Dear Maria Stephens and the Interfaith Peace Working Group,
I’m attaching the poem I mentioned to you when Ann and I walked you back to your hotel the
evening of your talk in Madison. As you may recall, you mentioned Fr. Jim Groppi in your talk.
The talk was great, by the way. And I don’t think you could have said anything more or different
to improve upon it. As I mentioned to others in IPWG, I thought it was the perfect way to kick
off our year of speakers, discussion and possibly a wrap-up conference on the topic of The
Power and Promise of Nonviolence project.
What’s bothering me now is whether it’s sufficient or appropriate for IPWG to be merely
talking about nonviolence when some kind of action is what this moment requires. When we
first started to discuss this project, the war in Ukraine had already broken out and one of our
members felt it was necessary to focus on that reality. By the time you spoke in Madison, the
Israeli’s assault on Gaza was already approaching genocidal proportions.
(An article by Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies in CounterPunch the following day noted
that Israel had already dropped 14,000 bombs on Gaza, killing over 11,000 people, with more
than 40% of them being children.)
Two things have led me to question what we are doing and what we are called to do. I’m
writing this letter because I don’t really have any answers yet, just a lot of questions. So, I’m
directing my questions and my moral confusion towards you and the IPWG leaders in hopes of
gaining some clarity.
The first thing that provoked these thoughts was our conversation while walking around the
library mall at the university the morning before your talk, (a conversation I immensely
enjoyed). We got on the subject of the next presidential election and I expressed doubt that it
made any sense to cast a vote for Biden at this point in time. Your response, in Biden’s favor,
was that he had joined a picket line at a union strike.
I’m aware that you have changed your focus to working on domestic issues and I understand
that the rights of labor are important, but the more I reflected on this, the less sense it made.
How does Lunch Bucket Joe joining a picket line for a photo op equate with the genocide of the
Palestinian people? I know you didn’t mean it that way, but it seems to point out the paucity of
our options here in the “land of the free and home of the brave.”
The more I reflected on the horror happening in Gaza and Israel’s settler-colonial project in
Palestine, the more I thought about the nature of colonialism itself. It had never seen so clear
to me before that we in the US are the product of a settler-colonial project. If we are honest,
we have to admit that all our heroic founding fathers, (with the exception of Tom Paine), were
no doubt perpetrators of genocide and slavery. And all of our presidents for the first 100 years
or so were perpetrators of genocide and slavery. Starting around 1900, after most of the locals
and the buffalo had been exterminated, the focus shifted to the oppression and subjugation of
the people of the southern hemisphere. Starting around 2000 or earlier, the focus shifted to
raining hell on the people of the Mideast.
I think it’s noteworthy that most of these US leaders of state were legally elected. But it also
makes me wonder: how many nonviolent movements were there to confront this despicable
history and how many were successful in any sense?
There was an old folksinger-songwriter-humorist named Utah Phillips who was also an
anarchist and a Catholic Worker. Utah had a saying that “if voting could change anything, it
would be illegal.” In my heart, I think he was right.
When we think about violence, war, imperialism, genocide and subjugation of people around
the world, I think it’s fair to ask: Did Clinton change anything? Did the Bush’s change anything?
Did Obama change anything? Did Trump change anything? I think it’s pretty certain that
Genocide Joe isn’t likely to change anything. Kissinger the war criminal is dead now. But Hillary
and Michelle were both sweet on him, so it’s unlikely they would have changed anything if
either were elected president.
We live in a military state. You can see the evidence of it on a national level or here in liberal
Madison, Wisconsin. None of these “electable” people would consider changing that, so long as
we continue to rain violence on the rest of the planet while causing no great inconvenience for
those at home.
The other thing I’m attaching, the other thing that bothers me, is an article I read on my way
out to Maine a couple weeks ago. It’s titled On the Ethics of Violence: From Palestine to Cyprus.
