What Martin Luther King Would Say About the Violence in Israel

The problem isn’t that most Palestinians think violence will improve their lives. It is that most don’t think non-violence will either.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Race riots in Washington, D.C. in 1968.
Race riots in Washington, D.C. in 1968.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Every summer between 1964 and 1967, African Americans burned their own cities. In Harlem in July 1964, an African American mob beat white bystanders. Rioters threw Molotov cocktails at police cars, injuring at least one officer. In August 1965 in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, rioters pulled whites from passing cars. Thirty-four people died, over one thousand were injured. It took almost 4,000 members of the California National Guard to restore order.

In Cleveland in July 1966, rioters torched a roller-skating rink; an African American sniper shot up a jeep from the Ohio National Guard. That same month in Long Island, New York, African Americans yelling “kill those cops” attacked a meeting aimed at improving “community-police relations” with rocks and Molotov cocktails. There were 159 riots in 1967 alone. (All this is described in graphic detail in Rick Perlstein’s extraordinary book, Nixonland).

In September of that year, Martin Luther King addressed the American Psychological Association. “A profound judgment of today’s riots,” he declared, “was expressed by Victor Hugo: ‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’”

To be sure, people, even oppressed people, can create their own darkness. The African Americans who threw bricks through store windows in the mid-1960s were choosing to express their rage, understandable as it may have been, in violent, destructive ways. Similarly, the Palestinians who are today stabbing Israeli Jews are making a choice no decent person should defend. Irrespective of their government’s policies, ordinary Israeli Jews have the right to walk down the street without being knifed. And even if you don’t care about the lives of Israeli Jews, which you should, it’s hard to see how anyone can seriously argue, after the second intifada, that murdering Israelis helps the Palestinian cause.

Still, when it comes to our own country, most American Jews acknowledge the truth in King’s words. Ask most American Jews why African Americans rioted in the 1960s—or for that matter, rioted in Baltimore earlier this year—and they’ll likely acknowledge that racism and lack of opportunity played a role. Suggest to them that the riots were due entirely to anti-white or anti-police “incitement” by African American leaders and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.

Yet that’s exactly the argument the Israeli government is making about Palestinian violence today. Yes, it was reckless, even hateful, of Mahmoud Abbas to say last month that, “every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure,” and that Israelis “have no right to desecrate the Al Aqsa mosque with their dirty feet.” But to believe that “incitement” is the sole reason young Palestinians are attempting murder requires ignoring the explanations that Palestinians, including Palestinians dedicated to non-violence, offer themselves. It requires ignoring the darkness inherent in living as a second-class citizen, or non-citizen, in the country in which you live.

“You have a lot of evidence that you are not a human being,” Fuad Abu Hamed told The New York Times last week. Abu Hamed is not a radical. He’s a prosperous businessman who lectures at Hebrew University. But from his home in East Jerusalem, he can see the Jewish settlements that hem his neighborhood in, and separate East Jerusalem from the West Bank. Since 1967, according to the United Nations, Israel has confiscated one-third of East Jerusalem’s land to build settlements.

Police arresting a man during the Watts riots in Los Angeles, August 12 1965.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

From his home, Abu Hamed can also see the Palestinian neighborhoods cut off from the rest of Jerusalem by the separation barrier, neighborhoods that according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) receive only 55 percent of the World Health Organization’s recommended supply of water. “All the time as a Palestinian here you feel that they want to take you out of the city,” Abu Hamed continued. To many Jews, that sounds paranoid. But most Palestinians in East Jerusalem are residents, not citizens, and the Israeli government can revoke their residency for a variety of reasons, including just being away from the city for too long. According to B’tselem, Israel has revoked the residencies of 14,000 Palestinians since 1967. According to ACRI, almost forty percent of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem lack proper permits, permits that are extremely difficult to get. Which means they can be demolished at any time.

The problem isn’t that most Palestinians think violence will improve their lives. It is that most don’t think non-violence will either. And for good reason. Consider the fate of Mubarak Awad. He was born in Jerusalem. In 1983, he created the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence there. Five years later, Israel revoked his residency permit, allegedly because he had spent too long in the United States. Awad, once dubbed the “Palestinian Gandhi,” now lives in Washington, DC.

Or consider the case of Abdallah Abu Rahma. In 2010, Abu Rahma wrote a letter about the protests he had helped lead in Bilin, a Palestinian village cut off from roughly half its land by the separation barrier. “In Bilin,” Rahma wrote, “we have chosen another way. We have chosen to protest nonviolently together with Israeli and international supporters. We have chosen to carry a message of hope and real partnership between Palestinians and Israelis in the face of oppression and injustice.” Rahma’s wife smuggled the letter out of the jail where he was serving a year-long sentence for “incitement” and organizing “illegal demonstrations.” Under Military Order 101, which Israel issued when it took over the West Bank, an “illegal demonstration” is any gathering of 10 or more Palestinians that involves “a political matter or one liable to be interpreted as political.”

Or consider the case of Salam Fayyad. Fayyad, who served as the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister from 2007 to 2013, wagered that if Palestinians eschewed violence, overcame corruption and built the institutions of a functioning state, they would move closer to getting one. Fayyad’s Palestinian enemies undermined him. But it was Israel that proved his theory wrong. “In deeds,” said Fayyad just before leaving office, “Israel never got behind me; in fact it was quite hostile. The occupation regime is more entrenched, with no sign it is beginning to relinquish its grip on our life.”

“The risk this situation poses,” Fayyad warned back then, “is of sliding back to a cycle of violence.” Now that violence has returned. It has returned at a time when Israel’s prime minister has declared that he will never allow a Palestinian state, and America’s president has stopped talking about the Palestinians at all. “It’s not an accident that the violence [first] broke out last summer two months after the collapse of the Kerry Initiative,” noted Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann in a recent speech. “Never before in my memory has there been such a total absence of any sense of hope or political horizon, so that all of the destabilizing factors in Jerusalem become more volatile and more dangerous in the absence of a political process.”

Seidemann isn’t excusing Palestinians who commit violence. In 2013, one of them gashed his head with a rock. He’s drawing a connection between violence and despair. Stopping the stabbings that currently haunt Israel requires more than police; it requires hope. It requires confronting the moral darkness that comes from denying generation after generation of Palestinians the basic rights that every human being deserves.

In his most recent column, Sayed Kashua quotes a Palestinian parent who puts the dilemma this way. “If we foment an intifada, our children will be slaughtered. If we keep silent, Israel will go on feeding us sand.” Martin Luther King would understand.



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