For several months, I have been an active participant in the community-wide campaign of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to restore civility to Jewish public life. As a result, I am routinely asked: What does civility really require of us, besides hushed voices and respectful listening in public meetings and discussions? Is this just an exercise in good manners?
The first answer is: If it’s only that, then that’s pretty good — we always could use a reminder on how to act in public, especially when it comes to our debates about Israel.
But the second answer is: It has to be more than that. It has to get to the heart of what drives us apart, and it has to create a simple expectation that whatever divides us for a moment of time, we are ultimately all Jews, and have to treat each other as Jews, and not apostates.
Liberals think they’re good at this, but they’re not. Jewish liberals routinely invoke their Judaism as justification for their political views. It’s often a bit of a stretch, and the cherry-picking of Torah passages can sometimes be downright ludicrous, but the bigger problem is that this approach to politics doesn’t leave much room for Jews who arrive at opposite conclusions on public policy questions.
Some on the Jewish left ostentatiously make room on their Seder plates for an orange as an act of feminist assertion. But would they make room for Jews for Palin? I doubt it.
The incivility in our communal debate is best summarized by a comment I get virtually every time I speak publicly: Why is a nice Jewish boy working for the Republicans? Funny, yes. But also uncivil — and profoundly so.
Consider what our civic life would look like if we directed similar derision at others based on their level of religious observance — which, unlike politics, actually has a lot to do with Judaism. Rarely does anyone ask: “What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing eating meat and milk together?” Outside of a subsection of the observant world, it is generally considered inappropriate to tell fellow Jews that that their failure to observe kashrut makes them bad Jews.
As a community, we’re pretty good at tolerating diversity of religious observance — and even non-observance. But we’re far less accepting of difference when it comes to politics.
Why does it bother Jewish liberals to discover that around a quarter of their community regularly votes Republican? Do they think we’ve forgotten the struggles of our great-grandparents as immigrants and shmatte sellers? Do they think we don’t read Torah or find inspiration in the exhortations of the prophets?
The conventional wisdom in our community goes something like this: Jews vote their values, their values are liberal-progressive, and therefore Judaism is a liberal-progressive religion. By that reasoning, liberal politics become a Jewish article of faith, and those of us who have found a different political home are guilty of heresy.
I recall the scolding given to Senator Joe Lieberman — hardly a Tea Party fiscal conservative — over his opposition to a health insurance public option. A couple dozen liberal rabbis orchestrated a public campaign attempting to shame the senator by presenting his actions as contrary to Jewish tradition. Laughably, the fact that Lieberman is a Torah-observant Jew was supposed to make this charge more biting. Suffice to say, I don’t think the senator felt compelled to add a line about denying the masses a public option to his personal Vidui this past Yom Kippur.
I am sick of such incivility. Let’s have debates and discussions in our community about any and all matters of public policy, but leave Judaism out of them (at least until we are willing to accept what Judaism says about every aspect of our lives). The incivility of a raised voice — that’s one problem. The incivility of a closed mind — that’s far bigger.
Noam Neusner is a principal with the communications firm 30 Point Strategies. He is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush.