(JTA) — Here’s a story I recently shared on Facebook: I was paddling my inflatable kayak on a lake in the Berkshires. Granted, it is not the sleekest or coolest-looking conveyance, but it gets the job done and it fits in the trunk of my car. At one point I passed two guys in a very lovely canoe. One of the guys says to me, “That looks like fun!” And I say, “And you have a beautiful boat,” which it was. And then the guy in the stern of the boat says, “It’s a lot more expensive than yours.”
His response sort of stunned me: Why was he talking about the price of our boats? Had my clunky kayak offended his sensibilities somehow?
My Facebook friends mostly agreed with my initial reaction: The guy was a jerk. But then a few people weighed in with an alternative interpretation: The guy was actually making fun of himself for spending so much on a canoe. One friend, a Jewish educator, channeled the guy’s thinking this way: “Our boat might be beautiful, as you say, but I’m not sure it’s worth it, considering we could be getting a lot of fun from rowing in a kayak like yours and would have spent a lot less money to do it.”
True or not, I love that interpretation. It reminds me of something from Pirke Avot, the Mishnah’s compilation of ethical principles: “Judge to the side of merit.” (1:6) That is, in life and conversation, give the other person the benefit of the doubt. How many conversations slip off the rails because we assume the worst of the other person?
The story was fresh in my mind when I attended an invitation-only event Tuesday on “viewpoint diversity,” put on by the Maimonides Fund. The day-long seminar brought leaders of various Jewish organizations together to discuss our society’s inability to engage in what the keynote speaker, NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, describes as “constructive disagreement.” In Haidt’s 2018 book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” he and coauthor Greg Lukianoff dissect a “callout culture” in which “anyone can be publicly shamed for saying something well-intentioned that someone else interprets uncharitably.”
Because Haidt’s book is mostly about the college campus, I thought the day might shape up as an attack on “wokeism.” But the speakers and attendees were diverse, and liberals and conservatives alike fretted about the demise of civility and tolerance in their polarized worlds. A Jewish education professional said she is wary about bringing up Israel in front of donors, many of whom treat any criticism of Israeli policy as “anti-Israel.” And the leader of a right-leaning think tank complained about a left-leaning Jewish “monolith” that dismisses the views of Jewish conservatives or considers them somehow “un-Jewish.”
A considerable number of people spoke about what they characterized as self-censorship, fearing the consequences they or colleagues might face if they utter an ill-considered thought — or if their opinions diverge from emerging small-o orthodoxies on gender, race, politics and, once again, Israel. (I agreed to Chatham House Rules, which means I could characterize our conversations but not quote or identify participants.)
After the event, Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, said he and his colleagues — Ariella Saperstein, program officer for Maimonides, and Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple put much of the program together — had been thinking about these issues for a while. “It seems to us that it’s just become more difficult to have some of these conversations,” Charendoff told me. “It started off with Israel — what are you allowed to express regarding Israel, and then, you know, politics in America has become obviously a dividing line. And it doesn’t seem to have gotten any better.”
Although few if any members of Gen Z were taking part in the convening, the group born after 1995 seemed to be on a lot of people’s minds. That’s partly because of Haidt’s framing of the issue; in his book, he dates strict campus speech codes and polarizing identity politics to the arrival of Gen Z on college campuses. A leader of a secular Jewish group that works with young people said she is often under pressure from Gen Z-ers to take an organizational stand on hot-button issues, when her mission is to encourage participation from a politically diverse population.
On the flip side, a leader working with the same cohort said Gen Z-ers complain that they were “lied to” about Israel by their Jewish elders, and that their own ambivalent or anti-Zionist viewpoints are shunned in Jewish spaces. Indeed, a few participants defended “red lines,” saying viewpoint diversity does not mean “anything goes.” As one fundraising executive told the room, “When it comes to Israel, the last thing I want is nuance.”
When I brought this up with Charendoff, he said, “One-hundred percent I want to hear from young people who are uncomfortable with Zionism, because I want to understand why, and I think our young people are smart and passionate. That doesn’t mean … that we have to be completely neutral to who the convener of a discussion is and what their motivations are.”
At times I lost track of who is to blame for constricted speech and cancel culture, especially on college campuses. Is it the student governments at liberal universities that block campus Jewish clubs from organizing because their support for Israel made other students uncomfortable? Or is it the Jewish groups that insist campuses that allow harsh criticism of Israel are making Jewish students feel unsafe?
I also thought about the value of “viewpoint diversity” if one side or the other is playing fast and loose with the facts, or refusing to argue in good faith. Haidt warns against the tendency to “inflate the horrors of a speaker’s words far beyond what the speaker might actually say” — he calls this “catastrophizing” — but how do we respond to actual catastrophes? Viewpoint diversity may seem a luxury in debating, say, the climate crisis or threats to democracy.
Still, the general thrust of the day was encouraging people to do their part in lowering the temperature in Jewish circles: to urge ideological opposites to listen to one another with more generosity of spirit, to assume the best of others and to consider the possibility that they may actually be wrong about a given issue. Because when it all comes down to it, we’re all in the same boat.