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What are the limits to civil disobedience?

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.

Saudi woman driver

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

Civil Disobedience on the beach

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?


One thought on “What are the limits to civil disobedience?

  1. Interesting questions indeed. We have to leave aside the question about whether or not we agree with the motives and the cause being advanced to see if it’s justifiable.

    Where you don’t like a law, if you protest openly, do not try and hide the fact that you broke the law and you accept the right of a State to punish you for it, then I don’t think anyone can object – you have accepted the right of the State to make and enforce laws and you have made a protest. Where in breaking the law you are putting others at risk, then that is surely wrong. A soldier cannot put the lives of his comrades at risk by not engaging in a mission when it is too late for other protection to be organised. (This does not include where the order of a mission is itself immoral, a separate case). S/he would have to have refused to go in the first place or to complete the mission, and then protest and refuse to take part again. Putting other people at risk is not only about soldiers of course.

    Where the law is itself wrong, meaning it demands that you do something wrong, then I think this is different, You have a duty to disobey the law and you are justified in trying to hide the fact and try to escape punishment. The difference between a bad law and a law that forces you to do somemthing immoral is a hard one to judge, pehaps. Disriminatory searches at crossings may or may not be immoral, but searching someone is clearly not immoral – providing that it is done with respect, etc.. I think you could justifiably object publicly to serving on a crossing (I’m not saying anyone should, or that they would be right to) but you must do it publicly and accept the punishment, because your protest is about politics, not about what you are being forced to do. Withdrawing from a land that you beleive was given to you by God may be held wrong by many, but dismantling a settlement is also clearly not an immoral act in itself – again, providing that it is done properly, minimum use of force, maximum respect, etc. I think a soldier must have the same right to refuse to take part in such operations – but must withdraw before the mission started, and must accept the legal punishment. (Again, I’m making no comment on whether or not they would be right to do so, only what they could morally be justified in doing.)

    It’s a fascinating test – a good rule might be that if you can’t justify an action in support of a policy that you do NOT like, then you shouldn’t do it in support of an action that you DO like! (WIth eh exception of course of ewhere you are told to do something wrong in and of itself).

    Posted by Simon | June 22, 2011, 12:36 pm

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