An open letter to Nicholas Kristof

Dear Mr. Kristof,

As an admirer of your work I was excited to see your recent column Waiting for Gandhi about the Palestinian nonviolent struggle; excited to see the nonviolent movement in Palestine finally getting some attention in the mainstream news and relieved to see that the person writing about it was someone who is willing to “put himself out there” in dangerous situations and write with integrity.


Thank you for bringing names like Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi and Ayed Morrar and the town of Budrus to the attention of the American people. And while international law allows for a militarily occupied people to resist by any method at their disposal , it is long past time that American citizens hear about something other than rock throwing and suicide bombings.

Being so glad to see the Palestinian nonviolent movement discussed, I was surprised to find myself still troubled by the column. I couldn’t put my finger on why. After re-reading and discussing and re-reading again I realize it has to do with the assertion that some “Palestinians are dabbling in a strategy of nonviolent resistance” .The term “dabbling” along with the focus on only fairly recent events seems to discredit the long and rich history of nonviolent resistance in Palestine. Sadly, this is a history that has all but been erased from the narrative, which seems to me to make it all that much more important to hold up.

What history one might well ask? I share here but a few examples:

* In 1902, three villages al-Shajara, Misha, and Melhamiyya peacefully protested against the takeover of 7000 hectares of agricultural land by the first Zionist settlers.

* In 1936 Palestinians held a six-month nonviolent industrial strike. The strike, brought about by British Mandate’s refusal to grant self determination to Palestine was designed to make Palestine ungovernable by anyone but the Palestinians themselves.

* In 1986, Hannah Siniora called for Palestinian civic disobedience by boycotting Israel-made cigarettes. This led to a full-scale Palestinian boycott of Israeli soap, food, water, clothes etc. Along with this boycott Hannah Siniora and Mubarak ‘Awad drew a list of civic disobedience activities heavily reliant on boycotting Israeli products and economic self-sufficiency (Interestingly, Mubarak Awad, was a along time advocate in the power of nonviolence and is a self-described disciple of Gandhi who was deported by Israel)

* The 1987-1993 First Intifada was largely conducted nonviolently. Palestinians held mass public demonstrations, refused to pay taxes, (The village of Beit Sahour is an amazing example of this tax resistance.) and sought out local alternatives to Israeli facilities. Mubarak Awad knowing Israeli law prohibited any construction on land dedicated to growing fruit, initiated olive tree planting on Palestinian land about to be confiscated by Israeli settlers.

And as you yourself noted, there is much happening today that is a continuation of this nonviolent struggle. I was glad to see you mention the small village of Bilin, which has become an inspiration to many of us working nonviolently for Justice in Palestine. This small village has held a nonviolent demonstration every week against the theft of their land since approximately 2005.

You noted the stone throwing at the Bilin demonstration. As a pacifist myself I too was troubled by the stone throwing. I am certainly not implying it should not be mentioned. I think, however, that it must be put in context.

I volunteer with a group based in the United States called Michigan Peace Team (MPT). MPT’s role is to send teams trained in nonviolence to places of violence with the goal of protecting human rights and making the space for the local people to resolve the conflict nonviolently. We have been working in Palestine on and off since we began in 1993 and consistently since around 2002.

What we have witnessed is that regardless of stones being thrown or not the response to Palestinian resistance is harsh. Protesters in Bilin are met with Tear gas, Rubber coated steel bullets, “skunk water” , and live ammunitions regardless of if a rock is ever thrown. Additionally night raids on the town with young men being rounded up – regardless of their participation in the demonstrations, detentions, arrest, and torture while in Israeli custody are common.

There are those (Palestinians, Israelis, and Internationals) who argue that rock throwing in the face of such odds is not violent, but an symbolic act of defiance. While I disagree with this analysis personally, I think it is important to note that “hard and fast rules” in nonviolence are rare and well meaning people with good analysis can disagree on what is nonviolent. Gandhi himself referred to nonviolence as “an experiment with truth.”

