Rosa Parks Goes To Jerusalem

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    Well, not really, but given word out of Israel about plans for a Palestinian-only bus line, the spirit of America’s Civil Rights icon – who would have turned 100 this past February –  is no doubt turning over in her grave as Israeli officials contemplate instituting a policy reminiscent of the very worst of American segregation.

    The ostensible reason for this decision to segregate Israelis and Palestinians on two West Bank bus lines is concern over security. Israeli settlers, who must ride the buses along with Palestinian day laborers, are frightened that one of their fellow passengers could turn out to be a terrorist. Settler groups are so concerned that they have complained to Israeli officials that Palestinian passengers represent an undue risk to life and limb, and the Israeli government – always one to bow to the interests of the settler lobby – has responded with this plan to segregate buses.

    In the grand scheme of daily humiliations and monstrous injustices that typify life in the Occupied Territories, this is pretty small stuff – but it is telling. That Israel would so calmly institute a policy that literally evokes the example of Rosa Parks speaks volumes about the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations and prospects for a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, by all accounts, objective observers of the so-called peace process have all but given up hope that the conflict can resolved through structured negotiations. The reasons for this are many, but among them is the fact that spoiling action by extremists on either side makes resolving the conflict all but impossible.

    To understand why, consider what happens when an action by one side precipitates a response from the other. Suppose, for instance, that an Israeli settler takes pot shots at a Palestinian family on the West Bank or a splinter faction in Gaza fires off rockets into southern Israel. Leaders in both Palestine and Israel have the option to respond or not, thus setting the stage for a chain reaction of escalations that makes everyone worse off.

    The rational thing to do is to look past individual incidents to focus on the larger relationship with leaders on the other side – in other words to give them the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to make amends. Unfortunately, people are not rational – as humans we are driven by primal instincts to rally-around-the tribal flag when threatened, and violence triggers an “irrationality” button in people that makes it very, very difficult to respond in the way described above. Indeed, if leaders don’t respond to what is inevitably seen as a terrible provocation, they may find themselves under political attack by militants in their own ruling clique.


    Nonviolent resistance to break the action-reaction spiral

    This dynamic makes it incredibly hard to turn around an entrenched conflict. So what can be done? Fortunately, a tactic exists that has been too little used in this particular case which has the potential to break the action-reaction downward spiral into something far more positive. This tactic is nonviolent resistance of the type pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and not incidentally, Rosa Parks.

    Why might this be the case? Remember; in the action-reaction spiral described above the actions of the extremists on one side provide proof that supports the arguments of extremists on the other. Israeli hawks and Palestinians militants can point to the actions of the other as evidence that the other side cannot be trusted. In turn, this undermines the position of the peace camp on both sides, forcing them to take a more aggressive position to protect their respective political positions. What this means is that the extremists on either side are implicitly each other’s best ally because they effectively conspire to keep the conflict going indefinitely.

    Nonviolent resistance, on the other hand, short-circuits that process because violence isn’t used. No one, for instance, is threatened by a sit-in or a salt march except the unjust authorities and the illegitimate laws they enforce. So long as protest remains peaceful and yet seriously challenges the status quo, the use of violence to enforce those laws backfires like it did at Selma, Alabama – where civil rights marchers were confronted with dogs, truncheons and fire hoses for simply trying to walk from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery.

    Unjust violence of this type sickens onlookers and quickly sways public opinion against those who wield it. Importantly, it even saps the morale of those charged with swinging the clubs or letting loose the dogs, for no one except the most hard-core sociopath can mete out violence day-after-day to innocents – and most people are not sociopaths. It is one thing to use violence to defend your home from rocket fire, quite another to use it against defenseless women and children. Violence likes this become, in the end, self-defeating.

    Which is exactly the point. At some point, a nonviolent resistance campaign will show that the arguments of hawks and the militants aren’t correct. It can show that there is another way that doesn’t involve the use of guns, rockets or improvised explosive devices. Indeed, a nonviolence campaign can even bring moderates in the two opposing camps together as they show that trust, good will, and dogged, near-religious dedication to nonviolence can change the dynamic of an entrenched conflict. Gandhi, after all, said he wanted the British to leave India as friends, not as enemies, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Promised Land was one where Black and White lived together in peace and friendship, not bitterness and division.

    So, as segregated buses make their way into the Holy Land, the denizens of that troubled place should take a page from the brave young woman who fought them here in America and won.  It was a long, terrible struggle with much pain and many setbacks, but if they can keep the faith like Rosa did, eventually their time will come.

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