If the tragic events over the weekend in Charlottesville, VA have proven anything, it’s that the scourges of hatred, racism, and baseless bigotry are alive and well in our society. Yet, despite the strongest single hoard of neo-Nazis and vile racists marching in the open over the last several decades, the response from counter-protestors and community activists was heartening. Many more people showed up in solidarity with the values of peace, love, and tolerance, rather than hatred. Laymen and clergy joined together to protest the nonsensical and odious slogans slung by the racists in attendance. And even though I was halfway across the world in South Africa, I could still feel the vibrations of the prayers reverberating from those staving off the tide of the white supremacists and their obnoxious ilk.
These events, likewise, caused me to pause. I reflected on how far have we come as a nation and how far we still have to go. How far have we regressed? The tragedy that unfolded led me to think of other causes that have spurred the Jewish people to hit the streets. Protesting in memory of victims of the Holocaust (and other genocides)! Rallying in support of Soviet Jewry! Marching against racism and xenophobia! These are some of the many causes where Jews have shown leadership and have been involved to bring activism to the streets. Despite these past occurrences, what is the contemporary Jewish perspective on taking activism one step further into the realm of productive socially relevant civil disobedience?
In general, Jews are bound by the law of the land that we live in (the concept of dina d’malchuta dina found in BT Bava Kama 113a). This is to say, there is a religious imperative that a Jewish person not disobey the secular law. The primary exception the Torah gives is when the secular law violates the Torah (BT Sanhedrin 49a). Put simply: if there is a secular law that does not contradict the Torah, we follow it and if the secular law contradicts the Torah, then we are not obliged to follow it. Commenting on the scope of this practice, Maimonides commented that this exemption to submitting to the law of the land applies even to a minor commandment (Hilchot Melachim 3: 8-9) while Nachmanides added also that the secular law is only binding if it is not unique to the ruler of the land but it is a law that other kingdoms (or nations in our day) would also require (commentary on Bava Batra 55). Joseph Colon Trabotto—known as the Maharik (Italy, fifteenth century)— further argued that if secular laws discriminate against a particular group, then we are not bound by those laws (responsa no. 60).
How do these centuries-old rulings permeate into the activism of today? In the modern era, a single act of civil disobedience can have an enormous impact on history. In the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau objected to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) , which he regarded as a war to extend slavery into new American territory. For opposing the war and refusing to pay taxes in support of the conflict, Thoreau was jailed (albeit briefly), and later wrote a short, but influential, essay eventually known as “Civil Disobedience,” in which he proposed that it was the duty of individuals to disobey laws that were grossly unjust. In the tumult of the twentieth century, Thoreau’s words influenced Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns to win Indian independence against the British, which in turn led Thoreau’s work to have extraordinary influence on the American civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. considered the essay his introduction to nonviolent resistance. Major campaigns, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), Lunch Counter sit-ins (1960), Freedom Rides (1961) and the Selma march (1965), all employed civil disobedience and were instrumental in achieving the desegregation of public facilities, eventually leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is difficult to imagine that what could have been accomplished without civil disobedience and those who were willing to be jailed, beaten within an inch of their lives (John Lewis, for example) for their beliefs.
Recently, another significant civil disobedience campaign had a significant impact. Senate Republicans engineered a “stealth” campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) by refusing to hold hearings or even release the text of their bill until the moment it came up for a vote on the floor. To protest the horribly cynical move by Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell and others, members of ADAPT (Americans Disabled Attendant Programs Today), a group working for the rights of the disabled, would not let things go as planned. Protesters, many in wheelchairs, occupied Senate office halls and even the visitors’ gallery of the Senate. As dozens were arrested, they shouted, “Kill the bill, Don’t kill us!” In graphic detail, they pointed out that their lives depended on the survival of Medicaid; many believed they played an important part in preserving the Affordable Care Act. During their protests, many of the activists were physically dragged out of their wheelchairs or escorted away violently by Capitol police. But these unforgettable images, coupled with the remarkable detached and uncaring reactions from leaders in the American government spoke volumes.
Unfortunately, since Jews have been marginalized and persecuted throughout history, civil disobedience applied to fulfilling Jewish needs. Today, however, where Jews are accepted as full citizens in so many modern nations and are even empowered to act with self-determination without recourse, we must also consider civil disobedience on behalf of other persecuted groups and marginalized populations that are discriminated against. To be sure, all civil disobedience must be nonviolent. At the same time, it is also crucial that one not vandalize or cause damage to others’ property in the pursuit of their goals (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 348:1). Further, it is important not to shame the police who arrest you for your activism since they are merely doing their job (assuming they handle matters professionally, legally, and nonviolently). It is also important where possible to not cause any damage by causing those driving to work to be late and potentially lose wages. One’s civil disobedience should be prophetic and bold but it should also be effective, thoughtful, and strategic.
While the tactics of civil disobedience may not be for everyone, those who yearn to be positive change-makers should learn to imbibe the lessons from yesteryear and incorporate them if they are to be effective activists. While social justice causes seem to ebb and flow in the national consciousness, the events of Charlottesville should be a wake-up call that there is so much more to do, so many goals that have not been realized. If we are to be committed in engaging all possible tools to create a more just society, then civil disobedience is indeed one of crucial moral tools we have.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.