The Tragedy of His Absence
by Rabbi Everett Gendler
Excerpted from his forthcoming book (Spring, 2015), Judaism for Universalists, from Blue Thread Books and Music; originally published in “In an Inescapable Network of Mutuality”: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Globalization of an Ethical Ideal (Cascade Books, 2013). Reprinted with the author’s permission.
“Today, we particularly need Hebrew prophets because they taught that to love God was to love justice; that each human being has an inescapable obligation to denounce evil where he sees it and to defy a ruler who commands him to break the covenant … The Hebrew prophets are needed today because decent people must be imbued with the courage to speak truth, to realize that silence may temporarily preserve status or security but that to live with a lie is a gross affront to God. —Martin Luther King, Jr.**
LIKE MOSES, his spiritual predecessor in the struggle on behalf of Divinely guided human liberation, Martin Luther King, Jr. was “a traveling man”: many arduous routings, many challenging detours, many bruising encounters on the freedom trail. As with Moses, so with King: the Holy Land was an important point of reference in his religious life. In contrast to Moses, however, who could only climb the mountain to see the Promised Land from afar, King was able to visit part of the land in March, 1959. The occasion was returning home from his visit to India, where, with Coretta, he had visited significant sites in the life of Gandhi and deepened his understanding of nonviolence.
In the Holy Land, he was deeply moved as he followed the paths that Jesus had walked on the Mount of Olives and in the Garden of Gethsemane, as well as the burial places of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, and others. But as he pointedly remarked, he was at that time unable to experience the fullness of the land because of the separation barrier between Jordan and Israel. In the biblical narrative, God the Creator was first experienced as God the Liberating Redeemer in the exodus from Egypt, following which He directs His people toward the Promised Land. As I understand this narrative, the failure of Moses to set foot in the land did not compromise its status as the final destination in this Liberation narrative, with all its later inspiring revolutionary effects throughout the history of the struggle for justice and human dignity. By contrast, the absence of King may have affected the destiny of this land in our age, diminishing its capacity to serve as a place where the liberating and healing power of the Divine was again made manifest. Regrettably, neither King nor Gandhi before him managed to bring to the Promised Land their charismatic embodiment of the efficacy and the power of nonviolence, thus depriving it of their desperately needed contributions to the reconciliation of contending claims and conflicting claimants.
Nonviolence in the Holy Land? On first hearing, the phrase does, indeed, sound like an oxymoron. Yet nonviolence has a lengthy, although largely fitful and frustrated, history in that strife-afflicted region. A brief review of a few incidents from the modern history of Israel/Palestine may be helpful in setting the context for what Martin Luther King, Jr. — had he indeed set foot in the land — might have contributed to the resolution of this seemingly intractable conflict. Since it was his regular practice to apply nonviolent principles to the particular conditions of a situation, we need at least some sense of the background of the present impasse in Israel-Palestine.
A WORD OF EXPLANATION about the selection of these few background incidents may be helpful. For reasons of space, they must be few in number and abbreviated in their presentation. They are not intended as a full portrait of the issue in all its shadings; rather, they are strokes, integral to the texture of the situation, yet sometimes not noticed, whose appearance King surely would have discerned, filled out, and brought vividly to our attention. All are extracted from the overall canvas representing two deeply felt forces tragically colliding, both of which are too often oblivious to the similarities between them.
We are most accustomed to reading of conflicts and clashes, often violent, between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The violent expressions of the profound differences between Jewish and Arab positions with respect to Israel/Palestine have especially gained attention from observers as well as participants in the conflict. Yet significant nonviolent elements and initiatives have been present from the beginning of the modern period of this ancient struggle. Some of the early Zionists, for example, were aware of the Palestinian presence in the land and hoped to overcome the possible resistance of the residents through an expansion of opportunities. Moses Hess, notes the Encyclopedia Judaica (1971), a full generation before Herzl, had in 1861 “imagined that a highly Westernized element such as the Jews would be welcomed by the Arabs because of the leadership that Jews would provide in creating in the entire region an advanced economy and an advancing society.” While this attempt to convert a zero-sum game to one of an expanding sum that could be shared was not universal among the early Zionist thinkers, others also sought to forge common purpose with the Arab residents.
Chaim Weizmann, central to the diplomacy that yielded the Balfour Declaration, corresponded directly with Emir Feisal Husseini, a prominent leader who was the Arab representative to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, and the two signed an agreement. In a letter to Lord Herbert Samuel in 1919 that accorded recognition to the common interests of both peoples, Husseini said, “I personally deprecate any differences between the Arabs and the Jews who ought to unite their efforts in word and deed for promoting the development and happiness of our country.” In addition, he signed an agreement accepting the immigration of Jews into the country and their development of it, subject to the protection of the rights of the Arab peasant and tenant farmers. Husseini, however, was a resident of Hejaz (Saudi Arabia) and was not able to represent accurately the far more negative feelings of many Arab residents of Palestine.
