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September 15, 1995 - Image 66

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1995-09-15

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Look Behind
The Civility Gap

JAMES D. BESSER WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

S

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ip American Heart Association

uddenly, Jewish leaders
are falling all over them-
selves talking about the
need to restore civility to
Jewish public discourse.
But this may be nostalgia for
something that never existed.
The Jewish community is united
on some broad principles, but it
always has entertained a lively
internal debate that frequently
crashes over the bounds of col-
legiality and good taste.
While there has been a change
in the quality of Jewish public
discourse in the past few years,
according to most observers, it
has not been a change for the
better.
But all of the communal hand-
wringing over declining civility
may miss the point. It may even
represent a diversion from the
need to understand the reasons
Jews are increasingly at each
others' throats over religious, po-
litical and pro-Israel differences.
The breakdown in political di-
alogue reflects a confluence of fac-
tors. First among them is a
Mideast peace process that is
forcing Israel to make the most
difficult and risky decisions in its
short history.
Beneath the veneer of "wall-to-
wall" support for a strong and
secure Israel has always been a
simmering contentiousness over
how to achieve it.
But those differences have tak-
en on new emotional potency as
Israeli leaders pursue this
promising, if terrifying, peace
process.
Advocates on both sides of the
process passionately believe the
policies they support are the only
route to peace and security, and
that, by implication, their op-
ponents threaten Israel's very
survival.
When both sides focus on dis-
aster as the only alternative to
the positions they advocate, there
is no middle ground for produc-
tive, well-mannered debate — no
foundation for consensus.
Israel's leaders have long
sought to give American Jews a
sense of investment in their coun-
try's future as a way of ensuring
continuing political and econom-
ic support.
But with the emphasis on a
high-stakes peace process, Jews
here are being vigorously court-
ed by an Israeli opposition that
challenges not only the peace
process, but the very legitimacy
of the government that is pursu-
ing it.
A fierce, often intemperate par-
tisanship is standard operating

procedure in the Knesset. Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin, like his
opponents, has sometimes re-
sponded with verbal overkill that
seems normal in Israel, but in-
appropriate in the American po-
litical context.
When American Jews are
drawn into that all-out partisan
strife, they become part of a di-
visiveness that inevitably cor-
rodes the broad but thin
pro-Israel consensus. The decline
in civility is one symptom of that
dangerous process.
There is a religious dimension
to the civility equation, as well.
In Israel, the Orthodox lead-
ership is tightly bound to the set-
tlers in the West Bank. As the
peace process continues, religious
leaders are — not surprisingly —
fighting for their constituents by
casting the debate in terms of
moral imperatives rather than
political choices.
The complex mixture of reli-
gion and politics is part of Israel's
unique character. But when it
spills over into the American Jew-
ish environment, the resulting
invective only adds to the frag-
mentation of a community in
which support for Israel, to an ex-
tent, has replaced shared reli-
gious values as a kind of
communal glue.
But American Jews are grow-
ing apart for reasons beyond the
high-stakes drama taking place
in Israel. In 1995, the American
electorate continues its plunge to-
ward the politics of fear and sus-
picion. There are fewer and fewer
issues on which we find common
ground. Increasingly, we regard
our leaders not only as incompe-
tent, but as treacherous, a shift
in perception that echoes the in-
creasing bitterness of the debate
over Israel's future. American
Jews are part of the epidemic of
distrust and anger that is eating
away at the foundation of Amer-
ican democracy.
The bonds holding the Jewish
community together are already
tenuous because of decades of sec-
ularization, growing geographic
dispersion and communal apa-
thy.
But well-meant statements
reaffirming the importance of
Jews being nice to each other
may divert attention from the
need to talk forthrightly about
our growing differences, and
about ways to intelligently man-
age those differences with mini-
mal disruption to the community
and to its overarching concern for
Israel's safety.
American Jews and their Is-

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