Anyone closely monitoring the latest developments regarding the Israeli massacres in Gaza will by now have noticed that Israeli officials and their apologists in the US press depend heavily on a restricted narrative to describe Palestinians. This narrative makes use of evocative imagery and buzzwords to steer public attitudes in desired directions. “Terror tunnels”, “human shields”, and “the Hamas Charter” are just a few of the phrases repeated ad nauseam to drill the right ideas into the public’s mind. Alongside these predictable attempts to de-legitimize Palestinian resistance is a more insidious doctrine that seeks to rob Palestinians of a right enshrined in international law, namely the right to resist foreign occupation by force. The typical form this doctrine takes is in the demand for Hamas to “renounce violence.” Underlying this demand is an understanding, unique to imperial societies, that those suffering under military occupation are the aggressors and not the victims. This notion can be discerned quite easily in mainstream commentary and the press generally.
In March of 2013 when President Obama visited Jerusalem, he made sure to reinforce this dogma. “Israel cannot accept rocket attacks from Gaza, and we have stood up for Israel’s right to defend itself,” remarked Obama. He continued “And that’s why Israel has a right to expect Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.” Interestingly, there was no concomitant demand that Israel, the nuclear-armed and vastly more militarily advanced power, “renounce violence.” Unlike the rockets from Hamas, the F16s, tanks, and machine guns provided to Israel are interpreted to be for “defensive” operations.
Given the resilience of this ideology, it would be instructive to ask if there is any historical precedent that would help illuminate the thought pattern that might lay behind double standards of this kind. Fortunately, such a precedent does exist. In June of 1990 the New York Times, like the Obama administration, was also demanding that a certain “terrorist” renounce violence. This “terrorist” was, in President Obama’s words, “the last great liberator of the 20th century,” who was able to hold “his country together when it threatened to break apart.” The name of this violent “terrorist” was Nelson Mandela. Under the headline “Why Mandela Won’t Renounce Violence” David G. Sanders, a minority staff consultant at the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, perfectly anticipates the hasbara currently dominating the establishment press. “Who is the real Nelson Mandela?,” asks Sanders. “Before his supporters drape him in the garments of Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr., they should take a close look.” This “close look”, Sanders continues, requires that Mandela answer “one simple question”, namely “Why won’t he and the A.N.C. renounce violence?”
The “simple question” was not directed at the South African apartheid regime and its use of far more devastating violence but at the ANC. Consequently, Sanders embraces the very same ideology of today’s apologists for Israeli terror. Take for example Nicholas Kristof, who wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times condemning “Palestinian militancy” for “[accomplishing] nothing but increasing the misery of the Palestinian people.” Kristof went on to say if Palestinians “turned more to huge Gandhi-style nonviolence resistance campaigns, the resulting videos would reverberate around the world and Palestine would achieve statehood and freedom.”
Perhaps Kristof was unaware, but he was basically regurgitating commentary that Sanders made in 1990 in reference to ANC resistance in apartheid South Africa. Back then, Sanders observed that Mandela’s “conflicting public statements on violence may be prolonging the suffering,” in South Africa, adding that “acts of A.N.C. violence and intimidation [called] into question the group’s commitment to political pluralism.” Furthermore, Sanders lectured that Mandela “would do far better to associate himself more closely with the words of Dr. King and Gandhi than those of [Vladimir] Lenin” (an ideological precursor to Kristof’s “huge Gandhi-style nonviolence resistance campaigns”).
And the New York Times wasn’t alone in these ludicrous demands. In the same month that Sander’s published his “peace” manifesto on Nelson Mandela and the ANC, the Chicago Tribune reported the following:
“President Bush and a chorus of voices as diverse as American Jewish leaders, Dr. King`s colleagues, Cuban Americans and members of Congress have called on Nelson Mandela to emulate Martin Luther King more closely. By this they mean he should renounce violence, embrace civil disobedience and distance himself from some of his old comrades-in-arms, such as Communists and the notorious human-rights violators Yasser Arafat, Moammar Gadhafi and Fidel Castro.”
Unmentioned in this passage was that Mandela’s “comrades-in-arms”, the Palestinians and Cubans, were victims of the same US subversion and complicity that landed him in prison. Similarly, unmentioned was that Fidel Castro played an integral role in deterring apartheid South Africa’s aggressive war in Angola, an aggressive war that the US supported. In this respect, Cuba assumed the role that Hezbollah and Iran play today, namely a country stigmatized by their decision to militarily assist a population of people resisting foreign domination, an unforgivable sin in imperial circles. This is to say nothing of the comical notion that George H.W. Bush cared at all about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Months before joining this diverse “chorus of voices” he was dropping bombs on Panama in a flagrant war of aggression after one of his clients, Manuel Noriega, committed the supreme crime of disobedience.
In all, there’s something grotesquely hypocritical about journalists, who are citizens of a imperial state that has generated more violence and militarism than any other country in the post-war period, lecturing significantly weaker “enemies” to “renounce violence” while refusing to make equal demands of their own government. Nonetheless, these glaring moral deficiencies have only worsened since the demise of South African apartheid, as has the historical amnesia necessary to ensure no one notices them. Therefore, it’s rarely, if ever, acknowledged that in 1987 the US and Israel rejected a UN Resolution, which endorsed as legitimate the use of armed force to secure “the right of self-determination, freedom, and independence … particularly [for] peoples under colonial and racist regimes and foreign occupation.” The final vote on this resolution was 153 to 2, hence “the US and Israel were alone in the world in denying that such actions can be legitimate resistance, and declaring them to be terrorism.”
At bottom, this record illustrates fundamental flaws in elite conceptions of “violence.” Instead of demanding that those under occupation “renounce violence”, those genuinely interested in peace would focus on the source of armed resistance, which in the case of Israel-Palestine is clearly the multi-decade military occupation, preceded by many years of Israeli terrorism and ethnic cleansing. Here resides the “one simple question” that President Obama, David Sanders, Nick Kristof and innumerable others have not asked. Until this question is asked we can only expect more armed resistance, more hypocritical demands from oppressors to “emulate” Gandhi and less historically grounded understandings of liberation struggles. Rather than passively absorb these distortions as uncontroversial truths, they should be aggressively challenged. As the IDF continues its ruthless assault on the people of Gaza, its difficult to conceive of any intellectual or moral struggle more urgent.
Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky