In Israel today, and for several weeks, protest has been rife all over the country – despite and also because of the coronavirus. Much has already been written and argued as to whether this is appropriate during a plague. Whatever one’s position in that respect, one thing should be very clear: not only is this not a new phenomenon on the Israeli political scene, but it is the quintessential way that Jews have expressed themselves from time immemorial.
About 30 years ago, after a decade of research and numerous academic articles, I published a comprehensive (scholarly) book on the phenomenon, first in English (Stiff-Necked People, Bottle-Necked System: The Evolution and Roots of Israeli Public Protest, 1949-1986), and then a few years later I updated it in Hebrew: מחאה ציבורית בישראל, 1949-1992. Among the things that I discovered was that Israel led the entire democratic world in protest participation per capita! From there, I added a chapter (to the revised work) on the Jewish origins of the phenomenon (it can be read here in article form).
In precis, there are four forms of protest: argumentation, public protest, civil disobedience, rebellion. Judaism has always encouraged the first two, and discouraged the latter pair. It all started with Abraham arguing/protesting against God (!) regarding Sodom and Amorah’s destruction if it had holy people; it continued with the Israelites constant complaining in the desert (a “stiff-necked people,” indeed); then came the Prophets who lambasted the Jewish kings (!!), as well as the people who had gone astray; and ultimately produced the greatest tome in Judaism – the Talmud – consisting of thousands of arguments between the rabbis, and even a few telling God that he was no longer much needed (!!!) regarding these halakhic disputations (Bava Metziah, 59/b: “It is no longer for the Heavens to decide…”).
What underlay such a seemingly brazen approach to the Almighty and human authority? In a word: Covenant. By “signing a contract,” both man AND God were mutually obligating themselves to do the right thing. If not, the other side was not only justified in protesting, but actually required to do so by the Talmud: “Anyone who should protest against a relative and doesn’t is guilty; similarly against a townsperson; and even against the world, bears as much blame” (Shabbat, 54/b).
Little wonder, therefore, that if one could chide the Almighty, the Prophets had no compunctions either about protesting against human kings. Skip a few thousand years, and we’re in modern Israel where protest has become a serious national sport (not to mention arguing with each other).
The good news: such a moral mentality demands that the Jew of whatever social status hew to a strict ethical norm of behavior – and when the leadership does not hold to such a norm, Jews will raise their voices, quite vociferously. The argumentation element also leads to “thinking out of the box,” ergo Israel’s “Start-Up Nation” as well as world Jewry’s great success in sundry professional, cultural and intellectual pursuits.
The bad news: the old Jewish jokes are not really that funny in practice – two Jews, three opinions; two synagogues built by one survivor on a deserted island: “that second one I would never step foot in…” Even in a health emergency like Corona, Israelis can’t “get it together.” Running the Israeli ship of state is akin to handing out pails to bail out the Titanic.
For better and for worse, protesting is in the Jewish blood – indeed, I would argue (I’m Jewish too!), it forms the very cells of our personal and political bloodstream. And if you disagree with me, you’ve just proven that you’re Jewish too…