Civil Disobedience, and Why the Intifada Doesn’t Count

Over the last week, I have read with mingled pride and dismay about my alma mater, Shaker Heights High School.

To honor Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Florida, on the fourth anniversary of his death, Shaker students wanted to wear their hoods up. In doing so, they aimed to recognize Martin’s senseless murder and the injustice in Zimmerman’s acquittal. They wanted to make a statement about how little hoods should mean — that people in this country, especially African-Americans, should be judged by their character, not their skin color or clothing.

On Feb. 26, 2012, Martin died because of America’s endemic racism. Four years and dozens of innocent African-Americans’ deaths later, my former neighbors and schoolmates wanted to honor his memory.

But Shaker Heights High School has a rule against wearing hoods. The administration sees them as a security risk, obscuring people’s faces and thus allowing anyone — potentially dangerous individuals included — to enter the building. On that note, Interim Principal James Reed III gave a PA announcement Feb. 25 against the hoods-up display.

“Students are welcome to wear sweatshirts if they wish, to honor his [Martin’s] sacrifice,” Reed said, “and also to state that by having our hoods down in our halls and classes, that we are all individuals who should be seen and respected, not covered by a hood.”

But students could not wear their hoods up.

They did anyway. Students received in-school suspensions. Students ducked from administrators’ eyes in the hallway. Some students did, in fact, put their hoods down. But some students kept theirs up, showing solidarity with Martin and other victims of police violence, in a stunning end to Shaker’s celebration of Black History Month.

I am so proud of Shaker’s students. I am so proud to hail from such a politically aware school district. Following the debacle through the Shakerite’s coverage, I read with pride, gratitude and admiration about Shaker’s beautiful civil disobedience.

On that same day — Feb. 26 — I learned with horror that an activist group at my new school, Columbia University, defines civil disobedience very differently than I do. To me, civil disobedience does not just comprise a protest against the law. That protest must be civil — nonviolent. Yet under the mantle of “civil disobedience,” Columbia University Apartheid Divest, which promotes the international Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement (BDS), includes the First and Second Intifadas.

I have refrained from speaking out against CUAD, largely because I do not disagree with them on every issue, or even most. I agree that Israel denies Palestinians in the occupied territories equal rights. I agree that Palestinians should have their own nation. I agree that the Jewish country I love departs increasingly, as the years progress, from my own Jewish values.

But I disagree that Israel within the green line is an apartheid state. I don’t think BDS will convince or force the Israeli government to free the occupied territories. And I am disgusted that CUAD insists the Intifadas were simply civil disobedience, ignoring the Palestinian role in the violence.

The disagreement stems from Feb. 11, when Barnard/Columbia Socialists promoted CUAD’s “BDS 101” event on Facebook. In their post, which no longer exists on the group’s Facebook page, they concluded their message with four words: “Long Live the Intifada.”

My friend Shoshana, the co-president of J Street CU — a pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, anti-occupation group I joined this semester — condemned the Socialists’ endorsement of the Intifada on Facebook. I did the same.

Perhaps naively, I thought CUAD might agree. I attended the BDS 101 event to learn more about the movement, and I was impressed with the CUAD representatives’ emphasis on nonviolence. They made clear that in promoting BDS, they are promoting a civil, peaceful way towards Palestinian freedom. I admire that goal, even if I disagree with BDS’ tactics and effectiveness.

For two weeks, I waited for CUAD to release a statement about the Socialists’ Intifada endorsement. As days passed and I saw none, disappointment set in. I had overestimated CUAD’s commitment to nonviolence. Still, I refrained from making any judgments or statements until CUAD gave their opinion. I wanted to let CUAD surprise me. I wished, so fervently, that CUAD would keep their nonviolent stance.

They didn’t. Instead, two days ago, CUAD and Barnard/Columbia Socialists posted an article by defending the First and Second Intifadas as “mass rebellions against terrorism” and “the popular struggle of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian people acting in civil disobedience against occupation and apartheid.”

To give the article full credit, it’s not entirely wrong. Palestinians did practice civil disobedience. During the First Intifada in particular, which lasted from 1987 until 1993, Palestinians used strikes, graffiti and boycotts of Israeli goods to show their anger — nonviolent tactics which I applaud.

But the First Intifada also included Palestinians who threw stones and Molotov cocktails. That does not justify Israel’s disproportionate, violent response, which killed more than a thousand Palestinians: I continue to deplore Israel’s use of incommensurate violence while responding to the insurrection of an oppressed people. However, the Palestinians’ weapons make it impossible to call the First Intifada a solely nonviolent movement.

And the Second Intifada, which lasted from 2000 until 2005, was considerably worse. This time, the insurrection used almost solely violent means. Shootings; rockets; stabbings; suicide bombings — all these and more lethal actions perpetuated death and injury rather than working towards peace. Thousands of Palestinians and Israelis were murdered by violent Palestinian insurrectionaries and the Israeli Defense Forces; still more thousands were injured.

