Gandhi for Palestine

Don’t challenge Mike Tyson to a boxing match. Ask him to play chess.

Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi truly believed the Jews had been “cruelly wronged."  But, as he wrote in a Harijan newspaper editorial on November 11, 1938: “My sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for a national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the Bible … but the Palestine of Biblical conception is not a geographical tract.”

Gandhi by then had become the widely respected leader of the nonviolent resistance against British colonial rule in India and the Zionist movement had made countless attempts to win his support for its own struggle for statehood. All in vain. Gandhi opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine for both political and religious reasons.

“Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French,” he wrote. “It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs.”

And, although Gandhi’s religious convictions greatly inspired his political views, his aim was never to turn India into a religious state. He had always fought for a secular India for Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike, and so the mono-religious ideology of Zionism left him unmoved.

And so Gandhi’s All India Congress Committee “protested against the reign of terror as well as the partition proposals relating to Palestine” and urged the Jews “not to take shelter behind British imperialism,” but to seek the goodwill of the Arabs.

Despite Gandhi’s declarations of support, the Palestinians and the Arabs never embraced his concept of non-violence. In fact, while Gandhi rose to importance in the East, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, courted the Axis powers of Berlin and Rome in the West.

Notwithstanding Gandhi’s political support for the Palestinians, and as much as he disapproved of the attacks organized by the Zionist movement, he would also condemn the violent road taken by Palestinians to end Israeli occupation. Except for self-defense, Gandhi opposed any form of violence, no matter how justified the cause, both from a moral and pragmatic point of view.

As a devout Hindu, he considered all life sacred, even the enemy’s. Gandhi was also convinced that violence would merely beget more violence and that armed resistance in the long run was counterproductive.

Hence, he developed the concept of nonviolent resistance. Today, it should be noted, most people admire Gandhi, but also regard him as an idealist, a dreamer, someone out of touch with reality. Yet the fact is that in only 33 years he managed to end more than 200 years of British colonial rule.

This begs the inevitable question: How effective has the armed Palestinian resistance against Israel been in the last half-century? The sobering truth is that violence has earned the Palestinians virtually nothing. Take the second intifada. What have suicide bombers produced other than death, poverty, a loss in international sympathy and a perfect justification for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to build his land-grabbing separation barrier? Considering the intifada’s meager results, isn’t it time to at least consider Gandhi’s way?

The fundamental argument against armed resistance is that it speaks the language of the gun; a language Israel, with the world’s fifth largest army, undisputedly speaks much better than the Palestinians. What’s more, as the resistance mainly strikes out against civilians, it only justifies Israel’s aggressive policies and oppression.

The only way out of the stalemate is to drastically change the rules of engagement, so that Israel’s military force becomes useless. In other words, don’t challenge Mike Tyson to a boxing match. Ask him to play chess.

This is what Gandhi did in his struggle against the British Empire. The key to success was based on massive noncompliance with the colonial regime, while constantly conveying his message to India and the world. He called upon Indians not to work for the British, not to buy their products, not to pay taxes, while at the same time organizing peaceful sit-ins, demonstrations and even hunger strikes to strengthen his point. Meanwhile, he gave speech after speech and wrote article after article.

Perhaps his 1930 salt march illustrated the strategy best. Having informed the people and authorities of his intentions, Gandhi embarked on a 300-kilometer march to the sea to collect salt ¬ a seemingly meaningless gesture were it not for the fact that Indians were forbidden to do so. They had to buy British salt. Gandhi, and some 100,000 people who followed his example, were thrown in jail, which in no time congested India’s judicial system. Soon after, Britain lifted the ban.

Transfer Gandhi’s tactics to Gaza and the West Bank. Suppose tomorrow 200,000 people organize a sit-in to stop construction of the wall. No doubt the Israeli Army would hit hard to break up the crowd, and one might recall that in 1919 such protest tactics led to the British Army’s killing up to 1,200 peaceful demonstrators in Amritsar.

The Israelis would arrest people and probably even kill a few. However, would they continue to do so if day after day many thousands of people gathered peacefully under the watchful eye of the international media?

Much more present than in Gandhi’s time, the media are all-important. The Western view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is still too often defined by the image of a Muslim fanatic blowing up a bus of Israeli school children. Change the view by changing the image. Have Palestinian mothers in white march up to the wall while holding flowers. Curfew in Ramallah? Have everyone, absolutely everyone, take a blanket and sleep on the street.

Remember that Gandhi’s aim was not merely the removal of the British. Ending the colonial regime was also the means of establishing a democracy based on liberty and equality for all: men, women, Hindus, Muslims, those of high and low caste. It was because of this, combined with a hatred for the British, that the Indian population rallied behind him. It is clear that Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin are not quite in Gandhi’s class.

The arguably most difficult thing to tackle is a change of mentality. In the patriarchal Arab culture, honor and revenge play a key role in the decision to fight. Nonviolent resistance is based on the more feminine concept of endurance ¬ yet it is no less courageous. It’s not about suicide, but about standing tall for one’s principles, despite the gun aimed at your head. As Gandhi said, one has to be ready to die in the act of passive resistance.

The Daily Star/ January 31, 2004

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Peter Speetjens (1967) woont sinds 1996 in Beiroet. Hij was correspondent voor Trouw en De Standaard, en publiceerde verhalen in onder andere De Groene Amsterdammer, NRC en Vrij Nederland. In 2004Πco-regiseerde hij de film 2000 Terrorists. Peter schrijft vooral over Libanon, de regio en de manier waarop zij gestalte krijgt in de media.