The author is Avgi Saketopoulou, who spent most of his childhood growing up in the island
nation of Cyprus. Cyprus had been a colony of Britain and the Cypriots nonviolently petitioned
the Brits for independence in the 1950s. When their calls for self-determination were ignored,
the Cypriots embarked in a bloody anti-colonial struggle, securing their “independence” in
Independence was a bit of a sham because Britain, Turkey and Greece appointed themselves
the guarantors and Turkey soon invaded. One-third of the island still remains under occupation,
with Turkey controlling the island’s main water resources. It’s all very similar to the Palestinian
situation. After Turkey violated international law and invaded, displacing 162,000 people, the
As the author points out, the UN intervention did nothing to protect refugees, undo the harms
of displacement and occupation, or address war crimes. He writes: “despite explicit
condemnations and the international community’s clear position that the territories stolen by
Turkey are occupied land, the peacekeepers’s ongoing presence on the island did not address
but, in contrast, - backed both conceptually and militarily – the partition between Turkish
invaders and Cypriot land. This is what complicity under the guise of containment looks like,
and this is what the international community’s platitudes about peace and protection often
materially result in.”
I’ve considered myself a pacifist for many years but I’ve never felt completely comfortable with
the term. Perhaps because it sounds so passive. But it was when Saketopoulou began to
address the issue of Palestine that I began to feel challenged in my notions of pacifism and
nonviolence and what it means to me.
“Those of us who have grown up with war, under occupation, and/or with armed conflict, know
in our bodies that running towards the bullets aimed at one’s people and performing refusal –
be it through symptom, decision or volition – is hardly an act of self-destructiveness,” he writes.
“Nor is armed struggle about devaluating life, as Palestinians who are revolting against their
ongoing brutalization and humiliations and those who are refusing to leave their land when told
to evacuate are accused of.”
He continues: “Peace-keeping is not concerned with justice but with containment, with
maintaining the status quo … Nonviolence, yes, but only on one side, which is how nonviolence
ends up working … To hold occupied people to the standard of nonviolence when the same
criterion (of nonviolence) is not expected of occupiers is to condemn the former to slow death.
To do so under the banner of “peace-keeping” is to test rationality, which is why so many of us
who support Palestinian liberation are feeling that in being asked to condemn violence, we are
being asked to endorse Palestinians enduring oppression and abuse peacefully and politely.”
“What violent resistance can do is mount a desperate, last ditch instrumental move in making
colonization into a problem for the colonizer, a problem that the colonizer has to address,” he
says. And later: “Is it just for the international community to expect the Palestinian people to
acquiesce to their subjugation as an overall ban on violence effectively demands? That the
Palestinians’ struggle unfolds under circumstances of subjugation and ongoing oppression
should not be a controversial thing to say – and it isn’t for many people, including many Jewish
people. And their right to defend themselves against occupation is literally spelled out in the
United Nations Plenary meeting of 1980 which reaffirms “the legitimacy of the struggle of
peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and
foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle.”
One thing I think I’m certain about is that a person who is part of the American empire
(whether willingly or not) lacks the moral standing to condemn or criticize people who are
being oppressed for using violence to attempt to free themselves from oppression.
So where does that leave us, who believe nonviolence is the answer, but are snuggled
comfortably inside the belly of the beast like Jonah inside the whale? How do we respond? It
would seem it’s our responsibility to do all within our power to remove the beast from off the
backs of those facing daily violence and oppression.
I don’t believe that electoral politics is even a small part of the solution; I think it’s a big part of
the problem. You cannot lead a military empire and not be a militarist. CODEPINK just reported
that Biden is continuing to stuff his cabinet with militarists and arms-dealers. There were once
two brothers with the last name of Kennedy, good, upstanding, idealistic militarists and
imperialists, who began to publicly question the morality of the US empire. We know what
happened to them. There was a Baptist preacher who did the same. Precisely one year after his
major speech against the Vietnam War, we know what happened to him.
Early this year, I went to a small bookstore-coffee house in Madison to hear someone named
Donald Wagner speak. He was invited by our local Rafah Sister-City group. Before I left, I bought
his book, not aware that he had already written five previous books on Palestinian rights nor
the level of his involvement in Palestinian and Mideast issues. When the current war on Gaza
broke out, I picked up his book and began reading.
It’s called Glory to God in the Lowest: Journeys to an Unholy Land. Most of the journeys
recorded in this personal memoir happened in the 1980s. Wagner was raised as a white,
evangelical Christian and became a Protestant pastor.
