile, the world is outraged at Israel and rightly so. There is little doubt in my mind that some of the protesters on the MM intentionally provoked and indeed forced the IDF to use deadly force in order to generate a propaganda coup.
In this way, the Free Gaza/IHH folks got exactly what they wanted, but using violence to achieve it.
Gandhi and King were successful because their cause was just, their message was clear, and they were bravely disciplined in their adherence to using non violent means to achieve their. The clear moral superiority of their positions were important factors to their success. Hamas does not have the same moral superiority and honestly I find it insulting to the memory of those two great men to put Hamas/FreeGaza/IHH in the same debate.
Really enjoyed reading your piece–thanks so much!
A couple points.
By lumping together Hamas and FreeGaza you may be doing what many Americans did in the context of the civil rights movement. Some communists, the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, for instance, thought that violence was a justified means of resisting segregation and Dr. King and SCLC and most of SNCC did not. But segregationists lumped them all together with Dr. King and the civil rights movement as violent agitators. I say you “may” be doing this, because the extent to which FreeGaza is committed to nonviolence is still unclear. Certainly, they are not Hamas, but everyone here at this site is suggesting they should be more committed to nonviolence as both a strategic and moral principle.
It also strains credibility to suggest that they “forced the IDF to use deadly force” in killing ten activists any more than the dire situation in Gaza forces Hamas to fire rockets into Israel. Your claim that the world should NOT be outraged when the IDF kills civilians in response to such rocket attacks is quite bizarre as I assume it is based on same notion of self-defense the Free Gaza spokesperson cited. That is, this is exactly what Wallace gets right when she chastizes the Free Gaza spokesperson for saying “you can understand that they were going to defend themselves.”
One of the virtues of being committed to nonviolence is that you quickly untie this Gordion knot. By attempting to break the blockade FreeGaza was trying to provoke a response, just as Dr. King and Gandhi provoked responses from violent governments. But the activists are responsible for precisely the amount of violence they used and the IDF is responsible for precisely the amount of violence they used. This is one of the most important principles of nonviolence: we are fundamentally responsible for our own actions regardless of what others do. Cooperatively, we must call everyone to account for their own actions instead of allowing one’s violence to be justified by someone else’s violence.
One other thought on Nathan’s post above. I’m actually of the belief (and make the argument in my book) that the best way to argue for the usefulness of nonviolence and the dispensability of violence is to distinguish between power and violence instead of collapsing the two. Also, I think that both violent and nonviolent means can be unjust. So you are correct Killion in suggesting that if you do not in good conscience think the blockade of Gaza is unjust (a difficult argument to make I think if you really take the time to understand the situation), then you might be able to disagree with the comparison to the civil rights movement or other causes.
Anyway, the reason I take this approach is because I do not think it is possible to remove power from politics and even a healthy form of politics, but I do think it’s possible for politics to be much less physically violent than it often is. Might sound like hair splitting, but if we line up nonviolence and justice and violence and power too perfectly, most people would probably conclude that getting anything done will require violence.
It is perfectly credible and accurate to say that the activists’ violence forced the IDF to use lethal force (unless it is to think it logical to expect the IDF soldiers do nothing expose themselves to death or grievous bodily harm). Comparing the MM action with Hamas terror rocket attacks is a fallacy.
Admittedly, I explained the hypothetical about civilian casualties poorly, but yes in the course of a proportional response to a rocket attack innocents are unintentionally killed. It is NOT based on the same erroneous assumption the FG spokesmen spoke of.
The FG activists were not defending themselves. By that logic, an unruly crowd that does not lawfully disburse after tear gas or other less than lethal means are used can resist arrest and assault police officers with clubs and knives. The blockade is legal, and that is not a hard argument to make if you take the time to understand the situation. The Israelis were enforcing the blockade. The MM refused to stand down. The IDF boarded to take control of the ship, equipped for and expecting passive resistance. A group of activists attacked. The IDF defended themselves. Yes, FG used violence to successfully provoke a response. “Dr. King and Gandhi provoked responses from violent government” That is a curious statement.
Gordian knot…interesting illustration, but ironic. The knot could not be untied as there were no loose ends. Arguably the greatest commander in military history, Alexander the Great, simply cut the knot.
Dustin—that’s actually a great point about my earlier remark! You’re absolutely right, “power” isn’t the right word for what I’m getting at. Something more like “the chaotic insanity of who can kill who first, fastest, and most spectacularly.” Or: “might makes right.”
