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Book Review: What Gandhi Says About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage

Norman Finkelstein’s What Gandhi Says

About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage

OR Books, 2012, 100 pages

Norman Finkelstein was an assistant professor of Political Science at DePaul University, but because he exposed influential persons as frauds—such as the famous lawyer from the OJ Simpson trial and notable apologist for the state of Israel, Alan Dershowitz—he was denied full tenure in 2007.

I first learned of Mr. Finkelstein in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. In May of 2002 I happened to catch Professor Noam Chomsky on CNN. Later that day I went out and bought his book 9-11. After quickly devouring the pamphlet-sized book I moved on to numerous others titles, including Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. In the book is a chapter titled “The Fate of an Honest Intellectual,” in which Chomsky predicts Finkelstein’s fate: “I warned him, if you follow this, you’re going to get in trouble—because you’re going to expose the American intellectual community as a gang of frauds, and they are not going to like it, and they’re going to destroy you.”

In a recent interview with Tablet Magazine, a Jewish online daily, Finkelstein points out that:

I’ve been out of DePaul, it’s going on five years, right? There are a lot of academics who are politically sympathetic to me. Palestine’s not an unpopular cause anymore in academia. OK, so let’s ask the question: Has any professor worked to get me a job at any university? I want to be factual. Answer: No.

Has any professor worked to get me a guest lectureship for a year? Answer: No.

Has any professor worked to get me a lecture, even once? Answer: No.

It seems Chomsky was right.

But what Finkelstein’s career says about his moral character is also on display in his latest book, What Gandhi Says About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage, recently published by OR Books.

Motivated by the Israel-Palestine conflict, Finkelstein began scrutinizing the one hundred volume set of Gandhi’s collected works for useful information. Finkelstein finds a man beset by seeming contradictions, who (in classic Finkelstein form) made “Olympian pronouncements and saccharine bromides such as nonviolence, buoyed by the intervention of God, being the most potent force in the world,” and who Finkelstein says “might fairly be said” to have “fostered a death cult” with his numerous appeals to others to lay down their lives for their causes. At the core Gandhi is a flawed man with valuable political instincts, and is dedicated to the principles of nonviolence resistance.

Through his exhaustive research, Finkelstein uncovers a man who saw nonviolence and resistance as inseparably intertwined. One uses nonviolence to resist oppression and injustice, not to be passive or apathetic. Nonviolence itself is a weapon of force, “the most potent force in the world,” as Gandhi proclaimed. And it takes more courage to fight with nonviolence than violence. To Gandhi, using nonviolence so as to run away from danger is “cowardice” and is more contemptible than using violence.

Though What Gandhi Says is partly biographical, the book’s main purpose is to have modern activists and organizers think more deeply and seriously about what nonviolence, resistance and courage mean. Indeed, the book is dedicated to the Occupy movement. As Finklestein writes, “The target audience of Gandhi’s campaigns was not the implacable opponents of reform but the actual potential supporters of it, whom he wanted to goad into action.”

Here a recent example of a campaign targeting an audience of “potential supporters” (not mentioned in Finkelstein’s book) is worth mentioning. In Troy, Michigan a local library was facing cuts due to budge woes. The local government proposed a 0.7% tax increase to keep the libraries adequately funded and staffed. Local Tea Party people hijacked the narrative and droned on about “taxes.” Rather than discussing the value of the libray and books to the community, discussion was centering around taxes, taxes, taxes. It was looking like the tax wouldn’t pass and the community would suffer for it. Then the library started a counter-campaign where they pretended to be a book burning party opposed to the tax increase. The tactic got people upset at the prospect of setting fire to books, which people love, and they were “goad[ed] into action.” The vote had a record turnout and the tax passed in a landslide.

While Norman writes in the introduction that he started his research on Gandhi “in order to think though a nonviolent strategy for ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands” he goes on to say that “the field for the application of Gandhi’s ideas has now been vastly expanded by the emergence of the Arab Spring and nonviolence resistance movements around the world.” Which we can see happening now where a very Gandhiesque hunger strike has swept through Palestine. The most recent case being that of Palestinian soccer player Mahmoud Sarsak, who was held without charge and just recently announced the end of his fast in light of Israeli authorities vowing to give him an early release.

Finkelstein has clearly been affected by the research that went into his writing of this book. It seems to center around a lesson Gandhi taught him. In What Gandhi Says, Finkelstein writes:

Were the “pro-life” half of the American population to converge on abortion clinics and pledge a collective fast unto the death until and unless the clinics ceased performing abortions, the “pro-choice” half would almost certainly not be converted by such a spectacle.

In other words, it is not suffering alone that touches but suffering in the pursuit of a legitimate goal. The public’s recognition of the legitimacy of such a goal presumes, however, a preexisting broad consensus, if only latent or incipient, according to which the victims justly deserve what they seek.

This passage underlines a big chunk of Finkelstein’s strained relationship with the BDS movement. Finkelstein argues that the movement needs to be clear and honest about its position on Israel, and whether or not they recognize the state’s right to exist in the pre-June 1967 borders. Failure to be clear on this is deceptive at best. And if BDS were to come out and say it does not accept or recognize such a right then, as Finkelstein put it in his recent debate with Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss: “how does it help to advocate political solutions that have zero traction, and zero possibility of gaining traction, among Americans, who will never support a settlement that—whatever euphemism you use and however you articulate it—entails Israel’s disappearance?”

Thus the need to temper our campaigns to what Finkelstein calls the “practical-political, not abstract-moral.” If social movements are to succeed there will have to be considerable more growth, and more people brought into the fold. This does not mean compromising principles, but recognizing we can only go so far at a particular moment. We might be for some anarchist utopian society in the “abstract.” But campaigns that are more likely to succeed are for living wages, tax justice, a serious jobs bill, and so on. And speaking tactically it makes sense to organize around those issues where a larger part of the population can be politicized and mobilized into action.

In his conclusion Finkelstein writes that, “If a criticism is to be leveled against Gandhi’s nonviolence, it is that he sets the bar of courage too high for most mortals to vault.” For Gandhi, we need to be willing to sacrifice not just our relationships with friends and families, or even a bit of jail time, but our lives. Who is willing to lay down their life to stop tyranny or an injustice without using force? This, according to Gandhi, is the ultimate test of courage.

We see this test frequently in books and movies. The hero lets someone put a gun or sword to their head or throat and uses their permission of death to not only startle the nerves of the belligerent and break their will, but assuming they do find death, arouse the public into action—so the principle is not alien to us. At the end of the 1998 Pixar film A Bug’s Life, the main hero, an ant named Flik, forfeits his life to stop the bad guys, a gang of grasshoppers who exploit and rob them each harvest season. Flik’s pending death is meant to set an example for the other ants to show courage, which it eventually does as the ants organize and defeat the grasshoppers, saving Flik.

And you can see why Finkelstein would dedicate the book to Occupy. Here in the belly of the Beast it is of the utmost importance that American activists learn to be as politically savvy as Gandhi was, and to pick and choose not only their battles, but their strategies and tactics as well. While “the challenge for the younger generation as it embarks on the struggle to remake the world is to see how far it can advance without having to use violence,” before we can answer that we need to know who is Occupy’s “target audience” (we already know: the so-called “99 percent”), and how does it plan to “goad [them] into action”? The latter part of that question is where you will find value in Norman Finkelstein’s book, What Gandhi Says About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage.

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