He had just brought a delegation of evangelicals to Lebanon in 1982 when Israel attacked that
country and the Palestinian refugee camps there. The group witnessed F-15s and F-16s
dropping bombs made in the USA. They were at the Gaza Hospital in Beirut after Israel had
bombed three clearly-marked UN buses full of high school girls on a field trip. Nineteen of the
girls died and many more were severely injured. They watched later as F-16s bombed a stadium
full of refugees. Over 300 Palestinians and Lebanese civilians were killed that day.
When Wagner returned to the US shortly after, he was interviewed by NBC news in downtown
Chicago, along with a General Shromi of the Israel Defense Forces. “We believe Israel’s ‘Peace
for Galilee operation’ will be the final solution to the Palestinian problem,” the general said
from the NBC studio. “Isn’t that what Hitler and the Nazis said about Jews during the
Holocaust?” Wagner responded.)
Fady Joudah is a Palestinian-American writer, poet and physician who has had more than 50
members of his extended family killed in the assault on Gaza. He published an article on
November 1 titled A Palestinian Meditation in a Time of Annihilation in which he wrote: “In my
dark hours, which increase by the year, I wonder if Israel is unable to examine or defuse its
impulse to test the limits of genocide against the Palestinians because it has not been able to
process the genocide that the Nazis committed against the Jewish people. A genocide that was
made possible by centuries of European antisemitism, pogroms, silence and looking away.”
In the recent article by Meda Benjamin and Nicolas Davies, titled Israeli War Crimes and
Propaganda Follow US Blueprint, they mention several recent US military campaigns such as
dropping over 100,000 bombs and missiles on Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria, and other areas.
The shelling of Raqqa was the heaviest US artillery bombardment since the Vietnam War, yet
was barely covered in the corporate media.
The two authors noted that the US and its allies have dropped more than 350,000 bombs and
missiles on nine countries since 2001 (including 14,000 in the current war on Gaza). This
averages 44 airstrikes a day, day in and day out, for 22 years.
To put it another way, a comedian named Lee Camp, (who recently appeared with Medea
Benjamin, Cornell West and others at an event opposing the war in Gaza), wrote on June 19,
George W. Bush dropped 70,000 bombs on five countries, 24 bombs per day for eight years.
Barack Obama dropped 100,000 bombs on seven countries during his eight years, 34 bombs
Donald Trump, in his first year in office, dropped 44,096 bombs on eight countries, for an
average of 121 per day, or five bombs per hour or one bomb every twelve minutes.
Of course, I don’t think we were actually at war against any of those countries during those
three presidencies; we were just at war against “terrorism”.
Electoral politics gives us two options and neither of them is acceptable. We can “stay the
course” with neoliberal Dems, which translates into more arms for Ukraine, (only the most
conservative Republicans have opposed this), more arms for the many repressive,
undemocratic regimes that are our allies, more interventions and wars, and the ever-increasing
risk of nuclear annihilation. The ceasefire in Israel’s brutal war against Gaza has ended and
Israel can persist in its ultimate goal of eliminating all Palestinians.
The twelve Democratic congresspeople who wrote to Biden asking for a ceasefire were
primarily from southern, conservative states. One from Ohio quietly removed her name from
the letter after signing on. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren couldn’t muster the courage or
common sense to call for a ceasefire, although Sanders subsequently called for a stop in the
flow of weapons to Israel.
Biden says he is running again because Trump is an “existential threat”. The last time he ran it
was “a battle for the soul of the nation”. I think the USA probably lost its soul several centuries
ago and I doubt that Biden can help us find it.
In regards to an “existential threat”, shouldn’t the very real possibility of nuclear war, the
pending doom of planet Earth, and the daily carnage on our streets from gun assaults rank
above Donald Trump?
Yes, Trump is an unhinged neofascist. That’s the other choice in our “democratic” system. But
there may be some benefit and some justice to be gained from this evil of all evils. People may
actually recognize it as evil and decide to take to the streets in resistance. The US has been
supporting undemocratic and fascist regimes around the world for many years and helping to
overthrow democratic governments. Wouldn’t it be better to fight fascism here at home and
give the rest of the world a little peace?
