I want to follow up on what Qaisar Shareef has written about Palestine and Israel (“Holy War in the Promised Land,” May 19) by calling attention to the writings of Gene Sharp, who advocated nonviolence – or, as he termed it, political defiance, as an alternative to being either passive or violent in the face of injustice. He used this term to distinguish his approach from religiously motivated nonviolence or pacifism against war.
Sharp died in January, but his methods have inspired dissidents in many instances, including the overthrow of Milosevic in Serbia in 2000, the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine in 2004 and the Occupy movement in the United States in 2011. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is supranational, going beyond any one country, but it is still a case of an oppressor (Israel and the United States, and any who stand with them) holding a people (the Palestinians) under tyranny, and some version of Sharp’s ideas might well apply.
Not so much an activist himself, Gene Sharp was a theoretician and spent years studying the history and philosophy of dictatorships and popular movements against them. He advised peaceful protest, not for a moral reason, but because violence is usually the method that dictatorships have already perfected so, to overthrow them successfully, resistors need to use a new and unexpected kind of attack against which the tyranny has no defense.
His key ideas are laid out in From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. This short book originated as an essay written in 1993, in response to a Burmese activist seeking ideas on how to effect social change through nonviolent action. Sharp did not claim to be expert in the local details of Burma or any other tyranny where his ideas have been used. His goal was to provide a general guide to action that could be adapted to the realities of each unique instance of oppression. Activists in many other countries heard of the work, and it has now been translated into 24 languages.
Sharp’s basic message is: Use your strength to exploit the oppressor’s weakness. He outlines the steps to follow in analyzing an oppressive situation, planning which nonviolent tactics to use in what order, and being ready with contingency plans when the situation changes. He cautions that the fight will not be without casualties, but contends that the casualties will be fewer, and the end result more likely to be stable, than if violence were used. A nonviolent campaign is, in other words, a fight. Not an easy fight or a short fight, but a winnable one, if done with care.
He also warns that overthrow of the tyranny is never the end of the story, and that many further problems will remain to be addressed in every case. Demolishing the dictatorial government does, however, open the possibilities for addressing other societal challenges.
Sharp organizes nonviolent actions into three broad categories: protest, noncooperation, and intervention. The appendix to From Dictatorship to Democracy lists no fewer than 198 actions that fall within these types, such as distributing leaflets or staging a walkout (protest); giving sanctuary to targeted individuals, work slow-downs or boycotts (noncooperation); sit-ins or overloading a facility such as a prison (intervention).
I am not qualified to suggest whether or how to apply Sharp’s ideas to Palestine and Israel. And, in fact, there are several groups already working there for nonviolent change. But, even as a distant observer, it is clear that neither military nor verbal violence is working. Surely there is something we can learn from Gene Sharp’s pragmatic approach.
Nancy E. Dollahite is the author of Field Notes from Sichuan: Learning to Be a Foreigner, to be published by Blue Ear Books.