He also participated in the Underground Railroad, spiriting black people from slavery in the south to freedom north of the Mason-Dixon line, openly violating the law prohibiting smuggling and concealing slaves.
In 1848 he delivered the lecture that would become known as Thoreau’s masterpiece, “On Civil Disobedience.”
Martin Luther King, Jr
More than 100 years later, Martin Luther King, Jr published his Letter From a Birmingham (Alabama) Jail, in which he called for civil disobedience in order to smash the racist Jim Crow laws that at the time were the law of the land in the southern United States.
When are such calls for civil disobedience reasonable? Under what circumstances is a person morally justified in calling for mass law breaking?
Breaking the law
In the two incidents mentioned above, the answer would seem simple. A person is morally justified, perhaps even morally bound, to call for civil disobedience when a democratic government does things that explicitly undermine those principles the democracy was established to protect and support.
So when a democratically elected government uses its power to discriminate against some people because of their race, sex or color, that government strikes a blow to the principle that forms the very base of democracy - equality. In such a situation, a person would be duty-bound to object to the discriminatory law.
Or if a government uses its power to strike a fatal blow to individual liberty – one must object. For example,people should have objected to the Nuremberg Laws because the discriminated on the basis of race and religion. Similarly to racist separation of whites and blacks in the American south, and to slavery.
If, God forbid, Israel were to pass a law forbidding Arabs/women/blacks (take your pick) from holding public office, or from taking legal action, or to utilize public transportation– citizens would be morally required to oppose that law.
If religious Jew were forced to eat non-kosher food, we would be morally bound to oppose to that law. Just as it is a moral requirement to oppose a law requiring a person to eat only kosher food.
Eldad: seeking democracy?
Knesset Member Aryeh Eldad called for mass civil disobedience again the Gaza disengagement plan last week. I have no doubt Eldad sees the evacuation of settlers from their homes as a desecration, and he opposes the disengagement with all his heart and soul.
But does the disengagement plan warrant civil disobedience?
I should point out that according to Israeli law, the Gaza Strip is occupied territory. It is governed by a military administration. Israeli law and justice has never been applied to the Strip (as it was to eastern Jerusalem and the Golan Heights).
Since when is pulling out of occupied territory a lethal strike at democratic principles? Does pulling out of Gaza strike a blow to the principle of equality? To individual liberty? Mr. Eldad is employing a principle that simply has no place in this context.
If the lofty ideals of democracy were truly in the hearts of those opposed to withdrawal, they would call on their black-hatted brothers currently sitting in yeshivot to join the army, or they would get out and demonstrate against inequality between Jews and Arab in this country.
So the next time withdrawal opponents come looking to brandish the “democratic” stick to call for civil disobedience, or to claim that evacuating settlements is not “democratic," tell them they are not ones to preach.