The idea that a single individual can change the world for the better, has, for many people in a jaded world, been relegated to the realm of inspirational posters and self help books. Gandhi’s words “Be the change you want to see in the world” may show up often on your Facebook wall or elicit eye rolls when spotted on an office wall, but are not likely to be the basis of any serious political or social discourse.
But they should. Gandhi himself took inspiration from these words of Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher and abolitionist, adopting the phrase “civil disobedience” alongside the Sanskrit word satyagraha to describe his strategy of nonviolent protest. So too did Martin Luther King Jr., who called “Civil Disobedience” his “first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance.”
In this essay we will review what nonviolence means, and cover the reasons why nonviolence is the ethical and effective means to ending conflict. It will also act as an introduction to the thinkers and leaders of the worldwide nonviolent movement, serving as a springboard for further learning.
What is nonviolence?
But first, let us be clear by what we mean by nonviolence. To learn about the related concepts of nonviolence and civil disobedience, you should start with the website for the Albert Einstein Institution, founded by Dr. Gene Sharp, who spent over six decades researching and championing nonviolence. Of the many resources available, one is a free book titled How Nonviolent Struggle Works. In it, nonviolence is defined as such:
Nonviolent action is a generic term covering dozens of specific methods of protest, noncooperation, and intervention, in all of which the resisters conduct the conflict by doing—or refusing to do—certain things without using physical violence. As a technique, therefore, nonviolent action is not passive. It is not inaction. It is action that is nonviolent.
Thus, it is important to understand that nonviolence is at its core active, although often those caught in a conflict and silently resisting that conflict can forget that they are making a conscious choice to resist, much as a salmon swimming upstream may forget it is fighting a river.
But what, however, are these many types of nonviolent resistance? The Albert Einstein Institution offers a list of “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.” It is worth reviewing in full. Meanwhile, Mubarak E. Awad, in “Non-Violent Resistance: A Strategy for the Occupied Territories,” offers a list of methods of nonviolent resistance he believes have or could be effective in Palestine: demonstrations, obstruction, refusal to cooperate, harassment, boycotts, strikes, support and solidarity, alternative institutions, and civil disobedience.
Mubarak makes it clear that he is writing from the perspective of, and specifically for, the Palestinians living under occupation. What works for one population at one specific time might not be the feasible nor effective for another population at another time.
It is also important to recognize that there is no one correct way to participate in nonviolent resistance. And while nonviolent resistance does by its nature require a person to abstain from violence, it does not require a person to follow laws that the person believes are unjust. Thus, some acts of nonviolent resistance may be seen as illegal by the state, while others are not. It is up to each individual to determine what types of nonviolent action she or he is comfortable engaging in. Note that, given Kumi Now’s relationship with dozens of organizations, this book makes it a policy to present actions that we believe adhere to international law.
But first, now that we have a basic idea of the what of nonviolent resistance, we want to move on to the why. We see five reasons nonviolent resistance is the way forward to a peaceful solution to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
It is ethical
First and foremost, nonviolent resistance to oppression, prejudice, and tyranny is always an ethical choice. Period. While international law does not preclude the use of violence as a tool of defense when necessary, it does mean that every effort is made to avoid that course of action and that, when planning opposition to existing injustices, nonviolent methods are considered before all others. Sabeel believes that nonviolent resistance is the right choice for many, but that following and promoting this Kumi way does not summarily pass judgment on or invalidate the arguments of those that choose a different path of resistance. Sabeel models it work to the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus showed his followers that the only way to resist systems of oppression is through nonviolence. Even when blood is shed, it should be our blood not the blood of our enemies. We realize that the teachings of Jesus are difficult, contradicting the survival instinct taught to us by society, yet we acknowledge their higher ethical standards. Violence is evil, and only prolongs the cycle of bloodshed, It does not make sense to overcome evil with evil but with goodness. Nonviolence in all its forms helps us to seek the humanity of our enemy and maintains our humanity during conflicts.
