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 SocialistWorker.org 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.

Confirming Old Warnings, a Brush with Hatred

They warned me.

“They” refers, in this case, to dozens of people. My parents; my aunts and uncles; older friends who have graduated; even my rabbi. All of them warned me about the anti-Semitism I would face in college. Although I listened, I didn’t quite believe them. I would go to a college with thousands of Jews, in New York City, a city with millions of them. What kind of fool could hate Jews there?

I met him today. On my way to the farmer’s market outside my school’s student center, I passed a tall man wearing a white T-shirt and a silver, fist-sized cross. He held up a large sign, screaming in red letters, “GOOGLE IT!!!” Below that, in black: “China says Jews control America.”

For a moment, I thought I had misinterpreted the man’s message. Then, he turned around, and I read the back of his sign: “CHINA IS RIGHT.”

Despite all my Jewish history — despite my knowledge about stereotypes — despite the rage and shock that boiled in my chest, pulsating harder than my heartbeat — I froze.

What could I say to that man?

He was taller than me, tanner and visibly buffer. He hated my mere existence. He was foolish enough to believe Jews hold America hostage, dangling our country alongside stolen dollars in crooked fingers. He was so convinced of his correctness, his righteousness, that he stood outside despite the heat in a heavily Jewish area to publicize his warped beliefs.

I could not change that man’s mind in one conversation — not with the few minutes I had — and could not ensure my own safety while doing so. Though we stood in a public area, surrounded by people, he could hit me. He could kick me. He could push me backward and pretend my words were the buzzes of flies.

When I first saw the man, I walked past him in silence, as everyone else did around me. The man stood right in front of my college’s entrance, apparent to all eyes, but no one spoke a word to him. Some people glanced at the sign, then looked away; they shuffled their feet faster, uncomfortable, unsure. I took my cues from them. I went to the farmer’s market and browsed the stands. I bought a pound of honey, but skipped the apples because bruises marred their skins. I signed up for the market’s list serve and chatted with the sellers. All the while, I could not forget the man. He stood feet away from me, silent, holding up his offensive sign. I saw the glaring declaration — “CHINA IS RIGHT” — under my eyelids: whenever I blinked, the writing, red as blood, glistened before me.

What could I say to that man?

As I returned to my dorm, jar of honey in hand, I passed him again. This time, words jumped out of my mouth: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” My heart raced. I looked to see if he had heard me; either he hadn’t, or he was feigning deafness. I felt the words bubble in my throat — the accusations of ignorance, the “How dare you,” the hundreds of reasons he is wrong. But I said nothing more. He never returned my gaze and after a moment, I turned away. I walked back to my dorm fighting tears — of anger, of disgust, but also of shame.

In most of my blog posts, I state my opinions. Here, I cannot do that: I do not know what I think. I am not sure I did the right thing; I am not sure, in that situation, what the “right thing” would have been. Should I have told him why he was wrong, despite the fruitlessness and danger of that pursuit? Should I have stayed silent like the other passersby, knowing my words would sail past his ears like a cool breeze anyway? Was I right to shame the man, however ineffectually, and should I have repeated myself to make sure he heard my words? What should the people around me have done, the shufflers, who averted their eyes and kept their lips sealed shut?

I doubt one solution exists for this dilemma, a problem that Jews and other minorities have dealt with for too long. I, alone, can certainly not find an answer. As such, I turn to you to use this blog’s comments feature. What would you have done in this situation? How do you think I should’ve acted? No matter your answers, I won’t be offended; that would render mute the point of sharing and considering others’ viewpoints. I want to learn from you, as I do too rarely. Whether you have faced anti-Semitism or another form of prejudice, please, tell me about your experience, if you feel comfortable doing so. Other readers, I hope, will learn from your comments as well. The intricacies of hatred — both its substance and the fight it inspires — are things we all must, as responsible citizens, learn.

The man who stood outside my college today proved adults’ resigned warnings right. I have brushed anti-Semitism now; I will confront it, and other forms of hatred, again. Next time, I want to know what to do. We all — man or woman, Jewish or Christian — must know what to do. Otherwise, the men with offensive signs will remain, bigoted and ignorant, spreading the messages that keep hate alive. I hope we can start that discussion here, below this post. I hope we all learn something from the comments, myself most of all.

Amid College Life’s Haste, a Religious Respite

By most definitions, I am not a religious Jew.

Biologically, I am as Jewish as bagels and lox. My father is Jewish; more importantly, so is my mother; so were their parents, and theirs, as long as my family has lived. Our Judaism sustained us in tiny Eastern European villages, where my ancestors survived illness, poverty and pogroms. Our faith carried us from Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus to Canada, America and even Israel. Our Jewish heritage binds us today: we reunite at scattered cousins’ B’Nai Mitzvot, complain about our lack of grains during Passover together, sit shiva for the shared family members who must leave us.

