What We Can’t Learn from Ginsburg’s Friendship with Scalia


In a tweet on the eve of Yom Kippur, Rabbi David Wolpe asked, “Those of you who anathematize either liberals or conservatives, do you think either Ginsburg or Scalia were wrong to be friends with someone who held those views?”

The Los Angeles rabbi was referring to the famous friendship between the two late Supreme Court justices, one liberal, the other conservative. Their friendship is often held up of as a model of “civil discourse” at a time of deep political polarization. As Chief Justice John Roberts said in his eulogy for Justice Ginsburg, referring to a famous photo of Ginsburg and Scalia on the back of an elephant during a vacation in India, “There is no indication in the photo that either was poised to push the other off.”

Wolpe’s question and the celebration of the Ginsberg-Scalia bond suggest that friendship across the aisles is something to be valued, and we should be willing to check our political differences in the name of civility – like the sheepdog and the wolf in the old Warner Brothers cartoon, who greet each other cordially before spending the work day trying to kill each other.

But what if civility isn’t the highest value? What if your political opponent represents a set of positions that threaten what you see as essential, even existential values?

I can think of a few instances where “let’s just agree to disagree” is a recipe for moral surrender. Here’s four: denying Israel’s right to exist, rejecting the science behind climate change, ignoring far-right bigotry and violence, and obstructing the right of Americans to vote.

I can’t imagine spending a lot of quality time with someone who sincerely believes that Israel has no right to exist and is working actively to see that it doesn’t. I might debate them politely – but consider them friends? Similarly, tolerance for white supremacy is non-negotiable. As for those who deny the science about climate change and oppose policies to address it – that sort of willful ignorance, or cravenness, tells me something about their values, something that suggests we don’t have much to share on the friendship level.

Again, I’d defend someone’s right to hold these views. I just wouldn’t be taking any vacations with them.

What if your political opponent represents a set of positions that threaten what you see as essential, even existential values?

You could argue that had Ginsburg and Scalia held to my standards, they couldn’t have been friends. After all, the stakes were certainly a lot higher in their disagreements than in any I’ve ever had with a friend.

But the two were less opponents than partners in a system that they both believed in and signed on to. That system couldn’t function without the give and take of ideological adversaries. The two were like opposing attorneys in a criminal trial, which depends on advocates for the prosecution and for the defense.

Which doesn’t mean that both justices didn’t deep down believe the other was dead wrong. But they found a common bond in their tiny club of nine, each believing, as Scalia’s son Eugene wrote last week, “that what they were doing — arriving at their own opinions thoughtfully and advancing them vigorously — was essential to the national good.”

Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that two Israelis on the opposite ends of the political spectrum are best of friends: At bottom, they share a commitment to their national enterprise, even if they disagree on how to sustain it.

Very little assures me that a person who refuses to wear a face mask in the midst of a pandemic is dedicated to the “national good.” Or that friendship is possible with someone who doesn’t seem bothered by the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that are poisoning the body politic. Nor do I know how you agree to disagree about a planet that is literally on fire.

We all have friends with whom we have deep disagreements. I’m not saying we should be handing out questionnaires at the next get-together, whenever that will be. But at some point, if politics are to be taken seriously at all, an individual’s political views must be seen as a reflection of their character. I don’t see how you separate how someone would vote on a deeply moral issue from who they are as a person. And at times when politics are actually a zero-sum game – your winning is my existential loss, with no room for compromise – friendship can be an illusion.

I’m not sure I would have written this before 2016. But the Trump presidency is not politics as usual. It has been an assault on values. Not Democratic values nor liberal values, but American values, like the rule of law, the right to vote, respect for our civil service, the integrity of our Justice Department, our leadership of the free world, our sense of common cause and belief in common decency. These values are essential to my understanding of what it means to be an American and a citizen. And in electing leaders and choosing friends, values count.

Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarrollis editor in chief of The Jewish Week.