A lack of civility in conversation is chronic in society, including the Jewish community. Whatever the reason — I tend to blame the binary, yes-no, on-off approach to issues encouraged by the digital world — we have lost the ability to discuss disagreements and work toward mutual understanding if not actual compromise.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs recognized the problem years ago and enacted a Resolution on Civility in 2010, along with a Civility Campaign to try to help us learn to talk and disagree without dividing.
“The expression and exchange of views is often an uncivil, highly unpleasant experience. Community events and public discussions are often interrupted by raised voices, personal insults, and outrageous charges,” reads the JCPA’s Statement on Civility. “Lack of civility makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to open minds, much less find common ground.”
That description of incivility fit the May 8 breakfast meeting involving Jewish National Fund and SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity, during which raised voices, anger and hurt feelings made common ground seem far away. Appropriately enough, during that meeting Lois Frank, a former JCPA president, introduced the concept of the Civility Campaign to Atlanta on behalf of the local Jewish Community Resource Council.
The JCRC plans to bring Civility Campaign facilitators to town this year to help Jewish Atlanta rediscover the art of conversation. We need the help.
One of the frustrating elements of the loss of civility for discussions within our community is that it comes while we’re working so hard to achieve civil conversation with non-Jews. Interfaith dialogue is a hallmark of so much Jewish activity.
The new Muslim-Jewish Dialogue’s four-part series of discussions around the “Intimate Strangers” documentary just wrapped up May 17. The American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta Chapter is working with the Archdiocese of Atlanta to celebrate the semicentennial of the Vatican’s acknowledgment that we didn’t kill Jesus, and individual synagogues are pairing up with Catholic parishes for that purpose.
Memorial Day weekend marked the annual session of Camp Jenny, when Southern chapters of the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth treat inner-city Atlanta children to a Camp Coleman weekend.
Temple Kol Emeth — an example I’m familiar with because I’m a member — has won recognition from Cobb County for its annual interfaith Thanksgiving service and for its participation in an interfaith Habitat for Humanity organization.
Kids 4 Peace, which involves local Jewish, Muslim and Christian youths with Israeli and Palestinian peers to develop understanding, has a thriving Atlanta chapter based in Cobb County.
But it’s as if we exhaust our ability to be accommodating and understanding when non-Jews are part of the conversation.
To some extent, it’s a family thing. While we have to be careful with strangers, we expect forgiveness and understanding from our Jewish family, so we feel free to be more candid and don’t hold anything back.
But we need to relearn how to be honest without being hurtful.
“As a community, we must commit ourselves and ask others to open their hearts and minds to healthy, respectful dialogue based on our love for our neighbors and our people,” the Statement on Civility reads. “We therefore agree to treat others with decency and honor and to set ourselves as models for civil discourse, even when we disagree with each other.”
In other words, we accept that well-meaning people can disagree on important issues and can talk about those differing opinions without trying to change minds. Dialogue isn’t the same as debate.