Despite little positive response from the Arab community, there continued to be Jewish Zionists and others associated with the B’rith Shalom (Convention of Peace) movement who sought a more conciliatory path, among them Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, and Ernst Simon. Chaim Arlozoroff, a prominent early leader of the labor Zionist movement, also attempted to find ways for Arab-Jewish cooperation until his never-solved murder in June 1933, which deprived the Zionists of a figure central to the politics of the movement and keenly aware of the importance of achieving Arab-Jewish understanding.
Regrettably, attempts to cultivate a commonality with the Arabs of the region were compromised by other goals of early Zionism: the reassertion of the dignity of manual labor; the determined effort to expand Jewish occupations beyond the middleman-commercial role imposed by Russia’s rulers; a quest for self-reliance that sought independence from outside forces, in this case the Arab inhabitants of the land. Each of these goals was understandable, even commendable, yet their combined effect was to marginalize and so exclude the Arabs from full participation in the expanding opportunities brought by the new settlers.
Adding to the difficulties of avoiding injuries to peasants while legally acquiring land was the opaque complexity of title procedures in the Ottoman Empire. For reasons clearly presented by William R. Polk (in Backdrop to Tragedy: The Struggle for Palestine, Beacon, 1957), a long history of subterfuge and misrepresentation had come to characterize the peasants’ registration of land in the Ottoman Empire, thus making it especially difficult to determine ownership. To avoid the government’s conscription of their sons as well as to protect their land rights more effectively, peasants often registered their land in the name of an important and influential man who could, through his influence, defend their traditional land rights. This resulted in a severe discrepancy between the legal title to land actually possessed and cultivated by peasants over many generations. Polk notes, for example, that when a Zionist purchasing group in 1921 openly and legally purchased an extensive plot of land in the Emeq (Hefet Valley) from the Beirut Christian family of Sursuk, some eight thousand peasants who were actually living on the land, many with only a dim grasp of the technicalities of title deeds, were evicted to make way for the intended settlers. This tragic dispossession was entirely legal, yet it grievously violated the traditional peasant attachment to the land and the simple peasant sense that to live on the land and to cultivate it over generations constituted title to the land.
Polk contrasts peasant feelings about land with the Bedouin mentality, for whom there is no fixity in relation to the land:
For the settled peasant… land is one’s own land, where ancestors were born, where they built, tilled, are buried, and where sons will be born. Land is a visible extension of man — as it were, the summary of life. In its terraces, holy places, and graveyards, the individual achieves a sort of immortality… It is perhaps the strongest emotional attachment known to peasants the world over.
Consequently, he continues,
land was the ultimate value to be saved at all sacrifice; in the peasant’s mind it was saved so long as he worked it, buried his dead in it, and raised sons upon it. To him it was incomprehensible that through the edicts of a distant government, whose authority he had hardly ever felt, the land had ceased to be his.
This legal situation compounded the difficulties of finding ways to minimize the destructive effects of Jewish settlement on the lives of those who had long lived on the land.
Harsh external circumstances also contributed to the lack of continuing attention to this vital element, which was destined to have so profound an effect on the continuing effort to increase Jewish settlement in the Holy Land. Twenty years after Hess’s hope to create a common cause between the Jews and the Arabs came the assassination of Czar Alexander II, followed by widespread pogroms against Jews throughout the Russian Empire and adjacent lands. Profoundly disheartening to Jews was the passivity of the Czarist government, which failed to defend them against the mob violence, and still more so the apparent acquiescence of even progressive elements in Russia in this brutal wave of bloodshed. Populist movements such as the Narodniks tended to view the uprisings as proto-revolutionary and showed little concern for the Jews who were being abused.
The Kishinev pogroms of 1903 further fueled the mass exodus of Jews from Russia and surrounding lands, with some 2,400,000 fleeing between 1881 and 1914. Most went to the United States, but there were some among them who, despite difficulties, emigrated to Palestine. Later, during the disturbances following World War I, over 100,000 Jews were slaughtered in Russia and Poland by Ukrainian and counter-revolutionary troops. Long before the unprecedented horrors inflicted by Adolf Hitler, such events contributed to a sense of urgency that trumped the search for conciliatory ways to resettle persecuted Jews in their ancestral homeland.
IN RESISTING THE PERCEIVED THREAT from Jewish immigration, Arabs in the beginning took largely nonviolent measures to protest. In her valuable comprehensive study of Palestinian nonviolence during the first Intifada (A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance, Nation Books, 2007), Mary Elizabeth King identifies antecedents in the widespread use of nonviolent methods, especially protest and persuasion, by Palestinians during the 1920s: “formal statements, declarations, petitions, manifestos, assemblies, delegations, processions, marches, and motorcades.” Because these methods failed to halt Jewish immigration to Palestine, many Arabs were discouraged from further using such tactics and turned increasingly to violent protest. What followed was a long, complex, painful, and all-too-familiar history of collision between Jewish determination to create again, this time in their historic land of origin, a refuge from their perpetual persecution, and an equally determined Arab resistance to a perceived threat to the longtime residents of the land.
