Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Rabbi Steven PruzanskyCourtesy
Yes, you read that headline correctly, notwithstanding that it is countercultural, even counterintuitive.

Civil disobedience is a cherished right in democracies and dictatorships, although the stakes in expressing that right in dictatorships are riskier and graver. It allows a citizen to proclaim his or her dissatisfaction with a governmental policy that so offends the conscience that he cannot sit idly by. Instead, the dedicated denizen takes to the streets, breaks the law and is willing to suffer the consequences for doing so.

Thus, we are witness in Israel to demonstrations (relatively small in comparison to the population, and even the number of voters the opposition attracted in the last election) that block streets and highways, disturb people’s lives and constitute a blatant attempt to intimidate the government into not implementing the policies for which it was elected.

Yet, a critical aspect of civil disobedience seems to be lost on both demonstrators and the government. By definition, and here I cite from the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the civil disobedient, finding legitimate avenues of change blocked or non-existent, feels obligated by a higher extra legal principle to break some specific law. It is because acts associated with civil disobedience are considered crimes, however, and known by actor and public alike to be punishable, that such acts serve as a protest. By submitting to punishment, the civil disobedient hopes to set a moral example that will provoke the majority or the government into effecting meaningful political, social, or economic change.”

We hear a lot about the right of civil disobedience in Israel – and almost nothing of the punishment that is due such protesters and for which, ostensibly, they are willing to break the law and lose their freedom. National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s decision on Wednesday to order the police to break up the protests that blocked road and highways is long overdue and the meager number of arrests that have been made are sad proof of the government’s unwillingness to fulfill its side of the civil disobedience bargain: arrest the demonstrators who break the law even as they pay attention to what the demonstrators are saying.

Civil disobedience without arrests is anarchy, and anarchy is the enemy of democracy.

It is axiomatic that the civil disobedient is a minority of the society trying to enforce his views on the majority. It is a failure of democracy – and an insult to the law-abiding public – that protesters are allowed to break the law with impunity. Blocking highways is a crime – go ahead, you try it because you don’t like something the government, right or left, is doing. It should be prosecuted vigorously and the convicted should spend at least a week in jail. They should put their liberty where their mouth is.

Worse, in Israel’s context, the double standard that pertains is most execrable, disgraceful and unbecoming a moral and just society. The demonstrators against the expulsion from Gush Katif were hastily beaten and jailed, and some for weeks and months without charges. Somehow this highly- acclaimed, vaunted right of protest (the “linchpin of democracy,” we are lectured) did not apply to them. The reason is obvious: they were, after all, just religious right-wingers trying to protect thousands of settlers from a grievous, tangible injury (and protect the nation from an irredentist enemy that would use its gifted territory as a springboard for rockets and missiles to be launched against Israel). They were not secular left-wingers protesting amorphous and contrived “threats to democracy” implicit in… what?

Depriving the Supreme Court justices of the right to choose their successors?

Limiting the Court’s jurisdiction to cases and controversies, not political matters?

Restoring the balance between the various branches of the government?

Nevertheless, the Gush Katif protesters were treated mercilessly and pilloried in the media, even as the so-called protectors of democracy are being coddled.

The disparity in treatment is per se proof of the necessity of judicial reform.
What has been lost in the media maelstrom that has produced a deluge of hypocrisy is that there are other cherished rights in a democracy in addition to the right to protest. Here are some:

  • there is a right of free passage. Each citizen has the right to move freely in society and not have his way obstructed by others.
  • There is a right of commerce. Each citizen has the right to go to work, earn money, and support his family, without having that right encroached upon by people with a political grievance.
  • There is a right of free association, to meet friends and family in an organized fashion and not be impeded by those who are over-enthused and overwrought by the esoterica of the appropriate balance of power in a democratic government.

The right of protest is not superior to the right of free movement, the right of commerce, and the right of free association. They are all cherished rights. Those who want to take off from work, stand on the side of the road, wave flags and scream about democracy and the end of the world are welcome to do so. Those who block roads and highways and thus interfere with people who wish to attend a funeral, see a doctor, visit friends and family, go to work or simply enjoy the sights of our beautiful G-d-given country? Well, those people should be unceremoniously arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated if convicted. The roads and highways do not belong to them and should be cleared of these malcontents. That too is democracy.

Needless to say, a hallmark of democracy is also heeding the results of an election. Those who claim that the judicial reforms were sprung on an unknowing nation are simply lying through their teeth. There are no two more level-headed politicians in Israel that Yariv Levin and Simcha Rothman. Their reform proposals have been discussed for several election cycles now. I personally heard them speak about them during the most recent campaign. Those who claim they are new were simply not listening, which, in a polarized society, is a big part of the problem.
The right of civil disobedience is fundamental to a democratic society. But so is the obligation to protect the rights of non-protesters, enforce the law, clear the roads and highways, and jail the lawbreakers. Those who truly believe in democracy know that. Those who don’t will continue to cry about democracy when what concerns them most is loss of their undemocratic and unelected power base. They will generate shrill headlines about “the right of protest” and willfully ignore the rightful consequences of protest. Whatever it is they are fighting to save, it is not democracy.
The politicians in opposition know better. They should so inform their minions – of freedoms, rights and consequences. That would be a public service. And they – most of whom have also called for judicial reforms in the last decade – should spell out in detail what they mean, negotiate in committee, make suggestions, vote for the bill if they like it and vote against if they don’t.

That is democracy. It is not just the right of civil disobedience, which is just one right among many. Let the government enforce the law uniformly, which is the only way to ward off true anarchy and worse. And let the government advance the reform bills and vote on them, quickly but judiciously. We have real enemies out there. Let’s fight them, not each other.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky was a pulpit rabbi and attorney in the United States, is today the Israel Region Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, and the author of the just-released “Road to Redemption” (Kodesh Press).