Nicholas Kristof is in Palestine, though like all mass media journalists he calls it "the West Bank." He has just discovered that many Palestinians are resisting the Israeli occupation nonviolently, though scholars of nonviolence started writing about the Palestinian resistance over 20 years ago. So Kristof is "waiting for Gandhi," as the title of his latest New York Times column puts it, or at least a "Palestinian version of Martin Luther King Jr."
Perhaps I should not be so cynical. Kristof has gained fame as a crusader for human rights, especially women's rights. Now he's taking a real risk by advocating for Palestinian rights and praising Palestinian resistance. Any hint of Israeli wrong-doing has undone many U.S. liberals in the past. And Kristof is giving more than a hint. His previous column detailed Israeli settler violence against Palestinians and clearly sympathized with their plight. He praised the work of Rabbis for Human Rights as "courageous and effective voices on behalf of oppressed Palestinians."
Kristof himself deserves praise for placing the Palestinians alongside all the other victims of oppression he has written about so eloquently. He's moving the mass media one more tiny step toward more honest and balanced reporting on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
But if a writer is not careful, every step forward can also be a step backward. By calling for a Palestinian Gandhi, Kristof clearly suggests that Palestinian resistance so far has fallen short of his high moral standards. He complains that "many Palestinians define ‘nonviolence' to include stone-throwing," so even when they claim to eschew violence their protests "aren't truly nonviolent."
That reinforces a self-serving stereotype we've been hearing from supporters of Israeli policy for decades: We Jews want peace, they say. We've even got an organized peace movement. But there's no Palestinian equivalent. It seems like those Palestinians are all a bunch hot-heads, implacably bent on violence. How can we make peace with them?
That kind of stereotyping spurs even more extreme views that are all too familiar: There's "no partner for peace" on the Palestinian side. "Those people" are so steeped in violence, there's no reasoning with them. They only understand one thing: force. And at their worst they ask: What else can you expect from Muslims?
I'm sure Nick Kristof didn't mean to promote that kind of simplistic anti-Palestinian prejudice. He sees good guys and bad guys on both sides. But when you are a top columnist for the nation's top newspaper, you are supposed to be smart enough to understand the implications of your words, to know what people can (and some inevitably will) read between the lines.
I don't know Kristof, so I can't say why he might have fallen into this trap. But I know the U.S. mass media coverage of the issue pretty well. Even when they begin to break out of their reflexive "pro-Israel" shell, mass media journalists are still plagued by lines of thinking that are so old, so deeply ingrained, that they go unnoticed. "Ain't it a shame those Palestinians are so violent. If only they'd turn to more peaceful ways, all would be well," is perhaps the oldest and deepest of those lines.
So it's not surprising that, even when a prominent columnist appeals for sympathy for the victims of oppression, he ends up indirectly but all too obviously blaming the victims.
Palestinians might well ask, "Who the hell is Nicholas Kristof to tell us how to resist the occupation anyway?" That's a good question. What can he really know about their situation after being with them for a day or two? Critics of American journalism have long noted the declining quality of our news from other countries. The main culprit, many say, is the ignorance of journalists who show up in a place for a few days or even a few weeks and write for the folks back home as if they were experts.
At a deeper level, there's the ever-present tendency among the stenographers of imperial power to assume that they've got the right to preach truth to "the natives" and tell them how to live their lives.
Even if Kristof had been living in Palestine for years, though, the question would still remain: Does he, or any non-Palestinian, have the right to tell an oppressed people how to resist their oppression? Maybe they do, if they've joined the resistance and taken all the risks involved for a long enough time to earn that right. But neither Kristof nor most any of the other non-Palestinians who call for a Palestinian Gandhi fit that description.
I've been teaching and writing about, and advocating nonviolence for a long time. From the beginning, I felt in my gut that I don't have the right to tell oppressed people to keep their resistance nonviolent, since I haven't shared in their suffering.
