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Why Dissent Is Essential

Why Dissent Is Essential

One of the greatest accomplishments of the Zionist movement was its ability to tolerate and even encourage differing and often mutually challenging perspectives and ideologies. It is ironic, bordering on tragic, that the fulfillment of the Zionist dream has resulted in an increasingly narrow sphere of discourse and acceptable ideation.

We are becoming more insular, accepting only a small range of views and calling others by exclusionary and outright insulting names.

The rabbinic tradition of Judaism claims that the historic destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in 70 CE (and the consequent end of Jewish independence) was caused by sinat chinam, baseless hatred of one person for another within the Jewish community of that time. This was the conclusion of rabbis after they reviewed all of the military, religious and social causes of both the Jewish rebellion and its defeat.

Some would say that “baseless hatred’ describes the words of the rabbis’ ideological foes — what we now call self-hatred or “self-hating Jews.” But the rabbinic example of sinat chinam is the act of public embarrassment and humiliation of a neighbor by a neighbor rather than a political point of view held by one or a social policy advocated by another. This ancient insight teaches something profound.

Our post-Holocaust reflex (yes, I think it is related to our recent traumatic historical experience) to push out some and include others, to draw the wagons ever closer in attempting to keep out the “invading hordes,” is neither contributing to our communal health nor to our personal salvation. Imagine what would happen if we could learn to again tolerate a much wider public Jewish discourse. New ideas would continually surface, more young faces would feel legitimized and welcomed and (conceivably — by no means guaranteed) creative alternative solutions to our problems would be put into place.

Is it really inconceivable that there are acceptable alternative solutions (read: compromises) that could lead to an Israeli-Palestinian peace? Is there really only one voice, one source of ideas? If one of us declares that our love of family, community, people and even nation-state leads us to one set of (passionately held) conclusions, can we not accept the possibility that the (uncomfortable) conclusions of this brother or sister might actually also prove to be correct? Can we not return to a time when a range of deeply differing ideas can be heard, publicly debated and considered without the need to dismiss and destroy the discomforting, yet loyal messenger?

I began by citing the Zionist movement itself, the central and critical force that built the structure for what is today the State of Israel. Some wanted to accept any territory the world community would give for this purpose (e.g., Uganda). Most understood that the historic land of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael was our only possible choice. Some wanted socialism and they prevailed for many decades. Others wanted a religious state and others a secular one. Some wanted to conquer territory; others to consolidate more modestly. These were not passing issues: they resided in the inner core of the Jewish people’s modern struggle for national identity and security.

I would posit that there is no issue before the State of Israel today that is more fundamental than those faced by the early Zionists of 100 years ago. They might even be the very same issues. The lesson of that period and process is that the revolutionary achievement of the Zionist movement (really not much more than a gathering of radical concepts and wishful thinking) was a result of the free flow of often radically opposing ideas. The discourse nourished the discovery of creative solutions to a battery of challenges the early Zionists faced in realizing their dream.

Today we are the beneficiaries of that process. Dare we call it to a halt in the (false) belief that there actually exists either a single right (and righteous) path to the future or a very small range of possibilities?

I share these thoughts in encouragement and (of course) defense of Peter Beinart. I do not know Peter well, but I have read his words and looked into his eyes. He is not an enemy of the Jewish people. He is a voice of a challenging perspective.

As one who has dedicated his life to the education of the next generation of the Jewish people for almost 50 years, I will accept whatever additional barbs some may throw at me. But I believe that Beinart’s thoughts and radical ideas must have a place in our communal discourse. Beinart is no more a traitor than I, and frankly if his views have no place in our current community, neither do mine. Our collective future will be built around the increasing expansion of our library of ideas, not around an increasingly insular and narrow read of history and the future. Dissenting views are are simply dissenting views.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a remarkable statement on “dissent” that was recently published for the first time in his daughter Susannah Heschel’s new book “Essential Writings.”

“The greatness of the prophets,” he wrote, “was in their ability to voice dissent and disagreement not only with the beliefs of their pagan neighbors, but also with the cherished values and habits of their own people.”

The very essence of who we have been, who we are and who we will become as a people is at stake here. I hope historical memory will guide us to a more open, more intellectually challenging and ultimately more peaceful and just place than where we find ourselves today.

Peter Geffen is founder of The Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York and founder and executive director of Kivunim, which promotes experiential learning for Israel and world Jewish communities.

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