Commentary: We Need Civility In Public Discourse
(published in Detroit Jewish News, April 5, 2012)
Two Jews, three opinions, the saying goes. We Jews love to argue. A stiff-necked people isn't shy about confronting one another over matters great and small. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- up to a point. But during my two-year term of office as president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit, discord within our Jewish community has reached alarming levels.
Angry voices loudly take issue with differing opinions. It seems that some hardliners, whether right or left, Zionist or anti-Zionist, will try to use almost any Jewish community organization or institution, any publication or community event, as a platform for launching not only ideological attacks against ideas with which they disagree, but also personal attacks against people who don't agree with their particular point of view. That can't help anyone but our community's enemies.
Looking back over many years of Jewish community involvement, I cannot remember a time when the atmosphere was so toxic. In the past, it was a given that Israel used to unite us. But today, Israel all too often is a lightning rod for namecalling: Those who support Israel dif ferently are castigated as either warmongers or appeasers, depending on one's own position. Outreach to other faith and ethnic communities used to be universally supported throughout the Jewish community.
Now, even nonpolitical JewishMuslim tikkun olam (repair of the world) partnerships such as our interfaith health fairs elicit vitriolic responses from those who object to any such bridge building.
This kind of divisiveness undermines the viability of a moderate consensus capable of generating effective public policy. This problem is hardly limited to the Jewish community; but we should, and we must, address it within our community. Incivility in the Jewish public square has become endemic and as a minority community shrinking in size and perhaps political influence -- if not now, then in the foreseeable future -- we simply cannot afford it.
Detroit's Jewish community has written the book on community organizing. Our network of outstanding social service agencies, defense organizations, affinity groups, schools, synagogues and cultural institutions is the envy of and model for many other Jewish communities as well as the non-Jewish ethnic and religious communities in Metro Detroit. That could not have happened without Detroit Jews standing together despite their differences.
Promoting greater civility in such an environment will be like turning around an aircraft carrier. It will require a lot of effort and a lot of time. It will demand patience, mutual respect and good-faith behavior.
Some concrete suggestions:
- Declare a vision of civil discourse that clearly conveys the kind of community we aspire to be, the benefits of achieving that and the costs of failure.
- Establish and enforce a code of conduct for community events, public discussions and organizational meetings that prohibits interruptions with raised voices, personal insults and over-the-top charges.
- Hold community forums on the issue of civility itself as well as on major issues that have generated the most uncivil behavior.
- Develop and implement resources and models for training leaders and future leaders in active listening, conflict resolution and communicating across polarized divides.
While the collective Jewish community should undertake this effort, we also can take action on an individual basis. In your everyday conversations with friends, relatives and coworkers, if you hear a political disagreement escalate into character assassination, speak up and point out what's happening - respectfully.
One of the hallmarks of our democracy and our people is vigorous debate about pressing issues. When people are willing to not only hear others speak, but also really listen to what they are saying, common ground can be found, minds can be changed and better decisions can result. The wisdom of this is replete in the Torah, which sets forth the benefits of robust argument done in earnest mutual respect.
If we as a community can succeed in modeling such civil discourse, it would be yet another way in which we as a people serve as a light unto the nations.
Richard Nodel is immediate past president of JCRC.