Resolving the Israel-Palestine Conflict: What we can learn from Gandhi – by Norman G. Finkelstein

The following article was delivered as the Tans Lecture, Maastricht University, Netherlands on 13th November 2008. The numbers in brackets mark footnotes.

“This lecture will divide into three parts.  First, I will lay out the terms of the international consensus for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Second, I will sketch Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolent civil resistance.  Third, I will assess the relevance of Gandhi’s doctrine for the Israel-Palestine conflict.  I will argue that a moral legal consensus is a prerequisite for Gandhi’s doctrine to succeed.  In the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict such a consensus does exist, and consequently those seeking a just and lasting peace might benefit from giving Gandhi’s doctrine a serious hearing.

I.  What is the international consensus for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict?

One of the best kept diplomatic secrets is that a broad international consensus has long existed on how to settle the Israel-Palestine conflict. (1)   Although this conflict has been depicted as among the most intricate, the authoritative political, legal and human rights bodies in the world in fact concur on the basis of its resolution.  In the jargon of the so-called peace process, the “final status” issues are supposed to be so intractable that they need be deferred until the last stage of negotiations.  These final status issues include borders, East Jerusalem, settlements, and refugees.  The documentary record shows, however, that, on the terms for resolving these allegedly “controversial” issues, Israel and the United States stand virtually alone.

The United Nations General Assembly annually votes on a resolution titled, “Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine.”  This resolution uniformly includes these tenets for “achieving a peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine”:

  1. “Affirming the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”;
  2. “Affirming also the illegality of the Israeli settlements in the territory occupied since 1967 and of Israeli actions aimed at changing the status of Jerusalem”;
  3. “Stresses the need for: (a) The realization of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, primarily the right to self-determination; (b) The withdrawal of Israel from the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967”;
  4. “Also stresses the need for resolving the problem of the Palestine refugees in conformity with its resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948.”

Here is the recorded vote on this resolution the past decade:

UN voting record on "Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine"

Fig. 1: UN voting record on "Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine"

In 2004 the International Court of Justice rendered a landmark advisory opinion on the legality of the wall Israel has been constructing in the West Bank.(2)   The Court inventoried these “rules and principles of international law which are relevant in assessing the legality of the measures taken by Israel”:

  1. “No territorial acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force shall be recognized as legal”;
  2. “the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967” have “no legal validity.”

In its subsequent deliberations on “whether the construction of the wall has violated those rules and principles,” the Court found that:

[B]oth the General Assembly and the Security Council have referred, with regard to Palestine, to the customary rule of “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”….It is on this same basis that the [Security] Council has several times condemned the measures taken by Israel to change the status of Jerusalem.

As regards the principle of the right of peoples to self-determination,…the existence of a “Palestinian people” is no longer in issue….[Its] rights include the right to self-determination.

Israel has conducted a policy and developed practices involving the establishment of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

The Court concludes that the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (including East Jerusalem) have been established in breach of international law.

Not one of the 15 judges sitting on the ICJ registered dissent from these basic principles and findings.  It can scarcely be said however that they evinced prejudice against Israel, or that it was a “kangaroo court” (Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz).(3)   Several of the judges, although voting with the majority, expressed profound, perhaps undue, sympathy for Israel in their respective separate opinions.  If the judges were nearly of one mind in their final determination, this consensus sprang not from collective prejudice but the factual situation: the uncontroversial nature of the legal principles at stake and Israel’s uncontroversial breach of them.  Even the one judge voting against the 14-person majority condemning Israel’s construction of the wall, Thomas Buergenthal from the U.S., was at pains to stress that there was “much” in the advisory opinion “with which I agree.”  On the crucial question of Israeli settlements he stated: “Paragraph 6 of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention…does not admit for exception on grounds of military or security exigencies.  It provides that ‘the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population in the territory it occupies.’  I agree that this provision applies to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and that their existence violates Article 49, paragraph 6.”

A broad international consensus has also crystallized upholding the Palestinian “right of return.”  We have already seen that the annual United Nations resolution, supported overwhelmingly by member States, calls for a settlement of the refugee question on the basis of resolution 194, which “resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for property of those choosing not to return.”(4)   In addition, respected human rights organizations “urge Israel to recognize the right to return for those Palestinians, and their descendants, who fled from territory that is now within the State of Israel, and who have maintained appropriate links with that territory” (Human Rights Watch), and “call for Palestinians who fled or were expelled from Israel, the West Bank or Gaza Strip, along with those of their descendants who have maintained genuine links with the area, to be able to exercise their right to return” (Amnesty International).

The documentary record clearly demonstrates that whereas the global community has consistently registered its support in numerous forums for a two-state settlement based on a full Israeli withdrawal to the June 1967 border, and a resolution of the refugee question based on the right of return and compensation, Israel and the United States have consistently rejected such a settlement.  The Arab League has unanimously supported a two-state settlement on the June 1967 border and a “just” resolution of the refugee question based on 194, and Hamas has endorsed a settlement on these terms,(5)  while the Palestinian Authority has not only accepted the terms of the global consensus but expressed willingness to make major concessions.(6)   The challenge for those seeking a just and lasting peace is to get Israel and the United States to respect international law and public opinion.  A possible strategy is the one pioneered by Gandhi, to which I now turn.

II.  What is Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolence?

Before sketching Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolent civil resistance or satyagraha(7)  I must enter several caveats.  Gandhi’s collected works come to some 90 volumes, each of which runs to 500 pages.  Due to time constraints I was able to peruse only 23 of these volumes,(8)  as well as a raft of anthologies,(9)  biographies and scholarly studies.  Accordingly my remarks will be partial in a single and perhaps double sense.  They won’t encompass the full scope of his reflections.  My reading intentionally focused on the period 1933-1942 when Gandhi’s doctrine was put to the severest tests.  It is also arguable that because of this circumscribed reading I will have missed crucial transitions and ruptures in his thought, presenting a snapshot of a mind at work rather than the moving picture.  Here, it seems I am on firmer ground, however.  Gandhi lived a long, rich life, and one relentlessly subjected to self-scrutiny.  Nonetheless he remained remarkably consistent in his bedrock beliefs.(10)   He acknowledges local errors(11)  and reversals of judgment(12)  but there are no “Gods that Failed” recantations or “Second Thoughts” revelations.  His one systematic philosophical exposition is a modest, seemingly eccentric volume titled Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule) which he quickly penned in 1909.(13)   Rereading this book 30 years later, Gandhi expressed full satisfaction with it.(14)

To be sure, Gandhi’s concrete application of his doctrine appears replete with contradictions.  Asserting that “my nonviolence cannot deviate from what is practical,” Gandhi could sanction “calling in the army and having a handful of men shot” to stop inter-communal rioting.(15)   The world’s most famous exponent of nonviolence recruited an ambulance corps for the British side in the Boer War and Zulu War,(16)  again offered to raise an ambulance corps to serve the British army during World War I, and then recruited Indians to take up arms and fight in the war.(17)   Throughout his life he averred that such active wartime partisanship did not contradict his commitment to nonviolence.(18)   It must be said that on this point (and many others), the defenses he adduced for his practical activity did not carry conviction.(19)   Although trained as a barrister, Gandhi was not a persuasive arguer.  Interrogated by a shrewd critic, he seldom had a compelling repartee and more often than not lapsed into mumbo-jumbo,(20)  although, humble as he indubitably was, Gandhi seemed always to believe that he had bested his interlocutors.(21)   He was also given to render sweeping verdicts on competing philosophies such as socialism although conceding that “I have read no books on the subject.”(22)

Gandhi liked to quote Emerson, “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”(23)   Regrettably for the little minds endeavoring to interpret his work, Gandhi was a consistent exponent of this quip.  He can maintain that “in any examination of moral conduct, the intention is the chief ingredient,”(24)  and simultaneously maintain it is right that “we normally look at the action and not at the intention.”(25)   He can deplore as a species of violence “a living wall of pickets in order to prevent the entry of persons into picketed places,”(26)  yet at the same time suggest to an Indian correspondent whose seat at the cinema was grabbed by a British soldier to “deliberately so to stand as to obstruct the view of the usurper.”(27)   He can state in one breath that even in “the classical instance of the defenseless sister or mother who is threatened with molestation by an evil-minded ruffian,” use of violence would not be permissible,(28)  yet in the next breath state that he would “defend” use of violence “against the whole world if I found myself in a corner when I could not save a helpless girl from violation.”(29)  He can avow that his “sympathies are wholly with the Allies” during World War II because “this war is resolving itself into one between such democracy as the West has evolved and totalitarianism as it is typified in Hitler,”(30)  and that “There is a fundamental difference between Fascism and even this imperialism which I am fighting,”(31)  yet simultaneously avow that “Hitlerism and Churchillism are in fact the same thing,” and that “I must fight Nazism and Fascism equally with the enslaving British imperialism.”(32)   He can praise the decision of French statesmen not to resist Nazi aggression because “the cause of liberty becomes a mockery if the price to be paid is wholesale destruction of those who are to enjoy liberty,”(33)  yet also assert that “no greater evil can befall a country than that it should lose its independence,”(34)  and that nations occupied by the Nazis, as well as German Jews, should elect annihilation rather than cooperate with the occupiers.(35)

To his credit it must nonetheless be said that Gandhi never shied away from giving critics of his pronouncements and policy a fair hearing.  In conveying an intellectual or political dispute, he did not rig its terms to favor him or create straw men.  It should perhaps also be noted in his defense that Gandhi conceived himself “essentially a man of action and a reformer,” a “practical reformer,”(36)  and that “no one is able to act upon a great principle, like that of nonviolence, in its entirety.”(37)   Logical consistency no doubt figured as a low priority compared to getting things done.

Gandhi’s nonviolent doctrine is not altogether amenable to rational analysis for other reasons as well.  He never produced a programmatic or systematic guide on satyagraha.  One has to piece together its theory and practice from scattered, often contradictory, confusing and obscure fragments.  He indifferently conflated categories and collapsed distinctions.  Moreover, Gandhi’s doctrine was steeped in religious faith.  “It is faith that sustains me, and it is faith that must sustain the other satyagrahis.”(38)   Although eager to recruit satyagrahis for the struggle, Gandhi was emphatic that communists and other nonbelievers need not apply.(39)   When he decided to embark on civil disobedience or a fast, it was not after a secular reckoning of the “balance of forces,” but after an “inner urge,” “inner voice,” or “gift from God” prompted him.(40)   Gandhi denoted nonviolence a “science,”(41)  and conceived satyagraha not as a closed system but ceaseless experimentation in a perpetual and always incomplete search for truth.  But his was a science not susceptible to external proof or refutation; its power drew from the “efficacy of the incalculable force of inscrutable divinity.”(42)   If it failed to produce the desired outcome, this demonstrated not an inadequacy of the theory but an impurity lurking in the soul of its human agents.(43)   He might be right, but it is hard to figure how one could prove him wrong, just as one is rendered impotent before his ex cathedra pronouncements and saccharine homilies such as nonviolence, buoyed by the assistance of God, being the most potent of forces in the world.(44)   Gandhi asserted proprietary right over this science as “the author of satyagraha and general in satyagraha action,”(45)  the “sole authority on satyagraha” and the “most experienced satyagrahi.”(46)   He was uniquely privy to the mysteries of satyagraha;(47)  one could not argue with him about it—“I am confident that God has made me the instrument of showing the better way”;(48)  one could only march lock step—or elect not to—behind him.(49)   Gandhi eschewed all sectarian “isms,” including “Gandhism”—“I love to hear the words: ‘Down with Gandhism.’  An ‘ism’ deserves to be destroyed.”(50)   But the not altogether satisfying substitute he offered was a doctrine that often had the feel of autocratic whimsy.  He had an (as it were) party line not just on sexual abstinence but on “idle jokes” (opposed), “innocent pleasantries” (perhaps),(51)  and reading in the toilet (opposed).  He sometimes sounds like Stalin pronouncing on linguistics, although deviationists might be banished from his Ashram but not deported to the Gulag.(52)

