We live in a period of deep political polarization, more so than at any time in recent history. People with whom we disagree have become not just opponents, but enemies. That was the finding of a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014, long before Donald Trump was elected president. His rhetoric and policies, in my view, have made the situation even worse, and I believe that this toxic environment is undeniably detrimental to America and American Jews.
Yale University Professor Amy Chua’s new book, “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations” (Penguin Press, 2018), offers an interesting analysis. Human beings by nature, she argues, want to affiliate with tribal groups. When those groups feel threatened, “they close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.” Fueled by extreme economic and educational inequality, “America,” she observes, “is beginning to display disruptive political dynamics much more typical of developing and non-Western countries…above all, the transformation of democracy into an engine of zero-sum political tribalism.” It is a “perilous new situation,” Chua warns, in which “nearly no one stands up for an American identity that transcends and unites the identities of all the country’s sub-groups.”
Jews are a tribe (or, if you go way back, 12 tribes that make up one nation). In fact, we often jokingly identify ourselves as MOTs — Members of the Tribe. Sadly, the us-versus-them mentality has penetrated our tribe and made it more difficult to build a cohesive Jewish community. Much, but not all, of the divisiveness revolves around Israel. A 2013 survey of 552 rabbis conducted by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) even found that a third of them were reluctant to reveal their feelings about Israel to their congregations.
Concerned about these internal tensions, many communities have undertaken programs to promote civil discourse. These efforts are being pursued in the wider society as well, such as the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, established in the wake of the 2011 shooting in Tucson that killed six people and wounded eleven others, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Of course, greater civility in our discourse is necessary — fortunately, that’s one area where most of us agree — but it is not sufficient. Polarization is causing paralysis, especially in Washington, D.C. Despite our political differences, we must seek common ground, consensus, that will enable us to address today’s challenges at both the local and national levels.
There is nothing wrong with having a difference of opinion. In fact, the existence of political disagreements can make the achievement of consensus even more powerful. An example: In 1990-92, the Jewish community was engaged in a massive effort to win U.S. loan guarantees to assist Israel in absorbing the wave of Jews coming from the former Soviet Union. However, then-President George H.W. Bush refused to provide these guarantees until Israel, then led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, agreed to restrain its settlement policy in the territories, something Shamir was not prepared to do. But even though the Jewish community was deeply divided over Israel’s settlement policy, it was widely united in the belief that the U.S. should provide the guarantees on a humanitarian basis. (It should be noted that, despite this episode, Bush was an ardent advocate on behalf of Soviet Jewry.)
Richard N. Haass, at the time Bush’s special assistant, and the senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council (today Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations), was keynote speaker at a JCPA annual conference during that period. At one point, Michael Pelavin of Flint, Mich., former JCPA chair and a well-known dove on Israel-related issues, addressed the 500 delegates in attendance. But after Pelavin initially expressed his sharp disagreement with Israel’s settlement policy, he went on to make a powerful case for the guarantees. The audience erupted in loud and sustained applause and Haass, sitting next to me on the dais, turned to me and said, in Hebrew, “Ani shomeah.” I hear.
It is critically important for the Jewish community to be a model of civil discourse and to demonstrate that we can come together for important issues affecting our country. At the same time, we should also join in coalition with other groups that seek to overcome the paralysis caused by today’s polarization.
One such group is the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, a nonprofit organization that attempts to bridge ideological divides and reach consensus through dialogue. It is currently engaged in projects to improve K-12 education, health-care policy, and economic mobility, and to reform the federal budget process.
“Convergence brings people with similar views on an issue together with those who have vastly different views,” according to Susan Behrend Jerison, the organization’s communications director, who I worked with many years ago when she served as a professional at the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council. “What brings them together is a sincere interest in making progress and a willingness to engage with people on the ‘other side’ who may disagree with their ideas.”
After an initial process of building trust and identifying shared principles, she said, people with different views find that they share a common commitment that allows them to better listen and work together to make progress on issues that matter deeply to them. “We believe our work provides evidence that collaboration can lead to hopeful and lasting change.”
The Convergence Center is not unique, and Jerison pointed me toward other organizations that seek to achieve agreement despite political differences, including Bridge Alliance, the Bipartisan Policy Center, No Labels, Third Way, Living Room Conversations, and AllSides Media. Just by lending our support to these bridge builders we do a big favor to society.
Chua writes in her book that “when people from different tribes see one another as human beings who at the end of the day want the same things — kindness, dignity, security for loved ones — hearts can change.”
Open-minded liberals and conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, hawks and doves: There is much work to be done, together, to mend our broken world. Let us be political opponents, if necessary, and, when possible, partners. But let us never be enemies.