Finally, I want to note that as well as the organized nonviolent resistance movement in Palestine the very act of living with dignity is an act of resistance in Palestine. In 2002 while in Palestine doing nonviolence training for international solidarity activists I was invited to what can most closely be described as a bridal shower. I vividly recall that unlike an invitation I might receive at home in the US with a time noted the invitation was “ On the first Saturday that there is no curfew we will gather.” There was an alternative location in case the home had been demolished – as a demolition order was pending, and arrangements were made for places for people to stay if curfew was reinstated during the shower.

The women came to the shower and celebrated the upcoming wedding. I realized at that moment that I was participating in an act of nonviolent resistance. “ We will live. We will stay. We will celebrate and mourn together. “ And as long as that spirit continues there is nonviolent resistance in Palestine.

In Peace, Sheri Wander

6 responses to “An open letter to Nicholas Kristof

  1. I apprecaite what you wrote here, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is who the hell is Kristof to tell the Palestininians how to conduct thier liberaton struggle?

  2. Hi Mary! I actully agree with you that noone has the right to tell Palestinians how to conduct thier liberation struggle. I guess I just figured one argument at a time … or one issue per letter or something like that. And I do think it is important to note the long and rich history of NV resistance in Palestine. So, I do hope someone rights that other letter!

  3. “What we have witnessed is that regardless of stones being thrown or not the response to Palestinian resistance is harsh.”

    Yes of course the response is harsh – this is because of the Palestinian bus bombs, mall bombs, rockets and so on. A Hamas rocket hit a medical rehab facility on 8/1/2010. This facility treats all people including Arabs. According to your logic, rocketing rehabilitation centers is legitimate resistance, because your idol Gandhi said that nonviolence as “an experiment with truth.”

    How about I throw rocks at you because I don’t like your ideas? They will hurt when they hit your body. Your blood will spill out, but it will be OK because my rock throwing is simply a “symbolic” act of defiance.

    I’m sorry, but the lack of accountability in your logic is intense and heartbreaking.

  4. Mindy- I think you are taking what she says here out of context. Maybe it is becuase I have the advantage of knowing Sheri so I can read between the lines, but I don’t think she ever said rock throwing is okay. What I believe she said is that she disagrees with the analysis that it is within the context of nonviolence but acknowledges there are those who feel otherwise. I also think she is speaking of rock throwing in the context of demonstrations. Rocks thrown at tanks and armored jeeps and soldiers in protective riot gear from a distance that makes their being hit highly unlikely.

  5. Hi Mindy and Jeff, Thanks for joining in the discussion!

    Jeff, you did get the context in which I was speaking, and yes – this maybe because you’ve had to listen to me go on and on about this all before 😀

    Mindy, thank you for pushing me to be more clear! I, * personally * do think rock throwing is violent.

    I also think context matters.

    And in this case I was referring to the rock throwing that occurs at demonstrations – rocks against tanks. Rocks against jeeps. Rocks against riot gear. No — I am not arguing it is “okay”…. I am pointing out — or at least I was trying — that even between those deeply committed to nonviolence there is a diversity of opinions.

    I sort of wish I hadn’t mentioned it because the main point of the post seems to have gotten lost in the conversation. For me, anyhow, the main point is that Palestinians are not “dabbling” in nonviolent resistance but that they have a long and rich history of nonviolent resistance including boycotts, tax resistance, public witness etc. etc.

  6. @ Playfulspirit: The Palestinians’ history of inflicting hideous pain and death on innocent civilians is much longer time-wise and definitely more impactful than their “rich history of nonviolent resistance.” If Gaza would truly embrace nonviolence there would be no “siege.” It’s a fact.

    @ Jeff: “Rocks thrown at tanks and armored jeeps and soldiers in protective riot gear from a distance that makes their being hit highly unlikely.” I guess that makes it OK, I mean if the diminished likelihood of being hit is the context. Maybe the rock-throwers should make an announcement that their rocks won’t make contact and that’ll make the IDF go away. Yeah.

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