It further warrants notice that the better known aspects of Gandhi’s nonviolent doctrine such as civil disobedience and non-cooperation, which I will focus on in this lecture, were for him the least significant.(53)   He situated satyagraha in a matrix of practical, diurnal activities, what he called the “constructive program,”(54)  that formed the “foundation for civil disobedience.”(55)   Its constituents embraced ridding Hinduism of the “blot” of untouchability, fostering Hindu-Muslim unity, and promoting use on a mass scale of the spinning wheel (tcharka) and handspun cloth (khadi).  On this (as it were) material basis, he believed, Indians could forge unbreakable bonds of unbounded love that transcended religious sect and class, thereby rendering political confrontation with Great Britain superfluous; complete independence (purna swaraj) would thence like a ripe fruit drop into India’s lap, and the nonviolent future of India would be safeguarded.  “If we learn to love one another, if the gulf between Hindu and Muslim, caste and outcaste, and rich and poor is obliterated,” Gandhi predicted, “a handful of English would not dare to continue their rule over us.”(56)

All of which is to say, Gandhi would almost certainly fault my exercise in today’s lecture for denaturing his doctrine: a rational core of satyagraha cannot be extracted from the religious content coursing through it and the religious renaissance presupposing and ensuing from it.  “It is impossible that a thing essentially of the soul,” he intoned, “can be imparted through the intellect.”(57)   Nonetheless, speaking as a resolute nonbeliever and rationalist, I am convinced that he has something useful to say on the subject of nonviolent resistance.  It will be for you to decide whether I am right.

What is satyagraha?

The “votary” of nonviolent civil resistance, according to Gandhi, “must not be violent in thought, word or deed,”(58)  in fact, must be “incapable of feeling or harboring anger.”(59)   The animating impulse of Gandhi’s doctrine is not however a negative “non”-principle but the affirmative or “active” principle of “unadulterated love—fellow-feeling,”(60)  which in turn springs from “faith in the inherent goodness of human nature,”(61)  and the belief that “what holds good in respect of yourself holds good equally in respect of the whole universe.  All mankind are alike.”(62)   Love, he professed, was the dominant factor in human existence—“Had violence, i.e., hate, ruled us, we should have become extinct long ago”(63) —whereas the apparent omnipresence of violence is an optical illusion— “History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul.”(64)   Just as “families and even clans” manage to resolve conflicts nonviolently due to the binding powers of love, so can “humankind” which is “one big family.”(65)   Gandhi’s faith in the essential goodness of humankind stretched credulity to its limits.  During World War II he wrote a “Dear Friend” letter to Hitler in which he averred not “to believe that you are the monster described by your opponents,” albeit acknowledging that “many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity.”(66)

Because love informs it, satyagraha excludes violence.  It also eschews inflicting indirect, non-physical forms of coercion such as fear and “embarrassment.”(67)   Rather it should rely exclusively on the “self-purification” that comes of self-suffering—“the more innocent and pure the suffering the more potent it will be in its effect”(68) —to arouse from its slumber the conscience of wrongdoers in order “to convert, not to coerce”(69)  them.  In another iteration, he invests in the transforming powers not of self-suffering per se but the “upwelling of love and pity towards the wrongdoer.”(70)

Gandhi deplored resort to violence on both personal/moral and political/pragmatic grounds.  It corrupts the individual who is degraded to the level of a beast—“That which distinguishes man from all other animals is his capacity to be nonviolent”(71) —but it also corrupts the goal of enlightened political action.  However just the cause, because means and ends are ineluctably intertwined—“The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree”(72) —the use of violence as a political weapon cannot but bring forth a power configuration in which the “strong and mighty” dominate and the “blind, the halt and the maimed” remain disenfranchised:(73)  “violence may destroy one or more bad rulers, but…others will pop up in their places.”(74)   Even—or especially—in the face of Axis aggression, the use of armed force was to be opposed because the Allies could inflict a defeat on the Axis only by becoming “stronger than they are, and therefore worse and more ruthless”;(75)  “that would mean no deliverance from Nazism,”(76)  but “superior Nazism.”(77)   Victor will have become vanquished, while “such a victory must mean another preparation for a war more inhuman than the present, as this one had proved more inhuman than the last.”(78)   On both practical and theoretical levels, Gandhi’s argument is wanting.  While hardly ideal, the Allied states emerging from World War II did not exactly mirror let alone surpass in brutality Nazi Germany.  In addition, Gandhi postulates that nonviolent resistance could not produce inferior results to violent resistance: “either the enemy comes to terms with you, then you win without blood; or the enemy annihilates you.  This last solution is not worse than what a violent war in any case brings about.”(79)   He willfully ignores the real possibility that nonviolence will have failed to stop the Nazis, whereas violence, however costly, will have succeeded short of the Allies’ total annihilation.  It is more difficult to counter Gandhi’s assertion that, once having imitated Nazi methods, a cause “cannot be called just”(80) —except to eke out exiguous distinctions between Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

Gandhi did not, however, unqualifiedly repudiate violence.  Until and unless he converted others to his beliefs, Gandhi accepted the validity of current norms.  Thus, while personally unable to condone it, he did acknowledge the legitimacy of resorting to violence in a righteous cause; “self-defense is everybody’s birthright.”(81)   In the face of personal insult,  and “if you feel humiliated, you will be justified in slapping the bully in the face or taking whatever action you might deem necessary to vindicate your self-respect.”(82)   And although “not defending the Arab excesses” during the 1936-39 Arab Revolt in Palestine, and although “wishing they had chosen the way of nonviolence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country,” Gandhi nonetheless maintained that “according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.”(83)

However much he deplored violence, Gandhi did deem it much preferable to inaction in the face of injustice.  Should one be incapable of nonviolently resisting an outrage, the only honorable option would be to resist violently, whereas flight would be wholly shameful.  For, if there was one thing Gandhi detested more than violence, it was “mute submissiveness”(84) —and what was yet worse, such submissiveness masquerading as nonviolent resistance.  He regarded not violence but pusillanimity and effeminateness as the most contemptible of personal failings while he prized the virtues—which a true satyagrahi perforce nurtured—of courage and manliness: “The fundamental thing to be borne in mind is that people should, under no circumstances, be cowardly or impotent”; “it is unmanly to run away from danger.”(85)   Gandhi tersely defined the “aim of the satyagraha struggle” he led in South Africa as being “to infuse manliness in cowards.”(86)   In a scalding denunciation of ersatz nonviolence, and in a passage that might easily have been cribbed from Nietzsche, Gandhi lectured:

Nonviolence cannot be taught to a person who fears to die and has no power of resistance.  A helpless mouse is not nonviolent because he is always eaten by pussy.  He would gladly eat the murderess if he could, but he ever tries to flee from her.  We do not call him a coward, because he is made by nature to behave no better than he does.  But a man who, when faced by danger, behaves like a mouse, is rightly called a coward.  He harbors violence and hatred in his heart and would kill his enemy if he could without being hurt himself.  He is a stranger to nonviolence.  All sermonizing on it will be lost on him.  Bravery is foreign to his nature.  Before he can understand nonviolence he has to be taught to stand his ground and even suffer death in the attempt to defend himself against the aggressor who bids fair to overwhelm him.  To do otherwise would be to confirm his cowardice and take him further away from nonviolence.  Whilst I may not actually help anyone to retaliate, I must not let a coward seek shelter behind nonviolence so called.  Not knowing the stuff of which nonviolence is made many have honestly believed that running away from danger every time was a virtue compared to offering resistance, especially when it is fraught with danger to one’s life.  As a teacher of nonviolence I must, so far as it is possible for me, guard against such an unmanly belief….Self-defense…is the only honorable course where there is unreadiness for self-immolation.(87)

And again, in another Nietzschean flourish:

Hence I ask you, is our nonviolence the nonviolence of the coward, the weak, the helpless, the timid?  In that case, it is of no value.  A weakling is a born saint.  A weak person is obliged to become a saint.  But we are soldiers of nonviolence, who, if the occasion demands, will lay down their lives for it.  Our nonviolence is not a mere policy of the coward.  But I doubt this.  I am afraid that the nonviolence we boast of might really be only a policy.  It is true that, to some extent, nonviolence works even in the hands of the weak.  And, in this manner, this weapon has been useful to us.  But, if one makes use of nonviolence in order to disguise one’s weakness…, it makes a coward of one.  Such a person is defeated on both fronts.  Such a one cannot live like a man and the Devil he surely cannot become.  It is a thousand times better that we die trying to acquire the strength of arm[s].  Using physical force with courage is far superior to cowardice.  At least we would have attempted to act like men.(88)

Gandhi heaped praise on the “reckless courage” that soldiers displayed in battle and wanted “to learn…the art of throwing away my life for a noble cause”;(89) on the “example of Sparta,” because “though they were an armed people and also few, they laid down their lives but would not leave their places”;(90)  and on the typical “Pathan [Pashtun] boy” because he is “fearless.  If there is bloodshed he does not hide himself in his house.  He finds pleasure in fighting.  He does not stop to think that he might be injured or even killed.  He is never afraid of being hurt.  I have seen one standing unmoved in the midst of blood gushing from his many wounds.”(91)   On the other hand, Gandhi (mistakenly) criticized the German Jews for pretending to nonviolence yet nourishing violent revenge on the Nazis (“There is no nonviolence in their hearts.  Their nonviolence, if it may be so called, is of the helpless and the weak”),(92)  and the cowardice of his disciples who elected milder to evade severer sanctions (“The nonviolence of the person who went to jail to avoid a worse fate harmed him and disgraced the cause which he used as a shelter to escape death”).(93)   But he also freely conceded in poignant detail his own failure to rise to the heroic standard he set.(94)

In addition, Gandhi rejected nonviolence borne of weakness as being politically ineffectual.  If the votaries of nonviolence abjure force only from dread of violent retaliation, then the wrongdoer has every right to dread what might ensue should they attain power and acquire its instruments.  In order to convince the wrongdoer that one’s nonviolence was not born of weakness, one needed manifest a willingness to forego violence even when no prospect of violent retaliation impended, say, where the votaries of nonviolence outnumbered and outgunned the wrongdoer.  The nonviolence of “India as a nation…is that of the weak,” Gandhi lamented.  “If she were nonviolent in the consciousness of her strength, Englishmen would lose their role of distrustful conquerors….If we, as Indians, could but for a moment visualize ourselves as a strong people disdaining to strike, we should cease to fear Englishmen whether as soldiers, traders or administrators, and they to distrust us.”(95)   And again: “The moment Englishmen feel that although they are in India in a hopeless minority, their lives are protected against harm not because of the matchless weapons of destruction which are at their disposal, but because Indians refuse to take the lives even of those whom they may consider to be utterly in the wrong, that moment will see a transformation in the English nation in its relation to India.”(96)   Yet, it would appear that practical realities—think of inmates in a concentration camp—would often preclude such a demonstration of strength.  It will also be noticed Gandhi’s naïve premise that the fundamental barrier dividing British and Indians was psychological (“fear”) and not a material clash of interests.

