Regional Programs > Israel
& Palestine > Next Story
Let's Start with Risk
Susan Sontag, USA
March 30, 2003
Allow me to invoke not one but two, only two, who were heroes—among
millions of heroes. Who were victims—among tens of millions of
The first: Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, murdered in his vestments, while saying mass in the cathedral on March 24,
1980—twenty-three years ago—because he had become "a vocal advocate of a just peace, and had openly opposed the forces of violence and oppression." (I am quoting from the description of the Oscar Romero Award, being given today to Ishai Menuchin.)
The second: Rachel Corrie, a twenty-three-year-old college student from Olympia, Washington, murdered in the bright neon-orange jacket with Day-Glo striping that "human shields" wear to make themselves quite visible, and possibly safer, while trying to stop one of the almost daily house demolitions by Israeli forces in Rafah, a town in the southern Gaza Strip (where Gaza abuts the Egyptian border), on March 16, 2003—two weeks ago. Standing in front of a Palestinian physician's house that had been targeted for demolition, Corrie, one of eight young American and British human-shield volunteers in Rafah, had been waving and shouting at the driver of an oncoming armored D-9 bulldozer through her megaphone, then dropped to her knees in the path of the super-sized bulldozer . . . which did not slow down.
Two emblematic figures of sacrifice, killed by the forces of violence
and oppression to which they were offering non-violent, principled,
Let's start with risk. The risk of being punished. The risk of being
isolated. The risk of being injured or killed. The risk of being scorned.
We are all conscripts in one sense or another. For all of us, it is
hard to break ranks; to incur the disapproval, the censure, the violence of
an offended majority with a different idea of loyalty. We shelter under
banner-words like justice, peace, reconciliation that enroll us in new, if
much smaller and relatively powerless communities of the like-minded. That mobilize us for the demonstration, the protest, the public performance of acts of civil disobedience—not for the parade ground and the battlefield.
To fall out of step with one's tribe; to step beyond one's tribe into a
world that is larger mentally but smaller numerically—if alienation or
dissidence is not your habitual or gratifying posture, this is a complex,
It is hard to defy the wisdom of the tribe: the wisdom that values the
lives of members of the tribe above all others. It will always be
unpopular—it will always be deemed unpatriotic—to say that the lives of the members of the other tribe are as valuable as one's own.
It is easier to give one's allegiance to those we know, to those we see,
to those with whom we are embedded, to those with whom we
share—as we may—a community of fear.
Let's not underestimate the force of what we oppose. Let's not
underestimate the retaliation that may be visited on those who dare to
dissent from the brutalities and repressions thought justified by the fears
of the majority.
We are flesh. We can be punctured by a bayonet, torn apart by a suicide
bomber. We can be crushed by a bulldozer, gunned down in a cathedral.
Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires
communities: the courage of an example—for courage is as contagious as
fear. But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave.
The perennial destiny of principles: while everyone professes to have
them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing.
Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with
accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions—who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.
The standard that a society should actually embody its own professed
principles is a utopian one, in the sense that moral principles contradict
the way things really are—and always will be. How things really
are—and always will be—is neither all-evil nor all-good but deficient,
inconsistent, inferior. Principles invite us to do something about the
morass of contradictions in which we function morally. Principles invite us to clean up our act; to become intolerant of moral laxity and compromise and cowardice and the turning away from what is upsetting: that secret gnawing of the heart that tells us that what we are doing is not right, and so counsels us that we'd be better off just not thinking about it.
The cry of the anti-principled: "I'm doing the best I can." The best
given the circumstances, of course.
Let's say, the principle is: it's wrong to oppress and humiliate a whole
people. To deprive them systematically of lodging and proper nutrition; to
destroy their habitations, means of livelihood, access to education and
medical care, and ability to consort with one another.
That these practices are wrong, whatever the provocation.
And there is provocation. That, too, should not be denied.
At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great
models of resistance: the great stories of those who have said No. No, I
will not serve.
What models, what stories? A Mormon may resist the outlawing of
polygamy. An anti-abortion militant may resist the law that has made
abortion legal. They, too, will invoke the claims of religion (or faith)
and morality—against the edicts of civil society. Appeal to the
existence of a higher law that authorizes us to defy the laws of the state
can be used to justify criminal transgression as well as the noblest
struggle for justice.
Courage has no moral value in itself, for courage is not, in itself, a
moral virtue. Vicious scoundrels, murderers, terrorists may be brave. To
describe courage as a virtue, we need an adjective: we speak of "moral
courage"—because there is such a thing as amoral courage, too.
And resistance has no value in itself. It is the content of the
resistance that determines its merit, its moral necessity.
Let's say: resistance to a criminal war. Let's say: resistance to the
occupation and annexation of another people's land.