Just as Gandhi sought to recover a nonviolent kind of “force” with his “truth-force,” power is a part of the human reality that need not necessarily be consigned over to violence.
The Israelis leaders are so frightened by nonviolence that they preemptively use violence. Those giving the orders are cocooned, in part by manufactured lies and the media comfort zone, from any interpersonal interaction, but those involved would be traumatized. The paradox of nonviolence often leads to intensified violence. And then what to do?
There is a role for compassion. Perhaps, we might write letters of sympathy to the Knesset members for the terrible state they have got themselves into, and perhaps suggesting how escape the downward cycle of violence, injustice and oppression. Just remind them of the truth for any person to lose their humanity is to lose everything. We are truly sorry that the Jewish people who suffered grievoiusly over past centuries are now causing suffering to others they cannot recognize and heedlessly must persist with.
“The Israelis leaders are so frightened by nonviolence that they preemptively use violence. Those giving the orders are cocooned, in part by manufactured lies and the media comfort zone, from any interpersonal interaction, but those involved would be traumatized. The paradox of nonviolence often leads to intensified violence. And then what to do?”
Any facts to back up your supposition? Frightened? Doubt it. Manufactured lies? No. Media comfort zone? Hardly.
A more accurate supposition is that the Israeli leaders are scared of the state destroyed. How did nonviolence work out for European and Russian Jews in WWII?
What do you do? When trying to run a legal blockade, don’t try and kill the Israeli commandos boarding your ship.
Come on, let’s have some rational discussion….
Please tell us me more about the ‘nonviolence strategy’ employed by European and Russian Jews in WWII. I wasn’t aware there was such a strategy. Can you cite sources? I would really be interested in learning more about your assertions, if indeed they are true.
Lies and media control reasonably accord with the known facts. The accounts of journalists who part of the flotilla, such Paul McGeough contradict the Israeli version of events.
You are correct to say that the Israeli Government is frightened of nonviolence is a supposition om part. The suggestion is that violence is resorted as reactively as it is because it seen as intimidation. Why did the Israelis use excessive force and intimation? Of course, the Israelis are not alone. In recent times the same response has been true in Burma and Iran.
I would have thought the whole of idea of a “legal blockade” is problematic at best? Do the relevant legal tests apply? For example, does a state of war or conflict exist between Gaza and Israel, or between Gaza and Egypt? The matter could be resolved in a relevant international court, which while better than murdering people.
Mr. McGeough not on the MM.
A state of armed conflict exists between the governing body of Gaza and Israel and and that’s the international standard.
Israeli used deadly force because the soldiers were at risk of grievous bodily harm or death. Had the activists on the MM used passive resistance and not attacked the soldiers, they would not have used lethal force.
Paul McGeogh was closer to the events than you were DK and perhaps his and other accounts, in the absence of the confiscated evidence, needs to be considered.
The behavior of the Israeli soldiers, with their resort to “lethal violence” against civilians would appear to be “a war crime”. I call it that to indicate the serious nature of the offence. No army, not mine, not yours, should allow soldiers to kill civilians from close quarters with multiple shots.
What does it say about Israel that it consistently engages in such behavior? The constant thread in the treatment of those detained is violence. There are no excuses, although we might wish to explain how this response has become habitual with them.
“[i]ndividual acts of defiance and protest, the courage of obtaining food and water under the threat of death, the superiority of refusing to allow the Germans their final wish to gloat over panic and despair.
Even passivity was a form of resistance. To die with dignity was a form of resistance. To resist the demoralizing, brutalizing force of evil, to refuse to be reduced to the level of animals, to live through the torment, to outlive the tormentors, these too were acts of resistance. Merely to give a witness of these events in testimony was, in the end, a contribution to victory. Simply to survive was a victory of the human spirit.”
– The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Martin Gilbert
“Isn’t it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes—crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure—reach the light of day? ”
From the first WHITE ROSE pamphlet in WWII.
I wonder how these words resonate in the heart of Jewish students today as they reflect upon the siege of Gaza.
Comparing the blockade on Gaza to the Holocaust?
I wonder how the decline of Hamas rocket attacks and fanatics blowing themselves up on buses and in shops since the blockade has been in effect resonate in the minds of Israeli students as they reflect upon the blockade of Gaza…
The heart of the analysis is the penultimate paragraph. To be successful, as the Free Gaza was not, there has to be 1) a “direct relationship to political outcomes and 2) there has to be “consistency between means and ends.”
