Sunday, February 13, 2011

In Praise of Dissent

A recent CABI guest speaker, Yishai Fleisher, of Israel National Radio, began his talk with a plea for Jewish unity. With passion and eloquence, he urged us to set aside our differences and stand together, behind Israel in general and the West Bank settler movement in particular.

I strongly and unequivocally support Israel. Love of Zion is at the heart of my daily life, permeating everything from my morning prayers to my regular perusal of the on-line Israeli press. I, too, therefore, recognize the need for unity. When we face existential threats, as Israel often does, there is great value in doing so undivided.

But I do not believe that criticizing particular policies of the Israeli government and the settlers is tantamount to aiding and abetting the enemy, any more than I hold that my American patriotism requires me to support everything that our nation does. Indeed, I believe that the right to dissent, out of love, is a greater virtue than unity. Integrity is an end in and of itself. Unity, by contrast, is only a means: whether it is good or bad depends entirely upon what we are being asked to unify around. All too often, calls to unity are bandied about as a weapon to stifle dissent. This happened all too often after 9/11, when it was not-so-subtly insinuated that if you were not with us (the administration and its policies), you were against us (America).

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, we find another concrete example of unity’s dark side. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai, he finds the people celebrating as one—dancing around the Golden Calf. There is unity in abundance—but a serious dearth of integrity. Midrash even suggests that at least one brave person, Moses’ brother-in-law, Hur, did dare to speak out—at the cost of his life at the hand of the unified angry mob.

In the end, calls to unity almost always favor the status quo. Most great social movements, by contrast, begin with acts of dissent. Disunity, by definition, launches the revolutions that change the world. If people had always chosen unity over integrity, we would have had no civil rights or gay rights movements. Women would still be locked out of the workplace. The state of Israel would not exist. And there would be no Reform or Conservative synagogues. Tikkun olam—healing what is broken in God’s world—often requires the courage to break with the established order and ignore the reactionaries’ calls to unity.

I love Israel. I also believe that annexing the West Bank and ruling over hundreds of thousands of Palestinians denied citizenship as “resident aliens” would poison the Jewish soul of our homeland. Contrary to Jimmy Carter’s anti-Semitic posturing, Israel is not an apartheid state—but if it followed this course, it would become one.
Part of Israel’s remarkableness lies in the fact that it embraces disagreement and gives voice to its critics. I see this as a strength, not a weakness.

If this be disunity, consider me a proud and patriotic dissenter.

No comments: