The Tired Logic of the Cycle of Violence

The Tired Logic of the Cycle of Violence July 22, 2014

I’m not usually a big fan of Nicholas Kristof, but he has written a perceptive New York Times column on the symmetry of the rhetoric on either side of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its latest flare-up.  Perceptive, that is, in a way akin to pointing out the emperor’s nakedness: stating the obvious, which is less obvious than it should be.

Here are his counterpoints to three of the “oddly parallel” clichés of the cycle of violence being thrown around yet again.

This is a struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. We can’t relax, can’t compromise, and we had no choice but to act.

On the contrary, this is a war in which both peoples have a considerable amount of right on their sides. The failure to acknowledge the humanity and legitimate interests of people on the other side has led to cross-demonization. That results in a series of military escalations that leave both peoples worse off.

Israelis are absolutely correct that they have a right not to be hit with rockets by Hamas, not to be kidnapped, not to be subjected to terrorist bombings. And Palestinians are absolutely right that they have a right to a state, a right to run businesses and import goods, a right to live in freedom rather than relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land.

Both sides have plenty of good people who just want the best for their children and their communities, and also plenty of myopic zealots who preach hatred. A starting point is to put away the good vs. evil narrative and recognize this as the aching story of two peoples — each with legitimate grievances — colliding with each other.

Without disagreeing with Kristof’s fundamental point here, I would nuance it to say that it is about good and evil, just not in the way we’re tempted to think.  That is, it is not a struggle between good and evil people, but between good and evil in people – in thoughts and words, doings and failings.  As Solzhenitsyn once said, “The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

The other side understands only force. What else can we do but fight back when we are attacked?

Israeli leaders, starting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, think that the way to protect their citizens is to invade Gaza and blow up tunnels — and, if Gazan civilians and children die, that’s sad but inevitable. And some Gazans think that they’re already in an open-air prison, suffocating under the Israeli embargo, and the only way to achieve change is fire rockets — and if some Israeli children die, that’s too bad, but 100 times as many Palestinian children are dying already.

In fact, we’ve seen this movie before: Israel responded to aggression by invading Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and Gaza in 2008; each time, hawks cheered. Yet each invasion in retrospect accomplished at best temporary military gains while killing large numbers of innocents; they didn’t solve any problems.

Likewise, Palestinian militancy has accomplished nothing but increasing the misery of the Palestinian people. If Palestinians instead turned more to huge Gandhi-style nonviolence resistance campaigns, the resulting videos would reverberate around the world and Palestine would achieve statehood and freedom.

Some Palestinians understand this and are trying this strategy, but too many define nonviolence to include rock-throwing. No, that doesn’t cut it.

Yes, nonviolence works.  We’ve seen it work in the struggle for Indian independence under Gandhi, the U.S. civil rights movement under King, the downfall of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic precipitated largely by student activists, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, the silent protests begun by Turkey’s “duran adam“.  It remains to be seen how it might work in today’s Middle East, but what it undoubtedly won’t look like is the assumption behind the final point Kristof responds to.

What would you do if your family were in Gaza/Israel, at risk of being killed. You wouldn’t just sit back and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ would you?

If any of us were in southern Israel, frightened sick by rockets being fired by Hamas, we, too, might cheer an invasion of Gaza. And if any of us were in Gaza, strangled by the embargo and losing relatives to Israeli airstrikes, we, too, might cheer the launch of rockets on Tel Aviv. That’s human nature.

That’s why we need to de-escalate, starting with a cease-fire that includes an end to Hamas rocket attacks and a withdrawal from Gaza by Israel. For Israel, this is a chance to use diplomacy to achieve what gunpowder won’t: the marginalization of Hamas. Israel might suggest an internationally supervised election in Gaza with the promise that the return of control to the Palestinian Authority would mean an end to the economic embargo.

Here we have a conflict between right and right that has been hijacked by hard-liners on each side who feed each other. It’s not that they are the same, and what I see isn’t equivalence. Yet there is, in some ways, a painful symmetry — and one element is that each side vigorously denies that there is any symmetry at all.

The false dichotomy between violence and passivity leads to the stereotype of nonviolence as hippy-trippy indifferentism, but true and strategic nonviolence is not hand-holding and ‘Kumbaya’.  History has already provided plenty of much more powerful images to replace it with, so when we hear “nonviolence”, let’s think instead of black youth sitting at a diner politely asking to be served, bearing insult and abuse with dignity; a line of Indian ascetics seeing their companions beaten and still moving forward row by row, refusing to either back down or strike back; a lone man and then a crowd standing silent and still in Istanbul’s Taksim Square; Archbishop Romero’s blood mingling with the blood of Christ on the altar.  It’s not for me to say what a nonviolent strategy could look like for Israelis and Palestinians, but the fundamental principle remains universally true: it will call for great creativity and great courage, and it will begin when one refuses to hand the other excuses to retaliate.

It is admittedly easy to judge the short-sightedness of a self-feeding conflict in which one does not have a personal stake.  Yet the lines Kristof responds to are echoes, not only of both sides of the conflict at hand, but of the rationale for the perpetuation of countless other violent conflicts.  The logic of violence is painfully unoriginal, and as long as the cycle continues, no two enemies can avoid sounding much, much more alike than they will ever admit.

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  • This is an excellent analysis of a very sad situation.

  • Thales

    Good post, Julia.

    “That’s why we need to de-escalate, starting with a cease-fire that includes an end to Hamas rocket attacks and a withdrawal from Gaza by Israel.”

    I’m no expert on the Israel-Gaza situation, but it seems that Israel would be okay with this — and Gaza isn’t — based on Israel’s attempt to abide by Egypt’s cease-fire a few days ago and its statements saying that is open to a cease-fire, contrasted with Hamas’s rejection of the cease-fire.

  • So when we hear “nonviolence”, let’s think instead of black youth sitting at a diner politely asking to be served, bearing insult and abuse with dignity; a line of Indian ascetics seeing their companions beaten and still moving forward row by row, refusing to either back down or strike back; a lone man and then a crowd standing silent and still in Istanbul’s Taksim Square; Archbishop Romero’s blood mingling with the blood of Christ on the altar. It’s not for me to say what a nonviolent strategy could look like for Israelis and Palestinians, but the fundamental principle remains universally true…

    Julia, one thing I’ve learnt from all of my years of living in the Third World is that very few things are “universally true”—and that most Americans and most Europeans assume that people coming from radically different cultural and religious traditions want “the same things” that Americans and Europeans do; they don’t. The Israelis are absolutely captivated by what I call the “myth of the Holocaust.” By this I do NOT mean what “Holocaust deniers” believe, but that, instead, the majority of Israelis believe that they are, historically, the archetypal “victim” and that almost everybody in the world, given the opportunity, will perpetually victimize them; they believe that only the Zionist State protects them from this fate. I know this to be true, because I’ve had countless discussions with Israeli Jews traveling around the world, and it always comes back to this.

    The situation the Palestinians believe themselves to be in corresponds very closely to what the American aboriginal people finally recognized themselves to be in, at the hands of the white settlers from Europe: the Palestinians are “tribal people” for whom the collective survival of their tribe counts more than the survival of any one individual, and it goes far beyond the Muslim teaching of a glorious reward for jihad: they see themselves, their traditions and their culture being extinguished by the Zionist policy of “ethnically cleansing” them from their traditional homelands. This is exactly what happened to the American aboriginals, who insisted that they would NOT simply disappear, and who conducted a struggle for survival so that their historical progeny could at least hold their heads high, as “survivors” of a sort. Talk to any American Indian today, forced by laws and circumstances to live in one of the concentration camps euphemistically termed a “reservation,” and you will find nothing in what they say but pride for their ancestors’ doomed struggle. THAT is what the present-day Palestinians wish to leave to their children—and NOT some Western, Christian “self-respect” for “willingness to compromise.” Sorry, Julia, but neither they nor the Native Americans are “like us.”

