Libya and Syria: violence or non-violence (the debate over which strategy is best) with perspectives from Uri Avnery and Michael Nagler

This is a critical debate which evokes significant differences among secular and spiritual progressives. I hope you’ll let me know your reactions to it. I’m a huge fan of Avnery, whose articles regularly appear on our Tikkun web magazine site And a dear friend of Michael Nagler whose writings have been an inspiration to me and many others. I can easily understand the power of Avnery’s argument, though personally I’m on the side of non-violence. Some people misunderstood the title of my last communication where I send “overthrow the Syrian regime.” Yes, but I didn’t mean violently, but instead was meaning to be supporting the non-violent struggle of Syrians against the violence of Asad and his army, and encouraging us in the West to find non-violent ways to help, like boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

Uri Avnery is leader of Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace movement organization in Tel Aviv.  Here is his argument:

To The Shores of Tripoli

Though the Bible tells us “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth” (Proverbs 24:17), I could not help myself. I was happy.

Muammar al-Gaddafi was the enemy of every decent person in the world. He was one of the worst tyrants in recent memory.

This fact was hidden behind a façade of clownishness. He liked to present himself as a philosopher (the “Green Book”), a visionary statesman (Israelis and Palestinians must unite in the “State of Isratine”), even as an immature teenager (his innumerable uniforms and costumes). But basically he was a ruthless dictator, surrounded by corrupt relatives and cronies, squandering the great wealth of Libya.

This was obvious to anyone who wanted to see. Unfortunately, there were quite a few who chose to close their eyes.

When I expressed my support for the international intervention, I was expecting to be attacked by some well-meaning people. I was not disappointed.

How could I? How could I support the American imperialists and the abominable NATO? Didn’t I realize that it was all about the oil?

I was not surprised. I have been through this before. When NATO started to bomb Serbian territory in order to put an end to Slobodan Milosevic’s crimes in Kosovo, many of my political friends turned against me.

Didn’t I realize that it was all an imperialist plot? That the devious Americans wanted to tear Yugoslavia (or Serbia) apart? That NATO was an evil organization? That Milosevic, though he may have some faults, was representing progressive humanity?

This was said when the evidence of the gruesome mass-murder in Bosnia was there for everyone to see, when Milosevic was already exposed as the cold-blooded monster he was. Ariel Sharon admired him.

So how could decent, well-meaning leftists, people of an unblemished humanist record, embrace such a person? My only explanation was that their hatred of the USA and of NATO was so strong, so fervent, that anyone attacked by them must surely be a benefactor of humanity, and all accusations against them pure fabrications. The same happened with Pol Pot.

Now it has happened again. I was bombarded with messages from well-meaning people who lauded Gaddafi for all his good deeds. One might get the impression that he was a second Nelson Mandela, if not a second Mahatma Gandhi.

While the rebels were already fighting their way into his huge personal compound, the socialist leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was praising him as a true model of upright humanity, a man who dared to stand up to the American aggressors.

Well, sorry, count me out. I have this irrational abhorrence of bloody dictators, of genocidal mass-murderers, of leaders who wage war on their own people. And at my advanced age, it is difficult for me to change.

I am ready to support even the devil, if that is necessary to put an end to this kind of atrocities. I won’t even ask about his precise motives. Whatever one may think about the USA and/or NATO – if they disarm a Milosevic or a Gaddafi, they have my blessing.

How large a role did NATO play in the defeat of the Libyan dictator?

The rebels would not have reached Tripoli, and certainly not by now, if they had not enjoyed NATO’s sustained air support. Libya is one big desert. The offensive had to rely on one long road. Without mastery of the skies, the rebels would have been massacred. Anyone who was alive during World War II and followed the campaigns of Rommel and Montgomery knows this.

I assume that the rebels also received arms and advice to facilitate their advance.

But I object to the patronizing assertion that it was all a NATO victory. It is the old colonialist attitude in a new guise. Of course, these poor, primitive Arabs could not do anything without the White Man shouldering his burden and rushing to the rescue.

But wars are not won by weapons, they are won by people.  “Boots on the ground”, as the Americans call it. Even with all the help they got, the Libyan rebels, disorganized and poorly armed as they were, have won a remarkable victory. This would not have happened without real revolutionary fervor, without bravery and determination. It is a Libyan victory, not a British or a French one.