Again: there is nothing inherently superior about resistance. All
our claims for the righteousness of resistance rest on the rightness of the
claim that the resisters are acting in the name of justice. And the justice
of the cause does not depend on, and is not enhanced by, the virtue of those
who make the assertion. It depends first and last on the truth of a
description of a state of affairs which is, truly, unjust and unnecessary.
Here is what I believe to be a truthful description of a state of
affairs that has taken me many years of uncertainty, ignorance, and
anguish, to acknowledge.
A wounded and fearful country, Israel is going through the greatest
crisis of its turbulent history, brought about by the policy of steadily
increasing and reinforcing settlements on the territories won after its
victory in the Arab war on Israel in 1967. The decision of successive
Israeli governments to retain control over the West Bank and Gaza, thereby denying their Palestinian neighbors a state of their own, is a catastrophe—moral, human, and political—for both peoples. The Palestinians need a sovereign state. Israel needs a sovereign Palestinian state. Those of us abroad who wish for Israel to survive cannot, should not, wish it to survive no matter what, no matter how. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to courageous Israeli Jewish witnesses, journalists, architects, poets, novelists, professors—among others—who have described and documented and protested and militated against the sufferings of the Palestinians living under the increasingly cruel terms of Israeli military subjugation and settler annexation.
Our greatest admiration must go to the brave Israeli soldiers,
represented here by Ishai Menuchin, who refuse to serve beyond the 1967
borders. These soldiers know that all settlements are bound to be evacuated in the end. These soldiers, who are Jews, take seriously the principle put forward at the Nuremberg trials in 1946: namely, that a soldier is not obliged to obey unjust orders, orders which contravene the laws of war—indeed, one has an obligation to disobey them.
The Israeli soldiers who are resisting service in the Occupied
Territories are not refusing a particular order. They are refusing to enter
the space where illegitimate orders are bound to be given—that is, where
it is more than probable that they will be ordered to perform actions that
continue the oppression and humiliation of Palestinian civilians. Houses
are demolished, groves are uprooted, the stalls of a village market are
bulldozed, a cultural center is looted; and now, nearly every day, civilians
of all ages are fired on and killed. There can be no disputing the mounting
cruelty of the Israeli occupation of the 22 percent of the former territory
of British Palestine on which a Palestinian state will be erected. These
soldiers believe, as I do, that there should be an unconditional withdrawal
from the Occupied Territories. They have declared collectively that they
will not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders "in order to dominate,
expel, starve and humiliate an entire people."
What the refuseniks have done (there are now around eleven hundred of
them, more than two hundred and fifty of whom have gone to prison) does
not contribute to tell us how the Israelis and Palestinians can make
peace—beyond the irrevocable demand that the settlements be disbanded. The actions of this heroic minority cannot contribute to the much needed reform and democratization of the Palestinian Authority. Their stand will not lessen the grip of religious bigotry and racism in Israeli society or reduce the dissemination of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda in the aggrieved Arab world. It will not stop the suicide bombers.
It simply declares: enough. Or: there is a limit. Yesh gvul.
It provides a model of resistance. Of disobedience. For which there
will always be penalties.
None of us has yet to endure anything like what these brave conscripts
are enduring, many of whom have gone to jail.
To speak for peace at this moment in this country is merely to be jeered (as in the recent Academy Awards ceremony), harassed, blacklisted (the banning by the most powerful chain of radio stations of the Dixie Chicks); in short, to be reviled as unpatriotic.
Our "United We Stand" or "Winner Takes All" ethos . . . the United States
is a country which has made patriotism equivalent to consensus.
Tocqueville, still the greatest observer of the United States, remarked on a unprecedented degree of conformity in the then new country, and a hundred and sixty-eight more years have only confirmed his observation.
Sometimes, given the new, radical turn in American foreign policy, it
seems as if it was inevitable that the national consensus on the greatness
of America, which may be activated to an extraordinary pitch of triumphalist national self-regard, was bound eventually to find expression in wars like the present one, which are assented to by a majority of the population, who have been persuaded that America has the right—even the duty—to dominate the world.
The usual way of heralding people who act on principle, is to say that
they are the vanguard of an eventually triumphant revolt against injustice.
But what if they're not?
What if the evil is really unstoppable? At least in the short run. And
that short run may be, is going to be, very long indeed.
My admiration for the soldiers who are resisting service in the Occupied Territories is as fierce as my belief that it will be a long time before their view prevails.
But what haunts me at this moment—for the obvious reason—is
acting on principle when it isn't going to alter the obvious distribution of
force, the rank injustice and murderousness of a government's policy that
claims to be acting in the name not of peace but of . . . security.
The force of arms has its own logic. If you commit an aggression and
others resist, it is easy to convince the home front that the fighting must
continue. Once the troops are there, they must be supported. It becomes
irrelevant to question why the troops are there in the first place.
