Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography of Gandhi, Great Soul, has been the occasion for a lot of pontificating by reviewers on what they take to be the man’s legacy—rather more, generally, than actually discussing the book. (Not having read the book myself, forgive me for following suit.) The latest entry is David Shulman’s essay in the June issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Salt March to the Dead Sea.” Formally, it’s a review of Lelyveld’s book. Actually, it’s an anecdotal survey of the progress of nonviolent action in occupied Palestine.
Shulman writes of his experience protesting against, and being arrested by, the occupation, most of all as a way to telling about people like Abdallah Abu Rahman and Ali Abu Awwad, men who have studied Gandhi’s writings and worked to apply them in Palestine. These stories become occasion for some beautiful passages on the prospects and promise of nonviolent action there and in general.
I can tell you from my own experience: there is something about nonviolent resistance that does away with fear.
[Quoting Ali:] Nonviolent protest is where you invest your pain, a place where this pain becomes active in accordance with your humanity. You cannot practice nonviolence without listening to the other side’s narrative. But first you have to give up being a victim. When you do that, no one will be able to victimize you again.
Palestinian and Israeli Gandhians are living out, day by day, the moral code that Lelyveld has rightly identified as Gandhi’s: Persist in the active pursuit of what is right and good, without thinking too much about the immediate results (“Silent plodding”). Above all, don’t underestimate the intrinsic force of a moral act.
And more. Shulman is especially hopeful about what dividends the ongoing Arab Spring might pay for Palestinian nonviolent resistance, and rightly so. But in nearly the same breath, he too easily accepts what even he can remark has become “something of a platitude”: Gandhian nonviolence could only succeed against the relatively benevolent and civilized British—and, even in that case, it can’t really be given full credit for bringing down the Raj. (Tell any victim of the 1919 Amritsar massacre how benevolent British rule was.) He then highlights the “tragic” quality of Lelyveld’s account, also accepted by other reviewers: Gandhi didn’t succeed in every campaign, so maybe nonviolent resistance isn’t truly a universal method after all. It sort of worked against the British, and it worked pretty well for black Americans in the civil-rights movement. But
[Gandhi] would have had little or no effect on the Nazis or Stalinists or the Khmer Rouge or the Chinese in Tibet; it remains to be seen what widespread Gandhian resistance would do to Israelis.
This is an astonishing thing to say now, in 2011, and a couple of pages before extolling the epochal expulsion of a master so brutal and repressive Hosni Mubarak by many thousands of dedicated, persistent Egyptians. And it would be an astonishing thing to say in 2010, too, after the successful Danish resistance against the Nazis, and the color revolutions against socialist dictators.
It has long been pretty unnecessary to ask whether nonviolent methods can be successful in toppling repressive regimes from within. Regardless of how instrumental Gandhi’s movement was to the final ouster of the British, he gave the modern world a head start on the toolkit that has become, both morally and politically, nothing short of revolutionary. The question is no longer whether nonviolent resistance works; the question is how to make it work, in which particular set of conditions.
Shulman is getting there. He’s starting to understand this, but not quite. His essay ends:
There is hope, today, in Palestine, more than I’ve ever seen before. The Israeli government is doing what it can to destroy it, but I doubt that the government will succeed.
UPDATE: The article may end there, but the story doesn’t. In today’s news, there are violent clashes between pro-Palestinian protesters, some throwing stones, and Israeli and Lebanese troops, some shooting bullets. The Israelis are calling this Arab Spring-inspired uprising “an Iranian provocation.” At least eight protesters are dead. It reminds me of a particularly horrifying passage in Shulman’s essay:
[While in the hospital recovering from being shot in the knee by an Israeli settler,] Ali got the news that his elder brother, Yusuf, had been murdered by an Israeli soldier at the entrance to the village where the family lives. As Ali told me the story, Yusuf got out of his car to stop young boys in the village from throwing stones, and indeed the boys listened to him; the soldier disliked the display of authority and shot Yusuf in cold blood. The solider was not arrested.
When will the shooting, and the stone-throwing, stop?