I would prefer to use “coherence” between means and ends or, alternatively, “ideal in process” to say the same thing. But the essential point is that people aboard the Mavi Marmara lost a good opportunity by, as Howes says, to meet the most fundamental criteria for a successful action.
I’m traveling and don’t have much more to add to what’s been said (thanks Brien). But I did want to make sure everyone also saw this piece by my friend Michael Nagler, which I don’t agree with on every point but is directly relevant:
wmmbb, Mr. McGeough might as well be where I am. 150 yards away, at night, with no NVG, on a small ship, he’s hardly an authority on what happened on the 5th deck of the MM….
In previous posts, I’ve gone over inconsistencies in the “eyewitness” accounts, I won’t go through it again. Once the “activists” became violent and started to beat the soldiers as soon as the came of the fast ropes, they became combatants and the soldiers were well within their rights to use lethal force in self defense.
MY military and police force should and do allow defending themselves when confronted with threat of grievous bodily harm or death with lethal force if necessary. Had the protesters all engaged in only passive resistance and the Israelis used lethal force, I’d be as outraged as anyone here.
Yes, Israel consistently reply to violent actions with violence of their own. In this case, some on the MM chose to make the decision to provoke suicide by Israeli commando.
I would hope that Israel would seek peace and justice, which is the way that civilized people who have respect for other people and other people’s lives behave. The resort to lethal force, by a more heavily armed combatant can be rarely justified. A lot of what happened was foreseeable, and therefore intentional, which is sufficient to anyone to give pause not just as to method, but motive. What laws does Israel recognize?
Israel does seek peace and justice.
So…justification of the use of deadly force has to do with the size of the weapon not the conduct of the participants? LAW says otherwise and weren’t you speaking about JUSTICE earlier?
Yes, a lot of what happened was foreseeable. The idiots on the MM had to reasonably know that threatening the Israeli soldiers with death would receive a swift and harsh response.
Can you be more specific on your last question?
I am sure many Israelis desire peace and justice. The way to follow that course, if only to remove the subjectivity, is by reference to international courts. The laws involved here were international laws of free passage and maritime laws. Some of the facts have to be adjudicated, such as the degree of violence the commandos used to take over the ship. Since this behavior is in essence a act of war, it is reasonable that some accounting be made. Much criticism is made of the passengers for their resistance from a nonviolence perspective, but a greater criticism has to be leveled at the commandos for what seems like a total, unacceptable lack of restraint, that may in the circumstances be properly judged criminal behavior. The potential charges do not stop there. They include false imprisonment, stealing of personal possessions, cruelty, violence and torture, not to mention simple outright lying.
Why do all or most of you plus Wallace in the Atlantic have trouble acknowledging that the violence was initiated by the Turkish thugs of the IHH terrorist support group on the upper decks of the Mavi Marmara?? Have you not seen the videos? Do you need to psychologically doubt the videos because they support Israel’s report of the event??
Did you not see the video taken by the ship’s own security camera of men using a rotary saw to cut metal bars from the ship’s railings?? This was in preparation for what they did. How about the Muslim jihadis on board who were chanting Khaybar Khayber ya Yahud, Jaysh Muhammad sa ya`ud. That means [remember] Khaybar Khaybar O Jews, Muhammad’s army is coming back.
Do you understand that that is a war chant? An anti-Jewish war chant??
To change my approach: Are you aware of the Islamist/Jihadist nature of the present Turkish govt?? Do you know Erdogan’s personal background of violence, thuggery and Judeophobia?? Have you heard Erdogan’s thuggish speech, especially his threats to make war on Israel?? Do you know of the Turkish history of massacres, not only of Armenians? Do you know of the current Turkish war on Kurdish insurgents?? Why do the Arabs in Gaza get your support but not the Kurds?
How about the terrorist background of the IHH?? And its links to Erdogan?? If you know even half of the facts that I have cited, why should you doubt that Erdogan’s men were looking for a fight or that some of them openly spoke of Islamic martyrdom??
One question to pose Eliyahu: What happened to the humanitarian aid that was taken to the Ashdod docks? Yes that’s right it was loaded onto 70 trucks and taken to Gaza. So all the violence, murder and terror was pointless and the whole thing could have been negotiated as between sensible people of goodwill.
Aside from the occupation of the Palestinian people, with it accompanying violence, losing the friendship of the Turks is perhaps not a good move for Israel to be making. Just a thought.
Whatever his failings, Prime Minister Ergodan is probably reflecting Turkish public opinion, and I doubt he will be swayed by partial evidence and name calling.