“Where are the Palestinian Gandhis?” This is the question posed by Julia Bacha, a documentary filmmaker, in her excellent Ted Talk entitled, Pay Attention to Nonviolence.
The answer to her rhetorical question is that there are Palestinian Gandhis. But, as she explains, the media don’t pay much attention to them and thus their effectiveness is sorely limited. I am thrilled to inform you that I’ve had the opportunity to get to know one of these Palestinian Gandhis. And I will do what I can to bring attention to him. His name is Ali Abu Awwad. Before I discuss him, a little background.
How reporters unintentionally foster violence
Bacha makes the well-known psychological point that attention is a powerful tool. Whatever we pay attention to, we get more of. Furthermore, we can only influence people if we get their attention. Attention is also what makes the media so incredibly powerful. Whatever they decide to pay attention to receives power over people’s minds and behavior. They can mold public opinion, influence the decisions of governments, and change the course of history.
Unfortunately, as Bacha points out, the media pays much more attention to violence than nonviolence. Niceness—unless it is particularly unusual—is boring. Violence, on the other hand, is always exciting. Violence stimulates curiosity, creates fear, and inflames passions. People, including news reporters, are drawn to it like moths to a flame.
It is not hard to understand why violence draws more attention than nonviolence. Survival is the overriding need of all living creatures. Survival requires being acutely aware of dangers. We don’t need to fear and protect ourselves from nonviolent people.
Social or political activists seeking publicity have discovered that the most effective means of getting massive amounts of it is through violence. The media doesn’t care if you’re nice. But kill lots of people and they will trample over each other in the competition to get your story out to the world.
Most journalists prefer to view themselves as passive observers who are simply reporting on events without influencing them. But they are really much more than that. They often contribute to or even create the very events they are reporting on. Most violent social activists would not have carried out their act if they didn’t think it would attract reporters.
On a personal level, most of the world’s reporters would love to see conflicts ending in peace. Unfortunately, by focusing on violence, they have been unintentionally contributing to the intractability of peace.
Julia Bacha is therefore calling upon journalists to be socially responsible and publicize the work of nonviolent activists. When activists see that nonviolence succeeds in attracting media attention, many more will use it because they would rather live for their cause than die for it, especially if the nonviolent way brings them better results. I am heeding Bacha’s call and bringing attention to the activities of nonviolent activists.
My primary reason for choosing to live in Tekoa, a village in the hotbed of disputed territories, is to help continue the legacy of its founder, Rabbi Menachem Froman, who died of cancer two years ago. Considered by many to be a hopelessly–and even dangerously–naïve dreamer, his ideas of living in harmony with the Arabs of the region sound to me to be the embodiment of the teachings of all men of peace throughout history. While he never achieved widespread support, even within of his own community, he succeeded in spawning a fair number of dedicated disciples, both Israeli and Arab. One of these disciples is the Palestinian “Gandhi” I mentioned in the opening.
Two necessary traits of a leader
A positive leader must possess two qualities: wisdom and courage. Courage without wisdom easily leads to destruction. On the other hand, wisdom without courage accomplishes nothing.
Ali Abu Awwad is a tall, handsome, charismatic man who looks younger than his 42 years. He speaks Arabic, English, and Hebrew fluently. When listening to Ali speak, one hears true wisdom. But he also has the courage to speak it. Audience members often ask him whether he is aware that he is putting his life in danger (many Palestinians see him as a traitor). He responds that of course he does. But he explains that without pursuing his mission, his life is meaningless. When he is done addressing them, audiences immediately want to know how they can help the cause.
Ali’s conversion to nonviolence
I cannot do Ali’s story justice, as it deserves an entire book. He happens to be working on one: Painful Hope. Keep your eyes open for its publication. Meanwhile, you can learn more about him on his TedX Jerusalem biographical page and listen to his talk.
In short, Ali grew up in a family that was active in violent activism against Israeli occupation. He had done considerable prison time for throwing rocks at soldiers. Far worse, his brother was killed by an Israeli soldier in what began as a verbal spat over respect.
Ali’s instinct was to get revenge. But he came to realize that nothing good was coming of his anger, and no number of dead Israelis could ever bring his brother back.
He had begun learning nonviolent resistance from other Palestinians while in prison, and discovered the effectiveness of leading a hunger strike. He was also affected by meetings between Israelis and Palestinians who had lost family members to violence between the groups. More recently, he entered into dialogue with Rabbi Froman, who he had seen as an enemy “settler,” yet the rabbi influenced him to view the situation and the solution differently. I suspect he may have been responsible for Ali’s most profound transformation, accepting the possibility and even the need for Palestinians and the settlers to work together for mutual respect.
One of Ali’s messages, perhaps inspired by Rabbi Froman, is that each side has his truth, but peace will never be established by trying to prove that your side’s truth is superior to the other side’s. The real truth is there are two sides desperately fighting to prove they are right, and that struggle is an essential part of the problem. As Ali says, “You can be right, or you can be successful.”
The meaning of real peace
While Ali prefers a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, he says that ultimately it doesn’t matter if there is one state or two or three. The only true peace is when neighbors respect and trust each other. This requires direct contact between them. Unfortunately, the hostility of the past few decades has resulted in increasing isolation between Israelis and Palestinians, flaming suspicion and hatred. He related that when he speaks to young Palestinians, many of them are amazed to discover that there even exist Jews who want to live in peace with them.
Ali is not waiting for politicians to solve the problems between the two peoples. Politicians quickly become preoccupied with getting the votes they need to stay in power, and a great way to get those votes is by convincing their constituencies that they are fighting hard on their behalf against their enemy.
Instead, Ali pursues local moral leaders as the key to peace, for they—not the politicians—are the ones people actually look up to and follow. It is essential to get these leaders to accept and promote the mission of peaceful coexistence if there is to be a chance for the general population to accept it. Only when they hear their constituents’ voices calling for peace are the political leaders likely to follow.
Ali’s work, as well as that of others promoting nonviolence, needs to be publicized. Fortunately, it is happening. You can watch a trailer for an upcoming documentary calledA Third Way. You will get to see Rabbi Froman, Ali and others in action. If you like their work, please let others know. That is an easy, free way to be involved in creating peace.
Israel “Izzy” Kalman is Director of Bullies to Buddies, a program that teaches the practical application of the Golden Rule to reduce bullying and aggression and solve relationship problems.