In any event, on both personal/moral and political/pragmatic grounds, Gandhi insisted that true nonviolent resistance had to be yet more brave and strong than violent resistance: only such nonviolence could redeem its votary and convert the wrongdoer.  “An army of nonviolence exposes itself to all the risks that an army of violence does,” he declared.  “Only the latter expects to retaliate even when it is not the aggressor.  An army of nonviolence runs risks without the wish to retaliate”;(97)  “I believe that a man is the strongest soldier for daring to die unarmed with his breast bare before the enemy.”(98)   Such an “army” had to accept—indeed embrace—the prospect of mutely subjecting itself to mass slaughter.(99)   Into the valley of death it must headlong march, unarmed yet “smilingly”(100)  and “cheerfully”;(101)  “if we are to train ourselves to receive the bullet wounds or bayonet charges in our bare chests, we must accustom ourselves to standing unmoved in the face of cavalry or baton charges.”(102)   “Wherein is courage required,” he rhetorically asked, “in blowing others to pieces from behind a cannon or with a smiling face to approach a cannon and to be blown to pieces?  Who is the true warrior—he who keeps death always as a bosom-friend or he who controls the death of others?”(103)   “What I shall expect of you,” he lectured the “officers” of his army, “is that even if someone subjects you to the most inhuman tortures, you will joyfully face the ordeal and make the supreme sacrifice with God’s name on your lips and without a trace of fear or anger or thoughts of revenge in your hearts.”(104)   And in a macabre peroration, he avowed, “That nation is great which rests its head upon death as its pillow.”(105)   It might be said of Gandhi that he created a cult of the dead.  “Whilst therefore I tender my sympathy to the parents of the two brave lads who lost their lives,” he said following the murder of these disciples,

my inmost desire is to congratulate them for the finished sacrifices of their sons, if they would accept my congratulations.  A warrior’s death is never a matter of sorrow, still less that of a satyagrahi warrior.  One of the lessons that a nation yearning for freedom needs to learn is to shed several fears of losing title, wealth, position, fear of imprisonment, of bodily injury and lastly of death.(106)

How satyagraha works

Although he asserted that satyagraha was not just nonviolent but also non-coercive, the means Gandhi deployed in his civil resistance campaigns actually ranged on a continuum alloying coercion and abnegation.(107)  At one pole was what he called “non-cooperation” that rendered society ungovernable for political elites  and enterprises insolvent for economic elites.(108)  Insofar as the satyagrahi faced the loss of a paycheck, punitive sanctions, even internment and death, non-cooperation also entailed varying degrees of self-suffering.(109)   At the opposite extreme was a tactic such as fasting which plainly contained a large component of self-suffering but which was also coercive, however vehemently Gandhi might deny this.(110)   Occupying the middle ground between these poles were various forms of civil disobedience, which contained equal parts coerciveness (breaking the law) and self-suffering (going to jail, paying fines).  In the ensuing remarks I put to one side a very powerful if latent form of violence lurking in all of Gandhi’s activities, which he was fully aware of and which he fully exploited: if the British didn’t acquiesce in his nonviolence, they would have to cope with wholesale violent resistance: “I have claimed in private correspondence with English friends that it is because of my incessant preaching of the gospel of nonviolence and my having successfully demonstrated its practical utility that so far the forces of violence, which are undoubtedly in existence…, have remained under complete control.”(111)

The coercive potency of non-cooperation such as a general strike for getting the lords of the land to see the light requires little elucidation.(112)   Gandhi stressed that even non-cooperation “must have its roots in love.  Its object should not be to punish the opponent or to inflict injury upon him….we must make him feel that in us he has a friend and we should try to reach his heart.”(113)   And again: “We do want to paralyze the Government considered as a system—not, however, by intimidation, but by the irresistible pressure of our innocence.”(114)   He did allow that as a “practical” matter even if non-cooperation sprang from the “nonviolence of the weak”—i.e., not from love but from fear of violent retribution—it could still be efficacious “if a sufficient number of people practice it.”(115)   But Gandhi adamantly refused to concede that, however much “love” and “innocence” might assuage the abrasiveness of a conflict,(116)  it remains that the operative factor at play in non-cooperation is coercive.(117)

The focus of Gandhi’s creed, however, was the transformative power of pristine self-suffering, and here yet more problems arise.  He believed that such suffering would put on public display the “human dignity”(118)  of the victim and thereby “quicken the conscience,”(119)   strike a “sympathetic chord,”(120)  and “evoke by his truth and love expressed through his suffering” the “inherent goodness of human nature”;(121)   “the world is touched by sacrifice,”(122)  “it can tame the wildest beast, certainly the wildest man.”(123)   The satyagrahi will then be well-placed to “mobilize public opinion against the evil which he is out to eradicate, by means of a wide and intensive agitation”;(124)  “success is the certain result of suffering of the extremist character, voluntarily undergone.”(125)

It is not clear however why suffering in and of itself—or, for that matter, allied with “love”—would convert the alleged wrongdoer.  Were the “pro-life” half of the American population to engage in civil disobedience or even a fast unto the death, the “pro-choice” half would hardly be converted by such a spectacle.  For, it is not suffering alone that touches but suffering in the pursuit of a legitimate goal.  The recognition of the legitimacy of such a goal presumes however a preexisting consensus according to which what the victim seeks he justly deserves.  Gandhi accordingly referred to the victim’s “innocence.”(126)   It is innocence in a double sense: of means—the victim’s suffering results from unilateral violence inflicted by others—and of ends—the victim seeks a right that cannot in good conscience be denied because it jibes with the “normal moral sense of the world”;(127)  the more incontrovertible the ends, the more self-suffering as a means will resonate with “enlightened public opinion.”(128)   In this light it is to be doubted the efficacy of self-suffering before wrongdoers who are convinced, either due to an inimical interest or inimical ideology or—what’s often the case—both, that the demands of the victim lack justice.  Gandhi himself acknowledges that his adversary might be as convinced in the rightness of his opinions as Gandhi is of his own (“I realize what may appear to me prejudice may be enlightenment to others”);(129)  that he must be open to the possibility that his interlocutor might be right and he wrong (“The royal road of nonviolence consists of…willingness to understand another’s point of view with an unprejudiced mind”);(130)  and that in any event a sincerely-held opinion cannot easily be dislodged (“It is difficult to combat an honest belief, however erroneous it may be”).(131)  But then why should one suppose that the alleged wrongdoer will be converted by the suffering of those in pursuit of an admittedly doubtful goal?  On its own, self-suffering might induce some degree of pity but it surely won’t induce fundamental concessions.  Gandhi makes the commendable point that if the goal turns out to be mistaken, one’s suffering will have done no harm to the alleged wrongdoer: “He does not make others suffer for his mistakes.”(132)  But it does not alter the fact that hardened self-interest or ideology will almost certainly stifle the voice, inner or outer, of justice.  The point I want to make here finds vivid illustration in this passage from Gandhi: “Our triumph consists in thousands being led to the prisons like lambs to the slaughter-house.  If the lambs of the world had been willingly led, they would have long ago saved themselves from the butcher’s knife.  Our triumph consists again in being imprisoned for no wrong whatsoever.  The greater our innocence, the greater our strength and the swifter our victory.”(133)   If the injustice is morally assimilable, then innocence can, and likely will, prick the conscience.  But did millions of innocent Jews being led to the crematoria “like lambs to the slaughter-house” prick the Nazi conscience?  It might be said that they did not go voluntarily—theirs was “nonviolence of the weak” (under the circumstances how could it be otherwise?)—but if the Nazis could morally rationalize the extermination of one million Jewish children—whose innocence of means and ends could be purer?—it is probable that they would also have rationalized self-immolation.

I will now illustrate these propositions on consensus, interest and ideology with Gandhi’s key political interventions during the period I have concentrated on for this lecture:

Discrimination and immorality.  Gandhi expressly launched his satyagraha campaigns for social reform in the knowledge that a majority—however latent—supported his agenda.  The point of the campaign was not to create ex nihilo a constituency, but through self-suffering to “quicken the conscience” of an already existent broad consensus, “cultivating and ascertaining the opinion” of this natural constituency, and thereby bringing to bear the “force of public opinion.”(134)  Thus, in undertaking to remove the “blot” of untouchability by opening the doors of Hindu temples to the Harijans (“children of God”),(135)  Gandhi presumed that a majority of Hindus supported such a reform but needed the stimulus of satyagraha—fasting, picketing, prayers—to act finally on their consciences: “The whole idea of my fast is based on the belief that a large section of the people favor temple-entry, but they do not voice it.”(136)  (To be sure, the campaign against untouchability turned brutal and bloody, Gandhi meanwhile declaring, “Loss even of a few hundred lives will not be too great a price to pay for the freedom of the ‘untouchables.’  Only the martyrs must die clean.”)(137)  Likewise, in his campaign to rid India of the scourge of alcoholic consumption, Gandhi banked on the belief that “public opinion” could be consolidated around such a reform.(138)  When challenged why he did not also wage campaigns to rid India of other morally debasing indulgences such as gambling and the cinema, Gandhi candidly responded, “The drink evil has been recognized as such by the people of this land.  But the other evils are more or less fashionable.”(139)   And again: “These vices were fashionable and therefore were not capable of being dealt with like prohibition.  I claim to be a practical reformer.  I know almost instinctively what vices are ripe for being publicly dealt with.”(140)   Put otherwise, absent a prior consensus no amount of self-suffering would move public opinion to do the right thing.  Gandhi did also profess that self-suffering would “finally break the wall of prejudice”(141) of those violently opposed to his social reforms—“the hardest heart and the grossest ignorance,” “the stoniest heart of the stoniest fanatic”(142) —and “melt the hearts” of those profiting from vice.(143)  Yet, the thrust of his campaigns was clearly to energize a latently sympathetic public via self-suffering, and utilize this “force of public opprobrium”(144) in order to democratically overrule or socially isolate or force the capitulation of or reach a principled compromise with(145) the diehards.

Economic inequality.  Gandhi cast himself as the voice of India’s impoverished “dumb millions”:(146)  “I unhesitatingly say that I am a people’s man.  Every moment of my life I feel for the starving millions.  I live and am prepared to lay down my life to relieve their sufferings and mitigate their miseries.”(147)  He conceived swaraj as not just political independence (“mere transfer of power”), but “complete deliverance of the toiling yet starving millions from the dreadful evil of economic serfdom” and “independence of the poorest and the lowliest in the land”; “unless poverty and unemployment are wiped out from India, I would not agree that we have attained freedom.”(148)  He also adopted a stringent, austere code of what constituted just deserts in a well-ordered society: “A thing not originally stolen must nevertheless be classified as stolen property if we possess it without needing it”; “each man shall have the wherewithal to supply all his natural needs and no more”; “all amassing or hoarding of wealth, above and beyond one’s legitimate requirements, was theft.”(149)  Eliminating “the cruel inequality that obtains today”(150)  constituted a prerequisite for eliminating societal violence: “A nonviolent system of government is clearly an impossibility so long as the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists.”(151)

