11/10/2010 11:00:00 AM
Can a pledge lead to civility? JCPA aims to improve discourse in community
by Adam Kredo
One after one, five protesters on Monday loudly accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of destroying Israel's moral fabric.
All members of Jewish Voices for Peace, they had taken to the Jewish federation system's General Assembly in New Orleans to offer Netanyahu a piece of their mind.
As the fifth protester unfurled a banner decrying Israel's proposed loyalty oath, one nearby G.A. delegate reportedly became violent.
That delegate, according to JTA News and Features, grabbed the banner-wielding woman "from behind and put her in a choke hold, dragging her backwards toward the floor."
Confrontational episodes seem par for the course whenever large groups of Jews gather together for discourse -- and have led one Jewish communal organization to take a public stand.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs last week revealed its civility pledge, a document that it hopes will fundamentally alter how the Jewish community communicates -- both internally and externally.
"Today, the expression and exchange of views is often an uncivil, highly unpleasant experience," the pledge states. "Community events and public discussions are often interrupted by raised voices, personal insults, and outrageous charges. Such incivility serves no purpose but to cheapen our democracy."
When legitimate debates spiral into "uncivil acrimony, the dignity of individuals and community is diminished, and our precious democracy is weakened," the pledge states.
While the document had garnered nearly 1,100 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon, organizers of the effort know they're waging an uphill battle.
"We're not trying to turn the community into the shushing corner of the library," explained Noam Neusner, who helped draft the civility pledge along with JCPA officials. Neusner is a former adviser to President George W. Bush
Rather, the JCPA aims to foster a few simple habits, such as treating those with disparate views respectfully -- instead of like an enemy.
It will do this by training Jewish organizations and communal leaders how to foster civil discourse, respectful dialogue and good listening habits, according to Rabbi Steve Gutow, JCPA's executive director.
Respectful debate, in fact, can elevate a conversation, the JCPA maintains.
"If you train organizations and leaders," instructing them on what it takes to converse politely, "it will be far more on their minds" than it currently is, Gutow said.
Yet Gutow acknowledges that the pledge will be difficult to enforce. Currently, he said, officials are discussing how they might admonish those signers who fail to uphold the standards of civility.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Conservative Adas Israel Congregation in the District noted that the Jewish community is a natural place for a pledge such as the JCPA's to originate.
"We must begin with ourselves," said Steinlauf, who signed the pledge. "We have an obligation as Jews to uphold the ideas of loving the other Jew because the Torah of their lives has its own validity, even if we don't live buy it."
Asked if altering the discourse, political and otherwise, is a realistic task, Steinlauf said: "You've got to start somewhere. What we're talking about is changing the dynamics of society, as they've degenerated."