    For us, and for people like us, I certainly DO believe in non-violent civil disobedience. I’ve lived in India, and I now live in Egypt, and I can tell you, with absolute confidence, that the majority of Indians are more “like us” than are the majority of Egyptians. However, in any case, the Gandhian principle of ahimsa could only work against a morally and intellectually secure people like the British and like the Americans once were; it would not have worked against the Nazis or the Maoists.

    I anticipate that your very next objection would be that, of course, the Israeli Jews ARE “just like us” in most ways, so I want to tell you a little story about a visit I once paid to a “hill station” high up in Himmachal Pradesh that is usually filled with young recently-demobilized Israel soldiers. Being a persistent proponent, like you, of a non-violent course of resistance by the Palestinians, I suggested to my Israeli interlocutors—most of who were severely dispirited by the policies they’d been forced to implement and readily admitted that those policies were, ultimately, self-defeating for the Zionist project—that the “winning strategy” for the Palestinian people would be to simply lie down in the streets, to permit the Israelis to fill their jails and prisons with them, and to non-violently resist curfews and barriers, etc. To a man—or a woman—every single one of the young Israeli veterans opined, usually sorrowfully, that the prevailing sentiment of the present-day majority of their countrymen would be to respond to such an “existential threat” to the “Jewish State”—“existential” because it would threaten to replace the “Jewish State” with a pluralist and secular democracy, because of Arab demographics—with encouragement of their government to “shoot them down in the streets.”

    • Julia Smucker

      If nonviolence is seen as such an existential threat, that in itself speaks volumes about its power. And anyone responding to it so brutally would only be exposing their own brutality to the world – which is also part of why nonviolence is so powerful.

      Actually, your point about victim status is kind of what I’m talking about. It’s the same kind of cycle we see, albeit on a different scale, in a previously abused person becoming an abuser themselves. I’ve heard the Jewish peace activist Deborah Weissman make the same point about how easily victims can become victimizers.

      To make it more personal, you must realize that, coming from Mennonite stock, I know something of the significance of hanging on to “archetypal victim” status.

      • Since we’re talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here, I’d like to recommend this article as the clearest analysis of the actual situation on the ground. It makes it quite clear that the Israeli incursions into Gaza are disastrous and ultimately self-defeating. And, please note, it’s the sort of thing that absolutely WILL NOT be reproduced in the Mainstream American Media:

        http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/interview-with-former-israeli-security-chief-yuval-diskin-a-982094.html

      • Cojuanco

        But if DD is right, then it means that to a large extent, the majority of Israelis don’t give a tinker’s damn about what the rest of the world thinks, as long as Israel remains. Now they don’t even care about what Washington thinks.

    • “…one thing I’ve learnt from all of my years of living in the Third World is that very few things are “universally true”—and that most Americans and most Europeans assume that people coming from radically different cultural and religious traditions want “the same things” that Americans and Europeans do; they don’t.”

      DD your observation of the view of others is keen and really are the seeds for a dialogue. Indeed, as I read your analysis I began to have some hope as you begin the process of sorting through the views of warring parties. The question is whether current intractable and intransigent positions are ever reconcilable, and if so, how?

      “For us, and for people like us, I certainly DO believe in non-violent civil disobedience.”

      If we begin with an assumption of all men created in the image and likeness of God, then we have to assign each a certain dignity regardless of their ‘worldview’. To see a person or people as ‘unlike’ us is to begin in a very weak position for a peacemaker. The question of whether a non-violent approach works immediately in every circumstance is really a pragmatic question and not a moral one. (I will leave aside your assertion that the NAZI’s, et al were beyond hope.) The more important question for the followers of Christ is will they remain faithful to the beatitudes when the horizon is dark and uncertain?

      Christ does not turn away from peoples trapped in tragically flawed moral positions (or ideologies), rather he calls all peoples to conversion towards the Kingdom of God. Christians in particular, bear the mantle of peacemaker in their spiritual DNA (if you will). Faith is very demanding.

      • Julia Smucker

        Not to put too fine a point on it, but to clarify one thing, nonviolence is not necessarily supposed to work “immediately”; it is the diametric opposite of a quick fix and can in fact be very costly in the short run. For example, I heard the point made recently that any dictatorship is undermined when people decide to live as if they already had the freedoms that are denied them, knowing that it may cost their own lives. In many ways a violent and/or repressive regime has more to fear from those who are willing to die than from those who are willing to kill.