The Balfour Declaration in 1917 explicitly affirmed that Great Britain favored and would facilitate “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people.” In the very same complex sentence, it explicitly affirmed that “in the achievement of this object… nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Details of how this was to be accomplished were lacking, and consequently it failed to gain the cooperation of the Arabs in this admittedly difficult endeavor.
Throughout the period of the British Mandate, a few voices were audible among both Jews and Arabs advocating a mutually rewarding solution. The members of B’rith Shalom, mentioned earlier, worked tirelessly for a binational state that would recognize and take account of the deep longings of both peoples for this land. Susan Lee Hattis notes (in The Bi-National Idea in Palestine during Mandatory Times, Shikmona, 1970) that in his moving testimony at the hearings of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), Professor Ernst Simon reminded the Committee that “the members of the League (for Jewish Arab Rapprochement and Cooperation) still believe in man, in the brotherhood of nations, in the progress of mankind, and in the eventual triumph of the progressive forces…” There followed the more concrete statement of Aharon Cohen, also quoted by Hattis:
In our view, there is no conflict between the real interests and just aspirations of the two peoples. The Jews want freedom to develop unhindered their national home through immigration, settlement, and political independence. The Arabs seek progress, political independence, a rise in their standards of life, freedom from want and ignorance, freedom from economic backwardness and feudal domination.
Although few Arab voices were heard in agreement with this position, at least one positively responding group, Falastin al-Jedida (The New Palestine), was formed in 1936 by Fauzi Darwish el-Husseini, a cousin of the Grand Mufti. The group had little growth during the following decade, but it did sign a document of understanding with the League on November 11, 1946, pledging to work together
to preserve the unity of the country and work for a solution of its political problems through an Arab-Jewish agreement on the basis of the [following] principles: full cooperation between the two nations in all fields; political equality between the two nations in Palestine as a means of obtaining the independence of the country; Jewish immigration according to the absorptive capacity of the country and the joining of the shared and independent Palestine in an alliance with the neighbouring countries in the future.
On November 23, 1946, Fauzi Darwish el-Husseini was murdered by unknown Arab nationalists. While speculating about whether Arab masses could ever be converted to this viewpoint, Hattis remarks: “The Arab masses had been told for thirty years that there was nothing to compromise about with the Zionists… To reverse this trend a man of extraordinary qualities and with an ability to command great authority was required.” She leaves unanswered whether or not Darwish al-Husseini was such a figure.
WHATEVER HINDSIGHT one may direct at the situation through the first decades of the 20th century, a full violent collision between the two nationalist movements was not averted. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine in 1947 proposed a partition of the land; the proposal was accepted by the Zionists, rejected by the Arabs, and the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 followed immediately the end of the British Mandate in May 1948. The de facto partition of the land came about, followed by the armistice agreements of 1949 between the warring parties. Additional national armed clashes occurred in 1956, 1967, and 1973, with a major change in the territorial arrangement as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, formerly held by Jordan.
Throughout the years following the 1949 truce, smaller-scale armed clashes and guerrilla actions continued, along with consistent Arab efforts to isolate, boycott, and refuse recognition of Israel. Following the Six-Day War, the Arab League adopted its widely known policy of three no’s: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. Within Israel itself, the Palestinian resistance was marked by the use of suicide bombers, whose attacks on civilians caused not only human casualties and material destruction but also a heightened sense of horror, anxiety, and insecurity among the Israelis. This regrettably reinforced the memories of recent mass extermination of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. The result was heavy military retaliation by the Israelis, along with hardened attitudes on both sides.
During this period, however, some resident Palestinian civic leaders and activist intellectuals began to explore nonviolent alternatives to the mutually injurious violent tactics then widespread among both Israelis and Palestinians. Mary Elizabeth King provides a lucid, detailed, thorough report of this important development in chapters 7 and 8 of A Quiet Revolution. She describes the Arab Thought Forum’s three-day international conference in Amman in November, 1986, which included among its major presenters Dr. Gene Sharp, a pragmatic Western analyst and the author of The Politics of Nonviolent Action, and Narayan Desai, the principled Gandhian director of the Institute for Total Revolution. Some developments in Israel during those years are vividly and engagingly presented in Sari Nusseibeh’s Once Upon a Country (Picador, 2007), which offers numerous instances of applied nonviolent resistance.
