Joint Task Force Meeting on Civility
(JCPA’s Task Forces on Israel, World Jewry, and International Human Rights; Jewish Security and The Bill of Rights; and Equal Opportunity and Social Justice)
Chair: Susie Turnbull, Vice-Chair EOSJ Taskforce
Moderator: Dr. Steven Windmueller, Hebrew Union College
Rabbi Doug Kahn, JCRC of San Francisco
Dr. Karen Abrams Gerber
Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, Avodah
Susie Turnbull, Vice-Chair of the EOSJ Taskforce introduced the session. She explained how timely the issue of civility in discourse is, especially considering recent debates on healthcare and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. She noted that the hallmark of community relations is an open and respectful process. Susie then introduced the panel of speakers
1. Dr. Steven Windmueller is the dean of Hebrew Union College in LA
2. Rabbi Doug Kahn is the executive director of the San Francisco JCRC
3. Dr. Karen Abrams Gerber is a nonprofit management consultant in New York
4. Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay is the national education and training director at Avodah
Dr. Steven Windmueller, Hebrew Union College in LA, spoke about how the question of civility has been addressed in a number of different contexts. Many secular thinkers believe that we are so bombarded by information and issues that it is difficult to sort out opinions from facts. Jewish thinkers have pointed out the issue of a Jewish community that can no longer find the center on many issues ranging from church state relationships to who is a Jew.
Rabbi Doug Kahn, JCRC of San Francisco discussed some of the reasons why we are witnessing civility or a lack of civility in the Jewish community, and some specific examples of where civility in discourse has been a problem. An example is the issue of Israel—many synagogues have put a moratorium on speaking about Israel in their congregations because people did not feel safe in having diverse discussions on the issue. The polarized voices on the far left and right seem to be getting louder and to be penetrating more deeply in to the community. In San Francisco, a showing of the movie about Rachael Corrie at a Jewish film festival (which received financial support from the San Fran Federation, among many other orgs) led to a lengthy campaign against the federation, disparaging its support for Israel because a funded program independently selected the film.
Rabbi Kahn said that he believes that the institutions that are most vulnerable are those that—by virtue of their mission—are most inclusive. For example, JCC’s, JCRC’s and Hillels that need to work with diverse constituencies. He does not think that there is an organization more poised to deal with this lack of civility than the JCRCs and the JCPA on a national level. Every day we practice civility in a way that is becoming a rare model within our community.
Windmueller then expanded by saying that the heart of incivility is disrespect of other people. He asked Rabbi Ruskay to walk us through the steps of creating civility.
Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, Avodah, said that within our religion, we already have the framework for introducing civility, based in our tradition of debate and differing perspectives. These two basic frameworks are betselem elochim (in the image of G-d) and kavod ha’briut (human dignity). At Avodah we have people who work every day with people who are poor and have been hurt by the system, and in November we have a retreat where we work with them on the commandment in the Torah we are told to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to rebuke someone in the same breath. Toch-echah—rebuke. But it is very important how we give and how we receive rebuke. Our tradition of chevrutah lets us know that we are not called upon to agree with each other, but that there is a certain way in which we need to disagree and challenge each other in order to bring about further examination and understanding.
Windmueller then asked, how do we bring back a level of accord in our society, while still allowing people to be effective activists. He then asked Dr. Karen Abrams Gerber to speak about how we do this.
Dr. Karen Abrams Gerber told a story about living in Israel when she was younger, and having the chance to vote in an election. And she felt that there was this great responsibility of creating the future of the state of Israel with her. And so it is very difficult when we as a people disagree about issues that they believe threaten or determine the future of Israel and of a people. Transforming the current discourse to a civil discourse is possible. We have to have a fundamental belief that it is actionable.
Gerber asked the question: What if we have the power to create that fundamental change which allows our discourse to be civil? We need to learn to assume that something that we are so certain about is still a partial and limited framework of seeing the world so that we do not feel an existential threat when someone disagrees with us. The reason why there are a number of different valid approaches in Torah so that we can recognize that there is not one way, and thus it is not true that the more right I am, the more wrong is the other person. This enables us to appreciate different perspectives. Dr. Gerber believes that it is a baseless hatred of the “other” is what halts civil discourse. So how do we address this baseless hatred? Her answer is that it is an individual and collective mindset that will allow us to move in this direction. Curiosity is the soul of civility. So the question is, where have we—as individuals and organizations—stopped being curious? If we can identify those areas, we can introduce new curiosity and thus civility.