        Without wanting to underestimate the difficulty, I take it as axiomatic that a nonviolent approach is always, ultimately, better than a violent one, both morally and strategically.

  • The false dichotomy between violence and passivity leads to the stereotype of nonviolence as hippy-trippy indifferentism, but true and strategic nonviolence is not hand-holding and ‘Kumbaya’.

    I agree with you completely. I really wish you were a member of my Secular Franciscan fraternity. Here’s an article from the Rule…“Mindful that they are bearers of peace which must be built up unceasingly, they should seek out ways of unity and fraternal harmony through dialogue, trusting in the presence of the divine seed in everyone and in the transforming power of love and pardon.”

    Not only dialogue, but actions building peace. Sadly, peoples engaged in war have no respect or vision of the divine image or seed in the other; that ‘faith demand’ gets trampled underfoot. The solution is not hopeless, indeed it is possible if the right ‘powers’ are employed.

  • Roger

    The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is NOT a case of “oh, there are always two sides to each story” or “both sides are at fault.” It is simply a case of one side led by a known terrorist organization carrying out terrorist activities against a sovereign state.

    Sure, there are good and bad people on both sides of the conflict but the power and blame lies with Hamas. If they don’t initiate the violence, there is no war. Why doesn’t that seem obvious to everyone?

    I’m am sad but not shocked that no one on this “Christian” site has taken the time to write about the situation in Mosul. Essentially, followers of that “peace” loving religion/cult are threatening to kill all Christians in that city if they don’t convert or pay a religious tax to ISIS.

    • Julia Smucker

      I did in fact write about the situation of Iraqi Christians awhile back (see here). And to quote again my Chaldean Catholic friend who inspired that post, “We should educate the fundamentalists, not kill them.” The immense tragedy of that still-worsening situation is all the more reason violent retaliation is not the answer: it would just give ISIS an excuse to label Christians a security threat, and to likewise mock the claim that Christianity is a peace-loving religion.

      In any conflict, if either side refuses to retaliate the violence, there is no war. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict goes way too far back to clearly pinpoint initiation. That is why your sentiment doesn’t seem obvious to everyone.

    • There is no justice for the Palestinian people in the lands that the Israelis have dispossessed them of, and so long as there is no justice, there will be war. One of the things Western people do not understand about Islam is that the Koran prioritizes “justice” over “peace.” Islam is an “eye for an eye” religion, just as ancient Judaism was, and the prophet Muhammed (PBUH) meant it to be such. He believed that “Isa” (Jesus) failed as a prophet precisely because He was unwilling to prioritize the “justice” of Allah (G_d) over His mercy.

  • Chris Sullivan

    This is a good post Julia and an important emphasis on non-violence, which is certainly the way forward.

    It’s important to also keep in mind, as the Catholic Bishops of the Holy Land and the United States have recently pointed out, the serious injustices suffered by the Palestinian people, which are fueling this ongoing crisis and whose resolution will be essential to a lasting peace. As JPII put it: “If you want peace, work for justice”.

    God Bless

  • I watched Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews and in it, he talked about how Zionism has changed over the past 50 years since the end of the Six Day War. Before then, Zionism was a more secular movement, a belief that Jews needed a homeland because of the high level of anti-Semitism in the world. (A couple of years ago a customer at my former bank told us that the Rothschilds controlled most of the world’s wealth and even had the power to make it rain. He was wearing a Sacred Heart of Jesus cap.) After the Six Day War and the capture of Jerusalem, Zionism changed and became far more religious. It was less about maintaining a Jewish homeland and more about recapturing the Biblical homeland reconquering all of the land that the Jews once occupied according to the Bible.

    • At the same time, the Jewish imagination is paranoia confirmed by history.

  • Agellius

    It seems to me that non-violence is not of universal applicability. It can only work in cases where the targeted culture is already sympathetic to the thing demanded, and already has an abhorrence of violence against the defenseless.

