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Earlier this year, a Seattle-based journalist named Tariq Ra’ouf took to social media to explain the logic behind the pro-Palestinian demonstrations that have been rocking American cities for months. “We are going to inconvenience every single person who doesn’t give a f**k until they give a f**k,” Ra’ouf wrote. “That’s how this goes.”

The sentiment was clear: The banner waved by the keffiyeh-clad cohorts blocking access to airports and cancer hospitals and sabotaging staples of American culture such as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting was emblazoned with but one word, “Disrupt.”

It’s hardly a novel tactic, nor one exclusive to the Hamas enthusiasts in our midst. Following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, throngs of thugs took to the streets for what the media labeled “mostly peaceful protests” that left at least nineteen dead and cost the American economy a staggering $2 billion. Not to be outdone, self-styled climate activists picked the last few months of 2023 to disrupt a staging of Les Misérables in London, a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Met, a speech by Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell in Washington, D.C., and—horror of horrors—the semifinals at the U.S. Open.

Everywhere you turn these days, it seems, there’s someone determined to stop you in your tracks until you capitulate and acknowledge the urgency and legitimacy of his or her cause. Just going about our lives is verboten. Silence is violence.

If you’re looking for the origins of this noxious tactic, you’d do well to cozy up with a slim volume entitled The Wretched of the Earth, written by the psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon in 1961. The world, adjudicated the Martinique-born intellectual, is divided into colonizers and colonized, and it is the sacred duty of the latter to shake off the yoke of the former by any means necessary.

One method in particular appealed to Fanon more than others: violence. “Decolonization,” he opined, “which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder.” First the settlers violently exploited the natives, he explained, and then the natives, to redeem themselves—not only politically but also emotionally and psychologically, to feel whole again—have no choice but to double down on brutality, directing it toward those deemed oppressors. Each tearing of limb or breaking of bone, mused Fanon, nudges the oppressed a bit closer to freedom.

You don’t need a PhD in postcolonial studies to point out the profound idiocy of the argument. For one thing, Fanon sings the praise of the colonized and their noble national character, a magical aura of identity that alone allows the wretched to overcome their plight. This sounds rousing, even romantic—were it not for the fact that most national boundaries in colonized countries were arbitrarily imposed by the colonizers, having little to do with inherent tribal, territorial, or cultural affinities. Even dimmer is Fanon’s reliance on essentialism, the demonic argument that all Arab Algerians possess a certain set of qualities while all Frenchmen possess another. (In the 1950s, he worked in Algeria as a psychiatrist and supported guerilla warfare against the French government.) Worse yet, nowhere in The Wretched of the Earth does Fanon bother explaining precisely what he means by “colony.” If you believe, like Fanon, that oppression is largely a state of mind, then 34th Street might as well be the Mosquito Coast, and folks disgruntled about the Biden presidency are just as entitled to their share of cathartic chaos as those consigned to groaning under the lash of the East India Company.

With a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre—removed by Fanon’s widow after the father of existentialism dared speak up for the Jews—The Wretched of the Earth became first a seminal academic text and then a primal scream for an entire generation of self-styled activists. They distilled the book down to its toxic essence and walked away with a simple summary: If you feel downtrodden, upstaged, or misunderstood, you must render the lives of your purported oppressors miserable. The point isn’t to convince anyone of anything. No one believes that a woman prevented from reaching the emergency room, say, or a man from catching his flight, would stop and sympathize with the blockheads who caused their discomfort. The point is simply to disrupt. It is an act designed exclusively to make the disruptors feel more powerful, a goal that justifies lawbreaking and violence.

The Hebrew Bible, hallelujah, gives us much better guidance about how to revolt.

What, after all, is that divine drama, the Book of Exodus, if not the story of a revolution? Moses, a stuttering octogenarian, defeats the imperious pharaoh. Hashem, the one true God, vanquishes the idols of Egypt. The Israelites, a small and stiff-necked people, stand up to the world’s mightiest empire and prevail. And then, at the height of the action, something unexpected happens.

The Israelites do not, like the French in 1789 or the Egyptians in 2011, take to the streets to celebrate their triumph. Instead, they’re commanded to retreat to the Great Indoors and enjoy a very private meal, the main purpose of which is to tell (and retell) to their children the story of their miraculous triumph.

Which, if you think about it, is strange.

“It is the way of the world,” wrote the late Israeli rabbi Moshe Zvi Neria, “that in times of revolutions and grand, sweeping changes, everyone is swept outside, and personal matters are pushed to the wayside and family life gets no attention because no one believes this is the right time to invest in the home.” But the Exodus, he continued, moves in the opposite direction. God’s people are called to “this first family feast of liberation and regeneration.”

Why the hurry home? Why did the Lord not allow the slaves who toiled for centuries at least one glorious evening of blowing off some steam by the banks of the Nile? Because revolutions, the Bible warns us, are heady things. What starts as a joyous cry of liberation can quickly curdle into wanton violence, and then harden into tyranny. Fanon’s key insight is correct: Revolutions are violent, and violence is cathartic. And once unleashed, the disruptive and destructive passions of revolution are nearly impossible to control, as we’re seeing these days nearly everywhere we turn in America.

How lucky we are, then, that the Bible gives us a revolutionary playbook of our own. The story of the Exodus, the rabbis insisted throughout the generations, isn’t mere history, nor is it strictly the collective tale of the Israelites. It addresses and implicates each and every single one of us. We are called to extricate ourselves from our own personal Egypts, whatever they may be. And to achieve that liberation, to attain the moral and spiritual clarity that allows us to refuse the soulless yelps of the marauders who insist that justice can only flow from causing others to suffer, we have the example of a much greater political leader than any slouching about the scene these days.

“It was as if Moses was saying, you can’t always rely on miracles,” wrote the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. “The best way of keeping the flame of freedom alive is to teach your children to cherish it, work for it, savour it, taste it. Get them to ask questions. Teach them the story in a way that fires their imagination and becomes part of their identity.” The story of the Exodus, he concluded, was “our apprenticeship in liberty.”

Our marching orders are clear. Whenever we see howling heathens insisting that our lives must grind to a halt until we succumb to their demands and bow before their power, we must resist their coercive assaults. But there’s something more important. The positive blow we’re called to strike entails hurrying home, hugging our children, and telling them—again and again and again—what we believe and why we believe it, speaking about America’s greatness and God’s goodness, about freedom and grace and the dignity of every human being.

Revolutions that skulk in the streets have a way of dying nasty deaths. Revolutions that focus on teaching children right from wrong go on forever. 

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.

Image by the U.S. National Archives on GetArchive licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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