A correspondent on Gandhi, BDS and other topics

April 22, 2010

In Letters To Finkelstein

Dear Norman Finkelstein,

I have never written a fan letter before, and to an academic and dissident it seems even more out of place. But, I feel compelled to do so to you. I do considered myself a “fan” of Norman Finkelstein—or rather, as I would like to think of myself, a colleague in training. And hope, if your schedule and work load allows, to exchange a few letters with you.

Before I go too much into the details of what I mean by this, I think it is worth telling you a little bit about myself, and the first time I came across you and your work. On a few occasions I was lucky enough to catch interviews and debates with you on Democracy Now! At the time, I knew very little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—only that it was a highly contentious issue that involved grave injustices. Regardless, I was immediately impressed with what you had to offer on the matter. Your razor sharp skepticism and high sense of morality seemed to clear through the fog of propaganda and humbug. I knew that if I ever had a real desire and chane to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that I should reach for a Finkelstein book.

Lucky for me that desire and chance did occur. However, it did start of tragically. I used to lived in Olympia, Washington—the home of Rachel Corrie, an activist acquaintance of mine. I don’t have words to describe the horror that myself and many others felt when the news broke about her murder. It was as if reality had bent itself and nothing was the same. I remember marching in the streets with a strange mixture of outrage and vulnerability. I kept replaying the last very brief conversation I had with Rachel at the Evergreen State College. After her death it has become impossible for me to shake the tragic awareness that all serious social change work has elements of martyrdom in it. After someone you know dies, everything about social justice work becomes more personal and immediate.

In 2007-2008, I enrolled in a Masters program at the University for Peace in Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica. The University for Peace was established by the United Nations, and is dedicated to providing higher educational studies to those who are interested in international relations and peace studies. However, like all bodies of the United Nations, its noble rhetoric is severely limited by a variety of factors: funds, lack of direction, a greater commitment to diplomatic niceties than social justice. Regardless, I was fortunate enough to meet a handful of very good teachers. One such teacher was Victoria Fontain—who had worked as a journalist in the Middle East, and had a particular interest in media studies and terrorism. Under her very loose guidance I wrote my Masters thesis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Beside the personal attachment I had to the conflict via Rachel and Olympia, I had over the years grown very interested in some of the more academic and philosophical questions raised by the conflict. I was really interested in Israel’s claim to its “right to exist” since it seemed like a very unique and arrogant position. I don’t know of any other state that has every tried to claim such a right. And if taken seriously by international legal institutions, it seems it would make both revolution and session illegal—thus nullifying the right to self-determination. In my musings on the subject, I would sometimes wonder if things would have been any different for the former Soviet Union if it was able to seriously claim its right to exist to the international community during perestrokia and its subsequent collapse? Would the United Nations have stepped in and considered the Commonwealth of Independent States an illegitimate criminal organization because it was seeking to “murder” a state? Israel’s claim to its right to exist as a state is even more perplexing considering it has never claimed it borders and therefore does not meet the legal definition of a state under international law. It seems quite obvious to anyone who looks into the matter, that throughout its history Israel has consistently claimed a double-standard. When arguments are made against the occupation Israel has claimed that such remarks threaten its exist and therefore violate international laws and standards. However, when people claim that state recognition—including any such right to exist—requires the responsibility of each state to declare its borders, Israel asks for special treatment because of its unique history.

In the end though, the right to exist and how a state is defined did not become the focus of my paper. Instead, I focused more on the need to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more as a conflict concerning human rights—in particular the right to self-determination—rather than a conflict over land. I tried to make the argument that self-determination was more intimately related to the idea of social justice than it was statehood—and that while statehood could express self-determination, it could also hinder it if that state was authoritarian or established on unjust terms. Essentially, I wanted to counter the argument that the Bantustanization of Palestine could in any away be considered a viable solution to the problem—even if such Bantustans did give Palestinians a “state.”
I found that reading your work and listening to your lectures over the internet was extremely helpful in forming my arguments. Especially your understanding of the various strands of Zionism. Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict was extremely instrumental in forming some of my core ideas under the conflict. I think you made it clear that though all strands of Zionism believed in Jewish self-determination and the celebration of Jewish culture, not all strands believed that this meant that Jewish statehood was necessary, even though social justice for Jews was. As you point out, the statehood Zionists were at first a minority within the Zionist movement; their success was really a product of their overlap with British and later American ambitions to control the Middle East.