However, as against the demand of Indian socialists and communists to expropriate large property-holders and nationalize the means of production, Gandhi championed the “theory of trusteeship,” according to which large property holders would be persuaded through nonviolent civil resistance to use their “excess”(152)  wealth for the betterment of society; “I do not believe that the capitalists and landlords are all exploiters by an inherent necessity or that there is a basic or irreconcilable antagonism between their interests and those of the masses.”(153)   I will not here argue the merits of Gandhi’s alternative,(154)  but rather the practicability of the means he proposes for realizing it.  Occasionally Gandhi invests in the power of the laborers’ self-abnegation to convert property-owners from ruthless exploiters to enlightened guardians.  The property-owners will come to realize after “kind”(155)  gestures that they should not “squander [their] gains in luxurious or extravagant living, but must use them” for the poor:(156) “If we treat these rich people with decency, they would fulfill the expectations we have of them”; “If we win their confidence and put them at their ease we will find that they are not averse to progressively sharing their riches with the masses”; “We should struggle against them in the same way and for the same reason, as lovingly and reluctantly and with as much respect and politeness as we do against our blood-relations.”(157)  Moreover, he makes out that the irrational “fear and distrust” of the rich are the sole barriers to reconciliation with the poor.(158)   But when pressed hard Gandhi conceded that no precedent exists for his trusteeship proposal and that it was based on a giant leap of faith.(159)   Indeed, aren’t capitalists convinced—and, for all anyone knows, rightly—that the system is fair, rewarding the enterprising few and penalizing the slothful many?  However, Gandhi also instructs workers to organize and mobilize—that is, to realize their latent power—in order to get property-owners to equitably distribute their ill-gotten gains: “What is necessary is that laborers or workers should know their rights and should also know how to assert them”; “When the workers are better organized and more self-sacrificing, their power would grow.  You are not conscious of your strength and therefore you are oppressed”; “As soon as laborers are properly educated and organized and they realize their strength, no amount of capital can subdue them.  Organized and enlightened labor can dictate its own terms.”(160)   If the “rich” cannot be persuaded “to become guardians of the poor in the true sense of the term and the latter are more and more crushed and die of hunger,” then Gandhi advocated “nonviolent non-cooperation and civil disobedience as the right and infallible means”: “The rich cannot accumulate wealth without the cooperation of the poor in society.”(161)  What Gandhi refused to acknowledge, however, is that although he abjured “so-called class-conflict,” counseling instead that “landlords and capitalists” be “persuaded and converted,”(162)  his practical prescription ultimately relied not on the beneficence of self-suffering but on the coercion of raw (if nonviolent) power.

Aggression and occupation.  In order to combat Axis aggression during World War II Gandhi advised conquered nations to lay down their arms and simply refuse to cooperate with the occupiers.  Once the Axis powers realized that they could not make profitable use of the annexed territories without the enslaved population’s acquiescence they would withdraw: in the face of “quiet, dignified and nonviolent defiance,” the “tyrant will not find it worth his while to go on with his terrorism,” and “he would certainly have been obliged to retire.”  Here was a tactic that made ultimate appeal not to the consciences or hearts of the occupiers(163) but their balance-sheets, i.e., rational self-interest.(164)  Where achievement of Axis goals required not the cooperation but removal of the occupied populations, or their outright extermination,(165) Gandhi alternatively professed that self-suffering could “melt”(166)  even Hitler’s heart, because “human nature in its essence is one and therefore unfailingly responds to the advances of love.”(167)   Yet, if Hitler was genuinely persuaded of the necessity of lebensraum and the lethal iniquity of the Jews, why should suffering allied to love convert him?  Gandhi himself was apparently less than fully convinced of the efficacy of his tactic—at any rate in the here and now—for he also counseled Jews to go if need be mutely to their deaths, and believed that such a dignified demise would be their ultimate salvation: “If the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre [of Jews by Hitler]…could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant.  For the God-fearing, death has no terror.  It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.”(168)   Perhaps so, but if the goal was to melt Hitler’s heart in the promise of earthly deliverance, then self-suffering must be reckoned a colossal failure.(169)   Of course, it might be argued that whatever recourse European Jewry made its fate was sealed while nonviolent resistance would have been most redemptive.(170)   But that is a matter apart from whether self-suffering is a viable tactic against ideological fanatics.

In this context it merits recalling that Gandhi’s nemesis in the epic struggle for Indian independence, Winston Churchill, was hardly persuaded by Indian suffering to dismantle the British Empire.  Between interest-cum-ideology on the one side, and the suffering of the Indian masses on the other, the former proved decisive.(171)  “The English Ministers are pursuing what they believe to be an honest policy,” Gandhi acknowledged.  “It is their honest belief that British rule in India has been, on the whole, for her good.  They honestly believe that under it India has advanced.”(172)  Should it then surprise that—contrary to Gandhi’s expectations—the self-suffering of Indians manifestly failed to touch British imperialists or that it failed to get “British commerce with India…purified of greed” and put on “terms of mutual help and…equally suited to both”?(173)  To be sure, although Gandhi spoke of wanting to “convert the administrators of the system,” he nonetheless qualified, “the conversion may or may not be willing.”(174)  And again: “to convert them or, if you will, even to drive them out of the country.”(175)  In fact, he conceived the struggle against British imperialism in terms of making India ungovernable through a combination of nonviolence, which neutralized British bayonets by rendering use of them an embarrassment, and non-cooperation, which nullified British authority by flouting it: “Whether we convert them or not, we are determined to make their rule impossible by nonviolent non-cooperation”;(176)  “If, notwithstanding their desire to the contrary, they saw that their guns and everything they had created for the consolidation of their authority were useless because of our non-use of them, they could not do otherwise than bow to the inevitable and either retire from the scene, or remain on our terms, i.e., as friends to co-operate with us, not as rulers to impose their will upon us.”(177)  However much he professed otherwise,(178)  Gandhi did not endeavor to “quicken the conscience” of British imperialists but rather to coerce them, albeit nonviolently, into submission through “force of will.”(179)  But it is also true that he held out the hope of the “conversion” of the British “nation”—i.e., “public opinion”—through self-suffering: “I have deliberately used the word conversion.  For my ambition is no less than to convert the British people through nonviolence, and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India” (emphasis in original).(180)   The imperialists might have to be driven out, but the conscience of the people might yet be pricked.  Indeed, British public opinion could serve as a critical weapon for coercing dyed-in-the-wool British imperialists to leave India.

III.  What can supporters of a just peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict learn from Gandhi?

Before answering this question, a few preliminary remarks are in order.  Neither I nor anyone else has the right to tell Palestinians that they must renounce violent means to end the occupation.  As already noted, during the Arab Revolt in the 1930s Gandhi asserted that “according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.”  I cannot see grounds for revising this judgment, except to note that the “accepted canons” today would mean the current laws of war (e.g., the inadmissibility of targeting civilians).  In fact, if they cannot find the moral reserves to practice nonviolence, according to Gandhi, then it is not only the right but the duty of Palestinians to hit back, and hit back hard, those who have wrecked their lives and violated their persons.  Palestinians are not obliged to acquiesce in assaults on their human dignity; quite the contrary, they have a responsibility to defend their dignity against such assaults, nonviolently if they can, violently if they must.  It might also be recalled that for Gandhi “no greater evil can befall a country than that it should lose its independence.”(181)  If I propose that Palestinians adopt Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolent civil resistance, it is not because they should be held—or hold themselves—accountable to a higher ethical standard, but rather because of a compelling pragmatic insight of his.  There is nothing violence can accomplish, Gandhi maintained, that nonviolence cannot accomplish—and with lesser loss of life.  As a general proposition, it is obviously impossible to prove.  Could the Allies have defeated Hitler had they resorted to nonviolent civil resistance, and with fewer than 60 million dead?  We will never know.  On the other hand, Palestinians suffered some 5,000 dead (1,000 minors) during the second intifada, and the Israelis 1,000 dead (160 minors).  Apart from the dubious blessing of Israel’s redeployment in Gaza, Palestinians have little to show for the violent resistance; indeed, nearly all the reckonings after eight years of bloodletting fall squarely in the debit column.  It is at least arguable that the balance-sheet would have been better had Palestinians en masse adopted nonviolent civil resistance.

But didn’t Palestinians embrace this strategy during the first intifada, and didn’t it fail?  True, the first intifada was overwhelmingly nonviolent,(182)  although Israel hardly responded in kind.(183)  However, it is fundamentally mistaken to reckon the uprising a failure.  The surpassing courage, integrity, humanity, solidarity and sheer cleverness of the Palestinian people during those years—which I had the unforgettable honor of personally witnessing—threw the Israeli occupation army into professional, morale and moral disarray from which it has never fully recovered,(184)  while Israel’s brutal methods of repression caused it to suffer a public relations disaster of the first magnitude.(185)  If the Palestinian leadership under Yasir Arafat had not subverted the first intifada, stifling its élan and subordinating it to a dead-end diplomatic game, the outcome might have been different.  As it was, Israel entered into negotiations with the PLO and subsequently signed the Oslo Accord because the intifada had rendered the occupation untenable except through the conscription of Palestinian collaborators.(186)

We have already seen that a crucial prerequisite for the successful prosecution of nonviolent resistance is a preexisting public consensus on the legitimacy of its goals.  We have also seen that such a consensus has crystallized in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict.  The international community has enjoined Israel’s full withdrawal from the territories it occupied in June 1967 and a resolution of the refugee question based on the right of return and compensation.  The challenge now—in Gandhi’s words—is to “cultivate” and “quicken” the conscience of this public.  In practical terms, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories would have to rivet international public opinion on the brutality of the occupation by resorting to nonviolent civil resistance; in the meantime their supporters abroad must publicize the factual record showing that international opinion—whether registered in its most representative bodies such as the United Nations General Assembly, or its most enlightened bodies such as the International Court of Justice and respected human rights organizations—agrees on how to resolve the conflict, and that the only obstacles to its settlement are Israel and the United States.

It must be said here that significant lessons can be learned from the history of Zionism.  The Zionist movement made sure that each of the documents that conferred—or appeared to confer—international legitimacy became a veritable household reference.  Its leaders grasped how critical such legitimacy was in winning over public opinion and thereby achieving their goal.  Were it not for the concerted and sustained campaign of Zionist publicists, it is inconceivable that a one-sentence declaration uttered 90 years ago by a nondescript British foreign minister named Arthur Balfour, or a United Nations General Assembly resolution passed 60 years ago recommending the partition of Palestine, would still command near-universal recognition.  Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban famously said of the Partition Resolution that it was Israel’s “birth certificate.”  He did not exaggerate.  It ascertained that the State of Israel was not a bastard child of the international system but rather its legitimate and—at any rate, morally—irrevocable offspring.  It might also be noticed that the Zionist movement never rested on its laurels.  Just as it required discipline and organization to extract each of its certificates of legitimacy, so it also required tenacity to preserve these gains.  Neither the Balfour Declaration nor the Partition Resolution came easy, and renewed battles ensued after both victories against powerful forces that wanted to rescind them.(187)  The contrast with the Palestinian independence struggle could not be starker.  Each year the United Nations General Assembly issues the Palestinian people yet another birth certificate.  The General Assembly is far more representative of humankind today than it was in 1947, and the vote favoring a Palestinian state is consistently lopsided whereas the Partition Resolution just barely passed.  In addition, on nearly all the critical issues—borders, East Jerusalem, settlements—the Palestinians won a resounding victory and Israel suffered a resounding defeat in the 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice.  Considered as a certificate of legitimacy the near-unanimous ICJ opinion manifestly carried far greater weight than the unilateral declaration of a British government.  Yet—and herein lies the great tragedy—how many people even know of the annual General Assembly votes and the ICJ opinion?  These landmark victories, achieved largely due to the inhuman suffering and superhuman steadfastness of the Palestinian people, have been criminally squandered one after another.

