Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Lesson for Amona People

One of my personal difficulties has been trying to educate my fellow Israeli activists into the complexities of true non-violent direct action techniques.

A specific difficulty is getting them to realize that one of the paths to success is that the opponent (government, etc.) uses too much power that causes a backlash.

In today's New York Times Book review, Eric Foner reviews 'Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,' by Raymond Arsenault.

Here are some excerpts that provide an historical backdrop that I think is important to recall:-

In most parts of the world, a bus journey would hardly have attracted attention. In the Jim Crow South of 1961, the Freedom Riders encountered shocking violence that deeply embarrassed the Kennedy administration. Outside Anniston, Ala., a mob set one of the buses on fire. The riders were lucky to escape with their lives. In Birmingham, police officers gave Klan members 15 minutes to assault the riders at the bus station before intervening. The result was what Arsenault calls "one of the bloodiest afternoons in Birmingham's history."

Further violence followed another group of riders in Montgomery, where John Seigenthaler, the president's personal representative, suffered a fractured skull and several broken ribs. It took a small army of policemen and National Guard troops to escort the bus from Montgomery to Jackson, Miss., where the Freedom Riders were promptly arrested for breach of the peace and attempting to incite a riot. Some spent time at the infamous Parchman Farm, a prison plantation the historian David Oshinsky called "synonymous . . . with brutality."

As Arsenault makes clear, the Freedom Rides revealed the pathology of the South. This was a society not simply of violent mobs but of judges who flagrantly disregarded the Constitution, police officers who conspired with criminals and doctors who refused to treat the injured. Southern newspapers almost universally condemned the riders as "hate mongers" and outside agitators (even though about half had been born and raised in the South).

Most remarkable was the supine response of the Kennedy administration. Before assuming the presidency, John F. Kennedy had evinced little interest in civil rights. Once in the White House, he viewed the Freedom Rides as an unwelcome distraction from his main concern — the cold war. The attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, comes off rather better. Initially as impatient with the riders as his brother, Robert Kennedy became emotionally committed to their cause.

One matter that we suffer in this post-Amona period is that the residents of Yesha and their supporters have time and time again allowed themselves to be marginalized and shunted aside.

We have not found the method to keep the issue in its proper perspective - for example, even if all the demonstartors were doing something unlawful at Amona, for argument's sake, that still does not justify most of the police violence, especially that of smashing heads of kids inside a room, sitting down and not actively resisting the police. (Eve Harow had a letter, in Hebrew, in HaAretz last week on this)

Nevertheless, the understanding that we need marshals, that we have to be as non-violent in appearance as possible (like sitting down with no rocks to throw anywhere, etc.) is lacking.

I have tried to give seminars and workshops (I appeared as an expert on non-violent civil activism at the sedition trial of Feiglin and Sackett) but have been rebuffed and basically ignored.

But maybe things will improve.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

In my experience on the (left-wing) of Israeli politics, I also saw a basic lack of understanding of non-violent resistance (I don't mean that people were using violent tactics, which they weren't in my experience). The underlying philosophy of non-violence seemed very hard to instill in people. The people I knew who really seemed to have a deeper understanding were all immigrants from English-speaking countries. (I don't mean this as a statement of their superior morality - simply that they had probably been exposed to non-violence philosophy already in their home countries during the formation of their own political philosophies - for example the activities of the Freedom Riders).

The same thing was, of course, much more true on the Palestinian side. I don't know if you recall Mubarak Awad, who was expelled from Israel at some point during the first intifada. He claimed to be advocating non-violent tactics among Palestinians, which seemed to be for him opposing the use of firearms and bombs, but allowing the throwing of rocks at soldiers. Hardly the kind of nonviolence advocated by Martin Luther King or Gandhi (the Indian, not the Israeli).

I think, in general, it is very hard for Israelis or Arabs to understand what nonviolence really means, even as a tactic, much less as a philosophy - it's just not part of the political culture of the Middle East at large.