Impunity, Parallelity, and Nonviolence

I don’t know if any of you knew my adopted mom, the legendary Esther. If not, maybe you remember my giving a reflection about her just before she died at ninety-five. Esther, who grew up hearing how her mother, as a child, saw her little brother bayoneted by one of the Czar’s soldiers for being Jewish and out after their curfew, Esther who spoke Yiddish as a first language, Esther who became a Communist at fourteen and never quit the struggle while she had any energy in her left in her to give, Esther who refused to wear a Star of David because it is on the Israeli flag, but when her friend gave her a silver chain with a little chai on it, she never removed it from around her neck. Never. My friend, my next-door neighbor, my adopted mom, Esther.

I remember one day she and I were talking and the conversation turned to the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. It was with deep pain that she expressed to me that she couldn’t understand how Jews could treat anyone like this after all they have suffered themselves.

My only answer I could come up for her was of impunity.

Imagine how it would be if one group of people had been victims of another and someone in that group of victims tried to remedy their loss by taking something from still another group of people. Do onlookers say, “That was inexcusible: such behavior will not be tolerated”? Or does the onlooker say, “Yeah, it is too bad that this person avenged himself by stealing from this innocent person, but he and his group has suffered so much, that I can’t bring myself to criticize him.” If it the former, the problem might just end there, but if it’s the latter, the onlooker has just contributed to the escalation of the problem.

Is it not to be expected that some of the others in the group of victims will take even more from these people if they see the first act of theft go unpunished?

It’s the impunity, Esther. It’s not that Israelis who commit acts of violence in the name of the Jewish people do so because Jews are mean; it’s that they have had seventy years of criminal acts meeting with global impunity.

I see it as similar to the police who work in oppressed communities. Why would a youth who grows up wanting to become a police officer so he can protect and serve end up shooting some youth in the back and letting him die in the street without calling for an ambulance? Is it because when they put on a badge they become evil? No. It’s because they know that there isn’t much they can do that would get them in trouble, not even shooting someone in the back and letting him die.

It’s the impunity, Esther.

I don’t know how many of you were here when Omar Barghouti spoke at one of our Friday morning Forums. This great Palestinian leader sat right over there and kept saying, “There is no parallelity.” I had never heard the word before but I got it. There is no parallelity between the whatever Palestinians do to Israelis and whatever Israelis do to Palestinians. It’s like if you were observing a lunch area in a school and you saw two kids hitting each other and you counted the times one kid got hit and how many times that kid did the hitting. You might judge by this which kid was the aggressor. However, that only works if there is parallelity, but if you notice that the kid who seems to be victim is eating the other kid’s lunch, then the parallels vanishes.

Omar told us many reasons there is no parallelity in Palestine/Israel relationship: Palestinians are not occupying Israeli land. They don’t take water from Israeli wells and pipe it into Palestinian homes. Theyael don’t bulldoze Israeli trees or homes. They don’t imprison thousands of Israelis. They don’t destroy a whole Israeli village to build Palestinian-only housing. They don’t fly over Israel and drop bombs. But the example of the lack of paralelity that I don’t remember Omar including was that Palestinians don’t kill with impunity; I know of no case where a Palestinian was believed to have commited a crime against Israelis and not prosecuted.

It’s like the police here in LA or across the nation. If you count the number of policemen killed by Black men and the number of times this is reversed, I don’t know what your statistics would show. But if you took the number of times that a Black man was known to have murdered a policeman and was not prosecuted or even charged, that number would be very, very small.

There is no parallelity in this case either because one has the power of the government behind him and the other does not.

Or with the native people of this land – or any other inhabited land that was colonized. We can make a T-chart, writing in one side the number of times that native people massacred the colonizers and on the other side how many time the reverse happened. Or you can skip the T-chart and study instead who lived on the land before and who lives all over it now.

No parallelity there either.

Who here would judge the violence of slave rebellions with the same measurement as the violence by enslavers? There’s simply no parallelity there either.

What does this all have to do with the practice of nonviolence?

Plenty.

I remember a young Angela Davis being asked to condemn the violence of some Black leaders. She responded with the telling of growing up in a neighborhood that was bombed so often it was called “Dynamite Hill.” She also addressed the killing of the four Black girls in a church bombing and many other cases. The point is if we insist on people in struggle adopting nonviolence as a practice but we refuse to deal with violence continuously inflicted upon them, if we let it go on with impunity, we have no right to sit back and criticize them when they explode into violence.

I am reflecting on all this today because recently I heard from this circle the expression of a hope that someday Palestinians will truly engage in nonviolence, without even throwing rocks. That reminded me of the training in nonviolence that was given to us internationalists in Ramallah by activists with the International Solidarity Movement. We were asked if we believe rock throwing was a form of violence.

My answer was “No.”

Later, I observed some Palestinian boys throwing rocks at soldiers who were a long block away. I’ve seen pictures of boys throwing them at tanks. This is violence? No. This, I believe, is a protection against PTSD, a condition which affects so many Palestinian children because of the constant barrage of violence against them and their feeling of being able to do nothing to counter it. Yes, I have heard of one case where a Palestinian threw a rock at a passing car and killed a child inside. That was tragic but it being such an isolated case.

What’s the difference between Palestinian nonviolence and, say, that of the Civil Rights Movement? It’s not a difference in courage, for the Palestinians continue their nonviolent protests regularly even when they some of them are arrested, wounded or murdered for doing so. It’s not a difference in persistence, for many Palestinian nonviolent campaigns have lasted for years. It is not in creativity, for they have carried out amazingly creative protests, including dressing up as the Na'vi after the movie Avatar came out.

I believe that the only major difference between those two movement, and the only reason why there were so many more victories in the Civil Rights Movement than in that of the Palestinians, was not in what they do but how we respond to it. The Civil Rights Movement was shown on U.S. tv and in newspapers, and U.S. people across the nation responded in horror. When atrocities happen against the Palestinian people, people comment that some Palestinians were throwing rocks, or flying flaming kites, or shooting homemade rockets. Well, guess what? They weren’t doing those things at first, not until their consistently nonviolent actions were consistently ignored by the world – including by many of the peace and justice organizations.

We need to wake up! We need to realize that, as was said in the sixties, if we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. If we don’t speak up if yet another police officer brutalizes someone, we’re part of the problem. If we have a personal friend about whom we have evidence that he or she is hurting someone and we ignore the situation, we’re part of the problem. And as long as we refuse to get out there in public and say what we know we should be saying about Palestine/Israel, then not only is the blood of slaughtered Palestinians on our hands, but so too is that of any Israeli whose blood is shed by a Palestinian for whom we have helped kill their faith in nonviolence.

Esther, I’m sorry I couldn’t answer your question any better than I did, but it’s not that those Jews of Israel who commit crimes against humanity are inherently evil; it’s that too many other people failed in their responsibility to hold them accountable.

I hope we can do better from now on.

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