Mazin B. Qumsiyeh addresses the ethical foundations in his book Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment. In the chapter “The Logic of Popular Resistance,” which attempts to balance the pragmatic and idealistic motivations, he concludes, “To those who believe it, popular resistance is superior on both moral and utilitarian grounds. We believe violence is not easily defensible on utilitarian grounds because it breeds more violence and is usually counterproductive … But also in terms of morality, violence creates the kind of society that we all think of as amoral. Popular resistance … gives those who engage in it a level of humanity that inspires and mobilizes others to act.”
It starts with the individual
We noted the individual nature of nonviolence at the beginning of this piece, but Qumsiyeh’s words bring to light another positive aspect of individual participation in nonviolent action, for such participation can inspire others to take up the same cause.
Of course, an individual can also choose the other path, the path to violence. Sadly, this is a path that too many frustrated individuals take and on which the media fixates. However, when an individual takes this path they are doing so without the ethical foundation of nonviolent action.
Nonviolent action has the upper hand, not only for its moral clarity, but because the path for the individual to participate in and shape such action is much clearer and effective. Working alone, an individual can immediately act on her or his beliefs and act as an inspiration to others. Remember too that leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela each began as individual activists, dedicated to nonviolence because it was the right thing to do, not because they were acting on the order of someone else.
We should also realize that many more people are participating in nonviolent resistance than we at first realize. In the article “The Choice of Non-Violence” Mustafa Barghouthi explains how nonviolent resistance is entrenched in Palestinian society:
In truth, Palestinians are masters of non-violence. They have been resisting the all-pervasive violence of a forty-one year old military occupation every day since it began. Forty-one years of resilience, of silent and stubborn efforts to live a normal life …
In such a situation building a school, choosing to become a doctor, cultivating your ancestral olive grove are all acts of resistance.
For more on the specifics of nonviolence in Palestine, please see Week 40. Here, it is important to understand that nonviolent resistance, while initiated by an individual, is done so with millions of allies, each contributing actions towards the greater good.
It is consistent with international law
Given the ethical foundations of nonviolent resistance, it should come as no surprise that the methods and goals of nonviolence are consistent with those governing the international community.
The United Nations was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.” According to its website, it has “one central mission: the maintenance of international peace and security. The U.N. does this by working to prevent conflict; helping parties in conflict make peace; peacekeeping; and creating the conditions to allow peace to hold and flourish.” Nonviolent resistance works towards the same aims, and with the same dedication to human rights and peacemaking. However, while international law also supports armed resistance under specific circumstances, nonviolent resistance is based on a commitment to avoid armed conflict.
Furthermore, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the guiding vision for both international law and for nonviolent resistance. In it are encapsulated the rights of opinion, expression, participation in government, assembly, and self-determination so central to nonviolent resistance. Furthermore, the UDHR states that everyone is allowed to fully utilize these rights, and thus participate in nonviolent resistance, as long as they are in the service and spirit of the principles of the UDHR, Less well-defined are tactics such as general strikes and sit-ins, which may disrupt the public order. Note, however, that Kumi Now, as already mentioned, avoids such techniques.
It is effective
Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan cut to the chase with the title of their book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Resistance. You can read the full book to understand why this is, but their conclusions, based on rigorous analysis of movements around the world, are clear: “The most striking finding is that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.” Nonviolence has been more successful than violence in antiregime campaigns, campaigns with territorial objectives (which includes antioccupation and self-determination), and in other campaigns “(apartheid campaigns, for instance), nonviolent resistance has had the monopoly on success.”
It appeals to everyone
Finally, we believe that the end of occupation will come through nonviolent resistance because of its appeal to the wider population. This is, in part, because of the ethical nature of nonviolence. For when faced with a violent or nonviolent alternative, people overwhelmingly choose the latter. A nonviolent movement to end the occupation is much more likely to receive widespread support among Palestinians, Israelis, and the wider world than any renewed armed resistance.