Illustrative is Military Order 854 and the Palestinian response. In 1981, the military government of the West Bank and Gaza ordered that “all foreign professors, whether Palestinian expatriates or internationals, apply again for work permits, and they sign a loyalty pledge, specifically stating that they would not engage in opposition to the military government or have any dealings with a ‘hostile’ organization as defined by the Israelis, namely the PLO.” The order was, according to Nusseibeh’s analysis, calculated “to undermine our academic freedom and prevent a full-fledged civil society from taking root by threatening hundreds of professors… with deportation if they engaged actively in politics.” Although the administration at Birzeit University, fearing the consequences of refusal, agreed to go along, the professors ignored the order. They publicized the issue in the Palestinian and Israeli communities and in the Israeli and foreign press, gaining widespread support. The president of the Israeli Academy of Sciences set up a committee of Israeli academics “to investigate the legality and morality” of the order; their findings supported resisting the order. A minor scuffle, during which an Israeli officer was pushed by a student and fell to the ground, resulted in the military government ordering a three-month shutdown of the university and deportation of seven professors. Still refusing to sign after the university was reopened, the professors received orders from the PLO’s headquarters in Amman that they submit to the Israeli order. After consulting with representatives from all the West Bank and Gaza universities, the professors decided to resist the PLO as well, finding that it was “against the PLO’s best interests” to submit to its order. With the support and urging of Abu Jihad, the PLO was ultimately persuaded to defer to the judgment of the local leadership.
Later the U.N. called for Israel to rescind Military Order 854, as did the International Commission of Jurists; the support of Israeli academics continued as well. In response, while refusing to rescind the order, the military government did suspend it for one year; at the end of the year, Nusseibeh notes, “they just chose not to enforce it.”
From this episode, Nusseibeh gained the following crucial insight into Israeli psychology: “only after the first hint of violence” did they take action. Expanding on the importance of this moment of insight, he continues:
For thirty-five years every shot we took at the occupiers had ricocheted back at us tenfold: more land was seized, more people expelled, more of our future trampled upon. It was a losing battle, because they had a strategy, whereas we had only emotions. Now, for the first time, we were discovering our strength. The Israelis had nothing in their repertoire to defeat a dedicated nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience.
What an invaluable discovery! The further exploration, both in theory and in practice, of nonviolent strategies by the East Jerusalem Activist Intellectuals, as Mary Elizabeth King calls them, did indeed prepare the way for the unprecedented two-year Intifada that began in 1987, which involved general strikes, boycotts of Israeli civil administration institutions in the occupied lands, civil disobedience, widespread refusal to work in Israeli settlements, refusal to pay taxes, refusal to drive Palestinian cars with Israeli licenses, graffiti, and barricading, as well as stone-throwing and some use of Molotov cocktails.
Along with various nonviolent actions that challenged the consciences of Israel’s occupying authorities, Nusseibeh recounts also the transformative experience of his encounters with what he describes as “two American Jewish visionaries,” Professor Herbert Kelman and his wife Rose. On reflection, Nusseibeh found himself conceding the deep wisdom of the Kelmans’ insistence that “Palestinians and Israelis would eventually have to sit down and negotiate a deal,” and after much soul-searching, to his own surprise he reluctantly found himself ready to enter into negotiations with the Israelis on the basis of the pre-1967 borders. In effect, that meant recognition of the permanent presence of the State of Israel; by the same token, it also meant the implicit recognition by the Israelis of a Palestinian state.
Perhaps it comes as a surprise to many readers that the first Palestinian Intifada (“uprising,” literally “shaking off”), from 1987 to 1989, was predominantly, though not entirely, nonviolent. Yet Mary Elizabeth King assembles massive, convincing evidence that this was the case. How do we explain the discrepancy between the actuality and the impression? How did it happen that the quantitatively minor amount of stone-throwing, mostly by Palestinian youths, so outweighed the vastly greater employment of pure nonviolence? The simplest, most compelling explanation is, I think, offered by Dr. Gene Sharp and Colonel (retired) Robert Helvey in their trenchant treatments of strategic nonviolent struggle.
Sharp, whose powerful theoretical work contributed directly to the 1995 success of Otpor! (Resistance!) students in Serbia and to the disciplined nonviolent movements in Tunisia and Egypt of the Arab Spring of 2011, has insisted throughout his writings that mixing even a little violence compromises and weakens any nonviolence movement by reducing outside sympathy and support, lessening the almost inevitable disaffection among opposing troops when facing resolute nonviolent resisters, and reducing the numbers of those attracted to the nonviolent movement (Waging Non-violent Struggle, Porter Sargent, 2005). Helvey, his natural strategic gifts impressively honed by thirty years in military, addresses the issue with characteristically illuminating directness in On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals (Albert Einstein Institution, 2004). In his chapter, “Contaminants,” he points out that contaminated fuel “can cause an engine to misfire and sputter… [or] stop the engine from running at all.” On the basis of extensive personal experience and research, he says bluntly that a “single act of violence may provide the government with a convenient rationale for brutal retaliations…” Especially pertinent to our issue is this further assertion:
Extreme examples of violence provoking violent retaliation were the Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the suicide bombings against Israeli citizens during the second Intifada. Because the Palestinian Authority failed to aggressively disassociate itself from the these terrorist acts, Israeli public support for a negotiated homeland for Palestinians evaporated, and the international community began backing away from influencing restraint on Israeli settlement policies and Israel’s violent occupation of the West Bank.
