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An Israeli Gandhi Seized at Sea

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof complained a while back that he was still “waiting for Gandhi” in Palestine. I complained, in turn, that it was hypocritical for Kristof to bewail, and perpetuate the stereotype of, the “violent” Palestinians. Instead he should stay home and call for a new Gandhi here in the U.S., which perpetuates Middle East violence by so consistently supporting Israel, despite its abuses.  Latest example: The feeble statement from the State Department that the U.S. is “disappointed” to see the Israelis resume settlement expansion.

But if Kristof and others need to travel abroad in search of a new Gandhi, it’s worth asking why they go to Palestine and not to Israel. After all, Palestinian violence against Israel has virtually ceased. It’s the Israelis who now inflict nearly all the violence.  Shouldn’t we be looking for the Israeli Gandhi? 

The search might not take as long as you think. There are plenty of Israeli Jews nonviolently resisting their own government’s policies of occupation and oppression. The latest to find the public spotlight is Rami Elhanan, a former Israeli soldier who joined other Jewish activists from Israel and around the world as sailors for peace and justice on a boat called the Irene. They were headed for Gaza -- bringing medical equipment, fishing nets, textbooks, toys, prosthetic limbs, and other humanitarian supplies, aiming to break the Israeli blockade that deprives the Gazans of such desperately needed materials -- when the Israeli military seized them on the high seas.

Rami Elhanan said that he was on the Irene because it was his "moral duty" to act in support of Palestinians in Gaza, because reconciliation is the surest path to peace. That note of duty is certainly a Gandhian touch. But what qualifies him even more as the Israeli Jewish Gandhi is another comment he made to a reporter:  "Those 1.5 million people in Gaza are victims exactly as I am."

That comes close to the heart of Gandhian nonviolence. It’s far more than just resisting the impulse to strike out at your enemy. It’s the realization that, as Gandhi put it, “for one who follows the doctrine of ahimsa [nonviolence], there is no room for an enemy; he denies the existence of an enemy." And it’s the willingness to put your life on the line for the truth that we have no enemies, because we are all equally participants in, and victims of, the same system of violence.

Rami Elhanan did not learn that lesson from studying Gandhi. He learned it from the cruelest experience imaginable:  seeing his 14-year-old daughter Smadar killed in a suicide bombing in 1997. At first, he says, he had the natural reaction:  “I was tormented with anger and grief; I wanted revenge.”  Then he and his wife, Nurit Peled (herself now a well-known peace activist), realized that revenge would do no good because “the blame rests with the occupation. The suicide bomber was a victim just like my daughter, grown crazy out of anger and shame. I don’t forgive and I don’t forget, but when this happened to my daughter I had to ask myself whether I’d contributed in any way. The answer was that I had -- my people had, for ruling, dominating and oppressing three-and-a-half million Palestinians for 35 years.”

That’s another important Gandhian insight: Not only are we connected to our so-called “enemies” as victims; we’re also inescapably linked to those who do violence in our name. We cannot escape responsibility for that violence. We can only choose either to acquiesce or to resist.

Then Elhanan learned that he and his wife were not alone. They discovered The Parents Circle - Families Forum, which brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members to violence from the other side and realized that reconciliation is better than hatred and revenge.  Some 800 people from both sides have now joined the group. Rami Elhanan, who serves on PCFF’s board of directors, devotes his life to what he calls the “sacred mission” of spreading its message.  “You can not correct one evil or a wrong by creating another evil,” he says.

In true Gandhian fashion, he extends compassion and understanding to both sides in the conflict, including his fellow Israeli Jews. Most of them “never saw the other side,” he explains, “not the anger, not the pain…not the story… nothing. When the other side started to bite back, after 37 long years of humiliation without any democratic rights, Israelis were overwhelmed and shocked. … From this fear came the anger. From the anger came a very strong public demand for a wall to hide behind.”

