Assertive Nonviolence in Judaism

Establishing a new program of Jewish resistance.

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Assertive nonviolence, with allies. Both a new approach in Jewish life.

And there was the Jewish Campaign for Trees for Vietnam, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as its honorary chairman, which challenged the actions of the U.S. government in deliberately destroying the forests of Vietnam to deny tree cover to Vietnamese guerrillas. The Trees for Vietnam campaign drew on both the Torah's prohibition of destroying trees in time of war, and the Jewish practice of planting trees in Israel. Raising money for these purposes was an act of civil disobedience.

More recently, this environmental activism has continued with a Tu B'Shvat seder in the redwood forest, concluding with a "plant-in" on the very property owned by a corporation that was logging the ancient redwoods.

The movement toward a Jewish nonviolent civil disobedience has helped invigorate and renew Judaism. For example, Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, was originally a ceremony that happened at the banks of rivers. Since ancient times, Jews beat willows on the riverbank, dancing seven circles with the Torah and calling out to God to save the earth from drought and locusts, famine and plague. But in modern times, Hoshanah Rabbah has mostly been limited to beating willow branches on the rugs in the small chapel at the back of a few traditional synagogues, having no way of connecting with the festival prayers for healing the earth.

In 1998, a small group of Jews changed all that by beating willows on the earth on the banks of the Hudson River--aimed against General Electric's refusal to clean up the river after poisoning it with PCBs. That fused the ancient meaning of this festival with an act of assertive nonviolence against one of the Great Powers of the planet.

Jews Protesting Jewish Actions?

Today, as the State of Israel pursues the older, biblical path, using military action to push its policies, Jewish nonviolence, sadly, must be used against Jewish military action. So we see Israeli Jews and Jews from the Diaspora, along with international supporters from many countries, sitting down against the Israeli bulldozers destroying Palestinian homes.

With their own bare hands, pushing aside the concrete blocks that cut off Palestinian villages in blockades, in sieges. Coming on Tu Bishvat to replant olive trees destroyed (despite the prohibitions of Torah) by Israeli soldiers and settlers in Palestine as well as replanting palm trees and pine trees destroyed by Palestinian arsonists in Israel. Being arrested, even beaten, for their nonviolent resistance.

And we have seen Israelis, soldiers and reservists, who have refused to serve in the army of occupation, citing God, ethics, Torah, and the true security of Israel as their reasons. And going to jail for refusing. In these brave nonviolent protesters we see the hope and the promise of an assertive, yet nonviolent means to secure Jewish life and culture.

Judaism and Universality

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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.