Although the above does not constitute a full analysis of the complex situation, its basic truth should not be overlooked: Positions again hardened on both sides.
SADLY, EVEN THE LARGELY NONVIOLENT FIRST INTIFADA was not recognized as such. Part of this may indeed have been the result of the contamination from the widespread stone-throwing. However understandable as the spillover of almost unbearable frustration, and admittedly less lethal than bombs and bullets, it is nevertheless not a nonviolent tactic. In the words of the old, half-correct nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Being the target of a hail of stones is both fear-inducing and anger-provoking; witnessing such events does not incline the viewers to trust the purely peaceable intentions of the stone-throwers. These physical threats to the soldiers almost totally nullified the usual disconcerting effects of courageous, restrained, determined nonviolent human confrontations on consciences, reducing seriously the effectiveness of the Intifada.
Another likely factor was the long-term conditioning of the Israelis to associate any Palestinian opposition with violence, blinding them to the differences of this first Intifada. Reuven Gal, a former chief psychologist for the Israeli Defense Forces, remarked (in Mary Elizabeth King’s A Quiet Revolution) that Israeli officials regarded the Intifada in purely military terms: “The best proof is in the fact that Israel never handled the Intifada by police forces or semi-military forces, but… by brigades and divisions of the army — mobilizing full brigades, full divisions…”
In all likelihood, contributing further to this failure of recognition was the simple unfamiliarity of nonviolent protest to most people in the region. More than forty years had passed since Gandhi was alive, and more than twenty since Martin Luther King, Jr. had been alive and active in the United States. Even though “people power” had toppled Marcos in the Philippines the previous year, this was a period before the Velvet Revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the liberation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and the overthrow of Milosevic in Serbia, all largely by nonviolent methods. This unfamiliarity may also have contributed to the failure of the Israeli authorities to explore the potential contribution that a nonviolent movement offers for a mutually respectful resolution of the issues.
WITH THE FOREGOING as an abbreviated background sketch, let us now try to imagine how Martin Luther King, Jr., had he lived to spend real time in the Holy Land, might have contributed to the resolution of this conflict. One suggestive hint comes from a preliminary plan, first sketched in the autumn of 1966, for a visit that was still being actively planned at the time of his murder. The Reverend Andrew Young, at the time King’s primary coordinator, has related to me in telephone conversation that he and King, along with the Reverend Sandy Ray, the prominent pastor of a major black church in Harlem, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, formulated a tentative proposal for five thousand pilgrims to visit sacred sites in Israel and Jordan sometime in September, 1967. At the time of preliminary planning, the sacred sites in East Jerusalem were under the rule of the Jordanians, those in West Jerusalem under the Israelis. Consequently, not coincidentally, this massive tourist influx, with its promise of a large infusion of highly desired foreign currencies to both economies, would require active coordination and cooperation from Jordan and Israel. When Jordanian officials raised questions about the feasibility of accommodations and facilities for such a large number of visitors, Dr. King insisted that five thousand be the number; he wanted the nonviolent intervention to be of significant scale. Hotel reservations were made and deposits confirmed in December, 1966. The trip never materialized because of the Six-Day War of June 1967, and urgent events in the United States fully occupied Dr. King during the ensuing months.
In the spring of 1968, before there was a time to formulate fresh plans for a comparable trip under the changed circumstances, Dr. King was murdered in Memphis. Informed imagination, then, must provide the speculative sketch of what King might have contributed to the solution of the Israel-Palestine impasse. And rather than try to reconstruct that earlier period of time, it is more relevant to think in terms of the situation that Dr. King, were he alive, would confront today. He would surely have sensed a situation that on first sight defied satisfactory solution, for he was endowed with penetrating vision as well as elevating dreams. At the same time, he lived with the conviction, founded in faith, that God would not ultimately abandon God’s beloved human creations to final frustration and futility. How, then, might we imagine him working toward a solution?
Key to King’s approach was his commitment to a “a tough mind and a tender heart,” which is, not by accident, I think, the title of the opening sermon in his Strength to Love (Harper & Row, 1963). By a tough mind, he meant “incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment. This tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false.” The tough-minded individual, as a consequence, “has a strong, austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment.” However, he continued, without an accompanying tender heart that provides “the capacity for genuine compassion,” one will never be able to bridge the gap between oneself and the other. This deficiency leaves human beings isolated, passionless, denied the warmth and beauty of friendship and the capacity genuinely to relate to their fellow humans.
Also essential to King’s approach was his commitment to finding a solution to the conflict that represented a recognition and response to the humanity of both parties. Unforgettable is this passage from his essay, “Loving Your Enemies,” from the same book:
To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you… One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’
Briefly summarized, King’s commitment was to a method of non-violent action that a) resisted evil; b) sought not to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win the opponent’s friendship and understanding; c) directed its attack against structures of evil rather than against those persons doing the evil; d) maintained willingness to accept suffering without retaliation; e) attempted to avoid not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit; and f) was “based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice… [that] there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.”
