Publish the Dissent: A Proposal for Strengthening Jewish Communal Decision-Making

dissentBy Yehuda Kurtzer

The debate about the Iran deal was a watershed moment for the American Jewish community that laid out the partisan political divides which have been burgeoning in Jewish communal life for more than a generation, and signaled the demise of any lingering notions of consensus communal politics.

The causes of these divides are well-worn territory. Now we see the fractious consequences, and we are left to consider and plan for a Jewish communal reality in this new normal.

One cause for optimism has been the willingness of Jewish communal leaders on both the local and national levels to reassess their approaches to building consensus and other forms of communal decision-making. If the vitality of central communal organizations lies in their ability to appeal to as large of a segment of the Jewish community as possible without mechanisms to coerce belonging, then as politics is replacing ethnicity or denominations as the primary anchor of Jewish identity, it is no longer possible for Jewish organizations to lead by fiat or expect consensus on contentious political issues.

This receptivity to embrace a new reality was impressively on display at last fall’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America and was echoed privately by many. Absent a clear new way forward, however, we are setting ourselves up for more dissension and division when the next contentious political issue emerges.

In that spirit, I want to offer a simple idea, a proposal for Jewish leaders and organizations to do something different when next confronted with a divisive political situation that demands they take a position.

Very simply: Publish the dissent. Make the decision, make the case for it, and then publish the dissenting viewpoint or viewpoints.

We expect leaders to make difficult decisions, and to do so thoughtfully and expediently. In fact, the quality most often admired and appreciated in leaders is their willingness to act and speak decisively. In the case of the Iran deal, while I personally hoped that central Jewish organizations would take a neutral stance, I respected the sense of urgency that animated those Federations which took firm positions on both sides of the issue and deployed their resources to sustain them.

Great leadership goes one step further, combining such expediency with considering multiple courses of action and deciding from among them. This kind of decisiveness would benefit further from the exercise of giving public voice to counter-arguments against any particular decision. Both the United States Supreme Court and the Mishnah make it common practice to publish dissenting views, and Jewish organizations should normalize this practice as well.

There are at least five compelling arguments animating this position:

  1. People want to be right, but they need to be heard. Often the larger grievance expressed by a disgruntled member of a major organization is not that they merely disagree with the policy, but by the assumption and presentation that the policy reflects the membership’s uniform and universal view. Being ignored can feel worse than being wrong. People sometimes win and sometimes lose in making policy, and such is life. But coercing unanimity in support of the winning position is tyranny . More often than not in organizational settings, it sets people against the leadership rather than inclining them to get in line behind it. Publishing the dissent enables stakeholders to have their voices heard, even if their positions do not become policy; it enables them to identify with the larger framework which is signaling that their views are still in the room, even if those views are not normative. It has enormous potential for strengthening support for the larger entity, even among those who represent a minority viewpoint.
  2. Publishing the dissent puts pressure on the winning viewpoint to better articulate the reasons it won out. Communal organizations represent the community. They do so sometimes by following the articulated will of the people, and sometimes by following the instincts of leaders who see themselves acting in the people’s best interests. This delicate dance is now taking place in public and in the context of organizations challenged to compete for people’s loyalties in an open marketplace of ideas and identities. The strength of an organization’s firm policy stance will rely on its effectiveness to make its case; challenging policymakers to articulate their arguments alongside a dissenting view’s challenges will make their cases stronger and more effective. It must, or it will fail to carry the day.
  3. An underappreciated talent of great leadership is a measured sense of confidence, in the capacity to know opposing views and take in their critiques, while at the same time making a compelling case for moving forward. Blu Greenberg writes at the end of On Women and Judaism how those with stronger and more heartfelt arguments in support of absolutism on one end or the other of the spectrum between feminism and halakhah, exhibit what she calls “unexamined complacency.” She describes this as rooted in a greater sense of fear than her own as an agent of change, which does not allow “ambivalence, caution, or confusion.” A confident organization or society publishes dissenting views, because it knows it must lead in spite of, or perhaps impelled by, the persistence of opinions different from those it chooses to take. When our leaders panic about a diminishing market share of the affections of their people, slamming the door on dissent is counterproductive, even if predictable. Real leadership in an unstable moment tolerates ambivalence, rather than suppresses it.
  4. Publishing dissents makes the case for humility, another value in short supply in our community. Only the most capricious Jewish leaders today speak about their viewpoints as unvarnished truth. Our historical experience has taught us to be suspicious of prophets whose truth exceeds the limitations of human knowledge. Jewish leadership needs to be more of a moral meritocracy, and to get there involves cultivating Jewish ethical sensibilities in the people who represent us. One of these sensibilities is humility, which demands that even a true believer in the rightness of a cause must make the case for their position within a limited epistemological framework. The greater the responsibility they wield, the greater a sense of humility should be admired in our leaders. Publishing dissents would be a reflection of our leaders’ humility about the limitations of the truth at their disposal, a trait we should be cultivating.
  5. Finally, publishing dissents not only provides a useful historical snapshot of the nature of a debate when it transpired, but also lays the foundation for the policy of an institution to evolve over time. This is one of the arguments adduced by the Mishnah for why we keep dissenting views alive in the oral tradition, even though they have been rejected by the minority: dissenting views provide the framework for a society to refine its viewpoints later on and to be able to look back at one-time losing positions with the force of precedent. It has been wisely argued that 5-4 decisions in the Supreme Court reflect a closer commitment to certain ideas of justice than those resolved with a lopsided 9-0 vote; 5-4 decisions are a sure signal that there was credence and legitimacy to the rejected positions, and a reminder to a cocksure “winning side” that a fine line lies between winning and losing. A strong dissent lives in perpetuity as a witness against a decision, and challenges the logic of such a decision indefinitely. If and when historical circumstances change, the logic and rationale of the losing argument may be helpful and instructive in setting the stage for a refinement of the current position, which will in turn be augmented by the credibility of having historical roots in our consciousness.

Publishing the dissent requires more than token language in a policy statement about how weighty the decision was, and transcends the platitudes often offered to the losing side in the wake of a contentious process. Publishing the dissent gives voice to the losing arguments and to those articulating them, and signals confidence, humility, and a wholesale embrace of the dissenters, even in light of the failure of their dissent to become policy.

This could be a game-changer in Jewish organizational life, and allow us to embrace difference as a feature of contemporary Jewish life, instead of defaulting to the instinct to suppress it. The future of Jewish communal life should not be determined by how organizations acted in a moment of crisis, but in what they sought to learn – and how they plan to act differently – when given an opportunity afterward to pause and rethink. This is just such a moment.

Yehuda Kurtzer is President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.