I have been thinking this week about civil disobedience. When is civil disobedience morally justifiable? What are the limits? When is it an effective form of protest? A number of examples from the last week or so may help to demonstrate my confusion.
Let’s start in Saudia Arabia and the women drivers’ protest: to me it seems absolutely clear that I can wholeheartedly support the women who have chosen to defy the law banning women from driving. The law is purely sexist, has no justification, and allowing women to drive harms no one (and enough with the women driver jokes already). And whilst we all feel a moment of moral superiority about our own society, let’s pause a moment to think about women drivers in the Haredi world.
Now for my next example, also involving women drivers. On Friday, I was struck by a large advertisement in
Ha’aretz newspaper in support of the Israeli women who have taken to bringing Palestinian women and their children into Israel for fun days out – driving them through or around the checkpoints to the beach, the zoo, to the stalactite cave, allowing them a taste of the fresh air of freedom. The women consciously and publicly break the law, using their status as Jewish Israelis with full freedom of movement, to support the Palestinian women and children whose freedom of movement is so limited, who by law are not allowed to enter Israel. In doing so, they break the law and thereby challenge its moral validity. Criminal proceedings have been begun against most of them – but they refuse to be daunted. Likewise, they refuse to be cowed by the claims that such laws are essential to maintain Israel’s security. I admit to feeling confused – on the one hand I admire their courage and my heart applauds the idea of giving Palestinian children their first taste of the sea – the thought that these children grow up within a few miles of the sea, but never get to play on the beach makes me feel sick. On the other hand, the security concerns are real, and it is difficult to know how we can allow full freedom of movement without endangering life.
The third example I’d like to bring is from Tuesday’s Ha’aretz newspaper, where Sefi Rachlevsky writes about his fantasy of hundreds of 18 year olds refusing to enlist until their Haredi counterparts do so, until religious girls are made to serve in the same way as secular girls, and until the government decides that the army should defend Israel’s legal borders, and not a centimetre more. Questions about refusing to serve in the army have long troubled me, on both moral and practical grounds.
It seems to me that civil disobedience that invites an equal and opposite reaction may not be effective: political refusal to serve in the territories invites the opposite reaction of right-wing soldiers refusing to dismantle settlements. On the other hand, refusing to serve unless everyone is compelled to serve has no opposite reaction – the whole point is that the disobedience is targeted at an existing act of discrimination. Hence there may be a distinction to be made between the first two justifications and the last, arguably political condition – at least on practical grounds.
I am reminded of a talk I attended recently, when Dr. Omar Youssef suggested that civil disobedience might be an effective route for protest in East Jerusalem: that perhaps residents of neighbourhoods that do not receive proper services from the Jerusalem municipality should organize their own services, and withhold the relevant portion of their local rates. Sounds pretty reasonable to me. And once again, potentially effective because the action is aimed at existing discrimination.
So, help me please: where do you think the borders lie? What is justifiable civil disobedience? When do you think civil disobedience is an effective tool? And how might it be applied in Israel’s current impasse?