Yehudah Mirsky

The nonviolent resistance that hardly ever was

What does nonviolence mean when the goal is not to change your opponents' minds, but rather to make them disappear?
People chant during a pro-Palestinian demonstration outside of the White House in Washington, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (AP / Jose Luis Magana)
People chant during a pro-Palestinian demonstration outside of the White House in Washington, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (AP / Jose Luis Magana)

How did it come to this? All the diplomacy, activism, billions of dollars, political support for Palestinian aspirations climax in this orgy of cruel, ecstatic violence?

Too many questions to take in. But here’s one, asked now for decades: Why hasn’t the Palestinian national movement adopted principled, nonviolent resistance, the kind through which Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress ended South African apartheid?

Peter Beinart has an answer. As he recently wrote at length in The New York Times: “By treating Israel radically differently from how the United States treated South Africa in the 1980s, American politicians have made it harder for Palestinians to follow the A.N.C.’s ethical path. The Americans who claim to hate Hamas the most have empowered it again and again.”

Specifically, he says, by resisting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement tooth and nail, Israel and its American supporters effectively foreclosed nonviolent resistance, radicalized the Palestinian public and breathed new life into the murderous ethos of Hamas. And he breathtakingly says that the First Intifada – known in Arabic as Intifadat al-Hijara, literally, “the stone uprising,” marked not only by rock-throwing, but also petrol bombs, tire-burning and putting nail spikes on roads, leading to harsh Israeli responses, and years of intra-communal Palestinian violence – was somehow largely nonviolent. The best we can say that compared to the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada, which killed some thousand Israelis and was aimed explicitly at derailing the possibility of peace, the First Intifada was a walk in the park.  

Unlike many Israelis, comparing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to South African apartheid doesn’t make me see red. The South Africa analogy isn’t entirely wrong – which is exactly why many Israelis like me want things to change. But inside pre-1967 Israel, Arab citizens are regularly, unfairly disadvantaged but are not living under apartheid.

The complexity here is well illustrated by the figure of Justice George Kara of Israel’s Supreme Court. An Arab-Israeli who was open about his inability to identify with Jewish national aspirations (choosing not to sing the national anthem Hatikvah at official ceremonies), he was praised on his retirement by the Court’s then-Chief Justice Esther Hayut for his “combination of judicial excellence…and the values of tolerance and understanding of others that guided his path …in every one of his rulings.” He was also a member of the panel that upheld former president Moshe Katsav’s conviction for rape and sent him to jail. Morally complicated, and far from ideal, yes, But does that look like apartheid to you?

In other words, the occupation is a contradiction within Israeli democracy; treating the occupation as the essence of Israeli democracy neutralizes Israeli moderates and gives the Israeli public no choice but to fight or surrender.

But treating the occupation as Israeli democracy’s essence is exactly what the BDS movement has done, time and time again since its founding in 2003. Its leaders call for the end of the Jewish state in any borders; Hamas representatives sit on its governing entity, the Boycott National Committee; it urges boycotting the very same Israeli academics who are regularly the occupation’s sternest critics; its key leaders have accused Israelis of Nazi-like crimes, denied that Jews are a people and made clear their fondness for violence. And I could go on.

Of course, disinvestments and sanctions legitimately belong in the policy and advocacy toolkit as nonviolent tools.

Nonviolence means you don’t want your opponents to disappear, you want them to change their minds. Nonviolence means once things change, you and your opponent will need to live together, as neither victim nor oppressor.

That was the future vision that propelled Nelson Mandela. It is not the future BDS leaders have had in mind.

The actual existing BDS movement radicalizes Palestinian supporters and moderate Israelis in opposite directions. It tells the one that Israel the state itself must be crushed, and tells the others that moderation gets you nowhere.

There is also the matter of global politics and patrons. The ANC’s move in 1988 to renounce violence was reinforced by diminishing Soviet support for decolonization movements in general. By contrast, Hamas, and other rejectionists, to this day enjoy great financial and political support, from other Islamist movements and wealthy petro-states.

The ANC was part of a world move towards freedom; Hamas supporters in the Western Left – who recent horrors haven’t silenced but energized – are part of a drive towards illiberal repression as insidious as the kind being pushed by illiberals of the Right. And they, like earlier generations of apologists for mass murder, don’t for a moment seriously consider what life would be like if Hamas had authority over them.

To be clear, Beinart is a forthright critic of Hamas’s violence, which comes as no surprise to anyone who knows him. In the past he wrote carefully and critically about BDS’s eliminationist aims regarding not just Israeli occupation but the Jewish State as a whole. When he, more recently, explicitly declared his stance in favor of a one, rather than two, state solution he clearly had, to put it mildly, nothing in mind like the ecstatic murder of Jews that Hamas pursues, and that is now being justified by so many in the West.

But his argument and its premises have and do make Hamas apologists’ lives easier in the end. And the mind-boggling reactions to the slaughter and Israel’s responses, in American and European streets, and on American campuses, make even more clear the extent to which the essential good faith of Peter’s arguments is not shared by the very people and groups he is trying to help.

What’s more, he presents the Palestinian public as having virtually no agency. The Palestinian Authority, whose corruption and unsteadiness have strengthened Hamas receives only passing mention in his Times piece, while Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005, which brought about Hamas’s ascendance there (in part by failing to strengthen the Palestinian Authority there) goes without mention at all.

Did Israel make life hard for the few Palestinians, who really have tried nonviolent protest? Yes. But why did the Palestinian Authority not support them, but instead continue in word and deed to wink at terror, and build a kleptocracy? Why have they done so little to make common cause with the Israelis who really do want change And believe me, many of us do. That is the deep malpractice of the BDS movement.

Like many Israelis, I don’t want my grandchildren standing at roadblocks checking other people’s grandchildren. Relegating that brutal and brutalizing dynamic to history’s dustbin will take struggle, and compromise – and allies on both sides committed to each other’s futures, who each will need to battle extremists of their own. Nonviolence has never really failed in the Palestinian struggle, because it’s only rarely been tried.

About the Author
Yehudah Mirsky is Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University and the author of 'Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution.' He served in the Clinton administration as special advisor in the US State Department's human rights bureau. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva College and received rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem where he lives with his family. He tweets @YehudahMirsky.