    • brian martin

      I would agree with this. In talking to people I know from Iraq, their statement is in a culture of violence against the innocent, violence toward the innocent is not an aberration, it is not abhorrent, it is a part of daily life. Culturally, (and they tell me this is culturally and not part of their Islamic teaching) if you back down, or do not fight when pushed, it is expected that people will take advantage of you. As far as the Israel/Palestinian situation, you cannot not factor in the fact that the surrounding Arab countries..instead of assimilating refugees even marginally, keep them in camps, and then fuel the anger toward Israel, and pay families of suicide bombers. And Israel seems to be gripped with the belief that the Holocaust not only could happen again, but is likely to happen again. In their fear, they do some of the same things to Palestinians, as was done to them historically.
      I suspect that on the street, the ordinary people, if left to their own interactions, would find a way to peaceably co-exist.
      I also have to say that the UN has no credibility in this matter when they keep finding Hamas rockets in UN schools.

      • Julia Smucker

        Culturally … if you back down, or do not fight when pushed, it is expected that people will take advantage of you.

        That’s something “we” and “they” have in common if anything is. All the more reason gospel-informed, and thus nonviolent and countercultural, forms of resistance are sorely needed everywhere.

        I suspect that on the street, the ordinary people, if left to their own interactions, would find a way to peaceably co-exist.

        That is my suspicion too. The impression that somehow filters in through the news reports (and the occasional first or second-hand reports) is that many people are just trying to go about their lives and the violent factions are just making their lives miserable. How anyone can believe they are carrying out the will of God by doing that is frankly beyond my comprehension.

        I have also had a growing suspicion for the past several years that the vast majority of human sin is rooted in fear.

        • I have also had a growing suspicion for the past several years that the vast majority of human sin is rooted in fear.

          Yes, I do, too. At the bottom, there is the fear of death, but this fear is magnified by the claims of the various Abrahamic religions to “own” the afterlife. The claim to be ONLY path to some kind of “afterlife” is actually a THREAT that exacerbates the fear of death.

        • brian martin

          “I suspect that on the street, the ordinary people, if left to their own interactions, would find a way to peaceably co-exist.”
          One of my clients from Iraq brought in pictures of his wedding. He is Shia, his wife Sunni, his best man was Catholic. He talked about how they all lived in the same area, how their Catholic friends would come join them for their Eid feast following Ramadan, and how they would join their Christian friends for Christmas meals. He talked about attending Mass with his friend.

  • Julia Smucker

    This is a heartbreaking reinforcement of the impression of the general population trying to live under violent extremism, and of nonviolent resistance by people reaching their limit (this time in northern Iraq, which has already been brought into this discussion).

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/in-iraqs-mosul-radicals-unleash-their-vision/2014/07/28/621544b0-167e-11e4-88f7-96ed767bb747_story.html?wprss=rss_story-onfaith-blog1

    Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.

  • Several commenters have made remarks similar to this one from above…It seems to me that non-violence is not of universal applicability. It can only work in cases where the targeted culture is already sympathetic to the thing demanded, and already has an abhorrence of violence against the defenseless.

    Two responses come to mind in considering this stance.

    First of all, non-violence is not the fullness of love – which is the true force of change and reconciliation – but it is ‘a sister to love’. an attribute of love. Love is patient, kind…love bears all things (1 Corinthians 13). Christ called for his followers to ‘love enemies’ in contradiction of the common practice of loving friends and hating enemies (Matt 5:43-48).

    Secondly – and I think this is more important in the context of the present post – the excuses for violence (which is the result of rejecting love and non-violence) are in themselves displays of ‘self-justification’. Justification is related to ‘justice’ which in the biblical sense means living in ‘right relationship with God and neighbor’. Jesus was very concerned about people (or peoples) justifying themselves, their actions and behaviors, rather than truly living the justice which was the heart of the Kingdom of God. (Lk. 10:25-37)(Lk. 16:15)

    Notwithstanding the immense tragedy of people trapped in the ruthless cycle of violence…if any follower of Christ truly regards some cultures or persons as beyond hope and transformation, then I would regard such Christians as useless as ‘salt that has lost its flavor’ or ‘candles covered over with a basket’. Peace and good.