WASHINGTON (JTA) — The notion of civil discourse pervaded this year’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum in Dallas, spilling over from its stated goal of alleviating partisan vituperation in the American public square into discussions of how Jews treat one another in the organizational world and how they treat other minorities.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, the executive director of the umbrella body for the Jewish public policy group, and Andrea Weinstein, its chairman, set the tone for this year’s theme with an op-ed Monday in the Dallas Morning News.
Their recommendation was an initiative that would “send community leaders into our schools, workplaces and congregations, in our own faith communities as well as others, and work with one another to define a code of civility, create a system of checks and balances to alert others when that line has been crossed, and to generate appropriate and public responses for when one continually crosses that line.”
The initiative apparently was in its putative stages; no further details were available.
The vexatious question of what “civility” means and when and how it should be applied crept up throughout the conference, and not just in the fora that were dedicated to its proposition, like the discussion Gutow, a Reconstructionist rabbi, had with the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, the general secretary for the National Council of Churches of Christ USA on “Getting Civil: Bridging the Divide Between Protestant and Jew.”
Fresh off his recent headline-making encounter with hecklers at the University of California, Irvine, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, said in his keynote talk on Sunday evening that the notion of civil discourse did not obviate “brutal” exchanges.
Just after his talk at Irvine, he delivered another at the University of California, San Diego, where he encountered fierce but politely put criticism of Israel — and emerged invigorated.
“It proves it can be done otherwise,” he said.
The intensity of the Irvine encounter rattled the delegates from 125 communities and 14 national agencies, and they were seeking strategies.
“There are those of us around the country who are sharing that video with our communities,” Weinstein said, introducing Oren.
Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said the point-and-click instantaneousness of the Internet age was helping to create what he said was the most pervasive display of anti-Semitism in decades.
Hannah Rosenthal, the former JCPA director who is now the Obama administration’s envoy on anti-Semitism, said it would be a mistake to confront such discourse through legal means, as some have advocated, using laws in other countries that contain toxic speech. Her British counterpart, she said, called America’s First Amendment preoccupation “silly.”
“We in this country care about the First Amendment, and as disgusting as some speech is, we like to see more speech, not less,” Rosenthal said.
The notion of inter-Jewish civility arose in a formal session on tensions between Jewish Republicans and Jewish Democrats.
Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, advised the delegates not to confuse civility with a he said-she said approach to analyzing the political debate.
On the hot-button area of abuse of Holocaust imagery, Forman said both parties were guilty — but Democrats were fewer and more likely to apologize. He identified the more pervasive abuse with leaders of the “Tea Party” movement and other conservatives who have likened the Obama administration to Nazis.
Noam Neusner, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, countered that perhaps that was true now, but he proceeded to show images from anti-war rallies depicting Bush and his Cabinet as Nazis that proliferated during his two terms.
“It would have been nice to have the JCPA and the NJDC actively condemning” such imagery during his boss’ terms, Neusner said. “I would have welcomed an effort of focusing only on the issues.”
Neusner said the focus on increasing civility should be directed toward how Jews spoke to one another, regardless of whether the conversation was political.
“People cut each other off in mid-sentence, they yell at each other, they cut each other down — it’s awful,” he said. “Let’s start our civility campaign right here on that theme.”
How Jews treat one another certainly was a theme that arose throughout the conference.
Oren was confronted by Barbara Weinstein, the legislative director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, about the recent arrests of women who pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Oren said the topic was a top priority for him.
“At the end of the day it will require compromise on everyone’s behalf,” he said.
The ambassador also offered a bouquet to J Street, the pro-Israel group with which he clashed during the past year over policies on Iran and Israel’s Gaza war that he had described as “dangerous.” He said he was ready to engage with the group and advised others to follow suit.
Notably, Oren said, because of his engagement J Street was now more pronouncedly in favor of Iran sanctions and more critical of the United Nations targeting of Israel.
“I’m advocating the same thing I did, we engaged,” he said. “Interact with them, definitely, we want to be inclusive as possible.”