A massive mobilization of Palestinians building on the non-cooperation tactics of the first intifada (commercial and tax strikes, popular committees) could again make the Israeli occupation ungovernable.  Is it so far-fetched to imagine an “army” of Palestinian satyagrahis converging on the Wall, their sole “weapons” a pick in one hand and a copy of the ICJ opinion in the other?  The ICJ stated that the Wall was illegal and must be dismantled.  The Palestinians would only be doing what the world should already have done a long time ago.  Who could fault them for enforcing the law?  No doubt Israel would fire on Palestinians and many would be killed.  But if their supporters in North America and Europe publicized the ICJ opinion, and if Palestinians found the inner wherewithal to persevere nonviolently, it seems probable that far, far fewer than 5,000 Palestinians would be killed before Israel were forced to desist.  No one writing abroad from the comfort and safety of his study can in good conscience urge such a strategy that entails so much death.  But Gandhi’s point nonetheless stands: if Palestinians have repeatedly shown a willingness to pay the ultimate price, doesn’t it make sense for them to pursue a strategy that has a better likelihood of success at a smaller human price?

A high profile publicity campaign in the West complementing nonviolent Palestinian civil resistance in the Occupied Territories would enhance the prospects of its success.  If the campaign targeted Israeli intransigence as the sole obstacle to a settlement, it would pave the way for making of Israel a pariah state, and then the implementation of sanctions against it.  The tenability of such a sanctions campaign depends, however, on international public opinion being first (or simultaneously) primed with knowledge of both the consensus for resolving the conflict and Israel’s refusal to abide it.  Such a campaign also cannot possibly succeed if Palestinian goals do not command international legitimacy, such as the occasional calls for eliminating the “Zionist entity” and embracing a “one-state” solution, which enjoy exactly zero international support.  Again, innocence of means does not suffice; innocence of ends is also requisite.  One might want to counter that the consensus is not the solution but part of the problem, and must be changed.  Perhaps so, but then Palestinians suffering under occupation should be informed that they will have to endure it for many more generations to come.  For, it is no small task to reconfigure enlightened public opinion where legitimacy is largely built on precedent.  Every call for a Palestinian state (including the 1988 Palestinian declaration of independence) has referred back to the unfinished business of the Partition Resolution.  Where is the legal or moral precedent for dismantling the “Zionist entity”—the birth certificate of which was signed by the United Nations—or a “one-state” solution—which the Partition Resolution superseded?  It required 70 years of Zionist colonization and organizational will, the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations mandate, the Nazi holocaust, and the decline of the British Empire to create a global mandate for the Partition Resolution.  It would take a comparable summoning of human and material resources, and fortuitous constellation and alignment of historical circumstances, to undo it.

A nonviolent civil disobedience campaign in the Occupied Territories garnering visible international support will almost certainly open up fissures in Israeli society.  To be sure, the Palestinians will perforce be practicing a “nonviolence of the weak.”  If they (again) resort to nonviolence, it will not be because they “love” their Israeli oppressors, but because violent resistance failed.  It must be conceded that herein lies a drawback of Palestinian nonviolence.  For, Israelis will not be convinced that Palestinians, once acquiring the machinery of a state and the accouterments of power, won’t use them against Israel.  From the outset they will know that Palestinian nonviolence is not an axiom but—to quote Gandhi—“mere policy.”  Nonetheless, Gandhi acknowledged that, although Indians themselves had practiced a “nonviolence of the weak,” the tactic was still able to produce positive (if somewhat limited) results.  Those sectors of Israeli society cultivating a liberal self-image will perforce be shamed by the “force of public opprobrium” in the West.  Many other Israelis will simply calculate on grounds of self-interest: if anarchy reigns in the Occupied Territories, if the occupation army gets bogged down in an intractable war of nerves with peaceful demonstrators, if, like South Africa and South Africans during the Apartheid era, Israel and Israelis are reviled abroad, then the occupation is no longer worth the price.  No doubt the diehards in Israeli society won’t budge.  The self-suffering of Palestinians will no more “melt” the hearts of the ideological settlers and the generals than the self-suffering of Indians melted Churchill’s heart or the self-suffering of Jews would have melted Hitler’s heart.  But a critical mass favoring a full Israeli withdrawal presumably would bring forth an Israeli leader ready and able to pull out, just as in France during the Algerian war.

Gandhi translated satyagraha as “hold on to the truth.”  Herewith is our challenge: to hold on to the truth that what Israel has done to the Palestinians is wrong; to hold on to the truth that Israel’s refusal, backed by the U.S., to respect international law and the considered opinion of humankind is the sole obstacle to putting an end, finally, to their suffering.  We can win if we hold on to the truth, and if, as the Negro spiritual put it with cognate wisdom, we “keep our eyes on the prize, and hold on.”  That is, if we keep remembering what the struggle—the prize—is all about: not theoretical fad or intellectual provocation, not holier-than-thou radical posturing, but—however humdrum, however prosaic, by comparison—freeing the Palestinian people from their bondage.  And then to hold on, to be ready for sacrifice and for the long haul—do I dare mention the example of Hezbollah’s heroic resistance?—but also, and especially, to be humble in the knowledge that for those of us living in North America and Europe, the burdens pale next to those borne daily by the people of Palestine.  Whenever I harbor doubts about holding on, whenever I contemplate moving on in life, I see in my mind’s eye a dear friend and comrade who lives in Hebron where he is the field representative for an Israeli-based human rights organization, and hear his words in my head.  My friend Musa, who grew up in a refugee camp, told me once, “The past 38 years should have been the best in my life.  But I honestly cannot remember a single happy day.”  To forsake those trapped in abject distress would be yet more wrong.  Where was the world during the Nazi holocaust?, we still ask.  Where is the world now?  Has the Palestinian struggle gone on too long?  Has it become boring and passé?  Has the time come to move on?  But the Palestinian people continue to be ground under, the merciless Israeli juggernaut keeps pressing on, confiscating yet more land, demolishing yet more homes, destroying yet more lives.  The time now is not to move on—but to hold on!

The Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire once wrote, “There’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory.”  Late in life, when his political horizons broadened out, Edward Said would often quote this line.  We should make it our credo as well.  We want to nurture a movement, not hatch a cult.  The victory to which we aspire is inclusive, not exclusive; it is not at anyone’s expense.  It is to be victorious without vanquishing.  No one is a loser, and we all are gainers if together we stand by truth and justice.  “I am not anti-English; I am not anti-British; I am not anti-any government,” Gandhi insisted, “but I am anti-untruth—anti-humbug, and anti-injustice.”(188)  Shouldn’t we also say that we are not anti-Jewish, anti-Israel or, for that matter, anti-Zionist?  The prize on which our eyes should be riveted is human rights, human dignity, human equality.  What, really, is the point of ideological litmus tests such as, Are you now or have you ever been a Zionist?  Indeed, it is Israel’s apologists who thrive on and cling to them, bogging down interlocutors in distracting and endless intellectual sideshows—What is a Jew? Are the Jews a nation?  Don’t Jews have a right to national liberation?  Shouldn’t we use a vocabulary that registers and resonates with the public conscience and the Jewish conscience, winning over the decent many while isolating the diehard few?  Shouldn’t we instead be asking, Are you for or against ethnic cleansing, for or against torture, for or against house demolitions, for or against Jews-only roads and Jews-only settlements, for or against discriminatory laws?  And if the answer comes, against, against and against, shouldn’t we then say, Keep your ideology, whatever it might be—there’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory?

May we all, seekers of truth, fighters for justice, yet live to join the people of Palestine at the rendezvous of victory.

Thank you.”

Norman G. Finkelstein
New York City
November 2008


(1) For extensive documentation, see Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history, updated edition with a new preface (Berkeley: 2008), pp. 323-55, and Norman G. Finkelstein: A Farewell to Israel: The coming break-up of American Zionism (forthcoming).  For the critical background, see esp. Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (Boston: 1983), chap. 3.

(2) For extensive analysis of the ICJ opinion and full references, see Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah, pp. 227-270.

(3) Ibid., p. 200.

(4) For analysis of the U.N. record on the Palestinian refugees, and full references for statements in this paragraph, see ibid., pp. xxii-xxiii, 349-51.

(5) Mouin Rabbani, “A Hamas Perspective on the Movement’s Evolving Role: An Interview with Khalid Mishal, Part II,” Journal of Palestine Studies (summer 2008).

(6) Norman G. Finkelstein, Dennis Ross and the Peace Process: Subordinating Palestinian rights to Israeli “needs” (Washington: 2007).

(7) For the origin and meanings of the term, see Stanley Wolpert, Gandhi’s Passion: The life and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi (Oxford: 2001), p. 66.

(8) I will be citing from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi published by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.  Hereafter: CW.

(9) I will be citing from Mahatma Gandhi: The essential writings, edited with an introduction and notes by Judith M. Brown (Oxford: 2008).  Hereafter: EW.  I will also be citing from M.K. Gandhi, Non-violent Resistance (Satyagraha) (Mineola, NY: 2001).  Hereafter: NR.

(10) CW, v. 70, p. 203.

(11) CW, v. 69, pp. 291-92, CW, v. 73, pp. 276-77.

(12) CW, v. 71, pp. 315-16.

(13) I will be citing from M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, edited by Anthony J. Parel (Cambridge: 1997).  Hereafter: HS.

(14) CW, v. 70, p. 242.

(15) CW, v. 66, p. 438; cf. CW, v. 67, p. 285.

(16) Gandhi tried convincing British authorities during the Zulu War to arm his Indian volunteers but they refused.

(17) On the last point, see Wolpert, p. 97.

(18) CW, v. 68, p. 269; cf. NR, p. 132; but cf. Wolpert, p. 137.

(19) CW, v. 63, pp. 373-74. CW, v. 72, pp. 29-21.

(20) One early critic of his fairly observed, “I do not think that on the whole your argument is coherent or that the various statements and opinions you express have any real dependence upon one another” (“Wybergh to Gandhi,” 3 May 1910, reproduced in HS, pp. 139-40).

(21) Gandhi’s modesty also did not prevent him from issuing statements on behalf of the “All-India Women’s Conference” to their British “sisters” (CW, v. 74, pp. 114-16, 132).

(22) CW, v. 71, p. 257.

(23) CW, v. 67, p. 284.

(24) CW, v. 55, p. 411.

(25) CW, v. 72, p. 433.

(26) CW, v. 67, p. 284; cf. CW, v. 53, p. 216, CW, v. 54, p. 416, CW, v. 68, pp. 457-59.

(27) CW, v. 71, p. 205.

(28) CW, v. 68, pp. 81-82.

(29) CW, v. 71, p. 225; cf. CW, v. 75, p. 339.

(30) CW, v. 70, p. 204; cf. CW, v. 70, p. 237, CW, v. 75, p. 272.  Gandhi also supported the Allies because they were victims of Axis aggression fighting defensive wars (CW, v. 71, pp. 10-11, CW, v. 72, p. 377).

(31) CW, v. 76, pp. 400-1.

(32) CW, v. 75, p. 10, CW, v. 74, p. 27; cf. CW, v. 69, p. 122, CW, v. 72, p. 60, CW, v. 73, pp. 73, 85, 254, CW, v. 74, pp. 17, 115, CW, v. 75, pp. 37, 45, 72, 205.

(33) CW, v. 72, p. 187.

(34) CW, v. 59, p. 45.

(35) CW, v. 67, p. 76, CW, v. 68, pp. 137-41, 205, CW, v. 69, p. 290, CW, v. 72, pp. 188, 230.

(36) CW, v. 70, p. 224, CW, v. 73, p. 208.

(37) CW, v. 74, p. 330.

(38) CW, v. 73, p. 407.

(39) CW, v. 69, pp. 226-27.

