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Dissent makes for good decisions

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“If there are 10 people in a room and nine agree, the role of the 10th is to disagree and point out the flaws in whatever decision the group has reached.” So writes Toronto lawyer and author William Kaplan in his new book, Why Dissent Matters.

The reference is to the so-called devil’s advocate, the canon lawyer whom the Vatican would appoint whenever a person was considered for sainthood to argue against the canonization. But the institution, established in 1587, only allowed for role playing, not real dissent. It was de facto abolished in 1983.

Good decisions, according to Kaplan, don’t come about by someone playing a dissenter. They require genuine dissent by people who can stand behind their arguments. He writes that “deliberation without dissent serves little purpose.” Therefore, “real leaders foster the conditions for good decision making by establishing a truly diverse group” in an “environment where group members can honestly say what they think.”

This has been the foundation of traditional Jewish decision making as reflected in our rich and varied rabbinic literature. Micha Goodman, one of the brightest stars on today’s intellectual firmament in Israel, reflects on the fact that normative Judaism favours the School of Hillel over the School of Shammai because the former always took dissenting voices into account, even when it disagreed with them. The School of Shammai, on the other hand, had no time for other opinions than its own.

The cover of William Kaplan’s Why Dissent Matters. MCGILL-QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY PRESS

Goodman wrote this in his latest book, which in English would be called Catch 67. It deals with the Six Day War and its complex and ambiguous aftermath. The book offers different and sometimes contradictory opinions about this seminal event in the history of Israel. Goodman’s point is that no single view, however persuasive, can convey the complex truth about it and its consequences. Only different, dissenting opinions can bring us closer to it even now half-a-century after the event.

Kaplan discusses the Six Day War in his reflections on dissent around Israeli government policies. But unlike Goodman’s, Kaplan’s dissenting sources seem to be more selective. Though they’re legitimate and should be considered, by not including other opposing views the author makes valid points yet doesn’t bring us close enough to the truth.

That’s no reason why the dissenting voices he cites shouldn’t be heard, even if they cannot be heeded. One of the problems in the Jewish world in general and Israel in particular is that those in power are doing their utmost to shut out dissenters by labelling them as anti-Semites, if they’re aren’t Jewish, and as self-hating Jews, if they are. They’re even described as enemies of the Jewish state when they don’t applaud the stance of the government in power.

Of course, not all contemporary dissenters are of the same ilk as the biblical prophets who were often very harsh critics of the kings and priests in power in their days. But they were insiders. As the late John Robinson, a British bishop, once put it, they wept for Jerusalem even when they proclaimed its doom.

This, indeed, should be the model of all dissent, not least when considering contemporary policies of the government of Israel. In the words of Amos Oz, one of Israel’s most important contemporary writers and social commentators, “I love Israel even when I can’t stand it.” This approach permeates genuine and persuasive critics of contemporary Israel. It makes Goodman’s book on the Six Day War authentic.

And that’s also what makes Kaplan’s book commonplace. Despite its praiseworthy commitment to dissent, also when it comes to Israel, the book, for example, doesn’t seem to reflect on the tragedy if Israel didn’t win the Six Day War.

However, had Israel’s leaders been big enough to heed dissenting voices immediately after the victory, the country might have been spared subsequent wars and perhaps also protected from possible future ones.