Rabbi I Have a Problem

Is it right to go on disruptive Extinction Rebellion protests?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss issues in modern Jewish life


Question:  My son insists he wants to continue taking part in Extinction Rebellion protests even if he is arrested. Is the disruption caused to other people justified.

Rabbi Brawer: There are two questions one needs to answer in order to draw a conclusion. Is the cause just? And are the means of achieving the cause ethical? The end, no matter how noble, does not justify an unethical means.

The cause in this case — government action to protect the environment — is not only just, but imperative. It is deeply rooted in several Jewish values, including ba’al tashchit (not to waste), le’avdah uleshomrah (to act as guardians of the earth) and pikuach nefashot (saving lives). 

Due credit must be given to activists who take these values seriously, as well as the incontrovertible science of climate change. Their cause is a sustainable planet for our children and grandchildren. It is hard to find one more pressing than that.

What about their methods? Extinction Rebellion eschews all forms of violence and damage to property. Their tactic is civil disobedience where they stage mass peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins that blockade roads and draw attention to the plight of the planet. This no doubt causes inconveniences, and almost certainly — though indirectly — lost earnings, but they are not directly responsible for harming individuals. 

The Mishnah rules that when an individual injures another, the assailant is responsible for the victim’s subsequent loss of earnings while they convalesce (Bava Kama 8:1). This alone would imply that one is responsible for the indirect loss to a victim. 

However, early medieval halachah introduces as least two qualifying factors; that the antagonist causes the initial harm directly (as in the example of wounding another), and that the secondary damage be concurrent with their actions — at the same time the victim is struck, they are unable to work. Neither of these qualifiers are present in the road disruptions caused by Extinction Rebellion protesters.

While Extinction Rebellion is open to fair criticism about both their tactics — is inconveniencing millions of commuters the best way to get them to buy into one’s cause? —  and their desired goal of net zero emissions by 2025 (arguably unrealistic), they are nonetheless highlighting an acute crisis that too many choose to ignore. 

That they do so in an ethical way is to be commended. Judaism has a long history of prophets confronting people with uncomfortable truths, often by making a spectacle of themselves in public. You should be proud you raised a child sensitive enough to care about the future of our planet and courageous enough to try to do something about it.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Romain: Science agrees with Extinction Rebellion that we are endangering our planet. What is more, it has long been  a problem, but we are now reaching an irrevocable stage. Once ice-caps melt and rain forests are destroyed, they cannot be replaced.

It will mean parts of the world becoming subject to droughts, other areas being consumed by rising sea levels, air becoming polluted, populations being forced to move, regional conflicts over migration and water control.

This is not only a disastrous situation but, astonishingly, one we are bringing upon ourselves and, even more astonishingly, one we have been warned about and ignored.
I do not want to claim that Judaism has always been green, but it has certainly got a long record of taking the environment seriously, going back to the Bible (Deuteronomy 20.19) and the law that if you are besieging a city, you should not cut down the fruit-bearing trees in the area. When the battle is over, someone will still live there and will depend on the land, so no scorched earth policy.

There are several midrashim about protecting the environment, including the story of Honi Ha’Magel planting a sapling and declaring: “When I came into the world, I found it fully stocked by those who came before me; I now provide for those who come after me.”

Jewish teaching is clear that we are stewards of this world, have a duty to ensure it survives, but we seem to be failing miserably. It means, on the one hand, it is wrong to disrupt other people’s journeys by blocking roads and bridges, especially as they may be not only hard-working individuals who suffer from traffic jams, but also very conscious about  global warming already.

But on the other hand, polite words and scientific papers over decades have failed to persuade governments to take action urgently to halt the damage we are doing. Something dramatic needs to happen to force them to pay attention and implement world-saving policies. 

This latter hand is the stronger hand and part of that wake-up call. If it means arrest, along with the fiscal and reputational penalties it can entail, then that would be a worthy personal sacrifice. 

But this does not extend to destroying property or attacking police, and turning civil disobedience into malicious harm. So let your son go ahead, but in a way that promotes the cause rather than distracts from it.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

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