The posture of solidarity with the struggle of ‘the other’ is more complex than it might appear at first glance. It seems a simple act to join with others in opposing severe injustice and cruelty, especially when its reality is experienced and witnessed first-hand as I have for several decades in relation to the Palestinian struggle. I was initially led to understand the Palestinian (counter-) narrative by friends while still a law student in the late 1950s. But my engagement was more in the spirit of resisting what Noam Chomsky would later teach us to call ‘indoctrination in a liberal society,’ a matter of understanding how the supposedly objective media messes with our mind in key areas of policy sensitivity, and none has turned out in the West, especially in North America, to be more menacingly stage managed than the presentation of Palestinians and their struggle, which merge with sinister forms of racial and religious profiling under the labels of ‘the Arab mind’ and ‘Muslim extremism.’ The intended contrast to be embedded in Western political consciousness is between the bloodthirsty Arab/Palestinian/Muslim and the Western custodian of morality and human rights.
Perhaps, for very personal reasons I had since childhood taken the side of the less privileged in whatever domain the issue presented itself, whether in sports or family life or in relation to race and sexual identity, and professionally, in foreign policy. Despite being white and attracted sexually only to women, I found myself deeply moved by the ordeal in democratic America of African Americans, gays, and later, members of indigenous communities. I have sustained these affinities despite a long career that involved swimming upstream in the enclaves of the privileged as a longtime member of the Princeton University faculty.
In recent years, partly by chance, most of these energies of solidarity have been associated with the Palestinian struggle, which has involved mainly in my case the bearing of witness to abuses endured by the Palestinian people living under occupation or in varying forms of exile, especially in my role as UN Special Rapporteur. This is an unpaid position, and affords me a much higher degree of independence than is enjoyed by normal UN career civil servants or diplomats serving a particular government. Many of these individuals work with great dedication and taken on dangerous assignments, but are expected to conform to institutional discipline that is exercised in a deadly hierarchical manner that often links the UN to the grand strategy and geopolitical priorities of a West-centric world order. This structure itself seems more and more out of step with the rise of the non-West in the last several decades. Just days ago the Indian representative at the UN called for a restructuring of the Security Council to get rid of its anachronistic cast of characteristics that overvalues the West and undervalues the rest.
Bearing witness involves being truthful and as factually accurate as possible, regardless of what sort of consensus is operative in the corridors of power. In a biased media and a political climate that is orchestrated from above, the objectivity of bearing witness will itself be challenged as ‘biased’ or ‘one-sided’ whenever it ventures onto prohibited terrain. In actuality, the purpose of bearing witness is to challenge bias, not to perpetuate it, but in our Orwellian media world, it is bias that is too often presented as balanced, and truth witnessing that is either ignored or derided.
The witness of unwelcome truths should always exhibit a posture of humility, not making judgments about the tactics of struggle employed by those fighting against oppression, and not supplying the solutions for those whose destinies are directly and daily affected by a deep political struggle. To do otherwise is to pretend to be a purveyor of greater wisdom and morality than those enduring victimization. In the Palestine/Israel conflict it is up to the parties, the peoples themselves and their authentic representatives, to find the path to a sustainable and just peace, although it seems permissible for outsiders to delineate the distribution of rights that follow from an application of international law and to question whether the respective peoples are being legitimately represented.
These comments reflect my reading of a passionate and provocative essay by Linah Alsaafin entitled “How obsession with ‘non-violence’ harms the Palestinian cause,” which was published online in the Electronic Intifada on July 11, 2012. The burden of her excellent article is the insistence that it is for the Palestinians, and only the Palestinians, to decide on the forms and nature of their resistance. She writes with high credibility as a recent graduate of Birzeit University who was born in Cardiff, Wales and lived in England and the United States, as well as Palestine. She persuasively insists that for sympathetic observers and allies to worship at the altar of Palestinian non-violence is to cede to the West the authority to determine what are acceptable and unacceptable forms of Palestinian struggle. This is grotesquely hypocritical considering the degree to which Western militarism is violently unleashed around the planet so as to maintain structures of oppression and exploitation, more benignly described as ‘national interests.’ In effect, the culturally sanctioned political morality of the West is indicative of an opportunistically split personality: nonviolence for your struggle, violence for ours. Well-meaning liberals, by broadcasting such an insidious message, are not to be welcomed as true allies.