(40) CW, v. 71, p. 306, CW, v. 73, pp. 91, 156; cf. also EW, p. 48 (“I do not depend upon my intellect to decide upon any action.  For me the reasoned course of action is held in check subject to the sanction of the inner voice”).  He was not however oblivious to political realities on the ground; rather the contrary (CW, v. 71, p. 338, CW, v. 74, p. 279).

(41) But see NR, p. 109, for Gandhi’s modest claims for satyagraha as a “science.”

(42) CW, v. 74, p. 2.

(43) CW, v. 72, p. 230; cf. CW, v. 61, p. 113, NR, pp. 286-87; but cf. also CW, v. 73, p. 175.

(44) CW, v. 72, p. 307; see CW, v. 62, p. 29, for his “five simple axioms of non-violence,” and CW, v. 63, p. 262, for his enumeration “without argument [, of] the implications and conditions of success of nonviolence.”

(45) CW, v. 73, p. 31; cf. CW, v. 72, p. 434.

(46) NR, pp. 300-1.

(47) NR, p. 323: “Anyone whose fast is related to satyagraha should seek my permission and obtain it in writing before embarking on it.  If this advice is followed, there is no need for framing rules, at any rate, in my lifetime.”

(48) CW, v. 73, p. 53.

(49) NR, p. 302: “A volunteer exercises his reason when he chooses his general, but after having made the choice, he does not waste his time and energy in scanning every instruction and testing it on the anvil of his reason before following it.  His is ‘not to reason why.’”

(50) CW, v. 71, p. 258.

(51) CW, v. 73, p. 444.

(52) A bit of the Big Brother also lurked in Gandhi.  He agreed that members of his Ashram should keep “a personal diary of their work, thoughts and ideas…, and place them before [him] for his perusal so that he could know the mind and work of each and every Ashramite, and make necessary suggestions” (CW, v. 73, p. 416, fn1, CW, v. 74, pp. 291-92).

(53) CW, v. 72, p. 450, CW, v. 75, p. 137.

(54) CW, v. 72, pp. 378-81, CW, v. 75, pp. 146-66; cf. CW, v. 66, p. 105, for an inclusive notion of “nonviolence…[t]hat means perfect communal cooperation and friendship, the eradication of untouchability, willing restraint of the addicts to the drink and opium habits,…”

(55) CW, v. 74, p. 150.

(56) CW, v. 68, p. 59; cf. CW, v. 73, pp. 388, 426; cf. also EW, p. 15.

(57) CW, v. 67, p. 123.

(58) CW, v. 67, p. 437.

(59) CW, v. 68, p. 45.

(60) CW, v. 68, p. 189.

(61) CW, v. 69, p. 73.

(62) CW, v. 68, p. 29.  Gandhi did not extend his doctrine of nonviolence to “sub-human species” on the pragmatic grounds that his was not a religious program but a political one designed to convert a broad constituency, although he himself “would not kill insects, scorpions or even snakes.  Nor should I under any circumstances take meat” (CW, v. 72, pp. 454-55; cf. CW, v. 61, p. 95, CW, v. 73, p. 385).

(63) CW, v. 71, p. 408; cf. HS, p. 89.

(64) HS, p. 90.

(65) CW, v. 67, pp. 436-37; cf. also EW, pp. 324-26, and NR, p. 179.  To illustrate love’s power to overcome tyranny, Gandhi often pointed to the metamorphosis of his own spousal relations: although “I literally used to make life hell for her,” eventually “her guileless simplicity conquered me completely” (CW, v. 68, p. 46; cf. CW, v. 68, p. 204).

(66) CW, v. 73, p. 253.  The British suppressed publication of what Gandhi continued to believe was a “good letter” (CW, v. 73, p. 288).

(67) CW, v. 69, p. 69, CW, v. 72, p. 456, CW, v. 75, p. 60; cf. EW, p. 335, NR, pp. 32, 72, 149.  However, he seems to consider the “shaming” of a wrongdoer legitimate (EW, pp. 206, 336).  He also considers assaults on property or even scaling walls enclosing private property as “pure violence” (CW, v. 71, p. 403; cf. NR, pp. 182, 185-86).  But he categorizes violent resistance in the face of impossible odds—a woman fending off a rapist with her bare hands, an unarmed man being tortured by a gang, or Polish resistance to the Nazi aggression—as nonviolent apparently because the violence is largely symbolic (CW, v. 72, pp. 388, 434, CW, v. 74, p. 368).

(68) CW, v. 69, p. 73.  Cf. HS, p. 146: “The function of violence is to obtain reform by external means; the function of passive resistance, that is, soul-force, is to obtain it by growth from within; which, in its turn, is obtained by self-suffering, self-purification” (“Gandhi’s reply to Wybergh,” 10 May 1910).

(69) NR, p. 87.

(70) CW, v. 71, p. 225.

(71) CW, v. 66, p. 421, EW, p. 56.

(72) EW, p. 58.

(73) CW, v. 72, p. 229.

(74) CW, v. 59, p. 42; cf. CW, v. 72, p. 136; cf. also HS, pp. 77-78, esp. footnotes 151, 152, and NR, p. 238.

(75) CW, v. 75, p. 441; cf. CW, v. 72, pp. 214, 229.

(76) CW, v. 72, p. 214.

(77) CW, v. 73, pp. 26-27; cf. CW, v. 73, p. 324.

(78) CW, v. 72, p. 221.

(79) CW, v. 75, p. 441.  For this argument in the instance of nonviolence failing to fend off a rapist’s assault, see CW, v. 68, pp. 81-82.

(80) CW, v. 72, p. 229.

(81) CW, v. 68, p. 57.  However, according to Gandhi, once having adopted the creed of nonviolence, one forswore the option of violent retaliation (CW, v. 74, pp. 64, 75, but cf. CW, v. 74, pp. 297-98 which seems to contradict this).

(82) CW, v. 71, pp. 224-25.

(83) CW, v. 68, pp. 137-38; cf. CW, v. 68, p. 203, where Gandhi similarly defends Chinese armed resistance to Japanese aggression.  A full discussion of Gandhi’s views on the Palestine conflict falls beyond the scope of this lecture.  Suffice it to say that he rejected the tenets underpinning the Zionist colonization of Palestine: Jews had no biblical title to Palestine; they should seek their rights in the countries where they resided; if they did elect to go to Palestine, it could only be done with the acquiescence of the indigenous population; otherwise, “they are co-sharers with the British in despoiling a people who have done no wrong to them” (CW, v. 68, pp. 137-38).

(84) CW, v. 66, p. 450.

(85) CW, v. 74, pp. 75. 83; cf. HS, p. 44.  Hind Swaraj is especially replete with denunciations of “unmanly,” “emasculated,” and “effeminate” conduct, and praise for “manhood,” “manliness” and “true men.”  It would be going too far afield to speculate on the roots of his cult of manliness.  Briefly, Hindus (like Jews) suffered the stereotype of physical weakness while Muslims benefited from the stereotype of physical strength (CW, v. 71, p. 72, EW, p. 199).  It was therefore perhaps inevitable that a movement of national revival, even one pledged to nonviolence, would (like Zionism) put an accent on martial values.  One might also notice Gandhi’s appropriation of military metaphors in which he typically depicts himself as the “general” of an “army of nonviolence” using “nonviolent arms.”

(86) EW, p. 315.

(87) CW, v. 61, pp. 265-66.  For the obvious parallels in Nietzsche, see his Genealogy of Morals.

(88) CW, v. 66, p. 420.  Cf. CW, v. 69, pp. 313-16:

For I cannot in any case stand cowardice.  Let no one say when I am gone that I taught the people to be cowards.  If you think my ahimsa [nonviolence] amounts to that, or leads you to that, you should reject it without hesitation.  I would far rather that you died bravely dealing a blow and receiving a blow than died in abject terror.…Fleeing from battle…is cowardice, and unworthy of a warrior.  An armed fighter is known to have sought fresh arms as soon as he loses those in his possession or they lose their efficacy.  He leaves the battle to get them.  A nonviolent warrior knows no leaving the battle.  He rushes into the mouth of himsa [violence], never even once harboring an evil thought.  If this ahimsa seems to you to be impossible, let us be honest with ourselves and say so, and give it up….Cowardice is worse than violence because cowards can never be nonviolent.  So such people should learn to defend themselves….A person who has full faith in nonviolence should be a thousand times more fearless than an armed man….It is the duty of every believer in ahimsa to see that cowardice is not propagated in the name of nonviolence.

Cf. also CW, v. 58, p. 2, CW, v. 61, p. 316, CW, v. 66, pp. 432, 439, CW, v. 67, pp. 11-12, 437, CW, v. 71, p. 235, CW, v. 74, pp. 92-93, 297-98.  Cf. EW, p. 199:

My nonviolence does not admit of running away from danger and leaving dear ones unprotected.  Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice.  I can no more preach nonviolence to a coward than I can tempt a blind man to enjoy healthy scenes.  Nonviolence is the summit of bravery.  And in my own experience, I have had no difficulty in demonstrating to men trained in the school of violence the superiority of nonviolence.  As a coward, which I was for years, I harbored violence.  I began to prize nonviolence only when I began to shed cowardice.  Those Hindus who ran away from the post of duty when it was attended with danger did so not because they were nonviolent, or because they were afraid to strike, but because they were unwilling to die or even suffer any injury.  A rabbit that runs away from the bull terrier is not particularly nonviolent.  The poor thing trembles at the sight of the terrier and runs for very life.  Those Hindus who ran away to save their lives would have been truly nonviolent and would have covered themselves with glory and added luster to their faith and won the friendship of their Mussalman assailants, if they had stood bare breast with smiles on their lips, and died at their post.  They would have done less well, though still well, if they had stood at these posts and returned blow for blow.  If the Hindus wish to convert the Mussalman bully into a respecting friend, they have to learn to die in the face of the heaviest odds.

Cf. also NR, pp. 132-33:

I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence.  Thus when my eldest son asked me what he should have done, had he been present when I was almost fatally assaulted in 1908, whether he should have run away and seen me killed or whether he should have used his physical force, which he could and wanted to use, and defended me, I told him that it was his duty to defend me even by using violence….Hence…do I advocate training in arms for those who believe in the method of violence.  I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honor than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor.  But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment….But abstinence is forgiveness only when there is the power to punish; it is meaningless where it pretends to proceed from a helpless creature.  A mouse hardly forgives a cat when it allows itself to be torn to pieces by her.

(89) CW, v. 65, p. 361; cf. CW, v. 74, p. 28, CW, v. 75, pp. 325-26.

(90) CW, v. 66, p. 423.

(91) CW, v. 66, p. 436.

(92) CW, v. 68, p. 191; but cf. CW, v. 69, pp. 291-92.

(93) CW, v. 72, p. 224.

(94) CW, v. 66, p. 436, CW, v. 66, p. 449.

(95) CW, v. 62, pp. 29-30; cf. CW, v. 63, p. 59, CW, v. 66, p. 406.

(96) NR, p. 154.

(97) CW, v. 66, p. 398.

(98) EW, p. 348.

(99) CW, v. 66, p. 407; cf. CW, v. 66, p. 447.

(100) CW, v. 66, p. 437.

(101) CW, v. 67, p. 437.

(102) NR, p. 259.

(103) HS, p. 93.

(104) CW, v. 67, p. 422.

(105) HS, pp. 94-95.

(106) NR, p. 262.

(107) For Gandhi’s own delineation of the various forms of satyagraha, cf. NR, p. 214.

(108) NR, p. 121.

(109) CW, v. 74, pp. 164-65.

