October 4, 2009
by RAMACHANDRA GUHA
Do they need a lesson in non-violence?
THE great Vietnamese nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh once joked that if Gandhi had been fighting the French, he would have given up non-violence within a week. I was reminded of Ho Chi Minh’s witticism when reading a report of a speech on West Asia delivered by the U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz. Mr. Wolfowitz, who is one of the key strategy-makers in Washington, and is reputed to be a well-read man, far more so than his bosses Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush. Speaking to the students of Georgetown University, he said terrorism is the greatest obstance to a settlement in Palestine. Then he added: “If the Palestinians adopt the ways of Gandhi, they could, in fact, make an enormous change very quickly. I believe the power of individuals demonstrating peacefully is enormous.”
This is a clever argument. Some might even see it as diabolical. For it is intended to take the heat off the Israelis, whose own penchant for violence Mr. Wolfowitz doesn’t seem to have mentioned at all. Suicide bombing is indefensible, but the Palestinians might argue that their original intifada, in the late 1980s, was indeed for the most part a movement of individuals demonstrating together. Admittedly, it was not strictly Gandhian, but the violence then did not involve much more than the throwing of stones. The intifada led to the peace talks in Oslo, but it did not end the Occupation, and it certainly did not end fresh Israeli settlements. There were always some fundamentalist Palestinian groups that advocated violence; these have gained greater credibility in the light of recent Israeli actions and their backing by the United States’ Government.
Mr. Wolfowitz was smart to refer to Gandhi, but perhaps not smart enough. I doubt, for example, that he knew that the Mahatma had himself warned of the horrific consequences of Jewish (not Arab) terrorism in Palestine. This was in the summer of 1947, when armed Zionists roamed the countryside, intimidating Palestinian villagers. When a reporter from Reuters asked him, “What is the solution to the Palestinian problem?” Gandhi answered: “It is a problem which is almost insoluble. If I were a Jew, I would tell them: `Don’t be so silly as to resort to terrorism, because you simply damage your own case which otherwise would be a proper case’.” Gandhi advised the Jews to “meet the Arabs, make friends with them, and not depend on British aid or American aid or any aid, save what descends from Jehovah”.
Mr. Wolfowitz counsels non-violence to the Palestinians now. He perhaps doesn’t know that Gandhi once counselled non-violence to the Jews. That was in 1938, when the Jewish population of Europe had begun mass emigration to the Holy Land under what Gandhi perceived was “the shadow of the British gun”. This had led to a spate of conflicts over land. Commenting on this, Gandhi insisted that the Jews could settle in Palestine “only by the goodwill of the Arabs”. He added: “There are hundreds of ways of reasoning with the Arabs, if they will only discard the help of the British bayonet”. One such was for the Jews to “offer satyagraha to the Arabs and offer themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them”.
Gandhi clarified that “I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regard as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.”
The “unwarrantable encroachment” continues. So does the “Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds”. Fifty-five years of almost continuous conflict has exacted a horrific human cost. It has degraded and demoralised both sides. What could possibly be the solution to the Palestinian problem? One is tempted to note that there might not have been a problem if the Jews had listened to Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s and 1940s itself.
Anyway, that is in the past. How can one move forward? By the Palestinians adopting Mr. Wolfowitz’s advice, and offering satyagraha to the Israelis? But will a fresh intifada, one that more strictly adheres to non-violence, persuade the Israelis to end their Occupation?
I have never been to West Asia. Like the vast majority of the readers of The Hindu, my knowledge of the region comes via bloody pictures on television. I cannot therefore say whether the Israelis are more like the British in India, or the French in Indo-China, that whether they will respond to the way of Gandhi, or whether they must instead be confronted with the way of Ho Chi Minh. One thing, however, is unquestioned: that the sufferings of the Palestinians could not have gone on for so long had it not been for the massive Western support to the Israeli state. The Jews in Palestine arrived under the shadow of the British bayonet. That they have stayed on and so comprehensively consolidated their position is owed in part to their own will and determination; and in part also to the provision of American tanks and bomber aircraft. What they have got from Jehovah has been decisively supplemented by what they have got from the Government of the United States.
No sane person doubts that the suicide bombing should be condemned, and brought to an end. Gandhi himself would have deplored it, not least because it has been justified in the name of faith. (“A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb,” is what he had told the Jewish settlers in 1938.) A Gandhi for our times would very likely have told the Palestinians to abandon the methods of Hamas in favour of civil disobedience. Here Mr. Wolfowitz is right. What he fails to add is that for any peace to be just, or enduring, it requires the Israelis to listen to Gandhi too, for them to meet the Palestinians, make friends with them, and acquire their goodwill. And above all, to halt and reverse their encroachment on Palestinian land.
The Government of Israel listens to nobody except the Government of the United States — and often not even to them.
It is hard to imagine them being receptive to the message of Gandhi. That, perhaps is why the American Deputy Defence Secretary sought to sermonise only to the Palestinians. He probably knew it was not worth his while to try the other side.