Why Can’t We Get Along?

Forward Magazine - - Forward Forum - By JANE EIS­NER Con­tact Jane Eis­ner at Eis­ner@for­ward.com or on Twit­ter @Jane_Eis­ner

On July 15, Jews and Mus­lims in Is­rael, New York and other com­mu­ni­ties de­cided to take ad­van­tage of a cal­en­dri­cal sym­me­try to as­sert their con­nec­tion to each other, if only by break­ing bread af­ter a day­long fast.

For Jews, it was the 17th of Tam­muz, when the walls around the an­cient city of Jerusalem were breached, mark­ing the be­gin­ning of the end of the Sec­ond Tem­ple. It was also the 18th day of Ra­madan, the holy month when Mus­lims re­frain from eat­ing from sunup to sun­down.

If a cease-fire can’t hold be­tween Is­rael and Ha­mas, at least some Jews and Mus­lims could cre­ate one of their own.

Per­son­ally, I didn’t ob­serve the fast, but I think this kind of non­vi­o­lent re­li­gious protest and at­tempt at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is a lovely idea.

But never mind Jew-to-Mus­lim. With all that’s hap­pened over the past weeks, it looks like we need a fast day for rec­on­cil­ing Jew-to-Jew.

I’ve been in jour­nal­ism a long time. I’ve writ­ten about Is­rael and over­seen cov­er­age and com­men­tary about the Mid­dle East for both the gen­eral and Jewish me­dia for many years. I am ac­cus­tomed to the vit­riol that passes for com­ment, the mean per­sonal at­tacks, the li­cense that some Jews feel free to ex­er­cise in harshly judg­ing other Jews.

I won’t say the level of dis­course has reached a new low be­cause it’s im­pos­si­ble to com­pare any­thing to to­day’s dig­i­tal land­scape, where ev­ery tweet is am­pli­fied and rules of en­gage­ment no longer ex­ist. But it is bad out there. Very bad. As rock­ets fly and civil­ians die, we have lost the abil­ity and the de­sire to speak civilly with and to one an­other.

This hap­pens only when the topic is Is­rael. You can take con­tro­ver­sial stands on in­ter­mar­riage and con­ver­sion and child sex­ual abuse — and I have — and for the most part, com­menters will stick to the sub­ject at hand. But Is­rael is a ver­sion of our own third rail, ex­cept rather than be­ing the sub­ject too con­tro­ver­sial to broach, it has be­come the sub­ject too con­tro­ver­sial to dis­cuss with any­one other than your ide­o­log­i­cal fel­low trav­el­ers. Oh, and those who dis­agree with you should be ex­com­mu­ni­cated from the Jewish people.

This is trou­bling me anew be­cause of the re­ac­tion we’ve re­ceived to our cov­er­age of Oper­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge, the Is­raeli as­sault on Gaza prompted by Ha­mas’s as­sault on Is­rael. J.J. Gold­berg’s writ­ing, in par­tic­u­lar, has drawn enor­mous read­er­ship and se­ri­ous crit­i­cism.

Some of those crit­ics, like the re­sponse penned by an Is­raeli diplo­mat, try to counter J.J.’s ar­gu­ment. That’s pre­cisely the kind of dis­course we want to host. But oth­ers re­sort to per­sonal at­tacks that are un­called for in their vi­cious­ness.

The same thing has hap­pened to me with re­gard to my es­say on re­li­gious Zion­ist set­tlers on the West Bank. I wel­come those com­ments, Face­book posts and emails that dis­agree with my per­spec­tive and chal­lenge my as­sump­tions. But too of­ten, this cor­re­spon­dence de­scends into the dis­gust­ing.

“You are a very good writer,” one per­son said in an email. “But, re­gretably [sic], you have no Jewish soul.” Thanks. If an over­paid sports star or the pres­i­dent of Turkey said these things, the Anti-Defama­tion League would im­me­di­ately de­mand an apol­ogy. But we Jews don’t hold each other to those same stan­dards.

I an­tic­i­pate that some will counter: What do you ex­pect when you pub­lish such con­tro­ver­sial ma­te­rial? Here’s my an­swer: I ex­pect that you will de­bate the ma­te­rial and not at­tack the writer. What to do? Ye­huda Kurtzer, pres­i­dent of the Shalom Hart­man In­sti­tute of North Amer­ica, sim­i­larly di­ag­nosed the prob­lem in a re­cent blog post for The Times of Is­rael: “As sad as the sit­u­a­tion in Is­rael has been over the past month… the cli­mate that has emerged on so­cial me­dia has made the ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing through all of these trau­mas sub­stan­tially worse.”

His pro­posal also played off the cal­en­dar by sug­gest­ing that the fast of Tam­muz be “a silent fast” in which we com­mit to keep quiet on so­cial me­dia plat­forms and “mute the urge to in­ter­pret the news for oth­ers or judge the po­lit­i­cal opin­ions of those with whom we dis­agree.”

Con­sid­er­ing some of the ugly email I re­ceived that day, I’m not sure how many fol­lowed Kurtzer’s pro­posal, but I ap­plaud the in­ten­tion to fo­cus on how we use so­cial me­dia to talk to one an­other.

The Jewish Coun­cil for Pub­lic Af­fairs has had a ci­vil­ity project for years, train­ing lead­ers to bring the Jewish no­tion of “sa­cred dis­agree­ment” into the pub­lic sphere. It is times like these that prompt JCPA Pres­i­dent and CEO Steve Gu­tow to push even harder for what he says is “the most im­por­tant thing hap­pen­ing in Jewish life to­day,” he told me. And to re­mind us: “This should never be about a per­son. Ad hominem at­tacks are al­ways wrong.”

When mis­siles slice through the air and bomb shel­ters are jammed and fullscale war seems a sin­gle mis­step away, our emo­tional raw­ness can over­whelm our rea­son­able­ness. This is an ex­tremely stress­ful time in Is­rael, and some of that stress is ex­pressed in our con­ver­sa­tions here. But that’s why we need to be all the more care­ful to fo­cus on the ar­gu­ment, and not the Jew.

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