Abandoning the Idolatry of Nonviolence

by Gabi Kirk

My favorite Jewish song is “Eli, Eli,” by Hannah Szenes. As a young girl, I learned Hannah’s story of resistance to the Nazis. She left Hungary for Mandatory Palestine before the war, and then voluntarily parachuted back in an attempt to save Hungarian Jews from the death camps. In the end she was captured, tortured, and killed.

In religious school and youth group, my teachers emphasized Hannah’s resilient spirit, her kind heart, and her poetic voice. We sang her songs in class and recited her poem at the beginning of Shabbat services. I cried at her grave in Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. She was the perfect martyr in that way: young, pretty, passionate, eloquent. She stood against anti-Semitism and for Zionism, the salvation after the fury. Her story was uncomplicated enough for a child to understand, and for most of my life I held her up as a perfect female hero without question. I thought that living like her, individually fighting hatred, was the best way to bring peace. She died at 23, nearly the same age as I am now. She died at the same age as Rachel Corrie.

Rachel is not the perfect martyr. She died facing an Israeli bulldozer about to demolish a Palestinian home in Gaza during the Second Intifada. The Israeli government ruled it an accident, though her parents have filed multiple appeals. She is vilified as a “race traitor,” an American girl gone bad who sided with the enemy. Dozens of websites are devoted to “debunking” her fellow activists’ and her parents’ story of her life and death.

Yet Rachel and Hannah have more in common than it seems. Both were prolific writers, and their diaries and poetry have inspired musicians, actors, and filmmakers. Both voluntarily entered a war zone to attempt to save innocent civilians. Both died for their cause and are held up as examples: one by the Zionist Jewish community, one by the Palestine solidarity community. Both were young women. Both died too young. But what do they have in common with me? And what do their lives and deaths tell us about the biggest debate in activism: that of violent resistance vs. non-violent resistance?

I consider myself a peace activist. At Jewish summer camp when I was twelve years old I received the award “most likely to speak my mind.” I have organized resistance to many societal ills: racism, sexism, capitalism, any –ism you can think of. I am also a “keffiyeh kinderlach,” one of many young Jews in the Diaspora and Israel who unequivocally stand for Palestinian freedom. I cite Judaism as main reason I fight for justice in this world. I also cite Judaism as the inspiration for my commitment to nonviolence. After all, the Talmud tells us that to save one life is to save an entire world, a message which is real for a tree-hugging earth lover like me. I like to think I follow in the footsteps of these women who came before me. And until very recently I took nonviolence, like Szenes’ story, for granted. I assumed it was the best and truest way to bring justice in this world.

As I grew older, I got involved in community organizing and more closely studied the stories of these two women. I soon realized much of what I thought I knew about their stories, and nonviolence, was false.  I learned Hannah Szenes was a soldier for whom commitment to “nonviolence” was not an option against the massive Nazi war machine. I realized Rachel Corrie, demonized as “violent against the Jewish state,” had never held a weapon in her life. She died holding a bullhorn and a banner, tools I have held many times. Many non-violent resistance movements have seen armed or violent movements spring up in parallel or behind the scenes.

This fall, I heard from three Jewish veterans of 1964’s Freedom Summer. They had spent years organizing non-violently with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi and Georgia. Dorothy Zellner, one of the veterans, spoke candidly about what happened behind the scenes of the non-violent civil rights movement: “Non-violent [organizers] who wouldn't hurt a mouse had their lives protected by blacks with guns.” Many in the audience were shocked to learn this. Only recently have historical analyses been popularized showing this little known history of the Civil Rights movement: that Black men and women armed themselves against the terrorism of the KKK and the police, even before the Black Panthers.   

I have also directly witnessed how non-violent resistance is met with massive, violent backlash from those in power. I have been pepper sprayed, beaten, and had a cop pull his gun on me for protesting on a college campus, during the University of California protests of 2009-2012. I have seen Israeli soldiers shoot tear gas or attack and arrest activists simply standing in a place that was deemed “off limits” in the occupied West Bank.  

Those in power have always used violence to protect their interests, whether it is in the flash points that make the news or the daily structural violence that does not. People of color die every day when going about regular activities, because state violence targets them for existing in the wrong race. I am hit with the horror of these stories again and again, from the four Palestinian boys playing soccer on the beach in Gaza killed by an Israeli shell one year ago, to Tamir Rice shot by police in Cleveland for holding a plastic gun. Black and Brown people around the world find themselves in a system which does not afford them the privilege of choosing nonviolence. Violence is visited upon them. Their mere existence is often cause for panic and backlash by a white supremacist system and its supporters, those who deem them a threat for the color of their skin. In death defenders of violence retroactively brand these victims as terrorists or thugs. The label “violent” is selectively applied by those in power against the powerless in order to stigmatize and demonize, often arbitrarily.

I remain committed to practicing nonviolent activism, as I find it strategically effective and in alignment with my spiritual beliefs. But I have decided to abandon the idolatry of nonviolence. Not because I wish to harm others, or see innocents targeted or killed for simply being who they are. I remain committed to respecting every human life as b’tselem elohim, in the image of G-d, holy and worthy of protection. Too often, though, we seek to label movements or tactics are either “violent” or “nonviolent,” throwing out anything in the former even if it may be effective, and extolling anything in the later even when it does not advance justice. Non-violent resistance is not the correct frame for me to use as a peace activist in the world today.

In my fight for peace and justice, I now seek to be part of a popular resistance, that is, to organize with others who share my values, and not worry about the label. Judaism  have taught me community is sacred. After all, we cannot say our holiest prayers, including the prayer to lift up G-d when our loved ones die, without at least nine others. Therefore, to me, the violence or nonviolence of a person or the tactics they choose is less important than the community organizing that surrounds it -- a whole community united together for justice is what makes a struggle ultimately successful.

Nonviolence is an immensely beautiful and historically rooted way to tie communities together. One could even say it's the best way, and the only way I personally want to organize. But there are times when communities are not one hundred percent “nonviolent” — such was the case in the Black Lives Matter protests this year which included property destruction and looting. But this does not make them any less worthy of rights, or of a community that will connect to bring about those rights. Szenes played a small part in a wide network of Jewish partisan fighters spread across Eastern Europe. Corrie’s legacy lives on through the work of the Palestine solidarity movement around the world, who support the popular efforts on the ground for peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians. That connection and community for justice is the most important thing.

I will resist all violent systems by building a community movement based on love with those who hold my values. I will work to make that movement greater and more powerful than anything else, building up against hatred and racism. That is the way to live on in the legacy of the women who came before me: not to fetishize the single ideology of “nonviolence” as ultimate truth, but to creatively and passionately work towards justice and equality without harming others, and striving to work collectively for justice above all else. I recognize the multiple paths that are needed to propel us forward and that those directly facing oppression may not always have the luxury to choose what mainstream culture deems non-violent. After all, I cannot control that even my most pacifist actions may be branded violent by others.