Irom Chanu Sharmila, the “Iron Lady of Manipur,” and “Menghaobi” has been on a hunger and thirst strike for fourteen years. She began her fast in 2000 to protest against the Malom massacre, when the Indian government killed ten civilians at a bus stop.. She is seeking the repeal of a 1958 law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), that allows soldiers to shoot suspected rebels at their will, detain people without charge, or search anyone’s home without a warrant in any area deemed “disturbed” by the government; the law even absolves soldiers of any legal responsibility for their actions. Sharmila has been held by the government and force-fed as they claim she is guilty of committing suicide, which she repeatedly denied (having served 6 years on a 1-year charge, she has already served more than the maximum penalty). She is routinely released and then re-arrested at the end of each year, and force-fed through a tube attached to her nose three times daily. An Indian judge, however, just ordered her release arguing that hunger striking is free political speech not a suicide attempt.
Throughout her ordeal, Sharmila has maintained that she is just following in the footsteps of Mohandas Gandhi, who often resorted to public hunger strikes to protest violence and oppression. Her hunger strike has attracted positive publicity: a 2014 poll declared her the top woman icon of India.
Throughout Jewish history, rabbis and sages have called for fasts to raise awareness and inspire prayer and action. A hunger strike, indeed a fast, is a statement that one cares enough about an issue that one will sacrifice one’s personal comfort. My teacher and leading spiritual activist, Rabbi Avi Weiss, writes:
A hunger strike is both painful and exhilarating. During the day, you feel weak, your legs wobble, and you are ready to keel over. At night, you really feel hunger pangs. Fasting requires total commitment to the cause, since the mind must overcome the body’s needs. When you are all alone, the hunger seems intolerable. When surrounded by friends, however, you feel reinforced, and find it possible to continue. Fortunately, unlike Natan (Sharansky), who fasted by himself in the gulag, I had many supporters by my side.
- In Great Britain, liberal thinkers had long argued in a futile manner in favor of woman suffrage. Then, in the era before World War I, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led the militant suffragettes in England. When suffragettes were arrested (often for smashing windows or burning mailboxes), they went on hunger strikes while in prison. The authorities at first released the women early, then reverted to force-feeding, but by 1913 public opinion forced the authorities to abandon this practice. In response, Parliament passed what was called the “Cat and Mouse” Act, which allowed the authorities to release suffragettes as their health deteriorated, but then imprison them again when they regained health. Pankhurst herself endured ten such bouts with hunger strikes, release, and then re-arrest,. This kept the issue before the public and increased sympathy for the suffragettes in spite of their criminal activities, and after cooperating with the government during World War I, woman suffrage in Britain (and the United States) was eventually achieved.
- In 1917, at a time when birth control was illegal in America, Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne were arrested for running the birth control clinic, located in Brooklyn. In January 1917, Byrne was sentenced to 30 days in jail, whereupon she immediately went on a hunger and thirst strike. After several days, nearing death, the prison authorities began to force-feed her, but after several more days and a great deal of publicity and pressure, the Governor of New York commuted the rest of her sentence. It was widely seen as an early, small victory for birth control, as many had gathered in Carnegie Hall in her support, boosting the cause.
- In a similar fashion to Great Britain, the woman suffrage movement had grown moribund since its inception at Seneca Falls in 1848. Then Alice Paul (who had earlier been imprisoned and endured force-feeding in England as a suffragette), helped found the militant (though nonviolent) suffragist group eventually known as the National Woman’s Party. In 1917, even as America was moving toward war, she organized picketing at the White House, due to the continuing opposition of President Woodrow Wilson. When America entered the war, the women were seen as unpatriotic, and were beaten, arrested, and sent to a workhouse. Paul herself was among the hundreds arrested. She her followers went on a hunger strike; in Paul’s case, she was not only force-fed hot soup through a tube inserted through her nose (which was inevitably vomited back up), but was threatened with being detained in an insane asylum. Eventually, the government’s tactics backfired, as the mistreatment of women, the irony of arresting women who were asking the right to vote in a nation supposedly fighting for democracy, and the realization that woman suffrage was inevitable, forced President Woodrow Wilson to reverse his former opposition in less than a year and support the Nineteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1920.
- Bobby Sands was a little-known Irish Republican Army (IRA) member when he was arrested and imprisoned for having four pistols. After years of harsh conditions and futile attempts to be given political status, Sands and other IRA prisoners began a hunger strike to the death in 1981, which the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dismissed with contempt. Over the next several months, however, Irish and world opinion took note of the strike, and Sands was even elected to Parliament before his death in May 1981 (several others later died). Afterward, the British reluctantly granted the prisoners political status, momentum quickly built for a political as well as military strategy, and eventually (admittedly not soon) the situation in Northern Ireland was defused.
To be sure, rabbis, at times, have come out against hunger strikes. Consider the 1983 Israeli physicians’ hunger strike. Professor Rosen, Administrator of Shaare Zedek Hospital, Rabbi Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach wrote:
We heard that there are physicians whose view is to go on a hunger strike. We hereby inform you that, according to the Torah, no man is allowed to do any act which might lead to human harm, such as a partial hunger strike which is being spoken of for a long time period, all because of [the demand for] increased wages. It is written: “it is prohibited for a person to wound either himself or his fellow man.” (Rambarn, Umazik 8:1). Certainly, any physician who does so and weakens himself so that he cannot function and heal properly – in addition to the above – needs to consider the following from healing is guilty of shedding blood” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 336). The obligation to withhold oneself from healing is valid even if the physician is pressured [to act] because his colleagues are doing so contrary to halacha. We ask that this ruling, of ours be transmitted to all the physicians in the hospital.
However, this ruling was limited to a case where physicians needed to save lives were needed back at work. When one is addressing a collective moral need (like in the Purim story when the Jewish community took on a hunger strike), the situation requires heroism.
Many cannot imagine fasting for a day for a ritual purpose. Even harder to imagine would be a few days or weeks of fasting. A few years is unfathomable for almost all of us. We might ask ourselves: Is there any issue in the world that matters enough to me that I might be willing to personally sacrifice (money, time, food) to ensure it is addressed? Most will not take on a hunger strike but we should listen closely when an individual or group does.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director 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 six books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”