When The Dialogue Deteriorates

When The Dialogue Deteriorates

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

You should see some of the outrageous mail we receive each week.

On second thought, you shouldn’t. And that’s what I want to explore here this week.

We at The Jewish Week have always felt that our role was not only to report the news, but to become a forum for discussion and debate among our readers on any and all the issues we cover in an increasingly diverse community.

We believe we have a unique advantage of reaching readers who are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, post-denominational and secular, as well as non-Jews, and whose political views go from far right to far left. Few if any institutions within New York Jewry have that reach.

But while communal diversity is a point of pride, the sad reality is that our community is growing ever more divided, on issue after issue, and now is as bitterly polarized as I’ve seen in the last 17 years, since I began editing The Jewish Week.

I see it each week in the letters to the editor and comments submitted both to our print and online editions, more than half of which we do not publish because of their ugly tenor.

This isn’t a partisan issue. From some on the right, President Barack Obama is derided as a Muslim bent on destroying Israel. The planned Cordoba House cultural center and mosque downtown is viewed as a platform from which to strike out at American values and lives. Liberals are viewed not just as naïve, but virtually treasonous.

From others on the left, Israel is perceived as evil, the only nation in the world whose very existence is questioned. Obama is praised for pressuring Jerusalem, and conservatives are seen as warmongers.

And so it goes.

Name a contentious issue, and the two sides line up to spew their vitriol, each convinced the other’s policies would bring disaster. There is a great deal of anger, fear and contempt expressed. But no real dialogue, little if any appreciation for the other side, and less and less willingness to hear another point of view in the hopes of reaching common ground.

One practical concern is the missed opportunity for meaningful discussion in our letters to the editor section of our print edition and the comments area on our website (www.thejewishweek.com).

We can’t force writers to be civil, but we can, and do, refuse to widen the boundaries of reasonable discussion in the hopes of attracting more correspondents.

So please be on notice about our policies in these matters.

We try to allow ample space for letters each week in our print edition, and we will continue to expand the section to accommodate thoughtful replies, if so warranted. (A wise editor of The Baltimore Sun advised me years ago that “the more room you leave for letters, the more letters you get.”)

All comments submitted online are moderated by our staff. Comments that do not meet our standards are not posted.

Weeding out the profanity and commercial spam is a relatively simple matter. More difficult are the submissions that we feel go over the line. Granted, this is a subjective decision, and not an exact science, but as a guideline we request that letters/comments be clear and stay on topic; are under 300 words, and are typed in upper and lower case. (ALL CAPS IS CONSIDERED SHOUTING.)

In our effort to provide a platform for respectful discussion, we don’t turn away strong opinions, and we certainly don’t reject criticism of our staff-written articles. But we do draw the line at comments that:

n are ad hominem attacks against individuals, Jewish religious streams or other religious or ethnic groups;

n use objectionable language;

n are unrelated or only peripherally related to the story or blog in question;

n refer to the writer, other commentators or public figures with words meant to attack or demean.

Including links is permissible in moderation in online responses, but we will not post comments with links that are not relevant to the subject at hand or which are meant for advertising purposes.

Finally, we don’t want to lecture on either the civic benefits of respectful dialogue or the mitzvah of avoiding lashon hara (gossip). We are deeply appreciative of those who take the time to write to us, whether in praise or, more often, in criticism. And we encourage more of you to do so.

But we insist on adhering to a level of discourse befitting a civil society, and hope you will consider these words — not only before you sit down to write to us but more generally in reflecting on the depths of dialogue we and our society have reached.

If there is any hope for the future, we can and must do better.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org. My thanks to our New Media Editor Jim Besser for his thoughtful input on this issue.

read more: