The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Higher Education

Campus Anti-Israel Protests and the Ethics of Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is sometimes justified. But current law-breaking by anti-Israel protestors on college campuses doesn't come close to meeting the requisite moral standards.


Anti-Israel protest encampment at Columbia University. (AP)


Anti-Israel protestors on some college campuses have engaged in clearly illegal behavior, including taking over buildings, building illegal encampments on school property (thereby denying its use to other students), restricting the freedom of movement of other students who disagree with their views, and even some physical violence. Some defenders of the protest have justified these illegal tactics by calling them civil disobedience.

Illegal actions can indeed be justified in some situations. But the tactics used by many anti-Israel protestors fail any plausible criteria for such. The laws they are violating are not unjust. The victims of the violations are almost entirely innocent people. The violations are highly unlikely to lead to improvements in government policy. And, finally, the protestors' objectives are themselves unjust.

Martin Luther King and many others have argued (correctly) that people have a right to disobey unjust laws. Thus, those who violated the Fugitive Slave Acts or various laws mandating racial segregation had excellent justifications for their actions. Elsewhere, I have argued that many undocumented immigrants are justified in violating immigration restrictions.

Moreover, people who violate unjust laws don't necessarily have a duty to accept punishment for doing so. For example, members of the Underground Railroad who helped escaped slaves evade the Fugitive Slave Act had no moral obligation to turn themselves in to the authorities. Ditto for dissidents resisting oppressive dictatorships.

This argument obviously doesn't help lawbreaking anti-Israel protestors. Laws banning campus building takeovers and encampments, and protecting the freedom of movement of students are not unjust. Even most supporters of the protestors readily recognize this in other contexts. For example, they would likely agree that pro-life activists are not justified in occupying buildings in order to try to force the university to divest from businesses that profit from abortion, or that Trump backers cannot do so to force the university to endorse claims that the 2020 election was "stolen" from Trump.

One can argue that violating otherwise just laws is permissible in order to target people who are themselves perpetrators of injustice. For example, perhaps anti-slavery activists would have been justified in occupying the property of slaveowners in order to pressure them to free their slaves. But the main victims of campus building takeovers, encampments, and coercive restrictions on movement, are students, faculty, and others who have no meaningful responsibility for any injustices occurring in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Merely investing in firms with a presence in Israel is nowhere near enough to justify targeting people. The protestors themselves implicitly recognize that, since they do not use such tactics to demand divestment from businesses that operate in China, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with far worse human rights records than Israel. And, to repeat, the main victims of illegal protest activities are not university officials who control investments but students and faculty (who generally have little or no such control).

Perhaps harming innocent people could still be defended if doing so were the only way to achieve some greater good. But that argument doesn't help the anti-Israel protestors either. It is highly unlikely their actions will lead to any improvement in either US or Israel policy. Even if some universities divest from Israel as a result (which itself is highly questionable), that isn't going to lead to any beneficial changes in Israeli or US policy. Moreover, the protestors' behavior is likely to damage their cause more than it aids it. Polls indicate most of the public condemns these types of actions. One survey found that 71% support calling in the police to arrest protestors who occupy buildings or block other people from using parts of the campus.

At the very least, before embarking on actions that harm innocent people and violate their rights, protestors should have strong evidence that doing so really will achieve some great good that cannot be accomplished in any other way. Campus anti-Israel protestors haven't even come close to meeting that burden.

The above analysis implicitly assumes the protestors have a just cause, even if they are going about pursuing it the wrong way. In fact, however, most of them do not.

Students for Justice in Palestine and other organizations leading the protests support Hamas's horrific October terrorist attacks and the replacement of Israel by a Palestinian state led by Hamas or some other similar organization. The virtually inevitable result would be extermination or expulsion of most of the Jewish population. Palestinian Arabs wouldn't benefit either. They would end up with a state ruled by a brutally repressive dictatorship, similar to the oppressive Hamas regime that has ruled Gaza since it seized power in 2007. Even if you believe—as I do—that the Israeli government has many flawed and unjust policies—the alternative backed by the protest leaders is far worse.

Some rank-and-file protest participants may not subscribe to the leaders' agenda. But, if so, they have a duty to dissociate themselves from it, or at least refuse to participate in actions organized by such people. Nothing prevents them from setting up their own independent protest organizations that abjure the terrible agenda backed by  the leaders of the current protests.

There are many demands the protestors could make that would help Palestinians without endorsing the evil agenda of Hamas and other similar groups. Most obviously, they could demand that Hamas release its hostages and surrender. That would immediately end the war, stop the suffering of the hostages, and free Gaza Palestinians from a brutal dictatorship. In addition, it would help forestall further conflict, which would otherwise be virtually inevitable so long as Hamas remains in power (since they have promised to "repeat October 7 again and again" if given the opportunity to do so).

Short of that, they could at least demand that Hamas fighters wear uniforms (as required by the laws of war) and stop their ubiquitous tactic of using civilians as human shields. That would do much reduce civilian casualties. They could also demand—as I myself have urged—that Arab and Western nations open their doors to Gaza refugees, which would also help reduce civilian losses and otherwise alleviate suffering in many ways.

If they want to focus on Israeli actions, they could try to focus on actual violations of the laws of war, as opposed to denying that Israel has any right to fight genocidal terrorists in the first place. Israel has taken extensive actions to try minimize civilian losses, more than other armies in comparable circumstances. But it is certainly arguable they should do more. Protestors could also target dubious Israeli actions on the West Bank, such as land seizures by settlers, while keeping in mind that the Palestinian Authority is also a repressive dictatorship (even if a somewhat less awful one than Hamas).

It's unlikely that any of the above demands will be granted merely because campus protestors make them. But the same is true of the protestors' efforts to influence Israeli or US policy.

This isn't meant to be an exhaustive list, just an illustrative one. There are likely other at least plausibly just measures protestors could advocate, as well.

Even a fully just cause wouldn't be enough to justify violating the rights of innocent people, absent overwhelming evidence that doing so would achieve some great good. But having a just cause is a necessary, though not by itself sufficient, moral prerequisite for those kinds of actions.

Even people backing awful ideas still have the right to engage in peaceful protest that doesn't violate the rights of others. That's the essence of freedom of speech. But if you go beyond that, you at least need a very strong justification. Current anti-Israel protests fall far short.