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Pacifist not passive: Opposing militarism with active nonviolence

Pacifist not passive: Opposing militarism with active nonviolence

On the streets of Britain right now, we are witnessing the largest anti-war demonstrations since the Iraq war. The national march, taking place today, Remembrance Day, is experiencing an unprecedented backlash from politicians and right-wing commentators, with Rishi Sunak branding the protests an insult to British war dead.

At a moment of incendiary and divisive language by the British government, and when Israeli Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu claims the use of nuclear weapons on Gaza is an option, the urgency to forge a different path is clear. Rarely has the link between two issues been contested so strongly: remembrance and the need to struggle for peace.

The Peace Pledge Union (PPU), one of Britain’s oldest pacifist organisations, supports calls for an immediate ceasefire and release of hostages, and moves towards permanent and genuine peace between Israel and Palestine. Ending occupation and apartheid will be critical to this process.

We are distributing white poppies at Saturday’s demonstration, with the loss of life in Israel and Palestine at the forefront of our minds. We also remember all victims of war beyond this conflict — victims of all nationalities, with our remembrance linked to a commitment to peace and a rejection of militarism. On Remembrance Sunday we will, as usual, conduct our Alternative Remembrance Ceremony, where we will bring together voices connected to Israel and Palestine. Their testimony adds to our determination to work for a more peaceful future.

The PPU’s understanding of remembrance makes clear that “Never again” is for anyone and everyone. However, when Sunak claims a ceasefire demonstration on Armistice Day is “not just disrespectful but offends our heartfelt gratitude to the memory of those who gave so much so that we may live in peace and freedom today,” his understanding of “we” is far less universal.

Pacifism and remembrance are not passive, but thoroughly active endeavours. Peace itself is similarly active; it is not the absence of resistance but the presence of justice. The phrase “Never again” ought to embody this too: lessons from the past writing promises to the future. It seems, however, that this logic has become (intentionally) mislaid by some. Since the furore around this weekend’s demonstration has unfolded, many have reminded Sunak that Armistice Day marks the 1918 cessation of hostilities — literally a ceasing of fire — and is, therefore, an absolutely appropriate day to assert the right for others to also enjoy peace and freedom.

Military “solutions” to violent conflict will not magically resolve into peace. War cannot be solved by more war. However, among clear evidence of war crimes and mounting accusations of genocide, the British government continues to supply Israel with arms. Sunak has also deployed military force — air, land and sea — to the region to “promote de-escalation” and “reinforce regional stability” in support of Israel. This militarist mentality conversely serves to escalate conflict and increase loss of life. There is a blatant contradiction in claiming to defend the rights of (state-sanctioned) remembrance while providing military and political support for a government contravening international law.

The Peace Pledge Union denounces this logic, and not just in relation to Israel-Palestine. Militarism extends far beyond the confines of war crimes. In among a cost-of-living crisis, Britain has one of the world’s highest military expenditures. But security does not come from weapons; “defence” spending won’t defend us from poverty, pandemics and climate breakdown.

Multilayered political posturing seems to lie at the heart of Sunak’s denunciation of this Saturday’s demonstration: a manipulation of public sentiment over remembrance to distract from and delegitimise the calls of the protests, and his refusal to back a ceasefire; an effort to appease the more fervently right-wing members of his party in order to cling to the premiership; and an attempt to further restrict the right to protest — a right which forms part of the very democratic freedoms he claims to champion.

It is acutely painful to see such callous and self-serving political manoeuvring while people lose their lives under rubble. The clear hypocrisy of the British government’s rhetoric, including the branding of ceasefire protests as “hate marches,” is helping fuel the non-violent resistance movement growing around demands for ceasefire.

Across Britain — and the world — hundreds of thousands have been taking to the streets, sitting down en masse in train stations, and shutting down arms factories. For many, this will be the first time experiencing that intangible electricity of raising their voice with others in the name of peace and justice. They defy the inhumanity of their supposed leaders by asserting their own humanity, and the humanity of others. This is true solidarity and a clear call for peace not war. Among others, Jewish voices for peace have been making themselves heard, with large Jewish bloc expected on Saturday’s march.

The PPU has been resisting war and the causes of war since 1934. We don’t believe in waiting for politicians and generals to take the lead. We believe change comes from below. Our campaigns focus on countering everyday militarism, promoting active non-violence and educating for peace, including providing educational resources on issues such as non-violent conflict resolution and the causes of war. We challenge systems, practices and policies that fuel war and militarism and that contribute to the view that armed force is an effective agent of social change. Such beliefs impede the emergence of non-violent approaches to conflict. Overcoming cycles of violence can only be achieved through non-violent means, through a removal of the underlying causes of violence and commitment to building peace through meaningful dialogue. Only this will truly ensure that we never again experience unfathomable loss of life through war. We can — and should — all take part in this active remembering.

War will end when people refuse to go along with it. We refuse; and we are being joined by more voices. They swirl through the streets, growing louder and harder to ignore.