Protests are justified. Blocking roads is not

The freedom to demonstrate is at the very core of democracy, but it does not license public disorder and anarchy

Congestion Thursdays and traffic jam Sundays – for the last year and a half, Israelis have experienced days of rage, weeks of disruption, and blocked roads, sometimes on a daily basis, as a result of protests by the left and the right. When protesters are free to obstruct daily life, the Israeli public space descends into anarchy. Any benefit in advancing a struggle, any struggle, through violent and illegal means is ill-gotten.

We will remain divided over just about everything for the foreseeable future, so rules of the game must be established. Blocking roads should be out of bounds.

Freedom of speech, and the right to demonstrate that derives from it, are at the very core of democracy. They should be safeguarded at all costs. But they do not license public disorder and anarchy.

The Israeli public is roiling. Demonstrations against Netanyahu’s rule, the judicial revolution and, more recently, to end the war and secure the release of the remaining hostages have exacerbated the reality of constant tensions around a multitude of issues.

Added to this, as always, are the anti-draft Haredi protests, along with disgruntled settlers and, from time to time, demonstrations by Ethiopian Israelis and other identity groups. Alongside the weekly rallies in city squares, blocking main roads has become a favored tactic for expressing grievance and dissent. And so, for many long months, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have found themselves seething in their cars, stuck for hours in traffic jams, forced to pay a heavy price for the protestors’ anger.

The right to demonstrate, as Israel’s High Court has repeatedly affirmed, is not absolute. Holding a demonstration requires a permit and measures to ensure the safety of the protestors and the surrounding environment must be taken. The absence of permits, and the violation of the conditions they normally carry, renders some demonstrations illegal. Violent behavior in the service of protest is not freedom of expression.

The same goes for blocking roads. Unless approved, such obstruction is against the law. The fact that it is a form of protest, however justified, does not make it legitimate. Those who decide to block main roads, much less with burning tires, know they are breaking the law. It is the duty of the police to prevent or stop such disruptions, including by the use of reasonable force.

Blocking roads, and certainly so routinely and so massively, is simply not legitimate civil disobedience. The pain of the protestors, however justified, does not permit every action, especially when they cause others harm – in this case, hundreds of thousands of citizens on their way to work or school or anyplace else.

Against the legitimate desire of the protestors to bring their case to the public agenda and to pressure decision-makers stands the right of citizens, who are not part of the protest and who often do not share its positions, to maintain their daily routine and freedom of movement. Their maltreatment, even in the name of the most just of causes, is not only illegal but also inappropriate.

This tactic of dissent leads to an escalating spiral. When blocking a particular intersection of Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street becomes a routine and predictable inconvenience, protesters move to other roads in other cities to make their point. Counter protesters inevitably follow suit, and the ante of dispute is raised higher and higher as anarchy comes closer and closer.

But beside all this, it is likely that these protests often thwart their own objectives. Do roadblocks in Jerusalem reap any empathy for their cause? Has being stuck in traffic for hours moved a single Netanyahu supporter to the other side, or has it had the opposite effect? Have the “hilltop youth” who block the entrance to the capital achieved a more positive reception or are they further alienating the public?

A series of polls relating to obstructing roads for a variety of reasons shows that the majority of the public opposes them, even when they support the reasons for the protest, and certainly when they oppose them.

Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, Israel will continue to be home to the divisions tearing us apart. Our ability to survive this climate of dispute requires rules of the game – legal and social boundaries – for conducting protests. Blocking roads, once a rare sight, has become a tool that bedevils us all, right and left, and puts us on a path toward anarchy. This tool should be, as a matter of consensus, removed from the game.