King did not view conflicts as zero-sum games. He practiced a Gandhian satyagraha, the aim of which, writes Robert J. Burrowes (in The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach, State University of New York Press, 1996), “is neither to harm the opponent nor to impose on them a solution against their will. The aim is to help both parties to achieve a more secure, creative, and truthful relationship… Satyagraha, then, involves consistent effort in the search for truth while converting the opponent into a friend as a part of process. It is not used against someone; it is done with someone.”
Since King took great care to begin the consideration of any intervention with a tough-minded “realistic appraisal” of the situation, what might the first outcome of such an appraisal have been? We had earlier characterized the Israeli-Palestinian impasse as the collision between two deeply felt, passionately asserted, elemental claims to a particular territory. Faced with this stark reality, I can imagine King immediately looking for alternatives to belligerent confrontation. Had there been any examples of land disputes in this area settled by means other than conflict?
Indeed, there were examples, among them the lengthy, impressively disciplined nonviolent resistance of the Druze inhabitants of the Golan Heights to the 1967 Israeli occupation — and the subsequent declaration of annexation and attempts to redefine the status of the Druze by imposing identity cards and citizenship. The specifics of the conflict are succinctly presented in R. Scott Kennedy’s essay, “Noncooperation in the Golan Heights: A Case of Nonviolent Resistance” (in Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization, and Governance in the Middle East, edited by Maria J. Stephan, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009): The Golani Druze, organized around “realistic objectives,” were able to forge communal unity through compromise and “a consensus process,” and related to the Israeli soldiers in quite striking ways. “Villagers defied a strict curfew confining them to their homes to place tea and cookies outside their doors for the Israeli soldiers. They engaged the soldiers in conversation and chose not to curse them.”
What were some of the results? When soldiers were ordered to take repressive actions against the villagers, they “were really being torn apart, because they couldn’t handle that type of nonviolence… [T]he morale and discipline of Israeli soldiers began to break down.” A humanizing process had taken place that radically changed the terms of the confrontation. The villagers were somehow able to recognize that the perpetrators of the unjust policies were themselves human beings. Acting on this recognition, they reached toward the soldiers with one of the most basic of human gestures: food (tea and cookies, no less!). Could the toughest of combatants fail to turn? They were not threatened physically yet were deeply challenged emotionally, and could not continue to regard simply as “enemies” the human beings who had fed them as if they were their own children.
PRINCIPLED NONVIOLENT ACTION, as practiced by Gandhi and King, applies political pressure while simultaneously releasing the transformative power of humanization of the enemy. In combination, these serve to establish a new basis upon which the opposing forces can reach an agreement. A striking illustration of this is Budrus, a Palestinian village whose residents discovered that the planned Separation Barrier would pass directly through their village. This projected path would destroy thousands of olive trees upon whose produce the livelihoods of some villagers entirely depended, skirt the village school, cut through the cemetery, and isolate Budrus from nearby Palestinian villages. A stirring documentary film, Budrus, written and directed by Julia Bacha, recorded some highlights of the ten-month nonviolent resistance campaign organized in the village under the leadership of Ayed Morrar — who explicitly recognizes the right of Israel to protect its citizens against terrorist attacks from the Occupied Territories, but insists that the barrier be erected along the Green Line, not on Palestinian land. His comprehension of what the Israelis have at stake, together with the disciplined nonviolent approach accepted by all factions in the village, attracted both international support as well as active participation from a number of Israeli Jews who saw and objected to the manifest injustice of the proposed path. Their presence was “like a dream” to the Palestinian organizers, and there are moving testimonies in the film to the humanizing effects of the Israeli presence: “Now I know that not all Israelis are bad and hate us,” Morrar says. The demonstrations continue despite increasing injuries from the escalating severity of the Israeli soldiers’ reactions and number of arrests. Finally, after more than fifty demonstrations, an alternative path was proposed by the Israeli authorities that saved 95 percent of the land and olive trees, avoided the cemetery, and was out of sight of the school.
Another issue that Dr. King would immediately have seen as a serious impediment to a satisfactory solution of the dispute is the rapid, continuing growth of Israeli settlements within the Occupied Territories. Now numbering more than three hundred thousand, the occupants of these settlements come for two major reasons. For the estimated two thirds or more majority, the cheaper housing subsidized by the state, along with convenient transportation networks established by the state to make commuting to work easy and safe, are attractions not to be resisted. For the rest, the sense of historic and religious rights and responsibilities for Jews to settle in particular sacred places is the primary motivation. To each of these, I can imagine King applying judiciously his cauterizing method that initiates the ultimate healing process.
