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Jewish groups call for civility

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Americans have witnessed racial epithets, homophobic slurs and spitting on a congressman in the realm of public discourse. Now a number of Jewish groups are saying enough is enough.

Earlier this month, the Anti-Defamation League issued a call for civility.

The "Statement on Civility in National Public Discourse" was unveiled during a panel discussion on “Restoring Civility to Passionate, Partisan, Political Debate” at the ADL’s National Leadership conference in Washington.

"We stand together today to call for civility in our national public discourse,” the statement says. “Let our debate on the issues of the moment be thoughtful and reasoned. Let us look to our elected leaders for leadership, whether or not we support their policies. Let all of us, across the political spectrum, encourage advocacy that is vigorous; pointed but not personal or hostile. We reject appeals to bigotry, racism and prejudice. We reject calls to violence. In our national discourse in 2010, let us cast American democracy in the best possible light."

The ADL call for civility comes on the heels of a similar measure adopted in February focused on combating incivility among Jewish groups, particularly those with differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian debate. It was passed in Dallas as part of a resolution at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group brining together the synagogue movements, local Jewish communities and several national organizations, including ADL.

ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, recounted the events that led to his organization’s declaration.

"The level of incivility and debate relating first to the health care bill and now the immigration debate, the Arizona legislation — it has been a crescendo, a back-and-forth of not discussing things civilly," he said.

The ADL plans to reach out to its 30 regional offices to bring the pledge to elected leaders to sign in an effort to "lessen hostility in the language of debates," Foxman said.

The first to sign were Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, and Matt Brooks, his counterpart at the Republican Jewish Coalition — two groups that have not enjoyed the most cordial of relationships.

The groups even argued as to the wording of the pledge, with Forman not entirely pleased with what he described as the final "watered-down" version. Brooks requested the removal of a reference to "mean spirited" before he would sign, Forman said. Brooks replied that neither the ADL nor the NJDC pushed back over the changes and that his edits "made for a tighter, cleaner, neater document."

Foxman brushed off the quibble saying that "Yes, people gave input, but ultimately they were signing on to our statement."

Forman also was willing to shift into a conciliatory mode.

"Congratulations are due to the ADL, all of us, Democrats and Republicans, for we start with this minimal statement and build on it," he said. "It’s in the best interest of the health of democracy and Judaism that we bring back civility in discourse."

Brooks agreed, saying that "I believe very strongly that we need to vigorously debate issues of the day, but in a way that’s respectful of the political process, that doesn’t engage in racial or religious or ad hominem attacks."

With most forms of incivility happening in the public eye — at town hall meetings, on the Senate floor — the ADL believes that the media and the public are the best positioned to police the matter.

"The proof is in the pudding," Foxman said. "People can argue strongly and passionately about what they believe, and when they realize being uncivil is counterproductive to them and their cause, there will be a positive response."

As opposed to the ADL’s call, the JCPA particularly focused on the increased heat in recent years among Jewish groups when dealing with Israel, with the rise of pro-Israel groups like J Street that advocate open criticism of the Jewish state.

J Street has taken shots at Jews who associate with right-wing Christian evangelicals, saying that they are abetting a movement that imagines Israel’s destruction. More conservative groups have accused J Street of consorting with Israel’s mortal enemies.

"We are experiencing a level of incivility, particularly over issues pertaining to Israel, that has not been witnessed in recent memory," the JCPA resolution said. "Where such polarization occurs within the Jewish community, it tears at the fabric of Klal Yisrael — our very sense of peoplehood — and is a cause for profound concern."

Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of JCPA, said that though the details are not yet firm, a committee representing Jews from “left to right” will be put in place by June and will be charged with designing a multi-year plan to combat incivility and teach proper discourse.

"We need to know how to show respect when we agree," Gutow said, "and when we do not."

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