Civility in discourse is obviously not just a Jewish problem—anyone who witnessed the healthcare town halls can attest to that.
Q&A + comments
- Geoffrey Lewis: It’s not just civil discourse, it’s the shutting down of any discourse that is problematic. My concern about this issue is that I believe there is a problem out there that people don’t want to speak about the issue of Israel because it always ends in a fight. This happens to the Jewish community and it happens within the Jewish community—for instance, sometimes federations tell CRCs not to talk about certain topics.
- Kahn responded in agreement and noted that our daily work is more important than ever in terms of finding common ground and finding consensus, but the challenge is that there are voices out there who don’t want our behind the scenes work to happen. One of the core principles of community relations is resolving conflict at the lowest level possible and most efficiently. Kahn then spoke about Project Reconnections to bring in and work with left wing voices, and the idea of all of us acting as prophets and as guardians of the state of Israel. The third point he wanted to make is that the left tends to drift away and feel like they are pushed out, and the right tends to get louder and more vociferous in its commentary. The final point is dealing with incivility in the community is a time suck and drains lots of human energy.
- David Bohm: One of the areas that is a real focus of incivility is how we communicate about Israel to non-Jews. This idea that within the community we can have our differences, but when we speak to members of Congress, etc there is only one view point allowed.
- Steve Gutow: What concerns me is that we need to be able to step in to the shoes of the other side. Neither the left nor the right can assume that they behaving with civility. We need to have people on both sides that are capable of opening up and empathizing with each other. How do we make sure that we bring in people from both sides? If JCPA is going to move this forward in a meaningful way, it can’t be the left talking down to the right or vice versa.
- Larry Gold: I think part of this is fear. We are worried that the other side is not going to understand our point of view.
- Alan Ronkin: I’m struggling with this as a paradigm. Over the years I’ve been dealing with the “traitor to fascist, left to right continuum.” It seems that the shrill voices are winning because they play on fear or derision. How should local CRCs say to the community, it is in your own self-interest to stop the shrillness and talk to someone else?
- Martin Raffel: The public square has become digitized—you can now be uncivil on your computer—you don’t event have to be in the room. And I don’t think we have even begun to grasp the power of how this can create incivility, because you don’t have to look anyone in the eye when you say it.
- Susie Turnbull said that a year ago there was an article about her in the Jerusalem Post which was a beautiful profile. But the comments were disgusting attacks on me, my synagogue, etc. And there is a difference between being able to read those comments over and over again, and having someone say them once in a forum.
- Stephanie Ruskay addressed the need to build relationships. You can’t create a space for people to speak with one another if you have not built up those relationships to begin with, otherwise people are not interested in being there. She spoke about the ‘doorman’ text, a piece of law in the Talmud that says if people are living in community in a courtyard, everyone is obligated to help to put up a guardhouse. But by setting up a guardhouse, you can shut out the ‘undesirables.’ It’s important to think about who is not in the room, and who cannot get in to the room. She also spoke of the tradition of Hillel and Shamai, and how important it is to hear both voices. Finally, it’s important that we are able to organize the community because when you can deliver voices, people are more willing to listen to you.
- Karen Abrams Gerber asked the question: what does a code of civility actually look like? She noted the book Choosing Civility by PM Forni as laying a good groundwork. One of the key pieces is about how we can create spaces for people to dialogue and deliberate. Organizations that you can reference include Encounter. As an organization, my guess is that there are a lot of things that all of you are doing on the ground that are working, and that you need to be able to share best practices and learn from each other.
- Doug Kahn spoke to the question of airing dirty laundry to external community members—he believes that a take-away is to have a higher than ever confidence in our broad pro-Israel tent. If we don’t allow conflicting opinions to be aired, there will be an explosion. Kahn also noted that we can’t forget that incivility happens on both sides (the right and the left) and we need to engage both sides. It’s important to spend the time to construct engagement programs that allow for equal listening on both sides. Kahn then addressed the question of enlightened self interest—he believes that the reason some people are so shrill is a fear that they are not winning, and that they need to yell louder in order to be heard. In San Francisco the JCRC is sponsoring a ‘year of civil discourse.’
The moderator thanked the panel for their participation, and ended the session.