Why the Palestinians Need a Mandela

by Benjamin Studebaker

Mahatma Gandhi died in 1948. Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968. Now Nelson Mandela has died in 2013, and the last of the big three satyagrahi has turned out the lights, and for the first time peacefully, in his own time, rather than in response to the inescapable mandate of the bullet. This has me wondering what future role nonviolent civil resistance has to play in world affairs. Above all others, it is the Arab Israeli cause that seems to me most in need of a leader of this kind. Here’s why.

Firstly, why the Palestinians? The late Ronald Dworkin makes a fascinating (albeit lengthy) argument regarding the role of religion in a free society and how it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian case. In the course of this argument, he points to several grievances that Palestinians and Israeli Arabs have against the Israeli state. These are:

  1. Israel is constitutionally a Jewish state, its flag, its anthem, its national holidays, its marriage laws, all of these are Jewish in character.
  2. Israel’s law of return gives Jews privileged immigration status over non-Jews.
  3. Israel’s public policy is discriminatory; 20% of Israel’s population is Arab, but Arab Israelis live on 4% of the land; Israel spends on average 11,000 shekels per resident on public services in Jewish towns, but only 100 shekels per resident in Arab towns. It also segregates its school system and runs vastly inferior schools for Arab citizens (in this respect, it is quite similar to the southern United States during the 50’s).

Most of Dworkin’s examples focus on the condition of Arab Israelis living directly under the Israeli government rather than on Palestinians living nominally under the authority of the PLO. Since there is, however, no Palestinian state, and Israel determines the allocation of funds for the PLO, it is also responsible for the living standards in the Palestinian territories, which are grossly inferior to those enjoyed by Israeli Jews. Not only does Israel continue to maintain an economically throttling naval blockade of the Gaza Strip in an effort to make its people miserable and encourage them to expel Hamas, but the average Israeli is 13.4 times wealthier than the average Palestinian:

Palestine Wealth

Dworkin argues that #3 is manifestly morally indefensible, because states have a moral obligation to show equal concern for the interests of their citizens, and insofar as Israel offers non-Jews inferior public services, it shows less concern for them than it does for its Jewish citizens.

He rightly claims that #2 requires a more nuanced critique, because it pertains to non-citizens, those wishing to immigrate to Israel. Israel offers two defenses of this behavior:

  1. The principle of refuge–Jews need a safe place to go free from anti-Jewish discrimination.
  2. The principle of self-determination–ethnic nationalities are entitled to civic states of their own. Zionism, on this view, is Jewish nationalism, the belief that Jews are entitled to a civic state committed to the preservation of the thing that unifies them, Jewishness.

However, Dworkin points out that the principle of refuge does not require a Jewish state, merely a liberal state, one that is committed to religious equality. Dworkin rejects the principle of self-determination for three reasons of his own:

  1. Jewishness is not an ethnicity, it’s a religion. American Jews have much more in common with other Americans than they have with Russian Jews.
  2. Even if Jews are an ethnicity, do Jews sufficiently self-identify with Judaism such that they want nation state of this kind? Many Jews are secularized and seem not to have any real interest in the existence of a Jewish state.
  3. Even if Jews are an ethnicity and Jews really do want their own nation state, an interest is not equivalent to a right. If the principle of self-determination were universally applied, a vast number of other ethnic nations would also have a claim to political independence.

Dworkin observes that by using religious affiliation as a metric in determining who will be allowed to immigrate to Israel and who will not, Israel disrespects its non-Jewish citizens by sending a message to them that additional people who are like them are unwanted. This same criticism he levies at the first kind of grievance that non-Jews have against the Israeli state. He proposes instead that Israel has a moral duty to be religiously neutral, to be a secular liberal state in the way that many other developed countries aspire to be. This state neutrality among the religions is analogous to state neutrality among the races, the cause for which Mandela and King fought for (Gandhi fought for a whole slew of things–not merely racial equality, but also caste equality, religious equality between the Muslims and Hindus, and anti-colonialism/Indian nationalism).

Yet, historically, Arab Israelis and Palestinians have not embraced nonviolent civil resistance. Instead, they have been drawn to the violent tactics of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the intifadas. It is unlikely that these groups will come to adopt a Gandhian moral abhorrence of violence. It is for this reason that Palestine needs a Mandela, not a Gandhi, for despite his popular reputation, Mandela differed from Gandhi in important respects.

While both Gandhi and Mandela employed nonviolent civil resistance, they differed in their reasoning for it. Gandhi considered violence to be deontologically wrong on a fundamental level. For Gandhi, nonviolence was employed not so much because it worked, although he  certainly believed it did, but because Gandhi was a pacifist and thought that nonviolence was the only morally permissible tactic. Mandela did not embrace non-violence because of some deep moral commitment to pacifism. Instead, Mandela embraced non-violence because he genuinely believed it to be the most effective means for achieving his ends. As Mandela himself put it:

For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.

This is the kind of argument that might be persuasive to Palestinians and Arab Israelis. A potential leader of a civil resistance movement against Israel’s discriminatory policies should not attempt to win followers to his cause by morally criticizing terrorism, violence, and the various tactics of Jihad and intifada, even if he does indeed believe them to be wrong. Instead, he should emphasize that the violent tactics Palestinians and Arab Israelis have employed are not effective, that they generate public sympathy for the Israeli state in Europe and America. The goal of any political movement on behalf of Palestinians and Arab Israelis should be to change the sympathetic party. The young generation on both sides of the Atlantic is much more receptive to the possibility that the Palestinians may have legitimate grievances than its predecessors. Palestinians and Arab Israelis should capitalize on this opportunity to win international support. By winning over young people in Europe and America, Mandela was able to cause those countries to use international sanctions to pressure the South African government into ending apartheid. The same strategy could and should be used by Palestinians and Arab Israelis. Not only does such a tactic cause much less unnecessary harm than indiscriminate bombings and rocket fire, but it might actually work. At present, every rocket fired and car bomb detonated merely gives the Israeli state more bodies to show Americans and Europeans, more evidence that its oppression is justified because it is in the name of fighting terrorism. It is only by breaking the cycle of violence and adopting the nonviolent mindset of the satyagraha that Palestinians and Arab Israelis can materially improve their circumstances.