Yet in certain key ways, some might consider me unobservant. I don’t keep Kosher — not even anti-pork Kosher Lite — and feel no guilt over that fact. I rarely attend services outside of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days that even the most secular Jews honor. My support for the modern state of Israel wavers on a regular basis: I believe in Zion, but the nation Benjamin Netanyahu leads does not fit my definition of a Jewish state.

These past two weeks in college, however, I have found myself drawn to my faith in one key way. More seriously than ever before, I have begun celebrating Shabbat.

Keeping Shabbat is one of our Ten Commandments. On Mount Sinai, God ordered Moses, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work . . . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:8-11).

Due to the Hebrew calendar, Shabbat begins at sunset every Friday and continues until the sun sleeps the next day. Jews begin the celebration with a dinner, usually with family, and then attend services Saturday morning and evening. More notably, Shabbat should serve as a day of rest. Orthodox Jews conduct no creative work — that is, work which exercises control over their environment. Bakers stow away their flour; fire pits contain no flames; farmers turn off their plows and let their crops grow untrimmed. In a modern context, orthodox Jews cannot write or use electronics during Shabbat. They cannot drive or travel in any motorized vehicle, hence the Jews in pressed slacks and button-down shirts you may have seen walking through rain or heat on Saturday mornings.

I do not keep Shabbat as an orthodox Jew would. Yet in a short time, I have come to hold Shabbat’s principles dear.

Although I do work on Shabbat, I pause. My first Friday night at college, I attended a Shabbat dinner at the local Hillel. For that hour, I didn’t worry about my classes or cleaning my room. I let myself enjoy my food, mouthful and morsel alike. I made friends with the other Jews assigned to my table, all strangers with one common trait. I thought about my parents, although they had snuck into my mind anyway.

Unintentionally, I followed both of God’s instructions for the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy 5:12, He ordered us to “observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” That I did: for one hour, I turned off my cell phone and computer. I appreciated the double meaning tucked within the word “present.” I enjoyed my space in time and the people, food and prayer sitting there with me.

So, too, did I remember. In the Torah, God told us to recall not just the earth’s creation, but also our historic Exodus. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” Moses instructed the wandering Jews. “Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).

As I ate my meal last Friday, surrounded by other Jews, all prosperous in a country where our religion cannot cause our deaths, I thanked God. We chorused gratitude for bread and wine in Hebrew prayer, and for the first time I understood the words I chanted. I was not just thanking God for the food in front of me, or for creating the world that bore it; I was thanking Him for the life I lead. I have never suffered enslavement; poverty hasn’t dirtied my skin. Love has never left my side, instead growing beside me in my mother’s womb and holding my hand to this day.

Appreciating the wonders of my simple existence, I thought with pain of all those who lack my ease. I bowed my head for Moses and the Jews he led to the Promised Land. I closed my eyes, respecting the empty stares that replaced Holocaust victims’ sight. I sent a prayer for the children, women and men in war-torn zones, robbed of family and peace, who could use the food on my plate as sustenance for a week.

I only spent an hour at Shabbat dinner, but afterwards I felt more centered and relaxed than I had in days. Amid the ceaseless hustle of New York City, I had found my calm.

It lasted a week. Today, I felt sensations too familiar to me. Stress; fatigue; hints of self-absorption. For the first time, I knew what I needed to do.

I gathered ingredients stored in my dorm’s mini-fridge. The meal I made was modest: a salad with apple, cheese, egg whites, tomatoes and orange peppers on a bed of baby greens. As I chopped my vegetables, I turned off my phone and put it aside. When I finished, I ate my dinner with a friend in our suite’s lounge area. We discussed her 30-mile bike ride, my plans to bake the next day and future school events. For the hour and a half in which I made and ate my food, I felt my ease return. It slipped in with my breath and stayed nestled in my chest, even when I exhaled a laugh. I felt like I was home with my parents again, sitting around the kitchen table, talking about our days and — most importantly — listening.

I attended no services and said no prayers. But in that meal, I practiced Shabbat as piously as my ancestors. I observed; I remembered; my peace restored itself.

The word “Shabbat” comes from the Hebrew letters Shin-Beit-Tav, which mean “to cease,” “to end” or “to rest.” Observing that pause with sincerity at last has taught me why Shabbat — more than even Yom Kippur — is Judaism’s most precious day. When we take any time, from one hour to 24, to give thanks for love and life, we embody the values that matter most. Humility. Thoughtfulness. Understanding. Compassion. Respect. In doing so, we become closer to God and thus ourselves — even if we’re eating with plastic utensils, sitting in a shaky chair in a college dorm.