When I finished with my education at the University for Peace, I moved to Chicago which was a difficult transition for me. When I arrived I had a personal life full of turmoil, a serious lack of friends, was jobless, and felt very alienated from the left-wing activist community. I have always lend more to an anarchist sentiment in the terms of organizing and vision. For the most part, much of the activists in Chicago seemed to be more rooted in a Marxist-Leninist tradition—and if not rooted in them, highly influenced by them. I don’t mean to encourage sectarianism, but the rejection of liberalism and that I find a lot of Marxist-Leninist have deeply troubles me and makes it difficult for me to work with them or want to work with them. It seems to me that a lot of people glorify the countries that the United States (and Israel for that matter) are at odds with. It is often the case that the while the crimes of the United States are front and center (as they should be for all Americans) the crimes of China, North Korea, Iran and Cuba are ignored or explained away (as they shouldn’t be for anyone). Apparently, the ANSWER coalition even went so far as to organize a demonstration against the green movement in Iran because they believe it was a “fake” social struggle organized by Western imperialist—essentially repeating the Chavez line.

I also found it difficult to organize with people around Israeli-Palestinian issues. I don’t know if you remember, but I wrote a somewhat frantic letter to you a few months agon asking you on the efficacy of an organization dedicating its resources to trying to dissolve Chicago’s sister city relationship with the Israeli city Petch Tikva. I found your response helpful, and brought to the group’s attention the inherent hypocrisy and problems with the campaign—but my remarks fell on deaf ears. In the end, I convinced no one of my position—nor did I think I ever get an appropriate response to the questions I raised. At first I tried to just have an agree-to-disagree attitude with the group, but as time went on I felt more alienated by people’s choice of tactics, and the issue of hypocrisy began to weigh more heavily on me. A few weeks ago I decided to leave the group.

To me, it appears that many of the people in Chicago who work on Palestinian issues have been very influenced by two ideas: the one-state solution, and a BDS campaign which targets all of Israel. The prevalence of these ideas makes sense considering that they are both supported by the website Electronic Intifada, and the website’s staff is based here. Personally, I don’t understand how the two positions can be held together. People who I have talked to who support a one-state solution admit that the only way that option could come about is if there was a large Israeli-Palestinian organization that has the political power to rival and eventually overthrow both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. That type of organization of course doesn’t exist, and would require a very strong left-wing anti-imperialist movement in Israel for it to form. At the same time, when I have mentioned the likelihood that a blanket BDS campaign would have on alienating the Israeli left, the response from the blanket BDS supporters is that this doesn’t matter because there is no Israeli left in the country. Israel has moved so far to the right that there is no one left to fear alienating. I think that the one-state solution and the reasons for a blanket BDS tactic both are based on serious misreadings of the situations, but even if one of them is true than the other one surely can’t be.

I think that BDS can be an important tool, but like Chomsky says it needs to be well directed. BDS is a blunt instrument, it only works if it is sharpen to attack those most in power. Unfortunately, this perspective—at least among people I’ve talked to about it—appears to be in the minority among activists. I really believe that the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement could benefit from an open letter written and signed by some like you, or perhaps professor Chomsky, calling for a more rational BDS campaign—which instead of focusing on minor cultural things like movies, dance performances, and sister city relationships—takes aim at corporations profiting from the occupations, settlement constructions, and United States aid to Israel.

Because of these differences and my own personal struggles, I found myself painfully stepping away from a lot of my activist ambitions, and dedicating more time to reading and writing. This included listening to several of your lectures. I was particularly interested in your comments on Gandhi—a historical figure that I have read a lot on. His contributions and ideas on non-violence I think have been grossly misunderstood, and I was pleased to discovered that—like so many other things—you were able to cut through the hype and see Gandhi for much of what he was. I find that when most people who are not familiar with Gandhi read him for the first time, they are often confused and surprised about three things: 1) he belief that while non-violence is morally superior to violence, this does not mean that violence is wrong in all situations or at all times, 2) that he believed that the oppressed had the principal responsibility for free themselves and 3) that he believed that there was a prevailing force which connected not only people’s private and public lives, but also humanity with the rest of the universe. For most people trained in Western political thought and philosophy, all three of these ideas seem counter-intuitive and contradictory. But, when you are willing to step into Gandhi’s mind, it is easy to see their interconnectedness and eloquence.