This has been underplayed by the international media. I have not seen any genuine combat coverage (and I know what that looks like). Journalists did not acquit themselves with glory. They displayed exemplary cowardice, staying at a safe distance from the front, even during the fall of Tripoli. On TV they looked ridiculous with their conspicuous helmets when they were surrounded by bareheaded fighters.

What came over was endless jubilations over victories that had seemingly fallen from heaven. But these were feats achieved by people – yes, by Arab people.

This is especially galling to our Israeli “military correspondents” and “Arab affairs experts”. Used to despising or hating “the Arabs”, they are ascribing the victory to NATO. It seems that the people of Libya played a minor role, if any.

Now they blabber endlessly about the “tribes”, which will make democracy and orderly governance in Libya impossible. Libya is not really a country, it was never a unified state before becoming an Italian colony, there is no such thing as a Libyan people. (Remember the French saying this about Algeria, and Golda Meir about Palestine?)

Well, for a people that does not exist, the Libyans fought very well. And as for the “tribes” – why do tribes exist only in Africa and Asia, never among Europeans? Why not a Welsh tribe or a Bavarian tribe?

(When I visited Jordan in 1986, well before the peace treaty, I was entertained by a very civilized, high-ranking Jordanian official. After an interesting conversation over dinner, he surprised me by mentioning that he belongs to a certain tribe. Next day, while I was riding on a horse to Petra, the rider next to me asked in a low voice whether I belonged “to the tribe”. It took me some time to understand that he was asking me if I was a Jew. It seems that American Jews refer to themselves in this way.)

The “tribes” of Libya would be called in Europe “ethnic groups” and in Israel “communities”. The term “tribe” has a patronizing connotation. Let’s drop it.

ALL THOSE who decry NATO’s intervention must answer a simple question: who else would have done the job?

21st century humanity cannot tolerate acts of genocide and mass-murder, wherever they occur. It cannot look on while dictators butcher their own peoples. The doctrine of “non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states” belongs to the past. We Jews, who have accused mankind of standing idly by while millions of Jews, including German citizens, were exterminated by the legitimate German government, certainly owe the world an answer.

I have mentioned in the past that I advocate some form of effective world governance and expect it to be in place by the end of this century. This would include a democratically elected world executive that would have military forces at its disposal and that could intervene, if a world parliament so decides.

For this to happen, the United Nations must be revamped entirely. The veto power must be abolished. It is intolerable that the US can veto the acceptance of Palestine as a member state, or that Russia and China can veto intervention in Syria.

Certainly, great powers like the US and China should have a louder voice than, say, Luxemburg and the Fiji Islands, but a two thirds majority in the General Assembly should have the power to override Washington, Moscow or Beijing.

That may be the music of the future, or, some may say, a pipe dream. As for now, we live in a very imperfect world and must make do with the instruments we have. NATO, alas, is one of them. The European Union is another, though in this case poor, eternally conscience-stricken Germany, has paralyzed it. If Russia or China were to join, that would be fine.

This is not some remote problem. Gaddafi is finished, but Bashar al-Assad is not. He is butchering his people even while you read this, and the world is looking on helplessly.

Any volunteers for intervention?

Next, here is a response to Avnery by Michael Nagler, founder of Peace and Conflict Studies at U.C. Berkeley and author of several books on peace and non-violence:

Nonviolence: the hard cases

It has long been the despair of nonviolence activists and scholars that the word ‘nonviolence’ starts with a ‘non.’  Not to get into the linguistic peculiarities of the word itself, which entered the English language just under a hundred years ago as a misleading translation of ahimsa, it has left us looking in exactly the wrong direction, unable to appreciate the salvific power of this principle.

Not that the word itself is really the problem: we live in a “Manichaean” culture that takes death and alienation for the ultimate reality.  Walk past any video store and read the movie posters: REAL AIN’T PRETTY, UNLEASH TRUTH (i.e. a raging killer).  We are living in the precise opposite of, for example, Gandhi’s vision:

The world rests upon the bedrock of satya or truth. Asatya meaning untruth also means non-existent, and satya or truth also means that which is. If untruth does not so much as exist, its victory is out of the question. And truth being that which is, can never be destroyed. This is the doctrine of Satyagraha in a nutshell.

