During the past weeks, I have been stirred —
• by memories of my own acting in/ writing about nonviolent civil disobedience, almost half a century ago. [*See the end of this letter for more details.]
• by news stories about nonviolent resistance of various kinds in the Middle East;
• and by a call from the environmentalist leader Bill McKibben for a major nonviolent civil-disobedience campaign in Washington DC later this summer.
So I decided to write what has turned into three separate but connected letters about the whole question of civil disobedience.
• the sit-in movement for racial equality, during the 1960s in the US;
• the movement of Israelis since 1971 to create Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem;
• and the Freedom Flotilla “sail-ins” campaign of the last year to break through the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
My first letter compares the sit-ins and settlers. In the second, I take up the recent “sail-ins.” Then in one more letter I take up the McKibben call,
Fifty years ago, the Sit-in/ Freedom Ride movement carried to a high level one of the most powerful forms of social action: lift up a vision of the future, and actually embody that future in the present.
The movement’s vision was of racially integrated restaurants, buses, and all other public accommodations. The sit-in movement did not begin by using what we night call “the politics of order” — asking Congress or state legislatures to change the law from requiring or permitting racial segregation to forbidding it. They also did not use “the politics of violence” against segregated facilities.
What they did was simply carry out their vision: they themselves integrated the restaurants and buses, thus nonviolently forcing American society to respond. In a book about this movement, I called it “creative disorder.”
This form of action dealt with a very old spiritual and ethical question – the relationship between “means” and “ends” — in a very interesting way: It dissolved the gap between means and ends. The ends and the means to achieve the ends were the very same. The old question — Do the ends we envision “justify” using means that violate those ends? — simply disappeared.
This kind of action set in motion an extraordinary shift in American political and social life. It spoke to values that most Americans held, but were lying dormant, sleeping, in society. It awoke those values, and the result was that millions of people changed their own behavior, the behavior of the businesses they patronized, and the American legal system.
The energy that the sit -in movement released went far beyond issues of racial equality. It helped inspire and empower the movements to end the Vietnam War, to achieve women’s liberation and gay liberation, to insist on ecological responsibility, and to renew religious depth and commitment in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist communities.
It also called forth a powerful backlash to break the backs of labor unions, women’s communities, and laws protecting senior citizens and the poor; and to magnify the power of gigantic corporations and the hyper-wealthy.
The basic social-change strategy of “embodying the future in the present” was also the approach taken by the Israelis who chose to settle on Palestinian territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In the very beginning of the 1967 occupation of these territories by the Israeli government, official Israeli policy did not support Israelis’ taking over land in these regions. But by 1971, some Israelis were with tacit official approval setting up permanent residence in Qiryat Arba near Hebron.
The settler movement appealed to strong desires in Israeli society that had been lying dormant – for some, the desire to rule over more or all of the “biblical Land of Israel”; for some, the desire for more military security; for some, the desire for cheaper housing on cheap land.
So the settler movement built support in Israeli society, and increasingly overwhelmed the desire also held by many Israelis for making peace with the Palestinians. The settlers tugged the government and much of Israeli society to support what they were doing. This process had a deep impact on Palestinian life and behavior, and transformed the tone of Israeli society and governmental policy.
Many Americans who celebrate the actions of the sit-in movement and what followed from it may be shocked at this comparison with the settler movement.
There are certainly profound differences between the two:
• Perhaps most basic, the sit-ins were committed to nonviolence, even when violence was used against them. The Israeli settlers came with weapons and depended either on their own or the Israeli Army’s weapons to deal with both violent and nonviolent resistance by the Palestinians to the take-over of their land.
• Another important difference was that the sit-in movement quickly became multiracial, including American whites as well as African Americans, while the Israeli settler movement included some Israeli and some American Jews, but never included Palestinians.
• Just as the sit-in movement in both these ways looked toward and acted for the creation of broader and more inclusive community, the settler movement looked toward and acted for the domination of one ethnic community by the other.
So while the similarities teach us how powerful this social change strategy is, the differences remind us that we still have to choose what versions of this strategy to support in accord with whether our values fit with the values of different “embody the future” movements.
During the past year, including the past few weeks, the world has watched several very different efforts to address the question of Palestinian-Israeli relations by “embodying the future in the present” — among them the “Freedom Flotillas” seeking to break and to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
I will take up this effort in my second letter.
Shalom, salaam, peace – Arthur
[* My first arrest of what are now about 22 — one arrest per book, Phyllis jokes — was in 1963, for a walk-in to end racial segregation at a Baltimore amusement park. On the very morning of my arrest, I finished writing my Ph D dissertation on “The Race Riots of 1919” — which two years later I turned into the first half of a book called From Race Riot to Sit-in, 1919 and the 1960s.]