I’ve just returned from my quarterly meetings in New York where we had some quality discussions on issues of the day. Because there was so much going on, I had to make some choices about what meetings I would attend, but there were a number of combined sessions that brought the whole group (about 75 in all) together.
While the agenda covered the “usual suspects” – Israel, Iran, Church-State issues, Social and Economic Justice and the like, these meetings kicked off a new initiative on “civility” in the public discourse. While tangentially linked to the raucous and often disrespectful summer of “town meetings”, this initiative responds to the deterioration of the Jewish community’s ability to sit in the room and talk amongst ourselves when we disagree. The heat is mostly seen on the Israel agenda. Not that there aren’t deep disagreements about domestic social issues, but those conflicts are handled very differently. (I will defer discussing those).
On the Israel agenda, especially after 9-11 and the end of the Bush presidency the debate has polarized our community like never before. I experience this on a regular basis in Boston where the left has no problem categorizing the right as fascists and the right returns the favor by referring to the left as traitors. (Forgive me for oversimplifying)
Now, one of the speakers at the meetings described this conflict as being so heated because both sides believe that their survival is at stake. For the “pro-Israel” left, the soul of the Jewish people can no longer withstand the guilt of the oppression of the Palestinian people. For the “pro-Israel” right, knuckling under to terrorists spells the end of the Zionist enterprise and threatens the Jewish people with being thrust back to 1938 and the hands of modern anti-Semites, primarily of the radical Islamic persuasion.
By the way, there is merit to the arguments on both sides and therein lies the rub.
Our community pattern is pretty straightforward. The left looks at the right, turns its collective nose up and either expresses condescension or walks away from the mainstream with its tail between its legs, complaining that they have been silenced or marginalized. The right screams invective, sometimes goes on personal attacks and walks away from the mainstream cursing those who don’t agree with them or, at best, pitying the “useful idiots.”
And so it goes.
What troubles me is that this initiative on civility is being organized by the most “civil” organization in the Jewish Community. For more than 60 years, JCPA (once NJCRAC, once NCRAC) has developed and implement policy positions and a unified action agenda for the broadest spectrum of the organized Jewish community. Sometimes, they are able to achieve that by taking principled stands that not everyone agrees with but doesn’t object to enough to do anything more than “dissent” (abortion rights) and other times by not taking action when the community would be torn apart (like on ‘settlements’).
So the question that I am left with is “Why would the uncivil come to the table?” As a dear friend and colleague said at the meeting, the “public square” is virtual. One need not ever see those with whom they disagree. Snarky, vicious comments posted on websites have replaced face to face confrontation and the uncomfortable need to put a face with the ideas that one so abhors.
So if the “table” is a place where idiots sit or bullies marginalize people, why would they bother?
The speakers at the meeting offered some potential incentives, but nothing rang true to me. One young rabbi quoted Jewish texts. This is a non-starter since anyone who takes Jewish texts on civility and “derech eretz” seriously is not behaving badly. Those who do will not be swayed when the very existence of the Jewish people is at stake. And, of course, there is a text to support that (Et Laasot LaShem hafeiru Toratecha). At the time when you must take action on behalf of God, you can violate the Torah. So much for that.
I think that we can only reestablish civility when it is in everyone’s enlightened self-interest to be civil. Unfortunately, the uncivil seem to get their voices heard. (Insert cliché here about the squeaky wheel or uppity women).
It would be easy to end this with an admonishment that we must redouble our efforts to build the relationships, meet people where they are and invite them to the table to participate. That was once an option. Nowadays, that leads to nasty letters, threats to funding and out of context reporting to those with power about the (fill in the blank) process that either silenced me or threatens to destroy all of us.
Oh well, (insert cliché Jewish text here forbidding giving up or that we are not free from starting a task although we may never finish – or something like that).
Until next time…