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In a column published earlier this month, Bret Stephens of The New York Times suggested that when wealthy donors meet a political candidate asking for money, the conversation should begin with this question: “When did you last change your mind on a significant political, economic or social issue, and why?”
The ability to change one’s mind, Stephens argued, is a sign of intelligence and maturity, especially at a moment when the divisions in our politics seem to harden with every new shocking headline and every hard-fought campaign.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea in my fitful preparations for Yom Kippur this year. On a personal level, I realize that I have altered my views on Palestinian non-violent resistance and the wisdom of synagogues and churches giving sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.
But when does changing one’s mind swing from being a smart, mature response to new conditions and information, and instead become nothing more than hypocrisy for the sake of expediency? How do we judge others’ motives?
This dilemma is threaded through the coverage of Julia Salazar, who won an upset victory last Thursday that essentially guarantees her a seat in the New York State Senate representing parts of Brooklyn. Her political views and religious identity have moved dramatically during her short career (she’s 27) and her family narrative has not been consistent.
Some, like Bari Weiss at The Times, concluded that Salazar lied and lied and lied. Others, like my colleague Batya Ungar-Sargon, called her out on some mistruths but also decried the media shaming and obsession with this first-time, unconventional candidate.
And, in the end, it didn’t work. Salazar beat the incumbent by a healthy margin.
But what happens when a person is being considered for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court? Brett Kavanaugh has certainly changed his mind, particularly on the hot question of whether sitting presidents can be held criminal liable. (He was all in favor when Bill Clinton was in the White House. Now’s a singing a different tune.)
And what about the president himself? The latest update from the Washington Post’s Fact Checker calculates that Donald Trump made false or misleading claims more than 5,000 times in the last 600 days.
That number doesn’t even count the times he has abruptly changed his mind. In an interview with public radio’s Terry Gross Bob Woodward described a scene from his new book that occurred before Trump declared his candidacy:
“And Trump was insisting that he was pro-life. And they pointed out, well, you gave all this money to the pro-choice movement. And you can see Trump just saying, oh, well, I’ll fix that.”
Not exactly the kind of heartfelt, intelligent, mature change of mind that will elevate our political discourse. And for that, he — and any other candidate — should be called out for political expediency, rank hypocrisy, or both.
But we do have to make room for more honest evolutions in thought. We must be able to crawl out of our ideological bunkers and breathe in air with opposing ideas, try them on for size, see if they fit, and if they do, wear them proudly. And accept when others do the same.
If we were all a little more generous to one another this year, imagine how much healthier and welcoming our political conversations can be.
What else I’ve been writing. In that same spirit, the Forward has hosted on its opinion pages a lively, even provocative debate about Jewish “continuity,” and what information we need to make wise choices to ensure a Jewish future.
In my contribution, published today, I tried to figure out when fertility became the enemy of feminism. Read more here.
Happy Constitution Day! Yes, 231 years ago today, members of the Constitutional Convention signed the final draft of the U.S. Constitution, after nearly four months of secret deliberations in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The 39 delegates who signed the document (there were three dissenters) proposed an entirely new form of government, and, clearly, it’s still a work in progress.
If it were up to me, I’d ask all Americans to take part in a huge, national civics lesson today, so that we could better learn about and appreciate this extraordinary document. Sadly, that’s not happening. Instead, I recommend taking a look at this lesson plan on the First Amendment created by my former professional home, the National Constitution Center, in partnership with the New York Times. It’s meant for students, but I am quite certain many adults would benefit.
Including the guy in the Oval Office.
A mother-daughter moment. Two of my three daughters attended Wesleyan University, my alma mater (the third, wisely for her, went elsewhere.) So I was honored by the alumni magazine’s request to engage in conversation with my youngest, a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem, for a special issue devoted to journalism.
We emailed back and forth based on prompts from the magazine’s editor. I confess that it was a thrill to see our names together, in print and online when the magazine was just published. And to see our conversation in such very good company.
Sometimes those tuition dollars do pay off.
Looking forward. The last edition of our special newsletter campaign, Days of Awe, will go out tomorrow. We selected some of the best stories and columns from 5778 to remind readers of the breadth and depth of our journalism. Please donate to support our worthy endeavors, needed now more than ever. Thank you!
And to all who are observing, g’mar chatima tova. Or as my English relatives would say: Well over the fast.
Remember to email me at JaneEisnerEIC@forward.com. with your questions and concerns.
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Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.