“Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.” —Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass
On one sunny August afternoon in Boston in 2014, I made my way through the Boston Common public park and watched from a distance as people began to engage in a series of passionate, politically charged chants. The noise was discordant, as voices rose over and above each other, as if two groups of people were talking at the same time. Upon further inspection, it became clear that in fact there were two groups of protesters rallying against each other. The group on the left—wearing checkered kaffiyehs and red-and-green clothing—were chanting something about, “resistance,” and “justice.” Their favorite slogan seemed to be: “Resistance is justified when people are occupied!”
In contrast, the group on the right was dressed largely in blue-and-white, and the people waved Israeli flags and sang songs in Hebrew. I moved closer as I was curious as to what their main slogan was. Did they also cry out for justice? Did they have grievances they wished to compel oppressors to rectify? Did they have, at the very least, a rhetorical commitment to bringing about the end of the persecution of their people? As I approached the scene, my ears perked up and, finally, I was able to fully discern what the roughly 150 Zionist demonstrators were chanting:
“Israel wants peace.”
A bit disappointed, I continued to watch the spectacle unfolding before me. The angry people to my left caused me to contemplate the meaning of fairness and the ideal of equality that my parents taught me to strive for. The group on my right merely continued to chant something about peace, which was a fine sentiment but would never be more important than justice.
Justice is the most pertinent cause in the world, and any people struggling for justice makes me want to struggle with them.
At any rate, I had to leave. I had errands to run. However, there was no question as to which protesters left me with the greatest impression: It was those who kept chanting a memorable phrase that spoke about freedom. Indeed, I couldn’t seem to get it out of my head and as I walked away, I continued to repeat it over and over again to myself:
“From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.”
In the Zionist community, we are fixated on the ideal of “peace,” believing that our focus should be on pursuing what is often cited as liberal humanity’s highest value. In our pamphlets, slogans, and counter-demonstrations against anti-Zionist forces, the notion of peace is prevalent and placed on a pedestal—while all other ideals are often made secondary.
“It takes two sides to make peace.” We hear Israeli diplomats and activists making this statement ad nauseam. I used to make this point incessantly as a counter-argument to anti-Israel groups on campus who would rant about Jewish conspiracy theories and how they believed segregating Jews outside of Judea and Samaria was an inherently noble aim and endeavor.
Yet if we consider the premise that peace is the most important principle one must uphold—and extrapolate that claim to its logical conclusion—we will be forced to tolerate the oppression and disenfranchisement of our own community.
Today, for example, in Europe, anti-Semitism is growing at alarming rates. Jews are being attacked in synagogues and slain in kosher supermarkets and are often harassed when they express their culture or religion by wearing kippot or Star of David necklaces.
Imagine for a moment if a European government segregated the Jewish community, ostensibly so that they wouldn’t be attacked. Imagine further that legislation was passed to place a Jewish community in a ghetto of sorts and that laws were put in place that banned Jews from leaving the area after 10 p.m. during weekdays.
What if a resolution were passed banning all Jewish cultural expression: “Jews can no longer have peyot or wear tzitzit under their clothing”; “Jews cannot openly support the state of Israel;” “Jews cannot walk into areas that are densely populated with Muslim citizens.”
What if these provisions succeeded in effectively stemming the tide of anti-Semitism in Europe and led to a decrease in hate crimes against Jews? What if there was less violence; less tension; less bloodshed?
Such a hypothetical situation could be described as “peaceful.” There’s only one problem: Such a hypothetical situation could also be described as unjust.
If a Jew is lynched and no one in the community fights back, that is—by definition—a peaceful situation. It is also unjust.
If a swastika is painted on the building of a Jewish organization or school, and no one in the community fights back, that is—by definition—a peaceful situation. It is also unjust.
If racists promote the wholesale discrimination of Jews on campus, and no one in the community fights back, that is—by definition—a peaceful situation. It is also unjust.
Therein lies the rub: We conflate “peace” with virtue while sacrificing the latter on the altar of the former. As a result, there will never be real peace because there is no justice.
In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous Letter From the Birmingham Jail, the civil rights leader rebuts the notion that “direct action”—a type of civil disobedience that tapped into the power of demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins to confront racists in the South—is a threat to maintaining peace and civility. Indeed, King relished the concept of “tension” as long it was done in order to promote justice.
“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension,’ ” King wrote. Instead, it was important to “create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
In other words: It is only out of a struggle between good and evil that justice can arise in the first place. If the powers-that-be advocate for the abnegation of Jewish civil rights in Europe, the onus is upon us to (in the words of the music group Rage Against the Machine) “Take the power back.”
