Assertive Nonviolence in Judaism

Establishing a new program of Jewish resistance.

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from “The Sword and the Plowshare as Tools of Tikkun Olam,” published by The Shalom Center.

What is a decent alternative to military action? The advantage of the biblical vision was that it was assertive, rather than passive. The advantage of the rabbinic vision was that it avoided violence. Is there a way to synthesize these virtues in the new era of Jewish peoplehood into which we have entered? Is there a way to create a Jewish path of assertive nonviolence? 

Let’s look at what may have been the most successful single use of nonviolent civil disobedience by the Jewish people since the midwives Shifra and Puah, even though we have almost never put the tag “nonviolent movement” on it. That was the Soviet Jewry movement.

Don’t Overlook the Soviet Jewry Model

With only one or two exceptions, it avoided the use of violence, and used assertive nonviolence to win freedom for Jews in the Soviet Union.

Dancing in the streets of Moscow on the night of Simhat Torah. Marches, demonstrations, boycotts. Sit-ins in the Supreme Soviet. I can remember when people thought, “Hey, a sit-in in the Supreme Soviet? All those folks will be dead in a week!”

peace rockBut they weren’t. Indeed, they won allies. Jews around the world, members of other communities as well. Allies. We did not need to stand alone.

Through years of struggle, this movement made some cracks in what to many had seemed a monolithic Soviet totalitarian state. Even before those cracks and many others brought the whole system down, millions of Soviet Jews either became free to leave or free to begin recreating a Jewish community and culture.

Why did we not think of this movement as Gandhian or Kingian? I think it was because we were deeply puzzled as to how to cope with such a way of understanding ourselves alongside the State of Israel during that same period. But the movement to free Soviet Jews was an assertive nonviolent movement. We should with joyful pride name this nonviolent victory as what it was, lift it up to our own awareness, celebrate it.

This effort was the strongest, but not the only, use of assertive nonviolence by Jewishly-conscious Jews during the past generation.

Remember Freedom Seders, Trees for Vietnam….

There were the Freedom Seders of the early 1970s, aimed against racism and the Vietnam War, all of them rooted in affirming the liberation struggle of the Jewish people alongside the liberation struggles of Black Americans, Vietnamese, Nicaraguans, women. One of those Freedom Seders actually poured blood, frogs, cockroaches–the symbolic plagues–on the fence around the White House. Another brought together 4,000 people in the Cornell University field house, where Daniel Berrigan actually came out from the underground where he had fled to escape the government’s prosecution of his anti-war activities.

Assertive nonviolence, with allies. Both a new approach in Jewish life.

And there was the Jewish Campaign for Trees for Vietnam, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as its honorary chairman, which challenged the actions of the U.S. government in deliberately destroying the forests of Vietnam to deny tree cover to Vietnamese guerrillas. The Trees for Vietnam campaign drew on both the Torah’s prohibition of destroying trees in time of war, and the Jewish practice of planting trees in Israel. Raising money for these purposes was an act of civil disobedience.

More recently, this environmental activism has continued with a Tu B’Shvat seder in the redwood forest, concluding with a “plant-in” on the very property owned by a corporation that was logging the ancient redwoods.

The movement toward a Jewish nonviolent civil disobedience has helped invigorate and renew Judaism. For example, Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, was originally a ceremony that happened at the banks of rivers. Since ancient times, Jews beat willows on the riverbank, dancing seven circles with the Torah and calling out to God to save the earth from drought and locusts, famine and plague. But in modern times, Hoshanah Rabbah has mostly been limited to beating willow branches on the rugs in the small chapel at the back of a few traditional synagogues, having no way of connecting with the festival prayers for healing the earth.

In 1998, a small group of Jews changed all that by beating willows on the earth on the banks of the Hudson River–aimed against General Electric’s refusal to clean up the river after poisoning it with PCBs. That fused the ancient meaning of this festival with an act of assertive nonviolence against one of the Great Powers of the planet.

Jews Protesting Jewish Actions?

Today, as the State of Israel pursues the older, biblical path, using military action to push its policies, Jewish nonviolence, sadly, must be used against Jewish military action. So we see Israeli Jews and Jews from the Diaspora, along with international supporters from many countries, sitting down against the Israeli bulldozers destroying Palestinian homes.

With their own bare hands, pushing aside the concrete blocks that cut off Palestinian villages in blockades, in sieges. Coming on Tu Bishvat to replant olive trees destroyed (despite the prohibitions of Torah) by Israeli soldiers and settlers in Palestine as well as replanting palm trees and pine trees destroyed by Palestinian arsonists in Israel. Being arrested, even beaten, for their nonviolent resistance.

And we have seen Israelis, soldiers and reservists, who have refused to serve in the army of occupation, citing God, ethics, Torah, and the true security of Israel as their reasons. And going to jail for refusing. In these brave nonviolent protesters we see the hope and the promise of an assertive, yet nonviolent means to secure Jewish life and culture.

Judaism and Universality

Most of these campaigns and struggles have drawn explicitly on Jewish ceremony and Jewish practices. For that reason, they did not have to choose between being “Jewish” and being “universal,” they did not even have to “balance” being “Jewish” and being “universal.”

In the very depth of their being, they were simultaneously and organically both Jewish and universal. Putting energy into them did not draw Jews away from their Jewish heritage in order to heal the wounded world; it actually deepened their Jewish knowledge and experience.

Nor did these actions pull people into Jewish tribalism at the expense of lost concern for the others endangered on this planet. Like a hologram, like the presence of DNA in every cell of the body, they taught that the whole is fully present in each part. The highest good of each community and the highest good of the planet as a whole are enwrapped within each other. That is why we call this new Jewish form of assertive nonviolent civil disobedience “tikkun olam,” the healing of the world.

The model that Waskow develops is universal, though its application to the political situation in Israel reflects his personal politics. It should also be noted that many of the Soviet resisters he mentions were in fact punished and imprisoned for their dissident activities.

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