Can Nonviolence Change the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict?

As peace talks begin, President Obama should see "Budrus," a film that captures a case where Palestinians borrowed tactics from the civil rights movement.

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Palestinian women sit amid Budrus olive groves in Dec. 2003 to protest building of
barrier. (David Silverman/Getty Images)

Analyzing the relative dearth of monetary aid to the victims of recent flooding in Pakistan, experts theorized that Americans were being tight with donations partly because the crisis was so distant -- both literally and culturally. It's a fact of life that if people can't empathize with a problem on a very visceral level, it's unlikely they'll exert any effort to help combat that problem. Consider the most famous scene in John Grisham's A Time to Kill, in which defense attorney Jake Brigance vilifies two dead neo-Nazi rapists by asking the all-white jury to imagine that their rape victim had been a little white girl, not a little black girl.

Strangely, though this tactic of paralleling anguish is effective -- if not original -- few have tried it to engender African-American support for Palestinians in recent decades, despite the fact that there are pertinent experiences shared by the two groups. A new film that made waves at this year's Jerusalem International Film Festival, Budrus, may change all that.

In recent years, human rights activists around the world have looked for ways to get Americans interested in the infamous Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With so many miles between the U.S. and the West Bank, and such little understanding of the struggles "over there," it can be difficult to attract Americans -- Gentile ones, at least -- to the discussion. Two decades ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other African Americans were more deeply involved in the Middle East and Palestinian issue. Andrew Young, while America's U.N. ambassador, was fired in 1979 for holding unauthorized conversations with the PLO. But such involvement faded in recent years.

Earlier this year, celebrated South African peacemaker Desmond Tutu congratulated students at UC-Berkeley for their decision to divest the university's money "from companies that enable and profit from the injustice of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and violation of Palestinian human rights." Tutu then went on to compare the Palestinian cause to that of black South Africans during apartheid, a campaign once eagerly adopted by both American civilians and its government.

"I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid," wrote Tutu in a letter to Berkeley student leaders. "I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government."

Replace "South Africa" with "the South" and "Apartheid" with "Jim Crow" and Tutu's words could generate renewed sympathy -- even more so when one hears the story of the Palestinian village of Budrus.

Using nonviolent, sit-in-style tactics popular during the American civil rights movement, Morrar unites men, women, Fatah, Hamas and even Israelis to stage protests and push back the interlopers, all without the use of arms. As Israeli soldiers club men and women who are doing nothing but singing and chanting while strategically blocking the path of bulldozers, it's hard for one's mind not to wander to visions of Bull Connor ordering out the fire hoses. Still, after more than 50 organized, peaceful demonstrations, the 1,400 residents of Budrus force Israel to reroute its barrier well away from the tiny town.

The similarities between Budrus and, say, Birmingham are not lost on Israeli citizen Ronit Avni, who produced the documentary about Budrus' victory. "Although the context is different and the ultimate aims are different," she says, "the idea of an asymmetric struggle -- where one group is saying, 'We need to assert our rights without arms and expose the oppressive behavior of our opponents in the process in order for them to change' -- that's all the same."

The correlation to the American civil rights movement was perhaps most palpable when, after a screening of Budrus in Washington, D.C., Democratic congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis got a chance to meet Morrar. Though born thousands of miles apart, both men had been beaten and jailed while fighting for their freedom.

Avni says that though Palestinians have been using nonviolent methods for years (and though 70 percent of Palestinian youth oppose violent conflict with Israel, according to the U.N.) the press frequently chooses instead to concentrate on the embroiled region's fringe groups, particularly Hamas. "Palestinians have used nonviolence since the '20s and '30s, and certainly during the first intifada," she says. "But that doesn't make the nightly news. The first intifada was characterized by sit-ins and strikes -- and also people throwing Molotov cocktails. But the first part of that never made the headlines."

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