Yes, Israel used its power disproportionately. Yes, more Palestinians died than Israelis, by indisputable margins. Yes, the Israeli government remains in power and ever more oppressive. But over a thousand people were killed by the Palestinians, most of them innocent. We cannot ignore that fact. The deaths and injuries on both sides only render the conflict more tragic.

Those deaths and injuries preclude the Intifadas from classifying as civil disobedience. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, civil disobedience comprises “refusal to obey governmental demands or commands especially as a nonviolent and usually collective means of forcing concessions from the government.” Philosopher John Rawls defined civil disobedience as “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.” Even Henry David Thoreau, who coined the term “civil disobedience” in his famous 1849 essay, advocated “a peaceable revolution.”

“Nonviolent.” “Nonviolent.” “Peaceable.” The pattern is apparent and unavoidable. If people uprising commit violence, ranging from wounds to murders, they are not engaging in civil disobedience. They are engaging in a violent insurrection.

If Columbia University Apartheid Divest wants to support the Intifada, they should be honest about what they’re supporting. I cannot stop student organizers from declaring their views, and I do not want to. They have every right to release a statement supporting the Intifadas, just as I have every right to write this column expressing my disappointment with that position. But, for the sake of accuracy, they cannot call the Intifadas civil disobedience. In doing so, they distort the term.

Promoting boycotts, divestment and sanctions is civil disobedience. Wearing hoods up to mourn a high school student’s death is civil disobedience. Shootings, stabbings and bombings are not.


2 thoughts on “Civil Disobedience, and Why the Intifada Doesn’t Count

  1. Historically civil disobedience can and has been defined as inclusive of violent & non-violent measures. So while you may disagree with CUAD supporting violent actions as a form of protest it is not against the definition, nor does it distort the term civil disobedience. Civil disobedience simply refers to acts against the current civil institution of government or structure, it does not specify by what means, that it has been granted a connotation of nonviolence speaks to the insistence (usually by governments themselves) that oppressed and marginalized people must be stoic in the face of violence and take whatever is handed to them and not fight fire with fire. Whether violence should ever be used in these cases is a different issue from whether or not CUAD is being honest about what they stand for and support.

    Link to an article I found helpful in the context of the Ferguson riots and processing my own feelings about that
    “But we are the dispossessed. We cannot count on the law to protect us. We cannot count on police not to shoot us down in cold blood. We cannot count on politics to be a productive outlet for our rage. We cannot count on prayer to soothe our raging, ragged souls…We are tired of these people preaching a one-sided gospel of peace. “Turn the other cheek” now means “here are our collective asses to kiss.” We are tired of forgiving people because they most assuredly do know what they do.”


    • It’s true that in the past, some groups and movements have deemed their violent efforts civil disobedience. However, that does not mean they were correct. What you define as civil disobedience — “acts against the current civil institution of government or structure” — is no different than broader political resistance. If civil disobedience is political resistance of any form, there is no reason for the distinct term “civil disobedience” to exist. Rather, civil disobedience is unique for its nonviolence, as I argued in my column. And I think asserting that governments have purported that definition to discourage violent insurrections is incorrect. Beyond the sources I previously cited — standard dictionary definitions, philosopher John Rawls and Henry David Thoreau, who invented civil disobedience as a distinct category — such individuals as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi all defined civil disobedience as nonviolent. Those individuals did not bow to their governments: they fought against the existing, oppressive governmental institutions. But they did so in a nonviolent way.

      I do not think CUAD is being intentionally dishonest when calling the Intifadas civil disobedience, particularly the First, which was markedly less violent than the Second. I think they misunderstand civil disobedience and define it incorrectly, hence my writing this column. Calling the Intifada civil disobedience politicizes it inaccurately, invoking such activists as King and Gandhi despite their strong commitments to nonviolence. Such an implication does not correctly represent the Intifada as it happened, and I do not think CUAD should propagate inaccuracies.

      As an interjection — I want to be clear that I do not think CUAD are liars or propagandists. (Which, I know, you did not accuse me of; I just want to make that clear for anyone else who may be reading this.) I just think they’re wrong about civil disobedience, just as most CUAD members would likely think I’m wrong about many things.

      I do not believe “that oppressed and marginalized people must be stoic in the face of violence and take whatever is handed to them and not fight fire with fire.” There is a place for violence. I don’t like that place, but it exists. However, violent tactics do not count as civil disobedience. They are political resistance; they are insurrections; they are even revolutions. All of those are valid ways to fight for one’s freedom, part of important historical traditions, and by no means do I condemn them. But I object to such tactics being called civil disobedience, because they are not. Words have immense power, and it is misleading to place violence under that moniker.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, especially in such a civil way. Of course, I understand you’ll probably continue to disagree with me, but I hope I made my view clearer. For the record, I think this article is thorough and fair on civil disobedience:


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