Why I’m not shutting up

I don’t believe in unity.

There, said it. Despite all the euphemistic entreaties I’ve received – ‘to maintain communal harmony’, ‘for the sake of the k’lal Yisra’el’, ‘don’t air dirty laundry in public’, ‘show loyalty to Netanyahu, your Prime Minister’ and many others which basically boil down to, ‘Shut up and go along with what I’m saying because I’m more important’ – I don’t believe in unity. And I’m not shutting up.

‘Unity’ needn’t necessarily mean ‘unanimity’ but when it’s used as an argument for silencing minority views, that’s the effect it has.

The long history of minority views becoming mainstream – a round earth, evolution, votes for women – is so illustrious barely needs reciting. This doesn’t, of course, mean that the minority is always, or even often, right. But if those minorities had given in to entreaties to ‘maintain the communal harmony [in favour of male-only suffrage]’, how much worse-off Meryl Streep’s career would be.

The public interest in having many voices contribute to public debate is a thread woven through the legal systems of most democracies, including Judaism.

The great talmudic sage Resh Lakish was heartbroken when his study partner died and was replaced by a yes-man who always agreed with him: “Rabbi Shimon would challenge me with 24 questions, and I would give 24 answers, and true understanding would emerge.”

One might say that Rabbi Shimon’s ‘disagreement’ was disingenuous because he was simply playing devil’s advocate.

But the Talmud also tells us to call out wrongdoing: “Love reproof, for as long as there is reproof in the world, goodness abounds and evil departs.” And again: “One who has the ability to protest the sins of their world but does not do so is accountable for the sins of their world.”

There is even a rule that if a bench of judges unanimously decides to convict a defendant, a verdict of ‘not guilty’ is entered because such unanimity could only have been caused by closed-mindedness.

Un[anim]ity, then, is not something to aspire to. It’s not that it’s intrinsically bad. If it happens – if everyone is genuinely of one mind – so be it. That’s fine. But the practice of urging people towards unity is tautologic.

If unity exists only when individuals self-censor, it is not unity. It is an artificial ceasefire at most. And if somebody’s waiving of their right to speak their mind covers up heartfelt concerns about wrongdoing, nobody gains except the wrongdoer.

Sometimes the argument is made that, because us Jews all agree on the big things, it is unbecoming to thrash out petty differences in public.

Yet when it comes to differences of opinion, size is in the eye of the beholder. For instance, certainly my fellow Jews and I agree on the ‘big thing’ that Israel has a right to exist. But the ‘petty differences’ that divide us include such trivial matters as, for example, whether Palestine has a right to exist. That difference is just as Big a Thing – not least to the Palestinians.

We don’t have to look far back in the history books to see this principle illustrated most vividly. In apartheid South Africa, out of 166 Members of Parliament, only one – the truly wonderful Helen Suzman – expressed dissent.

165 went along, in the interests of ‘national unity’, with every discriminatory law proposed by the government. They were resolute in not quibbling those ‘petty differences’ in public.

In a surreal 1971 debate, the Prime Minister claimed to be “unaware of any annoying elements in apartheid”, and the official so-called ‘Opposition’ didn’t raise an eyebrow. Had it not been for Helen Suzman speaking up, nobody would have questioned such a ludicrous assertion.

Her interventions earned her considerable odium.  “There is nothing that works on my nerves more than a woman who continually interrupts me,” retorted the Prime Minister. “She is like water dripping on a tin roof. The Honourable Member must stop chattering. She is in the habit of chattering continually. If my wife chattered like that, I would know what to do with her.”

“When the Honourable Member gets up in this house,” snapped another colleague, “she reminds me of a cricket in a tree. His chirping makes you deaf but the tune remains the same, year in and year out.”

But of course, why on earth should she have stopped? If the tune is right then the cricket should keep chirping.

So I’m not shutting up.

I don’t believe in unity.

And you should all agree with me.

About the Author
Gabriel Webber is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, London
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