(Houston) Lee Wunsch, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, recently told a friend at a Shabbat kiddush that he had attended a meeting where a representative of J Street, the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization, spoke. Wunsch’s friend, who “nearly had a heart attack,” attacked J Street’s policies. On another recent day, Wunsch received a call from a prominent member of Houston’s Jewish community who was upset that the Maimonides Society, a group of Jewish physicians, had invited conservative author-talk show host Dennis Prager to speak at an April fundraising dinner.
The tone of both conversations — complaints coming from both the left and the right — surprised Wunsch, a native Texan steeped in the South’s spirit of gentility. While reports in the last few years tell about a growing rancor in many Jewish communities, especially over Israel, especially in places like New York City — leading the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) to launch a national civility campaign and disseminate a statement on civility signed by some 1,400 leaders from more than 600 Jewish organizations across the country — Wunsch says he was surprised by the growing level of discord he sensed in Houston.
“This is a mirror of society,” he says. “It’s beginning to mushroom.”
Wunsch started an informal civility campaign, encouraging Jewish Houstonians across the religious and political spectrum to meet in homes or Jewish institutions and agree to discuss their disagreements. “We’re trying to bring together the various segments of the community that have become polarized around support for Israel, the meaning of the U.S.-Israel relationship, the U.S. role in the peace process, etc.,” he says.
Wunsch’s independent campaign, is one of the newest ones in the country, among a score of such civility programs introduced by Jewish communities; the most prominent such program was founded last year by the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council as part of a “year of civil discourse.”
Leaders of the San Francisco effort will describe their activities during the JCPA’s plenum conference in Washington this week. Several sessions during the March 5-8 gathering will be devoted to the civility theme, a resolution addressing civility in elections will be debated, and the plenum will be preceded by a two-day Civility Institute.
“Civility is one of the top priorities of the JCPA,” says Ethan Felson, a council vice president who leads the civility initiative.
The declining civility weakens friendships and Jewish unity, Wunsch says. It is too early to determine if it will harm contributions to or membership in Jewish organizations, or if his civility campaign will improve the tenor of relations within the Jewish community, he says — at least people are discussing the problem.
It is “hard to measure ‘success’ in the short term, but several communities with programs have some very positive stories,” Felson says. “Raising a conversation is better than continuing down the current trajectory.”