The Privilege of Nonviolence
I am a strong believer in nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic to end systemic oppression. That being said, I have a confession to make. After watching the Academy Award nominated documentary film “5 Broken Cameras” I recognize more than ever before that nonviolence is easier said than done and has a certain level of privilege attached to it. Let me explain.
Emad Burnat, co-director of “5 Broken Cameras”, is a Palestinian peasant farmer from the West Bank village of Bil’in and has four young children, all boys, and a Palestinian wife who grew up in Brazil. He had no prior filming experience when he bought his first camera in 2005, the year his youngest son, Gibreel, was born. That year also marked the beginning of Bil’in’s weekly demonstrations against Israel’s separation fence which cut deep into Palestinian land. Burnat began filming the protests f which are often shown through the eyes of Gibreel whose childhood is defined by Isreal’s separation fence. Burnat’s cameras are routinely destroyed by Israeli soldiers and jewish settlers as he films, hence the title “5 broken cameras”.
The film elicits every emotion from laughter and grief to hope and hopelessness but most of all (at least for me) it provokes anger. Anger at the level of abuse dished out to the residents of Bil’in; anger at the world for ignoring it; anger at my government’s complicity; anger at myself for not doing enough to stop it.
It’s one thing to hear or read about Israel’s violent response to Palestinian resistance but it’s another thing entirely to watch Israeli soldiers launch barrage after barrage of tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire at unarmed Palestinian families and children, people you get to know and come to love through Burnat’s many camera lenses.
One of them is Bassem Abu Rahmah (everyone calls him “Phil”) who is adored for his gentle and hopeful spirit, especially by children in the village. Phil is a close friend of Burnat’s and is always seen on the front lines of the weekly demonstrations raising morale. That ended in 2009, when Phil was deliberately hit in the chest with an Israeli tear gas canister which killed him. One of the most powerful exchanges in the documentary is between Burnat and 4-year-old Gibreel who had a special bond with Phil. He asks his father, “Why don’t you kill the soldiers with a knife?” Burnat responds by asking Gibreel why he wants to hurt the soldiers, to which Gibreel replies, “Because they shot my Phil,” a response you can’t help but agree with on an emotional level.
It’s easy for those of us observing their suffering from a distance to lecture the oppressed about the moral superiority of nonviolent resistance while simultaneously condemning Palestinians, Iraqis, Yemenis and Afghans for taking up arms against their oppressors. But I wonder how many of us would stick to this principle if the roles were reversed.
The truth is if I were a Palestinian living under Israel’s violent system of apartheid I might not have the strength to keep my struggle nonviolent. Before you roll your eyes and bask in your self-righteousness, really think about what it would mean to be a Palestinian in the West Bank.
If Israel were to arbitrarily arrest, shoot and sometimes even kill your children, parents, sisters and brothers with absolute impunity while stealing your farmland, your family’s very livelihood how might you respond?
When this reality comes to bear on Burnat in the film, he observes that ”Clinging to nonviolent ideals isn’t easy when death is all around.”
I’m certainly not endorsing violence as an appropriate response. But is it really fair for me to condemn it as though I’m any better? It just seems that we frequently hold oppressed communities to a higher standard than we hold ourselves, a point illustrated well by Max Ajl.
A prescription for Palestinian pacifism amounts to saying to a people under the gun: “Oppose the violence that I pay for, and throw your body on the machine. Some of you will die, but it will be better for you. Trust me. But I will not throw my body on the war machine. I will not throw my body on the war machine of which the war machine that is oppressing you is a cog. I have nothing to do with that war-machine.”
To that end, the notion that “we” are practicing non-violence when “we” partake of non-violent resistance is unacceptable. Our tax dollars and our passive acquiescence, our quiescence, or quietude, our muted fury—all of this creates complicity in violence, and there is something hypocritical in advocating non-violence while we do not, at least episodically, throw ourselves on the machine that churns out Palestinian and Iraqi and Afghan and African bodies. Violence suffuses our societies, and the privilege we have to write and speak about non-violence is a privilege that is the heritage of historical violence. Let us look at the podium from which our voices and “values” sound out. It is made of bodies, and they are mostly brown.
The people of Bil’in made a conscious effort to keep their movement nonviolent, an incredibly brave move considering what they were up against. I encourage you to watch “5 Broken Cameras” to see for yourself a fraction of the brutality that Palestinians face on a daily basis (it’s available for streaming on Netflix) and then consider whether or not you could show the level of restraint practiced by the residents of Bil’in.