A Meditation on Revolution

From Tel Aviv to Baghdad, a lifelong peace activist remembers why true transformation comes from the power of nonviolence.
Tahrir Square father and daughter photo by Kodak Agfa

Tahrir Square, February 2011.

Photo by Kodak Agfa.

The first time I remember being in a very large crowd and feeling that I really belonged was in 1982. 

Several months before, Israel had invaded Lebanon. I had heard rumors of a massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut as I walked to work in Israel. My Israeli coworker's attitude, as he told me, was troubling. He was not bothered that Israel might have done something wrong—only that Israel would get blamed. 

The next Saturday, my Israeli wife and I made the hour-long trip from Haifa to Tel Aviv for a protest. We got early seats at an outside table at one of the European-style pastry shops that surround this big square, where Yitzhak Rabin was later assassinated. It was like a huge family gathering.  People poured in from all over the country; there were hugs and kisses and greetings of friends who hadn't seen each other in years.

Our addiction to violence has so accustomed us to public statements justifying our wars that we often don't even notice that we no longer believe them.

A reported 400,000 Israelis showed up for this protest, representing about 10 percent of the entire Jewish population of Israel at the time. Imagine how we would feel if 10 percent of Americans—more than 30 million—came out to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

After the rally we walked by one Israeli man who stood atop a flat-bed truck taunting the crowd, jeering, “Begin, Begin, (Menahim Begin), King of Israel!”  I felt so much at ease that I didn't hesitate to turn to the crowd and say, “Just ignore him!”

It was there that I first experienced the power that Gandhi called truth force—a liberating exuberance that I would recognize again this year as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square demanded that their voices be heard. As Adrienne Maree Brown wrote in YES! Magazine of her own reaction, "My heart is bursting from my chest today, tears on my cheeks, my skin covered in waves and waves of goosebumps as my body integrates the beautiful revolution in Egypt." I felt just the same way.

But 21 years after my first truth force awakening in Tel Aviv, I watched Baghdad's Firdos Square during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the contrast could not have been greater.

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Firdos Square is a large traffic circle with multiple lanes of cars racing around a center that used to host a huge statue of Saddam Hussein. The U.S. military pulled down that statue and the scene was shown over and over on American television. Even though there were only a few hundred people there, the media played up the event of the toppled statue as if all of Iraq embraced the U.S. as liberators.

I knew better. I'd seen the great suffering of the Iraqi people firsthand during the preceding years of sanctions.

On my nine trips to Iraq, bringing medicines to ailing hospitals, I would stay at one of two hotels only a block away from Firdos Square. It was well known to me. 

During these trips, I used to bring delegation members to these hospitals to show what conditions were like. We regularly saw water-borne diseases, a lack of medicine, and limited electricity. In one hospital the doctor showing us around got on the elevator with a flashlight. There was a shortage of light bulbs because of sanctions and the elevator was completely dark.

I knew this was due to the U.S. bombing of virtually all of Iraq's electric plants during the 1991 Gulf War—followed by 12 devastating years of economic sanctions.

The tragedy of these sanctions is embodied, for me, in the memory of a very sweet young girl—she must have been around 8 years old—sitting on a hospital bed with her mother beside her.  Because Iraq was prevented from selling oil, there was no money to pay nurses. This young girl had childhood leukemia, a form of cancer which has a very high cure rate in the U.S. with proper medication.  In Iraq the cure rate was about zero. There were few cancer medicines available. I asked the doctor what this very poor family would have done before sanctions.  He told me the medicines would have been free for them. “Free as water,” he said.

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If you want to understand what regime change by force versus regime change by an uprising of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent people looks like, this is it. In essence, it's violence versus nonviolence. We don't yet know what the final outcome in Egypt will be, but we can see the results in Iraq after twenty years of U.S.-led efforts: immense suffering and many hundreds of thousands of deaths from sanctions and invasion.

Gandhi once said that there is a coin with “nonviolence” written on one side and “truth” on the other.  I think we have become accustomed to a different coin, with “violence” on one side and “untruth” on the other.  Our addiction to violence has so accustomed us to public statements justifying our wars that we often don't even notice that we no longer believe them.

Violence shows a lack of imagination. It's time to get serious about imaginative nonviolence.


  • Seven reasons we're always at war ... and seven ways to quit.

  • For decades, School of the Americas Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois has argued that embracing militarism will never bring us the security we seek. But he thinks he knows what will.

  • A video primer from Al Jazeera for would-be nonviolent revolutionaries everywhere. 
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