Nonviolent Resistance in the West Bank: A Review of Budrus

Sometimes when there’s no news, that’s the real news. When the documentary film Budrus, a chronicle of nonviolent resistance in occupied Palestine, opened in the U.S., I was asked to write about the response in both the Jewish and secular press. I’ve looked high and low, but I just can’t find much of a stir.

No stir, no news. And that’s the important story about Budrus.

The protesters who star in the film resist the obvious injustice of the occupation and the Israeli-built wall, which separates them from—or simply uproots—the olive trees they depend on for their livelihood. And they do it without violence (apart from some stone-throwing by teen boys who defy their elders’ pleas to stop). Perhaps their nonviolence did not “melt the stoniest heart,” as Gandhi predicted it would; at least not yet. But they, and the filmmakers who framed their efforts, seem to have melted the knee-jerk opposition that sympathy for the Palestinian cause usually evokes on the American political right.

The positive reception of Budrus in the U.S. says a lot about the political climate today. The right-wing “pro-Israel” movement (I prefer to call it the “Israel right or wrong” movement, since its war cries don’t support Israel’s best interests) is going through a tough time. It has always built its public appeal on one simple narrative: Israel wants peace, but it must fight to ward off implacable violence from its enemies. Anything Israel does is justified because it’s in self-defense.

The crisis comes from the unavoidable truth that Palestinian violence is now directed almost entirely against Jews encroaching on the West Bank: building settlements and a wall, intruding on land that the Palestinians and the international community say the Jews have no right to occupy. Who wouldn’t fight back against such intruders, as the villagers of Budrus ask, especially when the settlers’ violence against Palestinians continues to mount? But as long as Jews stay within the pre-1967 borders of their state, they are now almost completely safe from attack by politically-motivated Arabs.

It’s ein andere welt—a totally different world, as my Yiddish-speaking grandmother liked to say. Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority’s increasingly popular and influential prime minister, is leading a growing commitment to nonviolence in the West Bank. (The film shows Fayyad briefly visiting Budrus to bolster the nonviolent resistance.) Hamas leaders, though they won’t make that commitment yet in principle, have imposed a de facto ban on violence from Gaza that has been impressively successful.

What, then, can the right-wing apologists for Israeli violence complain about? Their new favorite is “delegitimization”—the use of words and economic and diplomatic actions to weaken the Jewish state and challenge its right to exist. But there’s no way to lay that charge against the villagers of Budrus. They challenge only the right of the Israeli-built wall to exist and the right of Israeli soldiers to destroy the precious olive groves.

With a film that portrays Palestinians so obviously justified in their actions, so gracious and even joyful, so quick to flash their beautiful smiles, what can the “Israel right or wrong” lobby criticize?  One can almost hear them now responding to Budrus by saying, with Job, “I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.”

Of course it’s hardly that simple. They will answer again and proceed further on many other aspects of the Israel-Palestine issue, from many other angles, every chance they get. But to know that even occasionally they can be silenced is most encouraging. That’s why the silence is the news.

Silence from the right opens up space for the advocates of peace and justice in Palestine to speak more loudly. What will they say? To find out, the New York Times’ top Israel correspondent, Ethan Bronner, went to a showing of the film in Nablus. He ended his coverage by noting that “much of the discussion centered on whether nonviolence was an implicit attack on ‘legitimate armed struggle’ and whether joining with Israeli activists was an illicit act of ‘normalization’—meaning granting recognition of Israel.”

Bronner concluded by quoting one participant in the Budrus actions who said, “It is obvious that the filmmaker was not there. The movie represents what happened as more nonviolent that it really was,” and then another Palestinian activist who opined: “Our enemy is so violent that he doesn’t give us a chance to be nonviolent. So it is no wonder that Palestinians do not believe in nonviolence.”

The insidious twist is obvious enough to raise immediate objections: An article about filmed proof of nonviolence ends up perpetuating the old stereotype of “the violent Palestinians.” What’s less obvious, and less likely to raise objections, is Bronner’s underlying assumption: Above all, Americans want to know whether the Palestinians have really committed to a strictly nonviolent struggle and whether they should, whether that approach will gain their independence. The same questions framed his colleague Nick Kristof’s reporting from the West Bank, when he lamented that Palestinians were still “waiting for Gandhi.”

If Gandhi himself could reappear, though, he would surely suggest that those are the wrong questions for Americans to ask. They’re the right questions for Palestinians to ask. But Gandhian nonviolence is not about urging others to change their ways. As the Mahatma always pointed out, we cannot control the choices of others in any case. All we can control is our own choices.

So telling other people what to do, how to live their lives, or even how to resist oppression doesn’t fit Gandhi’s vision of nonviolence. Ahimsa is only about talking among ourselves, changing our own ways, and living our own lives according to the moral truth as we see it. Budrus is an impressive documentary record of people trying and largely succeeding in doing just that.

The question that their achievement should raise in our minds is not what the Palestinians should do. The question is what we should do—what the United States should do in its relations with Palestine.

For when we watch this film in the U.S., we are far more than merely a passive audience. We are among the actors right there in the middle of the conflict, even if we remain invisible on the screen. The wall that Israel is building and the soldiers who try to protect it are scarcely imaginable without decades of virtually unlimited US support for Israel’s occupation policies, support given with our tax dollars and the consent of our body politic. In the U.S., Budrus is a mirror, showing us what we are doing every day in the West Bank.

It is easy to forget that truth, to walk out of Budrus with a warm glow in our hearts, admiring the courage we’ve just seen, cheering for the Palestinians to commit themselves more fully to nonviolence. It may well be their wisest tactic, their surest path to independence. Yet Gandhi would caution us that nonviolence, as he understood it, was not a tactic to gain a goal. It was a total way of life—the only way, he insisted, to live in moral truth. (And in fact the film focuses much more on the villagers’ process of resistance than on their victory in moving the wall, which comes as something of a P.S. tacked on at the end.) 

Gandhi may have been right or wrong. It’s up to each of us to make that decision for ourselves. Budrus can be a mirror that reflects who we are as a nation and who we might be, confronting us with the possibility of choosing a different set of national policies toward the Middle East conflict.

No one can, or should, compel us to choose new policies. That would be the very opposite of nonviolence in the Gandhian sense, since it would deny our essential freedom. But feeling compelled to recognize that we are complicit in the evil, and that we must make a choice one way or the other, is the very essence of nonviolence. Watching the people of Budrus wrestle with life-and-death choices on the screen can be a profound experience if it leads us to wrestle with the same kind of choices after we leave the theater.

After I left the theater I found myself wrestling with another question, too—the final question that Gandhi and his American disciple, Dr. King, posed to all of us: Can we love those who persecute us? The film scarcely raises the question of whether anyone in Budrus could love the Israeli soldiers.

Again, though, the question of Palestinian choices is not our question. We must ask whether we ourselves can love the Israeli Jews—who are, in my case, my own people—as they continue every day to perpetrate the evil. That is the most difficult question of all.