For this reason, while I sympathize with Uri Avneri’s position on the need for violent means in Libya and Syria, either by the people themselves or by outside intervention, I do not agree with his pessimism on this issue, fortunately, though on all others he is for me one of the most respected voices in Israel:

I am ready to support even the devil, if that is necessary to put an end to this kind of atrocities… Whatever one may think about the USA and/or NATO – if they disarm a Milosevic or a Gaddafi, they have my blessing.

“If that is necessary.”  Exactly the point: it is not.  Nonviolence, as Gandhi said, has arrived among men (and women), it is the harbinger of peace on this earth.  So you do not have to “support the devil.”  You just have to support G_d, cost what it may.

Naturally, when you wait until a conflict has flared up to extreme intensity before responding that cost will be higher — just as it is if you choose military options.  Unlike the Egyptians, the Syrians found themselves swept up in what we call an “effervescence” of resistance without preparation or outside help, e.g. from veterans of successful nonviolent insurrections (like the Serbian organizers of the overthrow of Milosevic who helped in Egypt, as before then many nonviolence scholars and activists helped materially in the Philippines, Russia, and elsewhere).  But in large-scale conflicts (even Gandhi did not rule out using force when ‘a madman with a sword’ is ranging the village) it is never the case that nonviolence can do nothing.

The fact is, the Syrian people already are doing what could be critical components of an unstoppable nonviolent resistance, if they knew how to build on them.  According to Akram Antaki, the Damascene founder of Ma’aber (‘Crossroads’), “one of the main characteristics of the Syrian revolution is that we are all working openly. The wall of fear has disappeared.”  Moreover, according to activist and lawyer Razan Zeitouneh, “Many people may not believe that, in the midst of this barbarism meted out to the Syrian people by their ruling regime, the survival of a space for other feelings than anger and pain is possible. In fact, there are still people that face the gun with flowers. . . they hope that the revolution shall change much more than the regime.”

‘Facing the gun with flowers’ can actually be a misleading image for nonviolence, but let’s pass that over for the present.  The point is this: let us assume a ‘leader’ who is professionally (because of his position) and psychologically unable to respond to a popular uprising with anything but brutality.  What could such a person do without obedient followers — army, police, mercenaries, fifth columnists?  Yes, you can get an army to slaughter men, women, and children, but if the latter could, within reason, face the opponent’s wrath without hatred such an army, as Gandhi pointed out, “would not be able to repeat the experiment.”  There are limits to the heartlessness of people — science has been peering recently into this neglected aspect of our nature — and we can learn to work with this potentiality; history has shown it to work every time if you know what you’re doing and have the courage to do it.

For example, Syrian resistors, if they’re organized enough to pull it off, could drop the personalistic, threatening rhetoric of their protests, i.e. ‘Assad, now it’s your turn.’  That would cost very little, except emotionally, and very much improve the tenor of the movement.  They could start building what Gandhi called a “constructive programme” that would likewise appear non-threatening, but in fact build up democratic institutions and infrastructure making them less dependent on the government as did the Palestinians in the First Intifada.  They can reach out to soldiers, e.g. through their relatives as proved effective in the Philippines and Czechoslovakia during its “Prague Spring” of 1968-69.  Would this protect them from death right away?  No; but neither would violence, as we’re seeing in Libya.  In the end, when things are this extreme, people will die, but it makes a crucial difference how. Even Adin Ballou, probably the first nonviolence advocate (he called it “Christian non-resistance” ca. 1815-1820) pointed out that in the end, if all we can do is suffer and perhaps die without bitterness, we have done something no one can ever take away from us.  And Martin Luther King added, something that has an effect on others: “unearned suffering is redemptive,” and telling on the opponent.

Likewise for the international community, there are nonviolent mechanisms with which we have barely begun to experiment.  I am thinking not so much of the International Criminal Court, which is still a form of retributive, not restorative justice, but on the one hand the international consensus that outsiders have a “right to protect” threatened people who are not being protected (or worse!) by their own government, and on the other hand something like the new and still far from developed practice called Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP) which has sent trained people across borders to offer good offices and if necessary interpose themselves between conflicting parties.  Strange to say (unless you’re familiar with nonviolent logic) they have shown that they can save lives in Sri Lanka, Mindanao, El Salvador and many other places, and sometimes, as in Guatemala, “made a space for peace” (the motto of Peace Brigades International) so that human rights workers could begin to rebuild civil society even in a climate of severe repression.

