What does civil disobedience mean to me?

Gavi Reiter
May 31, 2017 · 6 min read

An Essay for the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of Student Conduct

Gavi Reiter

I have always been clumsy. Tripping over my feet, dropping my books, once in high school I even fell down the stairs in front of all of the school’s athletics teams as they waited to board their buses. Of all the times I have fallen or broken items, there is no worse feeling than dropping something that belongs to someone. I have a memory of kneeling on the floor of my grandmother’s living room, leaning over a bowl that I dropped, and trying to put it’s broken pieces together. I examined each piece, looking for the edges, just like I had learned while putting together puzzles, and working inwards towards a solution, in order to hand a fully repaired bowl back to my grandmother. Each shard was a new piece of the puzzle, with each jagged edge my guide. The reward that would come at the end would not be praise but rather a return to the norm, to the whole.

When I was ten-years-old I learned in my Jewish elementary school the words tikkun olam. Tikkun olam in Hebrew means “repairing the world.” In Jewish mysticism it is believed that humans must be actively involved in stitching together the parts of the world that have fallen apart. We can repair the world through giving money to charity, service work, helping another person, and large-scale societal change. Examples of movements and people, both within Judaism and outside of the faith, championed lessons in creating effective change.

Learning about tikkun olam and evaluating the world around me, lessons in class began to ring true, necessary, and unavoidable. That same year, a local energy company attempted to place high voltage power lines, which cause cancer in children, behind my school. Watching parents with law and medical degrees come together to fight energy infrastructure was my first experience with the potential harmful relationship between people and energy. A few months later, I learned about climate change and greenhouse gases, where I could see that the world was quite literally falling apart. These lessons were proved again and again throughout my younger years as I slept in my living room during Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, watched the British Petroleum Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico unfold, and saw sea levels rising on the coasts near my home.

Like my grandmother’s broken bowl, each environmental dilemma was a broken shard of the world. Each of these problems exacerbated pre existing societal dilemmas, impacting the most vulnerable and making the world seem even more fragile. Climate change and energy issues became an urgent and clear cry for repairing the world, tikkun olam.

Civil disobedience means to me the most active, engaged form of fulfilling the Jewish command to repair the world. Nonviolent action against injustice, prompts for institutions and people to question the status quo, and pushing of powers to engage with problems facing those least able to be heard are what make true societal change. Throughout history, movements and civil disobedience have resulted in changes that are now accepted as norm. Where would we be without civil disobedience against colonial powers or civil disobedience for civil rights? There are different ways that one can repair the broken pieces of the world, but when done in conjunction with a movement and a message against a higher power, effective change is accomplished.

This past March, Fossil Free Penn sat-in in the University of Pennsylvania’s iconic College Hall for four days, demanding full divestment from coal and tar sands companies and the establishment and commencement of a plan for full divestment from all fossil fuel corporations within six months. The sit-in took place after many years of striving to make questions of climate justice relevant to students and essential to the university. Sophomore year, my two classmates and I launched Fossil Free Penn, scouring University protocol and researching administrative jargon to learn how to create effective change at the University of Pennsylvania. In February 2015, we initiated the University’s first undergraduate referendum in 6 years, resulting in 87.8% of participating students voting in favor of fossil fuel divestment. In the fall of my junior year, we wrote a 50-page proposal for an Ad Hoc Committee to review and advise the Board of Trustees on. In September of my senior year, when the proposal was rejected with a mere nineteen word explanation, we mobilized 50 students for the first sit-in since 2000. Since the November sit-in, I have met monthly with administrators, and even once with President Amy Gutmann and Chairman David Cohen, to discuss the future of the university’s impact on climate change. In March, when it was clear that we had exhausted all laid out University protocol and methods of student action, we organized a successful 4-day-long sit-in, in which over 200 students participated and over 70 students voluntarily risked disciplinary action, ultimately proving to the University that its students are committed to administrative change towards commitment to climate action through divesting its endowment from fossil fuels.

While sitting-in in College Hall, reflecting on my past four years and the future to come, I thought of my ancestors who left Egypt and fought bigotry against Jews throughout time, from biblical Persia to World War II Europe to modern day antisemitism. I thought of the barricades at Trump’s inauguration and the larger modern day resistance. I thought of the loud and massive sit ins that had occurred in those very academic halls, resulting in the creations of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies department, the Women’s Center, and divestment from South African Apartheid. I thought of people I had met abroad who protested for water access in Morocco, Bolivia, and the West Bank. I thought of the increasing storms that had woken me up at night throughout my life, my constant fear of sea levels rising, the abnormal temperatures we experienced this February in Philadelphia, and those who will not have the privilege to escape this changing, broken state of the world. The world is broken, and we must fix it, one shard at a time. Civil disobedience at the University of Pennsylvania is like finding the edge to that bowl, the first step in calling for a solution to a problem. When working together and pushing our institutions through civil disobedience, we can repair the world.