Democracy and dissent

Spinoza deserves our admiration: he dissented and stood up for what he truly believed. That is admirable – and necessary in a free society.

A TOURIST takes a picture of one of the reproductions by the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn at Magna Plaza shopping center in Amsterdam. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A TOURIST takes a picture of one of the reproductions by the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn at Magna Plaza shopping center in Amsterdam.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On July 27, 1656, Baruch Spinoza was ejected from the Jewish community of Amsterdam by its Sephardic leadership.
The ban on Spinoza was harsh – but he deserved it. The philosopher rejected the authority of the Hebrew Bible, the authority of the rabbis, and his Jewish identity. While he never formally converted to Christianity, he left the Jewish community and lived as a philosopher who turned his back on his past. It would be hard to describe his philosophical works as Jewish.
Yet, despite all of this, Spinoza deserves our admiration: he dissented and stood up for what he truly believed. That is admirable – and necessary in a free society.
Life lived as a popularity contest is unexamined and a massive failure. Jewish communities around the world should start respecting iconoclasts and prophets – Jewish leaders always claim to be free and not coercive. But Jewish coercion – whether religious or political – is a reality.
Elevating the state or the community or rabbis to the role of God is to engage in the worst form of idolatry. Let us start smashing some idols.
One of the primary weapons used by governments and religious and political organizations is the claim of “incitement.”
States and organizations banish dissent and challenges to their authority by essentially accusing the challenger of yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, thus posing a threat to the well-being of the collective and spreading panic.
The collective never addresses the issue that a flame is burning in the public space and that the shouting individual has the courage to face the unpleasant and unpalatable reality of the danger and trying to warn others.
The best example of this is the reaction of Israelis to the Oslo Accords. No, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin should never have been branded a traitor and the Israeli Right should not have condoned this image to its political advantage. Yigal Amir murdered the prime minister, and only an inhumane and immoral fool would not condemn that act. Yet, to oppose the tragic mistake that Oslo was and remains does not mean that the opponent of Rabin’s diplomacy is a racist, a lover of war and a fanatic.
Amir’s heinous act was a twice a tragedy: first, Jew murdering Jew in the name of God and country; second, his act ended any significant protest against a policy flawed from its inception. Furthermore, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza has led to disaster.
I do not know how Israelis are able to live with the reality of rocket attacks. It seems to have morphed into the norm. A government that does not protect its citizens invites vigilante justice.
Moses, the establishment leader, does not do his job, and Pinchas the violent zealot fills the void.
As an American and as a Jew living in America, I see the stifling of dissent in many places.
The feared IRS becomes a tool to intimidate those who oppose our current leadership. To legitimately question the president’s policies, both domestic policy and foreign policy, is to be branded a “racist” and a “bigot.” When I was seven years old I wrote a letter to president Nixon protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War. I would not dare to write a letter today to the president protesting any of his policies.
To dare to speak the truth about the origins of radical Islam is to be shouted down as an “Islamophobe” and a hater of people of color. This is the debased discourse in our daily life and the reality of the writer whose work is on the Internet. The America I know today is not the America of my youth. My heart goes out to young Jews on our college campuses and their struggle to tell the truth about Israel – but I really pity Jefferson and Madison.
When the First Amendment is a hollow inconvenience, forget it.
As Voltaire said, “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” Replace the word “government” with “America’s Jewish leadership” and you get a better picture of what it means to be a dissenter who asks some harsh questions.
Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz was a thinker with whom I never agree but, like Spinoza, he should be admired for standing up for what he believed was right. After the Kibiyeh incident and the Six Day War, Leibowitz remained a harsh critic of the Israeli government’s policies and the role of the IDF. While I despise much of what he said and wrote, he held strong till the end of his life in condemning Religious Zionism and opposing the idolatry of the state. That Israel allowed such public dissent is a testament to the vibrancy of Israeli democracy.
In reality, many of the professor’s views fit well into the worldview of the Left, but he was never a “useful idiot” of any group or party.
But the basic freedom of expression is not just an issue of letting someone speak and write when we like his opinions and support his agenda. Some voices will disturb us and grate on our psyche – sometimes it pays to listen and learn, sometimes all we hear is babbling and fanaticism. It is our right as thinking individuals to choose what we hear. In a robust democratic environment, people know a demagogue when they hear him – and reject the demagogue.
If you see a fals prophet, dismiss him as an irrelevance and banish him. As Bob Dylan sings, “Sometimes Satan comes as a Man of Peace.”
Finally, I turn to Ahad Ha’am, another great thinker with whom I disagree on many points. The founder of Cultural Zionism had a profound understanding of the role of the priest and the prophet and focused on the distinction between the two in an essay penned in 1894. The priest represents the institutionalization of faith and religion. No government or community could survive without institutional structure and solely based on the charisma of the individual. Yet, without the vision or charisma of the prophet, the institutions of authority calcify, ossify and eventually collapse.
Dissenters and those who ask unpleasant questions are necessary to a free society or a living religion. Banish the dissenter and often you are banishing the prophet – a man or woman who could renew and revive the collective.
It is to the benefit of the state and the community to allow dissent. It is not simply the issue of free speech but an issue of meaningful existence and survival.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.