Photo: Paul Hanna / Reuters Jean-Jacques
Rousseau, the 18-century thinker whose ideas form the basis of modern democracy, warned in On the Social Contract of the danger that a majority might sometimes favor its own interests rather than the common good. Rousseau said that in such a case, the majority’s decision would be unjust.
The majority’s decision may be reached in accordance with proper procedure.
A strong leader may force his opinion on the majority and win its approval. Nonetheless, the minority would have the right to oppose the decision, and even more so were leader corrupt or the decision reached by open bribery or the dismissal of, or threats against, those who opposed him.
Under such circumstances, or were a ruler to adopt policies opposite those he promised during elections, refusing to even explain his new policy though it would affect the lives of thousands, and refusing to submit it to a referendum – the minority would have no recourse but civil disobedience.
When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to “disengage” from Gaza and Northern Samaria, I called for non-violent civil disobedience and was greeted by some rather hysterical responses.
Accusations that I had called for armed rebellion or was encouraging bloodshed were no more than demagoguery; others either did not understand what I said or did not understand the fundamental rules of democracy.
Non-violent civil disobedience is exactly what the terms imply. Mahatma Gandhi engaged in this kind of passive protest in India as did Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States.
They intentionally broke immoral or racist laws that had been legally enacted, and their civil disobedience won them fame and respect.
The laws relating to the “disengagement” were racist laws aimed solely at eight thousand Jews. The government claimed the laws were not aimed at Jews, but at Israeli citizens residing in Gaza and Northern Samaria, as if that category included Eskimos, Hungarians and also some Jews.
The laws were patently immoral because they violated the basic rights of the Jews who were expelled, including the right to their property. Israel’s High Court usually sides with anyone supposedly oppressed whose rights the state is not respecting. The court recently rushed to the defense of Africans who have entered the country illegally looking for work, saying there is a possibility they may be harmed if they are returned to their countries of origin.
The court found no such justification for coming to the defense of the Jews to be expelled from Gush Katif, though there the harm was certain. The court took the easy route of adopting the government’s argument that the disengagement would improve Israel’s political and security position – considered a “worthy goal,” and the harm to the Jews expelled would be “proportionate.”
Sharon declared, “there is a solution for every resident,” and the court accepted the lie without checking further. Today, most Israelis see this clearly, as clearly as the missiles being fired from Gaza into Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon, and as clearly as they see Gaza’s Jews, six years after their expulsion, living in caravans because the permanent communities promised by the government have not yet been built.
But before the disengagement the public and the court were too busy celebrating the expulsion and were not particularly worried about the human rights of the residents to be expelled. Faced with that reality, I thought the moral thing to do was to call for non-violent civil disobedience – to violate the disengagement laws and be ready to pay a personal price, including prison, in order to open the eyes of the public and its lawmakers.
Non-violent civil disobedience might have included refusing to carry out orders related to the expulsion, blocking roads, closing ports and airports by means of mass sit-ins, coordinating the taking of vacation days to hamper the functioning of the bureaucracy involved in the expulsion, holding demonstrations throughout the country that would require the presence of soldiers and police who would otherwise be expelling Jews from Gaza, and more.
I reasoned that if the Histadrut is allowed to “shut down the country” to protest the firing of a few hundred workers, it was a moral imperative to do so when thousands of people were losing their homes and seeing their world destroyed.
How can the state react to such lawbreaking? It can arrest and jail the lawbreakers, even for long periods. Naturally, if a few dozen are jailed, the criminal stain on their record will be a serious punishment. But if thousands or tens of thousands are arrested, their criminal record would not be a stain, and jail time served on behalf of the Land of Israel and the Nation of Israel would become a source of pride. (Such options are relevant today as Israel debates alternatives to the Tal Law, since the state is clearly incapable of jailing thousands of haredim and Arabs if they refuse to enlist in the army or national service.) Indeed, what could the state have done, had thousands of soldiers taken the course recommended years before by Ariel Sharon, before he changed his politics, and stood before their commanding officers, saying they cannot expel their brothers? How many prison camps would the government have been willing to build to impose its majority rule? But the masses did not respond to the call for disobedience, only a few soldiers refused orders, and the tragedy of the disengagement was not averted.
Non-violent civil disobedience is as moral and democratic a policy tool as they come. Blind obedience to any law, even those enacted properly, has led peoples and governments into some of the darkest periods of human history. In the absence of national referendums, the refusal to execute immoral and racist laws, and non-violent interference with their execution is the last means Israel has to protect itself from itself.
A National Referendum Law passed a few years after the disengagement is designed to make it more difficult for the government to take such steps without true public support. This law also dampens the incentive to call for civil disobedience, for the public will obviously be less inclined to engage in disobedience when it is given a chance to be heard by means of a vote.
Last summer a mass social protest movement demanded, somewhat abstractly, “social justice.” Protest tents appeared throughout the country.
Demonstrators took to the streets to demand: Housing, education, lower prices and medical care. They protested oppression at the hands of those with money. Even though many demonstrators were dressed in or carrying expensive designer goods, even though they demanded housing on Rothschild Boulevard and no other boulevard, even though they were not demanding bread and water but much more – tens of thousands gave expression to honestly felt hardship and demanded mutual responsibility and social justice.
Even though the rallies were organized by a small group of manipulators whose goal was to topple the Netanyahu government, the protesters included those on the left and right, the religious and secular, and residents of the center, the periphery and settlers.
Calls for civil disobedience were considered legitimate. Those advocating it were not charged, as those on the right had been years before, with sedition.
But the protest did not manifest itself in civil disobedience, perhaps because the protesters’ suffering was not quite so drastic.
Perhaps when people will take to the streets, plant tents, abandon their daily routine, quit their jobs, take mass vacations – not just for personal benefit but for national redemption, our leaders will no longer dare to act against such Zionist enterprises as settling all parts, be tempted to uproot hundreds of thousands and destroy hundreds of communities. He will not dare to, because he will know that this time, the people will engage in the blessed act of civil disobedience.