Sit-ins & sail-ins: Part 2, Embodying the Future in the Present

In my first letter, I looked at two movements of the last half-century -- the US Sit-in / Freedom Ride movement and the Israeli settler movement. Despite their profound differences,  both brought about major social change by embodying the future they envisioned in the present actuality.

Now I want to look at the recent "sail-in" movement of flotillas to Gaza and related “future-in-the-present” efforts.

These efforts have grown very much bigger in the last year, but they began earlier. Some writers have argued that the Palestinian “failure” to use nonviolent resistance has radically weakened their case against Israeli domination. But in fact Palestinians have used nonviolence, specially in the “sit-in” form of enacting the imagined future in the present --– to little avail. 

Best known among these little-known campaigns is that of the West Bank village of Bilin, which was cut apart from its own farmland by where the Israeli government chose to build its “Separation Wall.” The Bilin townfolk kept envisioning a future in which they and their farmland would be reunited. So for years, they and some supporters from Israel and Europe tried to embody that future in their present: They nonviolently walked every Friday toward their sequestered farms. The Israeli Army met them with tear gas, rubber-coated metal bullets, and sometimes live ammunition. Many were wounded; a few were killed. 

Appeals to the Israeli High Court followed, and in 2007 the Court ruled that placement of the Wall was illegitimately done not in defense of Israeli security but in an attempt to  make Bilin unliveable.

Not till four years later, a few weeks ago, did the Army actually obey the clear Court order ands move the Wall. .

More famous as a “future-in-the-present” nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience have been two flotillas of small ships carrying Israeli, European, American, and Middle Eastern crews and passengers. These flotillas intended  to carry various supplies and letters to the shores of Gaza, despite Israeli blockades against that Palestinian region.  The future these activists envision is one in which civilian goods can flow freely into and out of Gaza; they sought to make this real in the present.

The flotillas announced a commitment to the use of nonviolent  resistance  in attempting to disobey the Israeli blockade. But during the first flotilla, the Israeli government claimed that some members of the crew and passengers aboard a Turkish ship used violence against Israeli Navy personnel attempting to board the ship during the night on the high seas, and nine of the flotillists were killed in the process. Disputes rage over which “side” may have used violence first. On other ships in both flotillas, there was strict adherence to nonviolence as the ships were stopped and boarded by Israeli forces. 

In regard to the other major dimension of the sit-in movement’s approach that distinguished it from the settler movement --  its inclusion of many groups beyond the Southern Black community --  the flotillas are clearly multifaceted

As I write, the ships of the second flotilla have been held in the Greek ports from which they intended to sale to Gaza. Two of the ships were sabotaged by unknown perpetrators, and the rest are being held by orders of the Greek government. The Israeli government, the US government,  and several US Jewish-establishment organizations (including the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs), have applauded the Greek government’s action. 

Many of the flotillists and their supporters responded with classic nonviolent tactics: e.g. a fast by some Americans held in Athens; a sit-in by Spanish flotillists in the Spanish Embassy in Athens, demanding action by their government to insist that the Greek Government permit the ships to depart; demonstrations in Tel Aviv by some Israelis who support the flotilla and oppose their government’s blockade of Gaza; a vigil at the Greek consulate in Chicago by some American Jews. 

After the first flotilla and before the second, there was an almost entirely nonviolent (with some stone-throwing) “walk-in” by thousands of Palestinians toward the borders with Israel, on two separate days in the last months. On both occasions, the Israeli Army fired on the demonstrators and killed several of them, when they refused to turn back at what Israel considers the borders. (In the Golan Heights, Palestinians and Syrians deny the legitimacy of post-1967 Israeli “annexation” of part of the Heights. From that standpoint, the protest never reached the pre-1967 boundaries.)

As Rabbi Leah Novick has pointed out, some creative response by the Israeli government could have avoided these deaths and the additional anger at Israel they evoked from many people. For instance, she suggested, Israel could have issued one-day visitors’ visa to the Palestinians, searched them for weapons, and escorted them on tourist buses to see the country under surveillance.  

The “cost” to the Israeli government would have been undermining its own military mind-set and the mind-set this inculcates in large parts of Israeli society, and undermining the atmosphere in which many Israelis see Palestinians only as inveterate and violent enemies, by treating them instead as complex human beings.      

Coverage of these events by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has acknowledged that – for example -- while the flotillas failed to deliver their physical cargo to Gaza, they twice succeeded in putting the Israeli blockade on front pages around the world. 

And veteran Israeli peace activist Uri Avneri has ridiculed the government’s response to the flotillas, arguing that treating visits by weaponless authors, artists, professors, and peace activists  as a threat to Israeli security has actually undermined  international respect for Israel and thereby, in the long run, undermined Israel’s security. To read his essay, click here. 

Some supporters of Israeli government policy have argued that the Flotillas are ways of supporting Hamas, the de facto governing party in Gaza, labeled by the Israeli and US governments as “terrorists.” But in fact, the flotillas have focused on humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, and Hamas has acted with considerable distance, verging on hostility, to flotillist behavior that bypasses Hamas’ authority.

My own view is that we should encourage nonviolent efforts to embody in the present the future of a free Palestine living peacefully alongside Israel.  What would make such efforts fully nonviolent in the Gandhian/ Kingian sense would be their explicit action to embody as well the future of a secure and peaceful Israel.

Finally, let me say that not all nonviolent resistance is a perfect model of embodying the future in the present. The gatherings in Tahrir Square (including those still continuing), in their embodiment of a free and vibrant self-determining and self-protecting Egyptian community of open discussion -- words, art, music, dance -- may  have been a crystal of that expression -- but general strikes, boycotts, etc., are usually more "against" than they are "for."  They may still be life-giving and worthwhile -- or not.

The call from Bill McKibben and others for weeks of nonviolent civil action at the White House this August to oppose any Presidential  OK for a Tar Sands oil pipeline from Canada to Texas is an example of a life-giving "against." More about it in my third letter.