The Consequences of Civil Disobedience

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 1/16/2004

Dear Chevra,

It is quite right to raise a question about willingness to go to prison as a concomitant of nonviolent resistance/ civil disobedience.

Yet I think the answer to that question is complex.

Begin with Torah. Neither Shfra & Puah nor Miriam & Pharaoh's daughter are described as submitting to punishment for their violation of Pharaoh's law. Indeed, the midwives are shown as either dissembling or joking at Pharaoh's expense, to avoid punishment. (They say "The Hebrew women are 'chayot' [= both "full-of-life" and "wild animals" ]" — maybe playing to Pharaoh's racism?)

Why is this? maybe becxause they utterly rejected Pharaoh's legitimacy as ruler?

Or because the punishment would have been not prison but death?

Or ----?????

Take more recent cases.

I myself was convicted (along with a number of other people) of taking part in an illegal anti-segregation sit-in, in Maryland, in 1963. But the case was appealed. Once the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing segregation, the courts threw out OLD convictions under laws that had been valid when they were violated. (The Civil Rights Act did not mandate that response; it was invented by the courts.) Even laws that on their face were legitimate, like anti-trespass, were annulled to the extent they had been used to arrest people for desegregating public places. So I never served time for that breaking of the law.

From an ordinary legal standpoint, that puzzled me at the time, and still does. But now, when I think of it from a more spiritual standpoint, I see it as an act of tshuvah from the Govt of the United States [in this case thru the courts] — tshuvah for hundreds of years of racism. (Only partial tshuvah, may I add.)

From the standpoint of Rav Kook's mystical outlook on tshuvah — that it is powerful enough to transform the past, not just the present & future — this retroactive annulment of punishment makes sense.

A more recent and even odder case: with about 30 others, I took part in an antiwar act of civil disobedience soon before the US invasion of Iraq, at a Federal building in NYC. We were arrested. When our case came to trial, the district attorney for Manhattan (not the defendants) moved that it be dismissed "in the interests of justice." It was.

Now that happened without the Govt of the US changing course. Did the local DA think the war was illegitimate? or did he just not want trouble? or what? I don't know.

In any case, while I think those who act in the spirit that "Disobedience to tyrants is obedience to God" must be prepared for prison or some similar punishment, I do not think in principle it is forbidden to oppose punishment.

In the case of Rabbi Ascherman, in previous situations the Israeli Army has simply physically moved him out of the way of the bulldozers, and then gone on with the bulldozing. On one occasion, soldiers beat him up. But never before has he been charged with a crime. Why now?

I strongly suspect the reason is that the Sharon govt sees that "dissent" is growing, and they want to smash it. They think that punishment will smash opposition. (They are addicted to this belief. So are those among the Palestinians who choose terrorism. It is at the heart of the whole mess.)

What I look toward is not merely that a movement of public indignation convinces/ pressures the state of Israel to stop prosecuting Arik "in the interests of justice" — but that they abandon the policy of home demolition and do tshuvah for it by dropping the case — changing the past as well as the future.

And I hope many many more Israelis will then be given heart by such an event, and join other movements of nonviolent civil disobedience — as Black and white Americans did after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by addressing Voting Rights that were not addressed in 1964 — until racist voting laws were also changed.

Of course this won't be easy. I think it will take many many more acts of courage, acts that embody in the present our visions of the future, to bring about such results in Israel.

Or in America.

Shalom, Arthur

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Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center <>