As you pointed out, Gandhi really understood the relationship between violence and non-violence not as opposites, but as stages. Consciousness for him was the development of a person’s moral courage and integrity. People who are totally submissive are at the bottom. They have no will of their own, and therefore had no sense of right or wrong. For Gandhi complete submission is a type of nihilism. If all there is is obedience, then really there is nothing at all. Completely obedient people do not love—not themselves, not others, not even their masters. All they do is fear. People who oppress others were morally better than those who were totally submissive, because at least they had a will; for Gandhi, being a leader is always more meaningful than being a follower. But, in trying to impose their will they become overly dependent others. In my reading of Gandhi it seems he believed that to have others get you your food, clean your house, and fight your wars when you were capable of such things was a type of humiliation, even if it put you in a privileged position. It separated you from your surrounding community, and crippled your sense of freedom and connectivity with others. Those who rebel against oppression violently are on a higher plain. They have a strong will and a sense of connectivity with other people, but they are unable to fully love because they don’t love their enemies. Those who rebel against oppression non-violently are at the highest stage. Their sense of connectivity includes even those who are oppressing them.

As you have pointed out, he made it quite clear that if your didn’t have the moral fortitude to use non-violent resistance, then you should use violent resistance—because at least that would be better than submission. The best way I have found in describing this idea to others is in saying that Gandhi would despise those who refused to fight a war out of cowardice; he would think that those who went into battle fully armed were brave; but he would think that those who went into battle completely disarmed were by far the bravest—and of course, they are.

Essential to developing that bravery was learning how to stand-up. He once wrote that he thought the responsibility for India’s independence was more on the part of Indians than it was the British. To many people, that appears like a fairly harsh statement—almost as if he is blaming the victims for their own oppression and letting the British off the hook. But again, I think this is a misunderstanding. Freedom is nothing if it is not chosen, and for Gandhi it should be chosen above all else, even one’s own personal security and, in some cases, life. The truth is no one can liberate the oppressed but the oppressed, and it is essential for the oppressed to realize this if they want to be free. I think that he thought much of what dragged down the Indian independence movement was the internalized sense of helplessness among Indians. For so long they had taken orders from the British that they were incapable of making decisions for themselves. Even in their resistance from the British, they were still waiting for the British to tell them what to do. Gandhi wanted to make it clear that freedom was something that was only realized through struggle. Only through the struggle for freedom does freedom exist at all. The moment we give up on freedom, the moment we no longer use it, is the moment it ceases to be. I think Gandhi would have great sympathy for an ACLU t-shirt that I saw once which read: “civil liberties, use them or lose them.”

Though Gandhi’s writing very rarely ventured outside of political and social issues, he seemed quite certain that there was some cosmological reason for the success of non-violent struggle. This view I think helps explain the depths of his convictions. He wasn’t just struggling for India’s independence, he saw himself as defending creation itself. I think that this creed is best summed up in a quote by Martin Luther King Jr: “the universe is on the side of justice.” A lot of things that people would find trivial mattered for Gandhi because he always looked for the grander principle behind everything. Those principles embodied creation itself, and ignoring them seemed to suggest that nothing mattered. He often said that “truth is God”–which is actually a fairly strange statement. I think most people understand this to mean that people should follow the truth as they would follow God—devoutly use reason, evidence, and their own moral conscience when making decisions. I’m sure that Gandhi partly meant this, but I think he also had another meaning which is often ignored and less understood. Truth—like God—is creation. Within all things in the universe there is a certain integrity or internal consistency, a logos. Without this “truth” stuff won’t exist. Human beings can decided to either be a force for creation, by developing their own sense of moral integrity, or a force for destruction, by living with double-standards and contradictions. This is sometimes referred to as Gandhi’s religions views, but I have a hard time stating it as such. Gandhi’s religion was so pantheistic and ecumenical that it is hard to refer to it has a “religion.” He originally said “God is truth,” but after learning about western atheism switched the creed to “truth is God.” It is hard to refer to a belief as religious when it is adjusted to include even those who are against religion.

I think that you are right on target with the idea that if Gandhi’s general principles and strategies were applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it would help in pushing through some of the conflicts major impasses. For Americans, which I think I should be most concern with, the most important Gandhian lesson is the importance of education and publicity. Turning the tide in the conflict rest on the ability of the American people to see the struggle for Palestinian independence as a moral force in the world. Even though I think most Americans say that they would like to see an end to the conflict and a two-state settlement, they still have a tendency to see the whole issue in the terms of peace—rather than the terms of peace and justice.

I want you to know, that perhaps more than anyone I can think of, I believe that you are playing a pivotal rule in helping to educate others. You definitely have provided activist like me with a solid arsenal of intellectual tools to explain the situation to people who are uniformed. I began this letter by saying I was a fan, but I would like to end it more as a pep coach. I can say that if I was in your position it would be easy to feel a bit helpless and demoralized. You are constantly dealing with a situation of endless tragedies, and when you speak out against them, you are marginalized, told to shut-up, or ridiculed. I don’t know how you take all this abuse, but I want you to know, that with me you have definitely have had a positive and profound effect. Please, I want you to keep up the good work. In a lot of ways your personal struggles, and the struggles of the Palestinians, reminds me—most fittingly—of a Gandhi quote: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Eventually, we will all win.

