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Op-Ed: America needs a civility campaign

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — The election season has finally ended. Victors have celebrated, the defeated have conceded and we are left to clean up the detritus: direct-mail fliers, defunct posters — and the scorched earth left by one of the least civil election campaigns in memory.

American political culture has always been spirited and combative, yet for some time now the tone of our discourse has often been downright nasty. Smear tactics, name calling and distortion of facts are the order of the day, as the art of listening is not so much lost as trampled underfoot while politicians, pundits and activists rush to make points, heedless to what the country might need.

It seems clear what the country needs: an end to knee-jerk hostility and the start of something new, something civil.

Within Jewish culture, we have a tradition of “God wrestling” — struggling mightily to find the truth. Robust, vigorous debate is vital and, indeed, essential in a pluralistic society. But sincere God wrestling requires both an open heart and willing ears. It requires that we treat each other with respect as we search together for the best path forward, and that we leave open the possibility that someone else might have something worthwhile to say.

It’s to be expected that deep divisions will exist when concerned citizens grapple with issues of real importance. The economic downturn, the health of the planet, America’s security, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — each issue is emotionally fraught, and each will continue to resonate for years to come.

Yet for this very reason — the enormous importance of the issues over which we often disagree — it is crucial that we engage not in mud slinging, but rather in frank, civil discussion. The stakes are too high for us to do anything but pool the best of what we have to offer.

Simply put, the respectful exchange of ideas is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy. It’s only by seeking compromise and respecting differences that we can hope to build a working consensus on our shared future.

Yet the first decade of this new century has seen growing political and socio-economic polarization, a shrinking sense of common ground and a corresponding disintegration of the rules of engagement. The animus spills over into racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of prejudice and bias. Ultimately no one is served — least of all the country we share.

If we are to genuinely resolve the issues that stand before us, we must genuinely engage in changing the political atmosphere. We must actively seek and promote civil modes of discourse and codes of conduct — and this is precisely what the Jewish community has begun to do. The process is neither simple nor easy. Too often we fear that polite behavior signals unquestioning agreement or grants a victory to those we oppose, failing to understand that civility is neither the lack of difference nor the squelching of debate.

Civility is the quiet acknowledgement of human dignity, even those humans with whom we sharply disagree. Civility is listening carefully when others speak and leaving open the possibility that we may have something to learn. Civility is the guarding of tongue and the rejection of false witness — two commandments that our tradition holds dear.

Beyond that, however, civility is also the proactive advancement of certain kinds of behavior. We need to speak up when others are being shouted down; we need to structure our public events in such a way that no single opinion can monopolize the conversation; we need to carefully maintain an attitude of respect even when faced with shouts and accusation; and perhaps most important, we need not to give up.

Many in our community have begun to step up to the challenge. A statement sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs calling for more civil discourse, as part of a far-reaching campaign to set a new tone, is being signed by a who’s who of Jewish community leaders, including the heads of prominent Jewish community and pro-Israel organizations, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, rabbis, academics, former presidential administration officials and renowned Jewish activists. This is an important start, but it is only a start.

With the election behind us, we stand at a crossroads. We can look to the past months and years as a template and continue down the same belligerent, damaging path, or we can choose to learn from our mistakes and seek a new way.

“That which is hateful to you,” the great Hillel taught us, “do not do to your fellow.”

It’s time to take that lesson and apply it to our modern democracy, for it is only through civil discourse that we will be able to perfect the union that holds us together.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. To sign the JCPA Civility Covenant, go to http://engage.jewishpublicaffairs.org/content_item/Civility.)

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