Civil disobedience (JERUSALEM POST OP-ED) By ARIEH ELDAD 05/30/12)
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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18-century thinker whose ideas form the
basis of modern democracy, warned in On the Social Contract of the
danger that a majority might sometimes favor its own interests rather
than the common good. Rousseau said that in such a case, the
majority’s decision would be unjust.
The majority’s decision may be reached in accordance with proper
A strong leader may force his opinion on the majority and win its
approval. Nonetheless, the minority would have the right to oppose
the decision, and even more so were leader corrupt or the decision
reached by open bribery or the dismissal of, or threats against,
those who opposed him.
Under such circumstances, or were a ruler to adopt policies opposite
those he promised during elections, refusing to even explain his new
policy though it would affect the lives of thousands, and refusing to
submit it to a referendum – the minority would have no recourse but
When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to “disengage” from Gaza and
Northern Samaria, I called for non-violent civil disobedience and was
greeted by some rather hysterical responses.
Accusations that I had called for armed rebellion or was encouraging
bloodshed were no more than demagoguery; others either did not
understand what I said or did not understand the fundamental rules of
Non-violent civil disobedience is exactly what the terms imply.
Mahatma Gandhi engaged in this kind of passive protest in India as
did Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States.
They intentionally broke immoral or racist laws that had been legally
enacted, and their civil disobedience won them fame and respect.
The laws relating to the “disengagement” were racist laws aimed
solely at eight thousand Jews. The government claimed the laws were
not aimed at Jews, but at Israeli citizens residing in Gaza and
Northern Samaria, as if that category included Eskimos, Hungarians
and also some Jews.
The laws were patently immoral because they violated the basic rights
of the Jews who were expelled, including the right to their property.
Israel’s High Court usually sides with anyone supposedly oppressed
whose rights the state is not respecting. The court recently rushed
to the defense of Africans who have entered the country illegally
looking for work, saying there is a possibility they may be harmed if
they are returned to their countries of origin.
The court found no such justification for coming to the defense of
the Jews to be expelled from Gush Katif, though there the harm was
certain. The court took the easy route of adopting the government’s
argument that the disengagement would improve Israel’s political and
security position – considered a “worthy goal,” and the harm to the
Jews expelled would be “proportionate.”
Sharon declared, “there is a solution for every resident,” and the
court accepted the lie without checking further. Today, most Israelis
see this clearly, as clearly as the missiles being fired from Gaza
into Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon, and as clearly as they see
Gaza’s Jews, six years after their expulsion, living in caravans
because the permanent communities promised by the government have not
yet been built.
But before the disengagement the public and the court were too busy
celebrating the expulsion and were not particularly worried about the
human rights of the residents to be expelled. Faced with that
reality, I thought the moral thing to do was to call for non-violent
civil disobedience – to violate the disengagement laws and be ready
to pay a personal price, including prison, in order to open the eyes
of the public and its lawmakers.
Non-violent civil disobedience might have included refusing to carry
out orders related to the expulsion, blocking roads, closing ports
and airports by means of mass sit-ins, coordinating the taking of
vacation days to hamper the functioning of the bureaucracy involved
in the expulsion, holding demonstrations throughout the country that
would require the presence of soldiers and police who would otherwise
be expelling Jews from Gaza, and more.
I reasoned that if the Histadrut is allowed to “shut down the
country” to protest the firing of a few hundred workers, it was a
moral imperative to do so when thousands of people were losing their
homes and seeing their world destroyed.
How can the state react to such lawbreaking? It can arrest and jail
the lawbreakers, even for long periods. Naturally, if a few dozen are
jailed, the criminal stain on their record will be a serious
punishment. But if thousands or tens of thousands are arrested, their
criminal record would not be a stain, and jail time served on behalf
of the Land of Israel and the Nation of Israel would become a source
of pride. (Such options are relevant today as Israel debates
alternatives to the Tal Law, since the state is clearly incapable of
jailing thousands of haredim and Arabs if they refuse to enlist in
the army or national service.) Indeed, what could the state have
done, had thousands of soldiers taken the course recommended years
before by Ariel Sharon, before he changed his politics, and stood
before their commanding officers, saying they cannot expel their
brothers? How many prison camps would the government have been
willing to build to impose its majority rule? But the masses did not
respond to the call for disobedience, only a few soldiers refused
orders, and the tragedy of the disengagement was not averted.
Non-violent civil disobedience is as moral and democratic a policy
tool as they come. Blind obedience to any law, even those enacted
properly, has led peoples and governments into some of the darkest
periods of human history. In the absence of national referendums, the
refusal to execute immoral and racist laws, and non-violent
interference with their execution is the last means Israel has to
protect itself from itself.
A National Referendum Law passed a few years after the disengagement
is designed to make it more difficult for the government to take such
steps without true public support. This law also dampens the
incentive to call for civil disobedience, for the public will
obviously be less inclined to engage in disobedience when it is given
a chance to be heard by means of a vote.
Last summer a mass social protest movement demanded, somewhat
abstractly, “social justice.” Protest tents appeared throughout the
Demonstrators took to the streets to demand: Housing, education,
lower prices and medical care. They protested oppression at the hands
of those with money. Even though many demonstrators were dressed in
or carrying expensive designer goods, even though they demanded
housing on Rothschild Boulevard and no other boulevard, even though
they were not demanding bread and water but much more – tens of
thousands gave expression to honestly felt hardship and demanded
mutual responsibility and social justice.
Even though the rallies were organized by a small group of
manipulators whose goal was to topple the Netanyahu government, the
protesters included those on the left and right, the religious and
secular, and residents of the center, the periphery and settlers.
Calls for civil disobedience were considered legitimate. Those
advocating it were not charged, as those on the right had been years
before, with sedition.
But the protest did not manifest itself in civil disobedience,
perhaps because the protesters’ suffering was not quite so drastic.
Perhaps when people will take to the streets, plant tents, abandon
their daily routine, quit their jobs, take mass vacations – not just
for personal benefit but for national redemption, our leaders will no
longer dare to act against such Zionist enterprises as settling all
parts, be tempted to uproot hundreds of thousands and destroy
hundreds of communities. He will not dare to, because he will know
that this time, the people will engage in the blessed act of civil
disobedience. The writer is an MK. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post
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