My only regret is that I couldn’t have finished this letter sooner. I noticed on your website that you are not checking your email for awhile. Regardless, when you come to Chicago, I want you to know that I’ll be in the audience, and—maybe if I’m lucky—I could get a chance to talk to you face-to-face someday. Until then, best wishes.


Marco Rosaire Rossi


The first thing I ever read on Gandhi was a pocket sized collection of his quotes complied by the famous Catholic monk and dissident Thomas Merton. In my opinion, it still remains the shortest and best introduction to Gandhi’s ideals. Any time I feel confused or unsure of my interpretation of Gandhi’s work, this is the first book I turned.

There are two quotes that Merton choose to include in the book that explain Gandhi’s evolution from “God is Truth” to “Truth is God.” The first one describes the importance of this change to Gandhi and his overall spiritual beliefs:

My prayerful search gave me the revealing maxim ‘Truth is God’ instead of the usual one, ‘God is Truth.’ That maxim enables me to see God face to face as it were. I feel Him pervade every fiber of my being.

The second quotes explains in more detail what Gandhi meant by this transition:

Undoubtedly prayer requires a living faith in God. Successful satayagraha is inconceivable without that faith. God may be called by any other name so long as it connotes the living Law of Life—in other words, the Law and the Lawgiver rolled into one.

The key phrase to understanding in this passage is “the Law and the Lawgiver rolled into one.” Spiritually, Gandhi went through a dramatic evolution during his lifetime. Perhaps even more dramatic than his political beliefs. Originally, Gandhi was an orthodox Hindu. He slowly transitioned into an abstract monotheist who thought that God revealed himself in a variety of ways. And then, transitioned again into a pantheist. Toward the end of this life, he seemed to believed that God was not simply the creator, but also the creation. He made the universe but He also was the universe, or at least the natural laws which governed the universe.

This move from focusing on the Lawgiver to the Laws themselves is what allowed Gandhi to have religious tent big enough include even atheist. Even though atheist don’t believe in a God, they do believe in natural laws—which for Gandhi’s sake represented God. He said that atheist believed in the effects of God, even though they may have not believed in God, and for Gandhi, that was tolerable–though not completely to his liking. He never fully gave up on the idea of a creator, but towards the end of his life he seemed to be more interested in the meaning of creation as such–hence the moving of “Truth” to the front of the maxim rather than the back.

There is a book out there that I haven’t had read, but would really like to get my hands on. It is called Gandhi As We Have Known Him and its main thesis is that Gandhi was nudged towards his pantheism by a few close humanist friends. I think this makes sense considering the ironic and intimate relationship that atheism and pantheism have had historically. They are complete opposing extremes (God doesn’t exist, God exists in everything), but in their opposition they find an unlikely common ground. Neither of them focus on the certainty of a creator, but rather the beauty of creation itself. There are few philosophers, Spinoza for example, who is often claimed as a hero for both sides. The only really difference appears to be that while most pantheist hold out some hope that there is a creator, atheist remain skeptical.

In an everyday way the maxim that “Truth is God” affected Gandhi because he seemed quite convinced of two things: one, that without a belief in natural laws a person could not engage in nonviolent struggle; and two, that somehow these laws were connected to the human capacity to love unconditionally. I think that this makes perfect sense. Gandhi was asking people to put their lives on the line. He won’t do it, or expect others to do it, unless he thought there was something out there bigger than people’s own individual lives. And, that love—especially loving your enemy—could change the world.

The question is of course is there something bigger? Does love actually change the world? Is there any basis to go on this besides faith, and if not, are moral atheist really no different than religious people? Personally, I think there is and I think there are reasons beyond blind faith. But, I will be the first to admit that is a very difficult idea to feel secure in. People wave many flags. Having one that says “Truth” and “Love” is more likely to get snickers than to inspire people to take to the streets. I disagree with Gandhi on several things—for example, I am an atheist—and think that in some ways he was superstitious, regressive when it came to sexuality, and backwards looking in the terms of technology. But, I do agree with him that Truth and Love matter, and if you don’t think that they matter then you can’t successfully engage in social change work. India is not perfect, but with Gandhi reminding people of those ideas it managed to have a sweeter freedom than if he wasn’t there at all.

That is how I understand what he meant by “Truth is God.” Below is revised version of my letter.