Engaging in Civil Disobedience

Our nation has a long history of engagement in civil disobedience starting at least as early as the Boston Tea Party which ultimately led to the American revolution. In my own life time, civil rights activists, such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others engaged in civil disobedience which ultimately led to passage of a variety of civil rights laws including the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Vietnam war certainly would not have ended when it did were it not for many student protestors who engaged in civil disobedience.

My involvement in civil disobedience has been both academic and professional. While in law school, I spent two years conducting research for Prof. Arthur Berney which helped him write the chapter on civil disobedience contained within his book, National Security Law.  I also worked as a law clerk for a civil rights lawyer, Bob Hernandez, and had the good fortune to assist him in his representation of the Avco 7, a group of seven Plowshares anti-nuclear activists who broke into the Avco nuclear weapons plant and broke baby bottles of their own blood on missiles under construction. During that trial, which was ultimately made into a documentary movie, after significant legal wrangling to allow the trial to be filmed, we put on a necessity defensethrough which we attempted to demonstrate that the harm the defendants were trying to stop through their illegal actions was greater than the harm committed by their trespass and damage to property.

To put on this defense, we called expert witnesses including Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, who explained his own need to commit civil disobedience to help end the Vietnam war; Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United Stateswho presented a thorough explanation of the effectiveness of civil disobedience throughout American history, and Adm. Eugene LaRocquewho after retirement from a distinguished career in the Navy, founded the Center for Defense Information, and became a critic of the Pentagon and American military policy.

In our current era, climate change activists are successfully using the necessity defense, when they engage in civil disobedience. Just last year, charges against activists who turned off two emergency shut off valves of an Enbridge tar sands oil pipeline, were dropped on these grounds last year in Minnesota.

My academic and professional engagement with civil disobedience became personal a couple of days ago, when my son, Josh, was one of 15 If Not Now activists who were arrested for blocking the entrance to Birthrightan organization which takes young Jewish adults on free trips to Israel, but recently has hit the news by kicking off trip participants who ask about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, something which Birthright trips refuse to acknowledge and show trip participants.

My wife and I knew that Josh was going to New York for this protest. We did not know that he would be arrested. I watched the Facebook live video of the protest and while I saw some of his colleagues arrested, I did not see him arrested. Fortunately, I have a good friend, Gili Getz, an Israeli-American photographer, who lives in New York and often goes to protests like these. I asked him if he was there and if he saw my son.  He responded by sending me this picture, clearly taken before the arrest.

Photo by Gili Getz

Josh is the second from the right linking arms with his fellow protestors.

Gili then told me that he thought Josh was arrested. At that point, my wife and I anxiously waited to hear from our son. While we were and continue to be proud of the courage of his convictions, we are, nevertheless, parents who want to make sure our son is safe. Fortunately, about 6 hours later, Josh posted on his Facebook page that he had been arrested but had been released and was working with his IfNotNow colleagues to plan their next steps.

To make the arrest even more vividly real for my wife and I, Gili later sent me this picture.


Josh’s willingness to engage in self-sacrificing civil disobedience to protest the willful decision by Birthright to pretend that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and Palestinians themselves does not exist is not only admirable, but well within a centuries old tradition of civil disobedience, which has a proven track record of creating an environment for genuine social change when strictly legal means have failed to do so. In this case, Israel has occupied Palestinian territories and denied basic civil rights to Palestinians since 1967. Clearly, all the legal and diplomatic efforts to correct this travesty of justice have failed for over 50 years. In fact, it appears to be getting worse, as Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that Israel would annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank, if he is re-elected next week, in clear contravention of international law.

It remains to be seen whether Josh’s participation in civil disobedience with his IfNotNow colleagues will change the course of history. But, as his father, and as a keen student of civil disobedience, I admire his effort, and I know that his efforts are well within legitimate means of systems change, which I hope will in fact, make a difference.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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