But there is more to it, as the goals of nonviolent resistance align with other broad rights movements. By acknowledging and building upon these connections, such as the connection between the post-World War II international system and nonviolence, we can build solidarity between movements and be more effective. There are a number of these intersectionalities:
First, there are many religious peace movements among Christians, Muslims, and Jews that provide theological frameworks for nonviolent action and support for the oppressed. For example, the Kairos movement, begun in apartheid South Africa, was brought to Palestine with the publication of the Kairos Palestine document (see Week 48 for more on this movement). But any theology or movement that focuses on ending suffering and fighting for the rights of the oppressed can find common cause and partnership under the umbrella of nonviolent resistance.
Second, women’s movements have had at their core the ideals of nonviolence and often explicitly oppose war while at the same time advocating for women’s rights. Women’s organizations can find common cause with nonviolent resistance in Palestine while advocating for the rights of Palestinian women. See Week 10, Week 43, and Week 47 for more on women’s rights and movements in Palestine.
Third, around the globe, indigenous peoples are fighting for their rights and sovereignty. These fights often occur in isolation, seemingly separated from the wider world. However, the injustices committed against these peoples are often similar, as are their goals and techniques, with most such movements utilizing techniques of nonviolent resistance. For more on indigenous rights see Week 32.
We believe there is a great opportunity for these movements to work together based on their shared foundations in nonviolent resistance and that doing so will increase the effectiveness of each movement.
Nonviolence and Kumi Now
Confident in the ethical foundations of nonviolence and its effectiveness, and cognizant of the different needs, abilities, and philosophies of different actors (individuals and organizations, local and international), Kumi Now has evaluated how we can best unite us all in nonviolent actions dedicated to ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine. We have concluded that the following goals are where our efforts best lie:
Telling the Palestinian story, truthfully and accurately: Why? The full Palestinian story has often been overshadowed by and, when acknowledged, put in opposition to the Zionist story. Kumi Now acknowledges the sorrows faced by all, and believes that there is, ultimately, a way forward. How? We advocate the telling of the Palestinian story through posters, presentations, online stories, booths at public events, donating books to libraries, and other Kumi Actions that will tell the full Palestinian story.
Countering disinformation campaigns and false narratives: Why? A number of Israeli and Zionist causes have been very successful, through political lobbying, mass media, and online activity, in demonizing Palestinians and justifying occupation. Correcting these narratives will erode their support, while building understanding and support for the Palestinian cause. How? We counter these falsehoods by responding to them online, lobbying companies to correct them, and promoting narratives of hope and reconciliation.
Addressing issues of intersectionality: Why? Issues affecting specific parts of the population, such as women, children, or minority religious or ethnic groups, often have specific organizations working on them, as do issues affecting the environment or different aspects of occupation. And yet, the common adversary is the occupation. Working together to fight this elephant in the room will be more effective if efforts are unified. How? We bring these causes and actors together by framing each issue in the context of occupation and international law, inviting everyone to be involved in every advocacy action, and calling out such connections throughout the book and online.
Connecting local actors with global actors: Why? Local activists and organizations are often overworked and underfunded. Global actors may feel too distant to be effective, or not know how to contribute. Working together allows for a more unified movement and for actors to connect in ways they have not done before. How? We connect local and global actors through actions that will have a local impact, but will be shared globally. Actions are designed so that anyone, near or far, may participate.
Targeting supporters and benefactors of the occupation: Why? Individuals and corporations are profiting from the occupation, both in their wallets and at the ballot box. Profiting from an illegal act is at best immoral, and often times illegal. If corporations and politicians do not profit from the occupation, their support for it will crumble. How? We target these profiteers by raising awareness of their profits, asking other organizations not to do business with such benefactors, requesting that organizations and churches choose to not profit from occupation, and urging individuals to support Palestinian businesses and place their financial support with companies that do not profit from occupation.
These are the reasons, dear reader, that we believe nonviolence is the answer, and how we believe it can work. Perhaps you are like millions of people in the world knowing that injustices are occurring in Palestine but feeling hopeless to do anything about it, doubting that anything you do will have an impact. Take comfort and draw strength from the fact that you are already “a majority of one.” Join us, or find your own ways that you may support a Palestinian artist, share a story, counter a false claim, or promote peacebuilding. And for each act remember that “what is once well done is done forever.” Through these individual drops and drips we will build the wave that ultimately washes away the injustice of occupation.