Campus Disobedience

Protesters on university campuses this spring embraced a culture of disobedience, prioritizing confrontation over constructive engagement. These protests prompt reflection: what motivates us to adhere to rules, and when is disobedience justified?

Drawing from the Jewish tradition, we find a delicate balance between the duty to challenge and to obey. Throughout history, we see instances of righteous protest, such as Abraham’s respectful objection to God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, guided solely by his internal moral compass. Talmud offers a radical statement of responsibility to object.  “If one is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the whole world.” Shabbat 54b.

In Torah this week, Parshat Acharei Mot, Moses, and Aaron received detailed instructions about sacrifices for sin. These directions emphasize obedience. Yet, they are not given in a vacuum. As rules of atonement and sanctification, there’s an implicit acknowledgment that justice and morality transcend mere adherence to rules. The failure to adhere to the instructions would be dire. Disobedience that flaunts rules of behavior carries consequences, including the potential withdrawal of divine protection.

When I observe college campus protests, I naturally filter them through a Jewish lens. I can appreciate students’ zeal akin to Abraham’s, yet their disregard for civility and propensity for confrontation leads me to condemn their failure to respect basic rules of nonviolent and civil engagement. Criminal destruction and violence are not protests, they are criminal activity, plainly and simply.

Our tradition unequivocally rejects violent and hateful protest tactics. By comparison, Israelis recently held massive demonstrations, first to protest the government’s intervention in the Judiciary and later to bring home the hostages. I believe that the Jewish way to protest can be both peaceful and potent.

Some politicians criticize these student protests, under the guise of championing law and order. By contrast, they brand student protests as anarchic and subversive. Conversely, liberal commentators like Anand Giridharadas contextualize them within America’s tradition of revolutionary activism. Liberalism has its inherent danger, veering towards romanticizing activism supporting violent regimes like Hamas.

The lack of civility raises an important question: are these students enamored with disobedience culture? Could culpability also lie with their teachers and parents? In my mind, we must teach the value of obedience alongside the obligation to dissent.

Reflecting on my biases, I wonder if I might view pro-Israel protestors more favorably. Yet, I would not abide by anti-Muslim rhetoric or violence as a tool of protest. I cringed seeing pro-Israel demonstrators in forceful confrontations. But, these were rare incidents. On the other hand, the Jewish community at large was too restrained in response to the protests according to NYU professor Scott Galloway.

I also note that protesters have alternatives to campus encampments. They could opt for more personal advocacy methods like door-knocking or political lobbying, which foster dialogue over division. They resorted to disruption, chaos, and confrontation.

A lesson learned from American history is that violent protest further divides our country. Civil disobedience can only be a legitimate tool in a democratic society if it adheres to universal moral principles of non-violence, respectful engagement, and consideration for the rights of all individuals.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame