Postal Workers Refuse to Deliver Mail Citing Religious Reasons

Israeli Post Office LogoAt the beginning of last week one organization tried to send Hebrew translations of the New Testament and other Christian propaganda through the mail.

As objectionable as this material is to many Jewish Israelis, Israeli law allows its distribution. As a consequence of freedom of religion, people have the right chose their religion and to live according to their religious life style. They also have the right to disseminate literature about their beliefs. There are anti-missionary laws on the books but they only apply when actions interfere with freedom of choice. Offering financial incentives for conversion is subject to fines and/or up to five years imprisonment. Encouraging conversion of a minor is punishable for up to six months in jail.

None-the-less postal workers in Ramat Gan decided to take matters in their own hands. Believing that the material was against Halacha, they refused to deliver it. Kikar Shabbat reported that the religious postal workers said “They cannot force us to deliver missionary materials against our beliefs, no more than they can force us to work on Shabbat”. Workers who self-identify as secular also joined the protest. One, named Yitzak, said:

Even though I’m secular, I am a believer and keep the tradition. Distributing these Christian books would cross a red line This is so serious in my opinion, that even if I were fired, I would not do it.

The Ramat Gan postal workers also contacted MK Zevulun Orlev (HaBayit HaYehudi). Orlev took the matter very seriously, and was quoted by Ynet saying:

It’s unacceptable that the Israel Postal Company should participate in distributing missionary materials to the Jewish residents of Israel. We must clarify to the missionaries that the law forbids it.

Orlev said that he had contacted the Communications minister to evaluate the situation and that mail delivery had been officially halted. However, the Postal Service demurred saying:

The Israel Postal Service Ltd. Is a government company that operates in accordance with the Postal Service Law, which obligates it to distribute any mail that is given to it for distribution. The Postal Service does not have the right or the ability to sort through the mail in order to decide what to distribute and what not to. For this reason, in this case, too, the posted items will be distributed in accordance with our legal obligation.

Orlev later told the Jerusalem Post that he would propose a bill that would call for stiff penalties for distributing missionary material in Israel.

In Israel, MK’s frequently threaten to propose bills, but very few of them pass. Government organizations frequently make pronouncements about what should be, but it doesn’t necessarily mean their expectations will be carried out. So far no paper has reported on whether the material has been delivered, nor on whether Orlev carried out his threat to file a bill, and if so, what its fate was.

Civil disobedience or abuse of power?

Regardless of outcome, this incident raises some disturbing questions. One of the tests of democracy is how we deal with opinions and actions we do not like. Do we let our preferences and personal convictions rule or do we allow the rule of law to take its course?

What if they had instead decided that pictures of women were immodest and distributing them was a form of illegal pornography? Would we still be sympathetic to the postal worker’s strike if they had thrown an announcement of a memorial service in the trash because it contained the face of the deceased woman?

As far fetched as this sounds a similar situation happened less than two months ago when Ruth Fogel’s family tried to distribute invitations to a memorial service.   The family delivered a picture of Ruth for inclusion in a weekly parsha haShavuah pamphlet sent out to synagogues.  The printers of the pamphlet chose to blur out her face without asking the family permission.  In another incident, a newspaper chose to blur out the faces of little girls in a Purim costume catelogue, even though the company advertising the costumes didn’t request it and later claimed that it was against their policy.

How would we feel if postal workers decided that family pictures of mothers, sisters, or daughters were contraband? What if Haredi mail workers threw out material advocating the value of liberal Jewish religious beliefs? Or at the other extreme, what if secular mail workers refused to deliver Haredi publications believing that they were missionary material destroying the fabric of Israeli culture?

How then should we view the refusal to deliver mail?  On one hand, the postal workers acted out of conviction.   At least one expressed willingness to pay the consequences of his principled stand, even if it meant being fired.  So perhaps we could see this as a classic case of civil disobedience?    According to the philosophy of civil disobedience, accepting legal consequence respects the rule of law even as it objects to the content of the law.

On the other hand, in a stable successful democracy, policy and practice must be decided by the rule of law and the electoral process and not by the private decision of an individual or group.    If people simply chose to obey only the laws they like the result will be anarchy or oligarchy, not democracy.  Those with the most power will do whatever is right in their own eyes.   Because they can, they will.  Those with the least power will be at the mercy of the person in power’s notion of right and wrong.

From this point of view, the unilateral action of the postal workers comes off as an abuse of power.  They used the control they have over the flow of mail to interfere with a contractual arrangement between the sender and the postal service  They used their control to decide for the receiver what mail they would be allowed to see.   They made these decisions without court oversight and without opportunity for appeal.

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