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The Forward Editoral: Be Nice

Published on November 3, 2010

Ironically, an elec­tion season char­ac­ter­ized by ugly name-calling, phys­ical confronta­tion — and so many nega­tive ads that by the end of the campaign they became an indis­tin­guish­able, disgusting blur — has also seen notable attempts to promote civility.

It’s hard to remember now, but Jewish Republicans and Democrats signed a civility pledge back in May, calling for “thoughtful and reasoned” debate during the upcoming campaign. The pledge was initi­ated by the Anti-Defamation League, which, in a further irony, went on to prove the limits of its own toler­ance with its unhelpful state­ment opposing the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero.

But, surely, they all meant well.

And surely, the latest campaign unveiled November 1 by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to “inspire healthier debate across ideo­log­ical and polit­ical lines, starting with the American Jewish commu­nity,” is simi­larly well-intentioned. We hope it will have more impact. We need it to have more impact.

We sit in a caul­dron of orga­ni­za­tional and insti­tu­tional [turmoil] about Israel,” Steve Gutow, JCPA’s pres­i­dent, said. “People are having a real compli­cated expe­ri­ence in Jewish life talking about Israel and, in America, talking about politics.”

He’s right. Try discussing J Street in an AIPAC crowd, or vice versa. Thanks to a contem­po­rary public discourse that seems to know no shame, we’ve lost the ability to listen to opposing view­points, or even acknowl­edge their validity. Such nasti­ness is nothing new in American poli­tics, of course, but advances in tech­nology and the break­down of tradi­tional jour­nalism have allowed it to be trans­mitted in nanosec­onds, with no filters or verification.

The JCPA’s “state­ment on civility” refer­ences the Talmudic legacy of robust disagree­ment as a template for today. Its signa­to­ries — more than 350, as of press time — commit them­selves “to treat others with decency and honor and to set ourselves as models for civil discourse, even when we disagree with each other.” There’s an impres­sive variety among the signers, span­ning reli­gious denom­i­na­tions and polit­ical parties, and including most advo­cacy groups. (Leaders of AIPAC and J Street both signed.)

Gutow acknowl­edges that, as of now, there are no penal­ties for violating this pact, but there are informal tools to promote compli­ance. Positive rein­force­ment, for one. On its blog, Sojourners, a progres­sive Christian group, created an honor roll to recog­nize govern­ment leaders who “promote truth and civility” in their commu­ni­ties. And, yes, there are a few real people on this list. A pair of state Senate candi­dates in Connecticut. And even a couple of media outlets. (Take that, Jon Stewart!)

Sojourners’ attempts to promote civility, expressing in a Christian vernac­ular what JCPA’s state­ment says with a Jewish trope, also is a cautionary tale. Its “Covenant of Civility” released in March was orig­i­nally signed by more than 100 Christian leaders from a range of theo­log­ical and polit­ical back­grounds. That is, until some conser­v­a­tives removed their names because they did not want to be asso­ci­ated with people who were, for instance, pro-gay and pro-choice.

The first test of the new Jewish state­ment, then, lies in the continued commit­ment of its signers. The second test will be whether the commu­nity will hold its leaders account­able — and, in word and deed, follow their better examples.

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