Assertive Nonviolence in Judaism

Establishing a new program of Jewish resistance.

Print this page Print this page

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from "The Sword and the Plowshare as Tools of Tikkun Olam," published by The Shalom Center.

What is a decent alternative to military action? The advantage of the biblical vision was that it was assertive, rather than passive. The advantage of the rabbinic vision was that it avoided violence. Is there a way to synthesize these virtues in the new era of Jewish peoplehood into which we have entered? Is there a way to create a Jewish path of assertive nonviolence? 

Let's look at what may have been the most successful single use of nonviolent civil disobedience by the Jewish people since the midwives Shifra and Puah, even though we have almost never put the tag "nonviolent movement" on it. That was the Soviet Jewry movement.

Don't Overlook the Soviet Jewry Model

With only one or two exceptions, it avoided the use of violence, and used assertive nonviolence to win freedom for Jews in the Soviet Union.

Dancing in the streets of Moscow on the night of Simhat Torah. Marches, demonstrations, boycotts. Sit-ins in the Supreme Soviet. I can remember when people thought, "Hey, a sit-in in the Supreme Soviet? All those folks will be dead in a week!"

peace rockBut they weren't. Indeed, they won allies. Jews around the world, members of other communities as well. Allies. We did not need to stand alone.

Through years of struggle, this movement made some cracks in what to many had seemed a monolithic Soviet totalitarian state. Even before those cracks and many others brought the whole system down, millions of Soviet Jews either became free to leave or free to begin recreating a Jewish community and culture.

Why did we not think of this movement as Gandhian or Kingian? I think it was because we were deeply puzzled as to how to cope with such a way of understanding ourselves alongside the State of Israel during that same period. But the movement to free Soviet Jews was an assertive nonviolent movement. We should with joyful pride name this nonviolent victory as what it was, lift it up to our own awareness, celebrate it.

This effort was the strongest, but not the only, use of assertive nonviolence by Jewishly-conscious Jews during the past generation.

Remember Freedom Seders, Trees for Vietnam….

There were the Freedom Seders of the early 1970s, aimed against racism and the Vietnam War, all of them rooted in affirming the liberation struggle of the Jewish people alongside the liberation struggles of Black Americans, Vietnamese, Nicaraguans, women. One of those Freedom Seders actually poured blood, frogs, cockroaches--the symbolic plagues--on the fence around the White House. Another brought together 4,000 people in the Cornell University field house, where Daniel Berrigan actually came out from the underground where he had fled to escape the government's prosecution of his anti-war activities.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow directs the Shalom Center and is the author of numerous books, including Godwrestling, Godwrestling--Round 2, Seasons of Our Joy, The Bush is Burning, and These Holy Sparks.