The soldiers are there because "we" are being attacked; or menaced.
Never mind that we may have attacked them first. They are now attacking
back, causing casualties. Behaving in ways that defy the "proper" conduct
of war. Behaving like "savages," as people in our part of the world like to
call people in that part of the world. And their "savage" or "unlawful"
actions give new justification to new aggressions. And new impetus to
repress or censor or persecute citizens who oppose the aggression which the government has undertaken.
Let's not underestimate the force of what we are opposing.
The world is, for almost everyone, that over which we have virtually no
control. Common sense and the sense of self-protectiveness tell us to
accommodate to what we cannot change.
It's not hard to see how some of us might be persuaded of the justice,
the necessity of a war. Especially of a war that is formulated as a small,
limited military action which will actually contribute to peace or improved security; of an aggression which announces itself as a campaign of disarmament—admittedly, disarmament of the enemy; and, regrettably,
requiring the application of overpowering force. An invasion which calls
itself, officially, a liberation.
Every violence in war has been justified as a retaliation. We are
threatened. We are defending ourselves. The others, they want to kill us.
We must stop them.
And from there: we must stop them before they have a chance to carry out their plans. And since those who would attack us are sheltering behind non-combatants, no aspect of civil life can be immune to our depredations.
Never mind the disparity of forces, of wealth, of firepower—or
simply of population. How many Americans know that the population of the Iraq is 24 million, half of whom are children? (The population of the
United States, as you will remember, is 290 million.) Not to support those
who are coming under fire from the enemy seems like treason.
It may be that, in some cases, the threat is real.
In such circumstances, the bearer of the moral principle seems like
someone running alongside a moving train, yelling "Stop! Stop!"
Can the train be stopped? No, it can't. At least, not now.
Will other people on the train be moved to jump off and join those on
the ground? Maybe some will, but most won't. (At least, not until they have a whole new panoply of fears.)
The dramaturgy of "acting on principle" tells us that we don't have to
think about whether acting on principle is expedient, or whether we can
count on the eventual success of the actions we have undertaken.
Acting on principle is, we're told, a good in itself.
But it is still a political act, in the sense that you're not doing it
for yourself. You don't do it just to be in the right, or to appease your
own conscience; much less because you are confident your action will achieve its aim. You resist as an act of solidarity. With communities of the principled and the disobedient: here, elsewhere. In the present. In the
Thoreau's going to prison in 1846 for refusing to pay the poll tax in
protest against the American war on Mexico hardly stopped the war. But the resonance of that most unpunishing and briefest spell of imprisonment
(famously, a single night in jail) has not ceased to inspire principled
resistance to injustice through the second half of the twentieth century and into our new era. The movement in the late 1980s to shut down the Nevada Test Site, a key location for the nuclear arms race, failed in its goal; the operations of the test site were unaffected by the protests. But it directly inspired the formation of a movement of protesters in far away Alma Ata, who eventually succeeded in shutting down the main Soviet test site in Kazakhstan, citing the Nevada antinuclear activists as their inspiration and expressing solidarity with the Native Americans on whose land the Nevada Test Site had been located.
The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice
does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.
Thus: It is not in the best interests of Israel to be an oppressor.
Thus: it is not in the best interests of the United States to be a
hyperpower, capable of imposing its will on any country in the world, as it
What is in the true interests of a modern community is justice.
It cannot be right to systematically oppress and confine a neighboring
people. It is surely false to think that murder, expulsion, annexations,
the building of walls—all that has contributed to the reducing of a whole
people to dependence, penury, and despair—will bring security and peace
to the oppressors.
It cannot be right that a president of the United States seems to
believe that he has a mandate to be president of the planet—and
announces that those who are not with America are with "the terrorists."
Those brave Israeli Jews who, in fervent and active opposition to the
policies of the present government of their country, have spoken up on
behalf of the plight and the rights of Palestinians, are defending the true
interests of Israel. Those of us who are opposed to the plans of the
present government of the United States for global hegemony are patriots
speaking for the best interests of the United States.
Beyond these struggles, which are worthy of our passionate adherence, it is important to remember that in programs of political resistance the
relation of cause and effect is convoluted, and often indirect. All
struggle, all resistance is—must be—concrete. And all struggle has
a global resonance.
To Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.
To Rachel Corrie.
And to Ishai Menuchin and his comrades.
Susan Sontag is an author and human rights activist.
The above keynote speech was delivered in Houston, Texas, on March 30, 2003, on the occasion of the presentation of The Rothko Chapel Oscar Romero Award to Ishai Menuchin, Chairman of Yesh Gvul (There Is a Limit), the Israeli soldiers' movement for selective refusal.