Dr. King, like Gandhi, was realistic. He knew that appeals to conscience often need the heft of economic consequences in order to have full effect. Both in Montgomery and in Birmingham, the economic effects of boycotts and selective buying campaigns forced those in power to face the full human meaning of their segregation polices. By analogy, a carefully focused policy of economic penalties, imposed upon the State of Israel for its subsidized enabling of settlement activities, would almost certainly have immediate salutary consequences. The exemplary action of President George H.W. Bush is instructive in this respect: Confronted by Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s policy of encouraging Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which was in direct contradiction to clearly enunciated U.S. and U.N. principles, President Bush simply stated that U.S. guarantees of Israeli loans would cease if these policies continued. Faced with the certain consequence of much higher interest rates that Israel would have to pay if the U.S. no longer guaranteed the loans, Begin immediately suspended the settlement activities.
Where are the economic leverage points today that could be used to end and reverse the current settlement policies? Widely acknowledged to be major obstacles to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestine conflict as well as a serious threat to a genuinely democratic Jewish state, these policies would, I imagine, receive immediate, careful scrutiny from King. Where do the funds come from that maintain settlement amenities and underwrite new activities? Are some charitable donations from abroad? Might governments that genuinely oppose the settlement policies respond by reducing their own foreign aid or trade concessions by commensurate amounts? In each case, the proposed actions would be narrowly focused on the grievance, avoiding any overall implication of rejection of the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. King might in fact suggest, as he did in 1967,*** that such an intervention, besides supporting valid demands of the Palestinians, will further affirm the legitimacy of Israel by securing for the Palestinians their rights to self-determination, thereby validating the full United Nations Special Committee on Palestine proposal that became the accepted resolution of the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.
The challenge of those settlers religiously motivated to reside in certain areas requires a different approach, again one for which King was ideally equipped. Here a direct confrontation with the meaning of the biblical promise is required. I can well imagine Dr. King’s dear friend, fellow marcher, and spiritual brother, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, directing King to sources that would speak to the convictions of the religious settlers. One such source — dense, difficult, yet of great value for this task — is an astonishing article by Rabbi Dr. Andre Neher, “Rabbinic Adumbrations of Non-Violence: Israel and Canaan” (in Studies in Rationalism, Judaism and Universalism: In Memory of Leon Roth, edited by Raphael Loewe, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), which introduces us to a significant strand in classical Jewish tradition that is highly critical of Joshua for his methods of settling the land. Beyond the personal condemnation of Joshua implied in the sobriquets “lista’a,” robber baron, and pirate, the text insists that Joshua’s true mission was to achieve “a peaceful co-existence of Hebrew and Canaanite in the Land of Canaan.” The full implications of this critique for the dangerous dogmatism found among many settlers cry out for expanded interpretation and application.
I also imagine Heschel further coaching King in how to broaden the perspectives of dedicated religious settlers. Among these resources would surely be the stirring cry from Amos 9:7: “‘Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel?’ says the Lord. Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?”
In The Prophets, Heschel also cites the startling passage from Isaiah (19:24-25) proclaiming the day when “Israeli shall be the third with Egypt and Assyria” and designating Egypt as “my people” and Assyria as “the work of my hands”!
What’s that? God redeeming Philistines (might we read Palestinians)? Egypt as God’s people? Assyria as the work of God’s hands? The radical potential of such citations to loosen the shackles of the current terms of discussion, to provide a fresh view of the problem by this cleansing of the eyes of perception, hardly needs explanation.
ALONG WITH THIS economic-religious-spiritual approach of King to the perplexing problem of settlements, I imagine one additional element that must be mentioned even if space precludes any discussion. What shall happen to those displaced, perhaps, in this process? How are they to be resettled? With what resources? Or are they to remain where they are, with a mutually acceptable status defined in the details of an anticipated two-state solution? Or should there be a single, overarching state with safeguards for the rights of all to dignity, security, and self-determination? What is certain is that King’s tender heart would not ignore this perplexing dimension in any settlement facilitated by the measured, effective intervention of his tough, realistic, strategic mind.
One overall element that affects every aspect of the confrontation must be mentioned in closing: the prevailing sense of trauma and victimhood that distorts each sides’ perception of present realities. The late Anthony Shadid, until his untimely death as a seasoned and sensitive Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, wrote in a dispatch from Ramallah in the spring of 2002:
The Israeli-Palestinian war is often seen through the lens of one side or the other. Israelis, in more numbers than ever before, see the conflict through the lens of terrorism. They feel a nation besieged by the lurking threat of suicide bombings that has disrupted lives… Palestinians see that same conflict through the lens of occupation. While Israelis may fear walking their streets, Palestinians point out that they cannot even enter theirs. The curfews, the checkpoints, the overwhelming superiority of arms Israel wields, have produced the humiliation of occupation that is stretching into a second generation… [N]either side comprehends the other’s pain.