Time does not allow me to go into all these potentials here, so I would refer you to a classic in our field, “Nonviolence and the Case of the Extremely Ruthless Opponent” by Ralph Summy which, along with similar resources, will be soon available on our website. But I cannot emphasize enough the last words I’ve quoted from Razan Zeitouneh: “they hope that the revolution shall change much more than the regime.” The Syrian people hope that if they hold fast to nonviolence they will be able to change the culture that is so powerful and so debilitating to the human image that it can cause even as brilliant and compassionate a thinker as Uri Avnery to think that only brute force can blunt a tyrant’s violence.


4 thoughts on “Libya and Syria: violence or non-violence (the debate over which strategy is best) with perspectives from Uri Avnery and Michael Nagler

  1. Hi,

    I appreciate both commentator’s opinions. I tend to be in complete agreement with much of Avnery’s positions but I cannot agree with his argument that it is the right thing to “…support even the devil, if that is necessary…”. Supporting bloody violence at the hands of evil-doers (the devil) because we may believe that to be the only solution to bloody violence is not a morally responsible decision nor necessarily a practical solution. The US as well as many European nations have supported or allowed and even (in some cases) committed acts of violence against others largely at times in the interests not of fairness, peace, and benevolence, but for other overriding interests (too many to delineate here but I’m certain it won’t take long for any of you to recall at least a couple of examples). There are many unanswered questions and probably just as much misinformation that may be dispersed which renders bloody violence (military intervention by evil-doers) as neither necessary nor necessarily the right thing to support by critical thinkers somewhere on the Left, peace advocates, moralists, or anyone not into the might-makes-right camp.

    Would I support the NAZI’s “justified” use of violence against Libyans who are loyal to the government? No. Violence by evil-doers is not something I support because the motivations by the evil-doers are at best very questionable, and in 2011, it is not a difficult task for a technologically advanced country to suppress data / information while producing misinformation and propaganda.

    So what might be a big enough motivation for evil-doers to invade another country and call it “justified”? Oil might certainly be one. What about the destabilization of the U.S. dollar? Do you think that would not be a primary motivation for (at least) U.S. military involvement? See this report:

    Thank you for your consideration of my position.

    Louie Gedo

  2. I,m a real admirer of Uri,but I do not believe for a moment that he means what he just wrote in this article!
    He must have been under the influence of something. Israel have already been over eighty years ruled by the Military establishment, the killing goes on, does he really mean that: He would aprove of a military intervention from foreing powers that would destroy the hole of the Estate of Israel in order to liberate her people from this opression?
    I simply do not believe what he wrote!

  3. Ury Avneri’s rhetorical bravado (the claim that he’d support even the devil if that were necessary) detracts from the general good sense of his position. It also gives Michael Nagler an easy, rhetorical way out of the real difficulty with absolutist forms of non-violence: you only have to support G_d, cost what it may, and you will prevail.

    The phrase has a nice, emotionally satisfying resonance to it, but it very neatly conceals the fact that most Libyan freedom fighters (their preferred term for themselves) took up arms precisely to fight the devil, i.e. a regime of evil which, for 42 years terrorized the populace, trod on the dignity of every Libyan (to be cowed by terror is to lose one’s dignity as a human being, first and foremost), robbed the country blind, and did it all under the cynical hypocrisy of a touted “people’s democracy”. Not for nothing has the rallying cry of the Libyan Revolution been the cry of “G-d is great!” Libya’s civilian population turned itself into a makeshift army practically overnight only when it had become crystal clear that the regime it had tried to challenge by peaceful means was ready to crush an entire city of almost a million: Benghazi. I find it sad — and astonishing — that Nagler has managed to forget that.

  4. Uri Avnery, very well said. Your arguments are rational and practical, and overall your piece seemed quite heartfelt. I appreciate your views, and only wish that others may open their eyes already to the reality that is.

Leave a Reply to manueljimenez Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *