Righteous Roadblock – Is it ethical to block traffic as a protest?

Q. As protests have escalated in Israel lately, many protestors have turned to blocking traffic. Is this an appropriate tactic?

A. Protests and demonstrations do have an important role in public life, and this role is recognized in Judaism. Indeed, the modern Hebrew word for demonstration, hafganah, comes from the following story in the Talmud:

The wicked kingdom [Rome] decreed destruction on Israel, that they should not occupy themselves with Torah, and should not circumcise their sons, and that they should desecrate the Sabbath. What did Yehuda ben Shamoa and his fellows do? They asked the advice of a matron who was frequented by all the Roman leadership. She said to them: Go and protest [hafginu] at night. They went and protested at night. They said: For heaven’s sake! Are we not brothers? Are we not the sons of the same father, and are we not sons of the same mother? How are we different from every other nation and tongue that you make evil decrees on us? And they cancelled them. (1)

We see in this story the eternal essence of a demonstration: it is annoying (no one likes to be awakened in the middle of the night), but the true object is not to disturb others but in order to attract their attention in order to obtain their sympathy with a message of identification. There is an inherent element of provocation, but this is precisely meant to show that the protester is so certain of the underlying bedrock of solidarity that he is willing to risk a little annoyance. Yehuda wanted to force his Roman neighbors to say to themselves: We must have done something terrible if it uas caused an upstanding human being like Yehuda ben Shamoa, with his message of brotherhood, to risk our ire.

By contrast, if the object of annoying others is not to invite identification but on the contrary to impose costs on others so that they are compelled to give in to demands, then the action is extortion, not demonstration.

It follows that a legitimate protest is one which attracts attention with the minimum degree of disturbance. It is true that Yehudah ben Shamoa and his colleagues disturbed the repose of his fellow citizens, but they did not go farther than that, for example, by blocking the road.

Exactly where we draw the line is a very delicate issue. I wrote an article in an Israeli paper which expressed profound reservations about blocking the roads. I suggested that a hunger strike is also a demonstrative way of attracting attention yet does not disrupt public order. Yet I have to admit that the mass media in Israel do not always consult my articles before deciding on news coverage; many protesters did engage in a hunger strike and obtained virtually no media coverage, whereas the road blockers have attracted a huge amount of public attention.

Ideally, an enlightened standard of political speech should prevail, accompanied by an enlightened standard of mass communication. Israel, evidently, is slowly progressing on both fronts.

One thing that is completely inappropriate is the encouragement of youngsters to carry out these protests. The Talmud doesn’t tell us that Yehudah ben Shamoa mobilized a mass of teenagers to wail at night; rather, he himself, together with his colleagues, went out to protest the decrees. Encouraging teenagers to disrupt public order is profoundly dangerous for a variety of reasons:

 

  • This is exactly the age when young people are beginning to internalize appropriate standards of respect for authority; encouraging them to defy authority constitutes a brazen anti-educational message whose effects are liable to haunt us for years or even generations.
  • Young people don’t have the maturity to understand the subtleties of the public debate; therefore their protest does not have much moral authority in the eyes of bystanders. This means that their protests are not effective and therefore lack legitimacy. The bystander doesn’t tell himself, we must be doing something terrible if it causes a bunch of idle youngsters to go out and cause a ruckus.
  • It is difficult for a young person to recognize the appropriate boundaries of legitimate protest. Already we have seen in Israel young people who have gone beyond blocking roads and have moved on to vandalism (such as gluing shut doors) and hooliganism (including releasing live chickens in a restaurant area in a mall).

 

If responsible and respected leaders decide that public awareness of their message is so low, and the standards of mass communication so shallow, that blocking public roads is a valid form of protest, I can’t agree with them but I can acknowledge the cogency of their claims. Their sincere convictions will lead them to Israel’s roadways and intersections to make their message heard. But I see no legitimate basis for urging a mass of impressionable and idealistic teenagers to engage in this activity.

SOURCES: SOURCES: (1) Rosh Hashanah 19a.