(110) Gandhi’s defense of public-spirited fasts as non-coercive did not always carry conviction.  He posited a distinction between selfless fasts aimed at the betterment of others (non-coercive) versus selfish fasts aimed at one’s own betterment (coercive).  But if the alleged wrongdoer does not concur on the faster’s goal, he will surely and perhaps rightly—who’s to say whether the goal is desirable?—experience the fast as coercive.  Gandhi himself conceded that, however sincere, the faster might be wrongly motivated and therefore morally culpable and, relatedly, that only a thin line separates selfless from selfish aims.  His fallback defense that one must trust the judgment of an experienced satyagrahi such as himself scarcely helps.  Gandhi also asserted that moving someone to act (or not act) by virtue of a fast is not more coercive than someone being moved to act (or not act) by virtue of one’s love of Jesus or love of one’s family and friends.  Yet, it would seem that the coerciveness of a private voice emanating from within is of a different order from the coerciveness of a public spectacle bombarding one from without.  On these and related points, see CW, v. 53, pp. 228-230, 259, CW, v. 55, pp. 410-13, CW, v. 56, p. 369, CW, v. 72, p. 458, CW, v. 73, pp. 91, 156; cf. NR, pp. 183, 313-24, 331.

(111) NR, p. 154; cf. also NR, pp. 222, 229.

(112) But cf. EW, pp. 260-61, where Gandhi opposes an Indian boycott of British goods on the grounds that “it is rooted in ill-will and a desire for punishment”; cf. also NR, p. 145.

(113) CW, v. 68, p. 30.  For a related, slightly bizarre, scenario of Gandhi’s in which tenants cede to a voracious landlord more of their property than he demands or can use, thereby converting him due to cooperation (ceding the property), non-cooperation (refusing to work any of the land), and love (giving him more than he requests), see CW, v. 72, pp. 226-27.

(114) NR, p. 131.

(115) NR, pp. 134-35; cf. NR, p. 155.

(116) For Gandhi’s belief in the power of love to disarm an adversary, cf. CW, v. 68, p. 57.

(117) For Gandhi’s sophistic defense of non-cooperation as non-coercive, cf. NR, pp. 166-69; cf. also EW, p. 335.

(118) CW, v. 68, p. 140.

(119) CW, v. 55, p. 412.  Gandhi is not altogether consistent to which faculty or organ satyagraha appeals.  Apart from touching the conscience, he variously speaks of wanting “to touch the hearts” and make an “appeal to the highest in man”; “appealing to their reason and to their hearts”; “mere appeal to reason does not answer where prejudices are age-long and based on supposed religious authority.  Reason has to be strengthened by suffering and suffering opens the eyes of understanding” (CW, v. 54, p. 417, CW, v. 55, p. 258, CW, v. 56, pp. 197-98, 254, CW, v. 58, p. 159, CW, v. 67, p. 195;  NR, pp. 178, 181, 191, 202).

(120) NR, p. 35.

(121) NR, p. 88.

(122) NR, p. 252.

(123) NR, p. 286.

(124) NR, p. 77; cf. NR, p. 191.

(125) NR, p. 275.

(126) CW, v. 68, p. 20.

(127) EW, p. 249.

(128) NR, p. 213.

(129) CW, v. 53, p. 170; cf. v. 55, p. 1; cf. NR, pp. 6 (“For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other”), 20 (“People differ as to the justice or injustice of particular laws”), 193 (“I want you to feel like loving your opponents, and the way to do it is to give them the same credit for honesty of purpose which you would claim for yourself”).

(130) CW, v. 69, p. 212; cf. NR, p. 193 (“we consider our ends to be pure and, therefore, selfless.  But who is to determine where selflessness ends and selfishness begins?  Selflessness may be the purest form of selfishness….And immediately we begin to think of things as our opponents think of them, we shall be able to do them full justice”).

(131) CW, v. 60, p. 50.

(132) HS, p. 91; cf. NR, p. 3.

(133) EW, p. 357.

(134) CW, v. 67, p. 350, CW, v. 53, p. 164.

(135) The coinage was suggested to Gandhi by untouchables, and he adopted it.

(136) CW, v. 53, p. 493.  Cf. CW, v. 53, pp. 2, 7.  Gandhi sometimes used more cautious language, such as “the present campaign is directed towards cultivating and ascertaining the opinion of caste Hindus.”

(137) NR, p. 187.

(138) NR, p. 241.

(139) CW, v. 70, p. 106.

(140) CW, v. 70, p. 224.

(141) NR, p. 189.

(142) NR, pp. 190, 197.

(143) NR, pp. 326, 336.

(144) CW, v. 67, p. 284.

(145) In the case of temple-entry, Gandhi was at pains to stress that it was necessary to “accommodate the minority” opposed to such a reform because “mutual toleration is the law of the human family” (CW, v. 53, pp. 2-3, 7).  He proposed granting Hindu fundamentalists limited hours or spaces of prayer in the temples with no untouchables around.

(146) NR, p. 304.

(147) CW, v. 71, p. 359; cf. CW, v. 73, p. 317; cf. also EW, pp. 238, 263.

(148) CW, v. 73, pp. 279, 336, EW, p. 184.  Cf. HS, p. 113, EW, pp. 153 (“My ambition is much higher than independence.  Through the deliverance of India, I seek to deliver the so-called weaker races of the earth from the crushing heels of Western exploitation in which England is the greatest partner.”), 277.

(149) EW, pp. 91, 94, NR, p. 351.

(150) EW, p. 164.

(151) CW, v. 75, p. 158; cf. also EW, p. 86 (“No one has ever suggested that grinding pauperism can lead to anything else than moral degradation”).

(152) CW, v. 61, p. 183.

(153) CW, v. 58, pp. 217-18.  It cannot be ignored that wealthy Indians heavily subsidized Gandhi’s various campaigns and projects.

(154) Gandhi conceived capitalism as a system of exploitation and insofar as he opposed such exploitation Gandhi conceived his goal as proximate to that of the Indian left (CW, v. 58, pp. 29, 247, CW, v. 67, p. 352).   However, critics of capitalism opposed it not just because it was exploitative but also because capitalist production was inherently geared to profit-making rather than human needs.  Gandhi’s theory of trusteeship failed to address this critique.  On the other hand, it must be said that Gandhi’s critique of the perils of nationalization by a “soulless” State incarnating “violence in a concentrated and organized form” (CW, v. 59, pp. 318-20; cf. CW, v. 61, p. 183) did not lack cogency and his leftist critics would have done well to heed it.

(155) CW, v. 58, p. 218.

(156) CW, v. 58, p. 247.

(157) CW, v. 58, pp. 151-52, 218, CW, v. 63, p. 404.

(158) CW, v. 55, pp. 427-28.

(159) See CW, v. 69, p. 219:  “It may be asked as to how many trustees of this type one can really find.  As a matter of fact, such a question should not arise at all.  It is not directly related to our theory.  There may be just one such trustee or there may be none at all.  Why should we worry about it?  We should have the faith that we can, without violence or with so little violence that it can hardly be called violence, create such a feeling among the rich.  We should act in that faith.”  Cf. CW, v. 71, p. 28, CW, v. 72, p. 400.

(160) CW, v. 58, p. 36, CW, v. 58, pp. 121-22, CW, v. 58, pp. 75-76, CW, v. 60, p. 254; cf. CW, v. 59, p. 140, CW, v. 67, p. 135.

(161) CW, v. 72, p. 401.

(162) CW, v. 58, p. 29.  Gandhi demagogically dismissed class conflict as a “catchword” and “slogan” that was “imported from the West” and alien to “Eastern traditions” (CW, v. 58, p. 219; cf. CW, v. 58, p. 248); but cf. CW, v. 62, p. 46, where Gandhi qualifies, “The correspondent is wrong in suggesting that I do not believe in the existence of class struggle.  What I do not believe in is the necessity of fomenting and keeping it up.  I entertain a growing belief that it is perfectly possible to avoid it.”

(163) But compare CW, v. 68, pp. 137-41, where Gandhi purports that the “essential nature” of the invading Nazi and Soviet forces “would have made them desist from a wholesale slaughter of innocents” if the Poles had disarmed.

(164) CW, v. 68, p. 204, CW, v. 67, p. 76; cf. CW, v. 62, p. 29, CW, v. 72, p. 188.  But Gandhi also speculated that even if the occupying Axis power slaughtered the non-cooperating captive population, such an eventuality would ultimately have been preferable to the population violently resisting.  Thus, “the Czechs may be annihilated for disobedience to orders,” but “that would be a glorious victory for the Czechs and the beginning of the fall of Germany” (CW, v. 68, p. 205; cf. CW, v. 67, p. 405, where Gandhi says that even if the Czechs perish, they will still have preserved their “soul, i.e., honor”); “You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions….You will give all these but neither your souls, nor your minds….you will allow yourself, man, woman and child to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them” (CW, v. 72, p. 230; cf. also NR, p. 361, where Gandhi speculates that an army might once be able to massacre an army of satyagrahis “but would not be able to repeat that experience”).  In another scenario Gandhi speculates that non-cooperation would not result in mass slaughter because Hitler does not want to exploit Britain but rather to vanquish it (“admit defeat”), and if denied the adrenaline stimulus of a hunt “he will lack the zest to kill you.  Every hunter has had this experience. No one has ever heard of anyone hunting cows” (CW, v. 72, p. 383; cf. EW, p. 358—“The wrongdoer wearies of wrong-doing in the absence of resistance.  All pleasure is lost when the victim betrays no resistance”).  In yet another scenario Gandhi asserted that even if the occupying power did not withdraw, fewer would have been killed had the captive population refused to cooperate while the nation as a whole would have emerged morally superior:

Imagine the state of Europe today if the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the French and the English had all said to Hitler: “You need not make your scientific preparation for destruction.  We will meet your violence with nonviolence.  You will therefore be able to destroy our nonviolent army without tanks, battleships and airships.”  It may be retorted that the only difference would be that Hitler would have got without fighting what he has gained after a bloody fight.  Exactly.  The history of Europe would then have been written differently.  Possession might (but only might) have been then taken under nonviolent resistance, as it has been taken now after perpetration of untold barbarities.  Under nonviolence only those would have been killed who had trained themselves to be killed, if need be, without killing anyone and without bearing malice towards anybody.  I daresay that in that case Europe would have added several inches to its moral stature.  And in the end I expect it is the moral worth that will count.  All else is dross. (CW, v. 72, p. 188; cf. CW, v. 67, p. 415)

(165) CW, v. 68, p. 205.

(166) CW, v. 68, p. 189.

(167) CW, v. 68, p. 205.  Cf. CW, v. 68, p. 189 (“If the Jews…adopt active nonviolence, i.e., fellow-feeling for the gentile Germans deliberately, they cannot do any harm to the Germans and I am as certain as I am dictating these lines that the stoniest German heart will melt”), CW, v. 68, pp. 191-92 (“Sufferings of the nonviolent have been known to melt the stoniest hearts.  I make bold to say that if the Jews can summon to their aid the soul power that comes from nonviolence, Herr Hitler will bow before the courage which he has never yet experienced”), CW, v. 68, p. 277 (“I do not despair of [Hitler] responding to human suffering even though caused by him.  But I must refuse to believe that the Germans as a nation have no heart or markedly less than the other nations of the earth”), CW, v. 69, p. 122 (“They [Fascists and Nazis] belong to the same species as the so-called democracies or, better still, war-resisters themselves.  They show in their family circles the same tenderness, affection, consideration and generosity that war-resisters are likely to show even outside such circles.  The difference is only of degree….It is therefore a matter of rule of three to find out the exact amount of nonviolence required to melt the harder hearts of the Fascists and the Nazis, if it is assumed, as it is, the so-called democracies melt before a given amount of non-violence”), CW, v. 71, p. 407 (“even a Nero is not devoid of a heart.  The unexpected spectacle of endless rows upon rows of men and women simply dying rather than surrender to the will of an aggressor must ultimately melt him away and his soldiery”), CW, v. 72, p. 307 (“indeed it is not quite inconceivable that the loving sacrifice of many may bring an insane man to his senses.  Instances are not wanting of absolutely insane people having come back to their senses”), CW, v. 72, p. 361 (“Nonviolent action, if it is adequate, must influence Hitler and easily the duped Germans.  No man can be turned into a permanent machine”), CW, v. 73, p. 321 (“I must adhere to my faith in the possibility of the most debased human nature to respond to nonviolence….I will not belittle the power of nonviolence or distrust the Fuhrer’s capacity to respond to true nonviolence”).