Eventually, I found in Gandhi's own writings a powerful theoretical argument to explain my gut feeling. It starts with the heart of Gandhi's teachings. He would have rejected the premise of Kristof's column: that nonviolence is a smarter tactic for the Palestinians, the best way to get what they want. For Gandhi, nonviolence was never a tactic or a way to win anything. It was a way -- the only way, he insisted -- to act out moral truth in daily life. The core principle of Gandhian nonviolence is to do the right thing in every situation, regardless how painful or even lethal the consequences.
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In other words, nonviolence is not about figuring out how to make the other side -- even when they are brutal oppressors -- change their ways. It's not about making others change their ways at all. Gandhi said that such efforts are senseless, because we cannot control the choices of others. All we can control is our own choices, trying to make sure that they are as morally correct as possible.
So telling other people what to do, how to live their lives, or even how to resist oppression simply doesn't fit Gandhi's vision of nonviolence. It's only about changing our own ways.
But when Gandhi spoke about controlling our own choices, he included in "our" not just himself as an individual but his people. That's why, in the vast corpus of Gandhi's writings, you'll sometimes find indictments of British colonialism and insistence that the British must leave India -- in effect, telling the other side what to do -- but far more often you'll find indictments of Gandhi's own Indian people and insistence that they (Gandhi said "we") stop cooperating with oppression.
If you're looking for another Gandhi, then, look for someone who addresses his own people's policy choices rather than telling others about what they're doing wrong and how to fix it. Kristof made a nod in that direction when he repeated the words of Palestinian nonviolence advocates like Moustafa Barghouthi, Ayad Morrar, and Iltezam Morrar. He could have found plenty of others. They've got the right to call for a Palestinian Gandhi, since they are talking to their own people.
The only thing Nick Kristof has the right to do -- and the obligation, Gandhi would have added -- is to address his own American people about the choices that Americans are making. If any Americans are publicly waiting for the next Gandhi to appear, they should be waiting and hoping for him or her not in Palestine or any foreign country, but right here in the U.S. of A.
Kristof, given his immense readership and influence, has a special responsibility. Rather than flying half-way around the world for a few days and lamenting his failure to find another Gandhi, he could be doing what Gandhi did: writing about America's failure to stand on the side of justice, which is the only way to stand on the side of peace.
As Gershon Baskin, Israel's leading expert on conflict resolution, recently wrote, the U.S. must play a central role if Israel and Palestine are to forge a just peace settlement. The two parties mistrust each other so deeply that they need a truly even-handed third party to bring them together and guarantee adherence to a peace agreement.
Though the Obama administration has moved a bit closer than its predecessors to an even-handed approach, it is still far from the genuine neutrality that the Palestinians must see if they are to come to any negotiating table. Foolish steps like bolstering Israel's nuclear arsenal are bound to move Israel and Palestine away from the peace that both sides need so badly.
For the sake of that peace, it's we Americans, not the Palestinians, who need to take up the torch of nonviolence. Until we do, it seems hypocritical to be blaming Palestinians for failing to live up to Gandhian standards.
But that does not mean we should sit around "waiting for Gandhi." The Mahatma surely would have scolded Nick Kristof and all of us who waiting for some extraordinary charismatic leader to rescue us from our wars and injustice. It's easier to wait for someone else to do the job than to heed the charge Gandhi famously left us: Be the change you want to see in the world.
We Americans have already had our Gandhi. And while we elevated him to the status of a heroic King, most of us conveniently forgot the most difficult parts of his message, his call to recognize our own nation as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world and to practice nonviolence no matter what the consequences.
Now, instead of waiting for another miraculously gifted leader, we should each be speaking out and acting up, doing whatever little bit we can. We may not see the greatness of a Gandhi or King again for a very long time. But that's no reason to give up the quest for nonviolent resolution of our problems. It's all the more reason for each of us to take responsibility for ourselves and our own people, to stop telling others what they should do and start, right now, changing what we do.
Meanwhile, when oppressed, militarily occupied people resist, let's recognize that it's not our place to tell them what means they should or should not use -- and certainly not when our own nation is contributing so much to their oppression.