In equally true Gandhian fashion, he rejects the idea of severing connection with fellow humans, especially when they are neighbors:  “I don't believe in walls. I do not think walls create good neighbors. … Walls create hate, especially if you build it in the middle of your neighbor’s living room instead of your own backyard. As a Jew, the most alarming thing for me is that my people … are creating their own ghetto. It will not protect us. … It will make us give up any connection with our neighbors. It will make us feel full of power when we are really powerless. The price of this wall is too high. It will put the very existence of the state of Israel in jeopardy.”

Still in the Gandhian vein, Rami Elhanan extends the web of responsibility to the whole world, “and the world’s behavior is a shame! Today, while these two crazy peoples are massacring each other without any mercy, the free and civilized world led by the US is not only standing aside but rather supporting one side unconditionally at the expense of both sides, prolonging the suffering of both sides.”


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Like Gandhi, though, his mission is not to criticize and complain. It is to inspire the will to change, “to convey this very simple truth: We must break down this wall of hatred and fear that divides our two nations. We must turn our pain into hope.”

Hundreds of Israeli Jews who have lost loved ones to violence have embraced this message. But Rami Elhanan stands out as an Israeli Gandhi because he has taken the vital step from inspiring talk to an act of resistance that involved a risk of serious injury or even death.

As the Irene was leaving its port in Cyprus, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) chief of staff went out of his way to warn publicly that “we do not dismiss the possibility of casualties” on ships bound for Gaza. Just before the Irene was stopped by the Israelis, Elhanan said: "They're demanding that we stop and threatening that should we fail to do so there may be injuries. We are continuing at full force." Elhanan and the other Jews on board the Irene understood the coded message. They knew that the IDF had killed nine activists at sea on a similar mission last May. They knew the risk they were taking by continuing at full force. Yet they went ahead.

This time no was killed or seriously injured. But there was a major casualty: truth, which is always the first casualty in war. The Israeli naval commandos who interdicted the Irene did commit something like an act of war, using excessive force, including tasering -- and then an Israeli military spokseman lied, claiming that the incident was totally peaceful. 

There was no need for the violence, since the activists were totally peaceful. But it’s easy to imagine why the commandos who seized the Irene lashed out at fellow Jews. The Irene’s voyage did what all acts of Gandhian resistance should do: force the oppressors and their hired hands into a situation that makes them face the truth of their own immoral actions, in full public view.

Gandhi was sure that this would, eventually, “melt the stoniest heart.”  It seems the Israeli military has not yet faced enough nonviolent resistance to melt. But the commandos’ harsh response suggests they may have been so badly confused and embarrassed that they lost control of themselves.

Or perhaps the violence was a calculated measure, ordered by the IDF’s upper echelon, to send a signal to the world that the Israelis will strike back at anyone -- even their own people -- who shines too clear a light on the suffering in Gaza. When the IDF’s chief spokesman dismissed the Irene’s voyage as a stunt “to generate media attention and (stage) a provocation,” he may have been more accurately describing the IDF’s response.

There is no reason to think this will deter nonviolent activists in Israel from continuing acts of resistance to the blockade of Gaza -- nor to the occupation of the West Bank, where Israeli Jews continue to stand with Palestinians against Israeli violence. Rami Elhanan is hardly unique among his people in his commitment to risk all for the moral truth. Others show the same kind of courage. Their example will surely inspire more and more Israelis to spread the spirit of Gandhi throughout their land, as long as their government continues to block the path to a just peace.   

Finally, a personal note: Elhanan’s father-in-law was Israeli General Matti Peled -- the man who, more than anyone else, inspired me to become a Jewish peace activist when I heard him speak here in Colorado, nearly 35 years ago. I never met the General personally. He had no way of knowing how deeply his words affected me, leading me to a path that has me writing about his own family’s quest for peace and justice all these years later.  

We can never predict, or even know, the full impact of our words and deeds. Nor, as Gandhi taught, should we judge the value of our words and deeds by the impact that we can see. The test is only whether we follow, pursue, and insist upon moral truth, whether we say and do what is right.  Rami Elhanan is among the Israeli Jews who have surely passed that test.

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of"American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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