Question:

I recently became interested in Judaism’s perspective on civil disobedience. I read that Judaism does allow for nonviolent resistance to protest injustice, such as participating in sit-ins. Sometimes, though, more drastic measures are taken in order to protest harsh laws. For example, in the Boston Tea Party, colonists used vandalism to protest against the British.

Those who engage in civil disobedience do so knowing that they may be punished for it. Indeed, the British did retaliate. My question is, how would Judaism view acts of civil disobedience that may include vandalism, provided that the perpetrators understand they will be punished?

Reply:

Before I answer your question regarding vandalism, I want to take a step back to address civil disobedience in general.

The Talmud states that dina d’malchuta dina,” “the law of the land is the law.”1 From a purely Jewish law perspective, one is generally obligated to adhere to any “just” civil laws of the land that don’t contradict Torah laws.2

Based on the fact that this rule only applies to “just” laws, the key question is whether the law one is protesting is considered just from a Torah perspective.

In the case of the Boston Tea Party, the colonists’ main complaint was that they were not directly represented in the British Parliament. Therefore, any laws the British passed taxing the colonists were illegal under the British Bill of Rights of 1689. Seemingly, this “taxation without representation” would render the laws unjust.

However, it is debatable whether this argument in and of itself justifies disregarding “the laws of the land.” The colonists did not have to engage in civil disobedience; all they needed to do was simply avoid buying tea. Furthermore, from the perspective of Jewish law, as long as a tax is levied without discriminating against an individual,3 it is a valid tax, regardless of whether or not you are represented in the government (the Torah, after all, recognizes monarchies as valid forms of government).4 In any event, “dina d'malchuta dina” may not apply for other reasons, as explained further in the article.

But whether or not “taxation without representation” is considered unjust, there is another factor in the Boston Tea Party that we must consider.

Who can claim sovereignty over the land?

Before we can determine whether a particular law falls under the criteria of “dina d’malchuta,” we first have to ascertain whether the specific government that made the law is in fact viewed, from a Torah perspective, as the sovereign government.

One of the key indicators of sovereignty is whether the coins issued by the government are the tender of the land. This indicates that the inhabitants of the land have accepted the government and consider themselves to be its subjects. If, however, the coins issued are not the tender of the land, even if a government occupies the land, it is considered no better than common thieves.5

While this isn’t the place for a lengthy discussion about colonial and post-Revolutionary currencies, suffice it to say that besides for the fact that the Spanish dollar was the most widely circulated foreign currency in the colonies at the time (as opposed to the British pound), for the most part, the colonies printed their own paper currencies.

Although the British passed various Currency Acts to try to regulate the printing of paper currencies in the colonies, these Currency Acts themselves only led to greater tensions between the colonies and the British and are viewed as a contributing factor to the American Revolution. Once the revolution was underway, the colonies continued to print their own currencies.

According to historians, one of the underlying purposes of these Currency Acts—in addition to simply dealing with the depreciation of the paper currency in relation to the British pound—was to get the Americans to acknowledge the authority of the British Parliament.6

Based on this, already prior to the revolution, the British were not necessarily considered the sovereign government from a Torah perspective, so“dina d’malchuta dina did not apply. Under these circumstances, civil disobedience would be permitted.

Civil Disobedience Through Acts of Vandalism

Now, to address your question regarding vandalism: Even when “the laws of the land” do not apply, the Torah laws against damaging and stealing still apply.

In general, one is not allowed to damage or steal, even with the intention of returning the object or paying even more that the object is worth. Therefore, one would certainly not be allowed to vandalize anything as a form of protest (even if one’s intention is to get punished).7

The only possible exception to the above is in the case where merchandise is waiting to be sold, and the owner is not present. Then, under certain circumstances, since the seller’s whole intention is to sell the merchandise and make a profit, one can take it and leave the money with a third party.8 However, I highly doubt that is what took place . . .

The bottom line: Civil disobedience is allowed when protesting laws that the Torah deems unjust, or when protesting against a non-sovereign government, but vandalizing another person’s property is not condoned.