The US and its client states, like Israel, have been routinely committing crimes against
international law and yet, it’s not even a matter for discussion here at home. So how much
worse can it be under Trump?
Maybe the media and all the liberals who slept like Rip Van Winkle during the eight years of the
Obama Administration will wake up and take notice. (Yes, his face was black and he talked so
pretty so there wasn’t any need for us to pay attention to what he was doing. The country was
in good hands.)
Or, as Lee Camp put it:
There was basically a media blackout while Obama was president. You could
count on one hand the number of mainstream media reports on the Pentagon’s
daily bombing campaigns under Obama. And even when the media did mention
it, the underlying sentiment was, “Yeah, but look at how suave Obama is while
he’s OK’ing endless destruction. He’s like the Steve McQueen of aerial death.”
And let’s take a moment to wipe away the idea that our “advanced weaponry”
hits only the bad guys. As David DeGraw put it, “According to the C.I.A.’s own
documents, the people on the ‘kill list,’ who were targeted for ‘death-by-drone,’
accounted for only 2% of the deaths caused by the drone strikes.”
Two percent. Really, Pentagon? You got a two on the test? You get five points
just for spelling your name right.
The amazing resilience of the US empire stems, at least in part, from the fact that both citizens
and the mass media fail to even acknowledge it. The November 16 article by Medea Benjamin
and Nicolas Davies mentions the remarkable speech that British playwright Harold Pinter gave
when receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, in the midst of the Iraq War.
After talking about the hundreds of thousands of killings in Indonesia, Greece,
Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador,
Chile and Nicaragua, Pinter asked: “Did they take place? And are they in all
cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes, they did take place
and they are attributable to American foreign policy,”
“But you wouldn’t know it,” he went on. ”It never happened. Nothing ever
happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It
was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic,
constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about
them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical
manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal
good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”
Gandhi was a brilliant strategist. I think we can all agree on that. But his situation was much
different. He was confronting the British Empire, foreign invaders. We need to confront
ourselves, probably the most powerful and evil empire in human history. How do we take on an
empire that most people (here) don’t even see?
Obviously education needs to be a big part of the strategy. But what manner of nonviolent
action will it require to take down an empire that we partially benefit from while it causes so
much misery and destruction around the world?
It seems like those most responsible for the dominance of militarism and our imperial pursuits
are the US Congress and the arms merchants. How can we effectively pressure them? People
are convinced that a strong military is essential for our “security” and/or that it’s good for the
economy, despite the fact that study after study indicates it’s a poor way to create jobs.
In Madison, Senator Tammy Baldwin and the Chamber of Commerce have been able to
convince people that F-35s and the Air Guard are essential for our local economy even though
the Madison economy is far and away the most vibrant in the state and the airbase has a
negligible economic impact, if any.
My reading of A Force More Powerful leads me to conclude that most successful nonviolent
campaigns around the world were successful by applying strategies of economic pressure:
strikes, boycotts, etc. But how can we best apply economic pressure where it will seriously hurt
the military state? It seems like we need to figure out where our opponent —the military
industrial complex—is weakest, and exert pressure there.
There are some positive signs amidst all the horrible things going on right now. Jewish Voice for
Peace is a shining example of how to resist effectively. More and more people in the US are in
sympathy with the Palestinian cause. The fact that the US just used its vote in the Security
Council to veto a UN vote for a ceasefire has angered more and more countries. Whereas a few
years ago there did not seem to be any peace movement in the US, now there are attempts to
organize statewide and national coalitions to push a peace agenda. How can we best capitalize
on these latest efforts?
Well, I warned you that I don’t have a lot of answers, just a lot of questions.
I’m interested in hearing your response to this, Maria, as well as anyone else who might have
thoughts to share.
P.S. As I finished writing this on Saturday night, I learned that the State Department had just
bypassed Congress to sell $106.5 million worth of tank ammunition to Israel. Antony Blinken
explained that it was in “the US national security interest” (to continue to commit genocide in
Palestine). This is why I no longer consider myself a US citizen. There is no word in the English
language sufficient to describe such a heinous level of immorality.