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Be Nice

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 similiarly 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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