At its annual plenum, held this week in Washington, DC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs discussed a host of topics that its many member Community Relations partners could agree on: supporting Israel as it faces a wave of terror, combatting violence and extremism in America, and alleviating poverty and injustice throughout the world.
But in his valedictory speech, the outgoing president of the national umbrella body warned that Jewish unity is fragile — and, in many instances, deeply broken. Rabbi Steve Gutow noted the venom on both sides of the debate over the Iran nuclear deal. “The very notion that those who opposed the Iran treaty simply wanted war flies in the face of most of those people whom I know,” he said, “and equally far-fetched is the idea of opponents of the treaty [that] those who supported were traitors and Obama was Neville Chamberlain.”
Gutow also noted that the conversation over Israel is often stifled by those who will tolerate no criticism of Israel’s government. Such suppression is not only uncivil, but self-defeating. If the Jewish community is going to combat anti-Israel activity on the far Left, it can’t afford to “drive those on the moderate Left away from Israel.”
Some say the anger over the Iran deal was particular to that uniquely fractious issue, but their confidence is misplaced. The polarization in the Jewish community is structural, mirroring a broader society that prefers total victory over dialogue, and defending absolutes over acknowledging uncertainty.
Many in the Jewish community are trying to counter this trend. The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ is examining the issue of “respectful and appropriate dialogue in our community,” according to a blog post by its CEO, Dov Ben-Shimon. Last week its board of advisers took counsel from Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, on “disagreements for the sake of Heaven” — that is, substantive and vitriol-free arguments. This newspaper has tried to maintain a respectful forum for voices from across our community and the political spectrum.
But respect cannot be imposed. It is up to individuals to set boundaries and agree to disagree in ways that make the community stronger. Civility includes the things we post on social media, the remarks we make to and about our fellow Jews, and the ideas we allow to be heard in our public forums. If as a community we can’t embrace civility in these settings, then it becomes a community barely worth defending.