(168) CW, v. 68, p. 139.  Cf. v. 69, p. 290:

It is highly probable that, as the writer says, “a Jewish Gandhi in Germany, should one arise, could function for about five minutes and would be promptly taken to the guillotine.”  But that will not disprove my case or shake my belief in the efficacy of ahimsa [nonviolence].  I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators who have not believed in ahimsa….Sufferers need not see the result during their life time.  They must have faith that if their cult survives, the result is a certainty.

Cf. CW, v. 67, p. 405, where Gandhi concedes that Hitler might not show pity, and CW, v. 73, p. 322, where he speculates that “if the Fuhrer attacked India,” he might unrepentantly slaughter Indians refusing to cooperate, but nonetheless, “I am quite clear that these satyagrahis facing the army will go down in history as heroes and heroines at least equal to those of whom we learn in fables or cold history.”

(169) However heartless Gandhi’s prescription might appear in retrospect, it deserves notice that Nazi persecution of the Jews was one of the very few issues not bearing directly on India on which Gandhi repeatedly and forcefully spoke out, asserting, for example: “the German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history.  The tyrants of old never went so mad as Hitler seems to have gone….If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified” (CW, v. 68, p. 138).

(170) CW, v. 68, p. 139.

(171) Arthur Herman, Gandhi and Churchill: The epic rivalry that destroyed an empire and forged our age (New York: 2008); for Churchill’s loathing of Gandhi and mockery of his nonviolent resistance, see pp. 509-11, 525.

(172) CW, v. 60, p. 50.

(173) NR, p. 227.

(174) CW, v. 66, p. 104.

(175) EW, p. 197.

(176) CW, v. 73, p. 254.

(177) CW, v. 66, p. 104.

(178) NR, p. 357 (“By self-suffering I seek to convert [the Englishman], never to destroy him”).

(179) EW, p. 197.

(180) NR, p. 227, NR, p. 74, HS, p. 115; cf. NR, p. 285.

(181) CW, v. 59, p. 45.

(182) See Finkelstein, Farewell to Israel, chap. 4.  A leading American academic authority estimated “nonviolent forms of struggle” at “85 percent of the total resistance,” and that “the 15 percent or so of the uprising that is constituted by low-level violence involves chiefly stone throwing” (Gene Sharp, “The Intifadah and Nonviolent Struggle,” Journal of Palestine Studies (Autumn 1989), p. 7).

(183) Some 1,124 Palestinians and 75 Israelis were killed between December 1987 and September 1993 (Zeev Maoz, Defending the Holy Land: A critical analysis of Israel’s security and foreign policy (Ann Arbor: 2006), p. 264).

(184) Martin van Creveld, The Sword and the Olive: A critical history of the Israeli defense force (New York: 1998), pp. 350-51, 261-63; Maoz, Defending the Holy Land, pp. 259-61.

(185) Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, Intifada: The Palestinian uprising—Israel’s third front (New York: 1989), p. 317.

(186) See Finkelstein, Farewell to Israel, chap. 6, citing Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Israeli cabinet member Natan Sharansky.

(187) The struggles after the 1917 Balfour Declaration climaxed in the 1930 Passfield White Paper effectively annulling the Balfour Declaration, which was then reversed by British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald’s letter (1931) to Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, and then the 1939 British White Paper again effectively annulling the Balfour Declaration but coming too late to abort creation of a Jewish state.  In the case of the 1947 Partition Resolution, influential members of the Truman administration lobbied soon after the U.N. vote for its rescission in favor of U.N. trusteeship over Palestine, and then for a truce that deferred the declaration of a Jewish state.

(188) EW, p. 349.

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Categories: Middle East, Nonviolence


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9 Comments on “Resolving the Israel-Palestine Conflict: What we can learn from Gandhi – by Norman G. Finkelstein”

  1. January 16, 2009 at 4:16 pm #

    Some of Gandhi’s writings on Palestine can be found here:

    Many of the things he said in 1937 are still true with regard to the current conflict.


  2. February 5, 2009 at 7:54 am #

    by 99

    Despite decades of intense Zen training, I still find myself wanting to punish Israel, to get revenge, to, at least, move them to the South Pole, and sometimes am so angry it’s almost enough to accomplish it singlehandedly. Listening to Norman Finkelstein lecture is a marvel to me, an inspiration, a reminder, and a gift. He is right about this, at least in terms of what has been most commonly held since 1948, and if there can be no international consensus for a return of Palestine with equal Muslim and Jewish citizens, which I feel would do the most to settle not only the geopolitical disputes but the hatreds that have built up, then, yes, right now. Right now. There is no disagreement about the right thing, and it should not be put off another moment.

    On the matter of who is the prime mover in Israeli aggression toward its neighbors, I still believe James Petras sees more clearly than Norman Finkelstein, but I can also see how it might be wiser to take Finkelstein’s stance if one is in the forefront of activism toward the ends described so beautifully in this lecture.

    I mean, making the U.S. government eat, or even admit, any of its perfidies, has thus far been almost entirely futile. If we have to wait for the the politicians to give up those millions in PAC money and legislate against dual citizens in high public office, the extinction of Palestine will definitely come first.


  3. March 9, 2009 at 11:59 am #

    comments by Antony Copley, Academic Adviser to The Gandhi Foundation:

    Dear Norman

    Let me start by expressing my sense of outrage at the way you have been treated for communicating your ideas. This is a monstrous constraint on the freedom of expression and very worrying.

    You have plunged into Gandhi at the deep end. Everyone agrees I think that Gandhi faced the greatest challenge to the viability of his ideas during the years 1936 onwards. You stop short of addressing the years of India’s own holocaust, 1946-48, the greatest challenge of all. Could satyagraha have anything to offer a world torn apart by war and the holocaust? If it did not then he had been wrong all along. It’s hard to imagine the pain all this called Gandhi though it does much to explain why he fell back increasingly on sexual sublimation as a means of acquiring spiritual energy and why he all but killed himself on his fast unto death in 1943 as a protest at the Raj’s charge he had connived with the use of violence in the Quit India satyagraha.

    You raise all the big questions and I don’t feel I can do justice to these in this letter. I’lI just make a number of observations as I read through the lecture. I fear I’ve not read your work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Regarding the Boer war — Gandhi was greatly admiring of the courage of the Boers and at how such a small community could take on the Empire. He sought from the Indian community a political movement which could match their courage but through non-violence. And those ambulance brigades became a sort of microcosm of an all-India unity, bringing together as they did Indians from across the sub-continent if domiciled in South Africa.(all this is in Pyarelal Vol 2)

    Gandhi was great believer in oaths and felt he’d taken an oath of loyalty to the Crown and this was matched by Victoria’s commitment to Empire. It took the massacre at Amritsar to release him from this sense of obligation. Hence his being a recruiting sergeant for the Indian army throughout World War 1.

    I think the contradiction over resistance to the Nazis speaks for itself. He was desperate to find an answer and of course senior politicians in Congress favoured a conventional resistance to fascism e.g. J Nehru (Subhas Bose chose instead to work with the Axis powers.)

    Regarding your criticism of Gandhi’s inconsistency and changeability — it seems that many of the great innovators always want it all ways cf. Freud.

    In terms of the relationship between satyagraha and sarvodaya, I believe you have got this the wrong way round. Satyagraha did not take second place to sarvodaya — rather the constructive movement was a means to training satyagrahis for the struggle — to acquire sufficient moral and spiritual discipline, self-purification etc. Note how the only people he allowed on the Salt March were those who had been tried and tested in the constructive programme at the Sabarmati ashram. He could not afford for another non-cooperation movement to break down into violence as had happened in 1922 at Chauri Chaura.

    Arguments over the place of coercion in satyagraha are generally couched in terms of the fast, the most extreme form of resistance but you pick this up in footnote 110. The reason why Gandhi was so anxious to avoid the stigma of effeminacy is not so hard to explain — it had always been a part of imperial propaganda to insult the Indians, and here they were comparing the Bengalis to the martial races, for their pusillanimity and effeteness. It led some of the nationalist movements e.g. the RSS to make a big thing of martial training, physical sport etc. Even Aurobindo went in for gymnastics! It was a slur on manhood Gandhi was determined to rebut. Maybe with his equally high evaluation of the feminine e.g. in his role as nurse suggests a degree of confusion here! l recall the Rudolphs having much to say on all this.

    But the satyagrahis did of course display exceptional physical courage. I can never get out of my head newsreel images of the way they absorbed baton charges during the Salt March satyagraha at the Dharasana salt works and of course numerous other examples. So indeed Gandhi’s extreme version of non-violence was put to the test. But would this apply to resisting Japanese invasion? I think here Gandhi was always hedging his bets. His belief was that the Japanese would feel differently about the Indians were they separated from the British (and he was appalled at the way Subhas Bose had stolen a march on him — Bose was just about the only major Congress figure to set up a genuine alternative movement to Congress). But at the same time a part of him also believed that an independent India could work all the more effectively with the British in resisting foreign occupation. Somehow the British would still be on side. Of course it’s contradictory but you can still see how his mind worked.

    So in what circumstances can satyagraha work? Against the raj there was always a moral possibility — the British were indoctrinated with concepts of fair-play and could be morally wounded at the sight of the physically weak being truncheoned to death. It would all of course bounce off the Nazis and it took an awful long time for it work against apartheid. But it did work in America in the civil rights movement.

    Is it fair to invite the Palestinians to take the gamble? You make a critical distinction between satyagraha of the strong and of the weak and only see the Palestinians up against the violent state power of Israel as in any position to offer the second and I think you do so out of a recognition there would have to be a limit to the extent of punishment they could take.

    I don’t know how to respond to this idea. I have a feeling that unwittingly this is just what they have endured during the recent events in Gaza and have suffered in consequence a huge death toll. Yet world opinion has been won over to the cause of the Palestinians and Israel’s moral capital is all but extinguished.

    But we have also to recognise that Hamas is a pretty brutal movement and many opponent of Hamas have subsequently been murdered by Hamas. Nor do I entirely discount Israel’s claim to their using human shields. I don’t honestly think Gandhi would have had much truck with Hamas

    With reference to the question in footnote 164 of ‘the moral worth’ — this reminds me of the German Resistance to Hitler — at the very least whatever the hopelessness of it all some moral victory would be won and I think it was.

    When it comes to the effectiveness of non-violence — surely protest at the Vietnam war is another example of the way nonviolent protest effected change in America? This compares favourably with the counterproductive nature of the Baader Meinhof and Red Brigade terrorist strategy in Europe.


  4. March 10, 2009 at 5:41 pm #

    An account of a similar lecture by Norman Finkelstein delivered at Nottingham Trent University in November 2008 can be found here:


  5. arnulfo
    July 17, 2016 at 3:03 pm #

    Reblogged this on The grokking eagle.



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