At a time of increasingly worrisome polarization in our society, and, closest to home, in the Jewish community — on issues ranging from domestic politics to the Mideast peace process — we welcome the initiative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) in drafting and circulating a Civility Covenant calling for “healthy, respectful dialogue based on our love for our neighbors and our people.” (See www.jewishpublicaffairs.org)
But inspiring words and admirable sentiments are not enough. It’s one thing to urge organizations and individuals to, in essence, fight fair — encouraging vigorous debate while insisting on maintaining dignity and respect. It’s quite another to make such a pledge stick.
The leadership of the JCPA, the national umbrella of community relations agencies, recognizes that the covenant, which has been signed by more than 150 Jewish leaders, is but the first step in a long-term campaign to improve the climate of discourse.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the organization, told us this week that the plan calls for establishing guidelines on what is and what is not acceptable behavior in debating critical issues, and determining how best to notify a party judged to have gone beyond the red lines. Perhaps most critical, he said, is setting up training programs for groups to help lower the communal decibel level without diminishing a sense of passion and commitment on all sides.
In an age of transparency, we believe offenders should be identified and admonished publicly, and those who control the purse strings should use their clout, withholding funding for groups or individuals found to be not playing by communally agreed-upon rules.
Such efforts, we note, have been attempted before, with limited success. Soon after the Rabin assassination, for example, when religious tensions ran dangerously high, several prominent American Jewish foundations announced that they would take civility into account in determining which organizations to support. A good idea, but it did not last.
Civility can be encouraged, valued and taught, but not imposed. To have real bite, the plan should call for consequences, and allow for a public process, through the use of new technology, that would engage the community. Providing a public hearing of sorts to determine if offenders should be rebuked offers an opportunity for teaching Jewish values and responsibility in a meaningful way.
All of that will take time, careful consideration and much discipline. In the meantime, we start with the core Jewish belief — a concept that should guide us in any debate or dispute we encounter — that each of us is created in the image of God.