How else can one account for the disregard or belated recognition of important changes in the situation? Other than persisting Holocaust trauma reinforced by the counterproductive Palestinian strategy of terrorism, what can explain the failure to explore eagerly the startling Arab Peace Initiative of 2002? In contrast to the infamous “three no’s” of 1967, this proposal, publicly offered by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, ratified by all members of the Arab League, and re-endorsed in 2007, proposed normalizing relations between the entire Arab region and Israel, in exchange for a complete withdrawal from the Occupied Territories (including East Jerusalem) and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on U.N. Resolution 194 (which calls for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict and resolves that any refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors” should be able to do so or, if they otherwise wish, to be provided with compensation). Notwithstanding the need for further clarification, this offer testifies that, contrary to popular rhetoric, there is indeed someone with whom to negotiate. To begin to understand this continuing, self-fulfilling, and self-defeating denial of evident reality, explorations such as Avraham’ Burg’s soul-searching The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise from Its Ashes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) seem essential.
For Palestinians, it would seem that the persistent pain of defeat and occupation — encapsulated in terms like nakba, “the catastrophe” — has impeded their recognizing such important resources as the human conscience for a just resolution of the conflict. We have already glimpsed, in the cases of Military Order 854, along with the Druze and Budrus, how effective this element can be — especially when coupled with traditional Jewish self-understanding.**** (The frequent Israeli invocation of tohar haneshek, “purity of arms,” even if it has come to sound increasingly hollow in recent years, is but one testimony to this self-understanding.) Dr. King never lost sight of the vital importance of the human conscience as a resource that contributed to the resolution of conflicts in a manner affirming the basic human needs and dignity of all the contenders.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was an activist, a cauterizer, but above all a healer. When he would intone, “There is a balm in Gilead,” his warm, resonant voice, coupled with the intensity of his conviction, seemed to bring to many of us a measure of healing at the mere hearing of those unforgettable words. This was never hollow rhetoric; it truly characterized the insistent yet loving quality of his interventions. If at times they hurt, the pain was always in the service of ultimate health, ever and again striving to bring what he called “the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.” How desperately the Holy Land needs King’s Divinely inspired spirit of informed, incisive, loving intervention!
* The choice of this title is not meant to suggest that Dr. King never visited the Holy Land. He and wife did indeed make a trip to that part of the world, and King’s plan for another trip before his death was never fulfilled. However, King and his nonviolence, for whatever reasons, were never an active presence in resolving the conflicts in the Holy Land in his time, and this is indeed “tragic.” See King’s Easter Sunday sermon, “A Walk through the Holy Land,” delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptists Church, Montgomery, Alabama on March 29, 1959, in Clayborne Carson et al., eds., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Vol. 5, Threshold of a New Decade, January 1959–December 1960 (University of California Press, 2005), and Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Fortress, 1981).
** Martin Luther King, Jr., “My Jewish Brother,” Amsterdam News, February 26, 1966; Martin Luther King, Jr., “An Address,” delivered before the Synagogue Council of America, December 5, 1965; Israel Goldstein, “Martin Luther King’s Jewish Association,” Jerusalem Post, October 22, 1964.
*** In 1967, King put out at least two statements affirming Israel’s “right to exist in a state of security” and asserting the obligation of “the great powers” to “recognize that the Arab world is in a state of imposed poverty and backwardness that must threaten peace and harmony.” King felt that peace “for Israel means security” and “territorial integrity,” and that peace for the Middle East means “Arab development.” He called for a Marshall Plan to deal with poverty and illiteracy in the Middle East, noting that “we must work passionately and unrelentingly through the United Nations to grapple with this years-old problem” in that part of the world. One finds here possible suggestions concerning how King might approach these issues today. See transcript of an interview with him on Issues and Answers (June 18, 1967) by Tom Jerriel, ABC Atlanta bureau chief, and John Casserly, ABC Washington correspondent (housed at the library and archives of the King Center, Atlanta, Georgia), as well as “Draft Statement Regarding SCLC’s Participation at the National Conference on New Politics: Resolution on the Middle East,” Chicago, Illinois (September, 1967, housed at the library and archives of the King Center, Atlanta, Georgia).
**** For example, the late distinguished scholar Nahum N. Glatzer cites this Talmudic characterization of the Jews from Yebamot 79a (in Hammer on the Rock: A Short Midrash Reader, Schocken, 1948): “This people is know by three signs: Being compassionate, shamefaced, and charitable. Everyone who has these three signs is worthy of cleaving to this people.” For a powerful recent example of this continuing activity of the Jewish conscience in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, see David N. Myers, Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz (Brandeis University Press, 2008), with the full translation of Rawidowicz’s startling essay.
Rabbi Everett Gendler is the Chaplain Emeritus at the Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, and Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Lowell, MA. Active in the civil rights movement, in the exploration of Buddhist and Jewish spirituality and non-violent social change, and in the egalitarian Jewish Havurah movement, he has been rightly described as the “father of Jewish environmentalism.”