In this connection, I acknowledge my own carelessness in taking positive note of this shift in Palestinian tactics in the direction of nonviolent forms of resistance, being unwittingly paternalistic, if not complicit with an unhealthy ‘tyranny of the stranger.’ It is certainly not the case that Alsaafin is necessarily advocating Palestinian violence, but rather she is contending that unless the Palestinians realize that they must mobilize their own masses to shape their own destiny, which leads her to lament because it is not yet happening, nothing will change, and the occupiers and oppressors will continue to dominate the Palestinian scene. In effect, Alsaafin is telling us that deferring to Western canons of struggle is currently dooming Palestinians to apathy and despair.
I find most of what Alsaafin has to say to be persuasive, illuminating, and instructive, although I feel she neglects to take note of the courage and mobilizing impact of the prison hunger strikes that have ignited the imagination of many Palestinians in recent months. Also, to some extent, my highlighting of nonviolence was never intended as an input into the Palestinian discourse or as favorable commentary, but seeks to challenge and expose the untrustworthiness of Western liberals who have for years been lecturing the Palestinians to abandon violence for the sake of effectiveness, arguing that a supposedly democratic and morally sensitive society such as they allege exists in Israel would be responsive to a nonviolent challenge by the Palestinians, and this would in turn lead to a more reasonable and fair negotiating approach by the Israelis out of which a just peace could emerge. As should have been understood by the harsh Israeli responses to both intifadas, Israel turns a blind eye to Palestinian nonviolence, or even does its best to provoke Palestinian violence so as to have some justification for its own. And the usually noisy liberal pontificators such as Tom Friedman and Nicholas Kristof go into hiding whenever Palestinian creativity in resistance does have recourse to nonviolent tactics. These crown princes of liberal internationalism were both silent throughout the unfolding and dramatic stories of the various long hunger strikes. These were remarkable examples of nonviolent dedication that bear comparison with Gandhi’s challenges hurled at the British Empire or the later efforts of the IRA to awaken London to the horrors of prison conditions in Northern Ireland, and certainly were newsworthy.
At the same time, there are some universal values at stake that Alsaafin does not pause to acknowledge. There are two of these truths intertwined in bewildering complexity: no outsider has the moral authority or political legitimacy to tell those enduring severe oppression how to behave; no act of violence whatever the motivation that is directed against an innocent child or civilian bystander is morally acceptable or legally permissible even if it seems politically useful. Terrorism is terrorism whether the acts are performed by the oppressor or the oppressed, and for humanity to move toward any kind of collective emancipation, such universal principles must be affirmed as valid, and respected by militants.
Also absent from the article is any effort to situate the Palestinian struggle in an historical and geographic context. There are tactical realities in some situations of conflict that may make those who act in solidarity a vital part of the struggle that participate on the basis of their own political calculus. The Vietnamese recognized the importance of an autonomous Western peace movement in weakening the will of the American political establishment to continue with the Vietnam War. The global anti-apartheid campaign turned the tide in South Africa, and allowed the internal forces led by the African National Congress to prevail in their long struggle against settler colonial rule and racism. We all need to remember that each struggle has its own originality that is historically, politically, and culturally conditioned, and the Palestinian struggle is no exception.
As Alsaafin powerfully reminds us who attempt to act in solidarity, while she is addressing a related message to the Palestinians, it is for the Palestinians to exert leadership and find inspiration, and for the rest of us to step to one side. We must be humble for our sake as well as theirs, they must be assertive, and then our solidarity might make a welcome contribution a rather than unintentionally administering a mild depressant.