Chanting about how we want “peace” is dishonest.
What we really desire is freedom; and in order to get it, we must be willing to fight for it.
In 1857, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass wrote the following in a speech titled “West India Emancipation”:
It is not within the power of unaided human nature to persevere in pitying a people who are insensible to their own wrongs and indifferent to the attainment of their own rights. The poet was as true to common sense as to poetry when he said: ‘Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.’ … The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will CONTINUE [sic] till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
These words still hold true more than a century later. Recent restrictions imposed at the Caroline School—a prominent private Jewish institution in Copenhagen, Denmark—illustrate this point. In August, the school, which has existed for over 200 years, asked students not to wear religious symbols outside of the campus, in an attempt to deter anti-Semitic attacks. Two weeks later, the school was vandalized by racists.
This response to oppression—namely, self-repudiation—is important as it illustrates the inevitable conclusion of the refusal to fight. One cannot deter Jew-hatred by denying Jews the right to be publicly Jewish. This gives legitimacy to bigots. If you don’t think you are worth defending, there is no reason to protest those who agree with you—and who act on that agreement by persecuting you.
Instead, a free people must have an ultimatum—the terms of which, if rejected, must yield real consequences for those who repress. In other words, a price must be paid for dishonoring the Hebrew nation.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”
There are many tactics a people can use to convey to their audience—both in the media and to their enemies—that they demand equal treatment. One such tactic is called a “walkout.” Walkouts are used to express disapproval of a discriminatory, prejudiced presentation such as a speech or lecture presented by a racial supremacist. A walkout is performed to illustrate that although said speaker has received legitimacy by having an official platform to speak, protesters will neither recognize nor honor that status since the speaker’s message is fundamentally inimical to their rights as a human being.
For example, Steven Salaita—a notorious academic and author who once called anti-Semitism “honorable”—is often given a platform to speak at universities around the country. The walkout is a tactic that Zionist students can use to express their disapproval of his message. In the middle of Salaita’s lecture, students can simultaneously stand for one minute and then walk out, collectively. This tactic was utilized by students at UC Davis when a resolution to boycott Israel was considered. As King once illustrated, such a display, if done consistently, “dramatize[s] the issue [so] that it can no longer be ignored.”
Another tactic is what’s known as “noncooperation.” Mahatma Gandhi successfully used this strategy in his anti-colonialist struggle against the British.
The purpose of this tactic is to shift societal patterns in a way that becomes burdensome for the oppressors. Gandhi and his followers refused to cease from protesting in an area the British claimed was off limits. As a result, protesters were arrested en masse, effectively overcrowding the prisons and forcing the British to rethink—and redress—their unjust laws.
If such a tactic were used today in our community, it would be effective in two important ways: It would illustrate the extent to which we have devoted our lives to fighting against the degradation of our people; if done over a protracted period of time, it would force the media to pay attention and provide us with a national platform to express our points of view.
Noncooperation, like the walkout, can also be used in a university setting. If student senators are engaged in discussions that entail a boycott of the Jewish state, and Zionist students aren’t permitted to attend the majority of the sessions, (as was the case recently at UCLA), students may enter the setting and refuse to disperse—even to the point of being arrested. If this is accomplished by a large group of students, and footage of the protest is publicized over the Internet, in all likelihood, it will garner media attention.
To be sure, noncooperation and walkouts are only two out of hundreds of tactics that many have used in the past to protest injustice. King called such tactics “direct action.” Henry David Thoreau called them “civil disobedience.” Regardless of what we choose to call them, one thing is certain: These are the tools of struggle. Without these, there can be no progress.
In 2015, the Jewish community is at a crossroads. Jews are being mowed down in the streets of Europe. Students are being intimidated on college campuses. Jewish-owned businesses and homes are being vandalized. The indigenous status of Jews in their homeland is either callously trivialized or completely denied by prominent voices in the media and elsewhere, including in academia and the United Nations. The 21st century is beginning to feel all too much like the torment of the 1930s and ’40s.
Yet, we pledged to ourselves, “Never again.”
This is not merely an adage—it is a demand. The time has come to ensure that the demand is met.
We must draw on our courage and have the audacity to force those who humiliate and threaten us to pay a price. Peace—if it means that we must lie down and be denigrated and even slaughtered while our enemies cheer, is not only wrong—it is evil.
How many more supermarkets will be attacked before we rise? How many more synagogues, schools, and homes will be assailed? How many more innocent Jews will be slaughtered while praying, or pelted with rocks while driving home?
Will we silently submit to these injustices unfolding around us? Will we be satisfied with telling ourselves that we have a higher moral claim because we want “peace?”
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