Civility seems to be in short supply these days. We seem too be losing that sense of elementary courtesy or politeness which is the basis of intelligent communication. I was struck by this lack of courtesy and good sense recently, when Moshe Ya’alon, Vice-Premier of Israel, referred to the Peace Now organization as a “virus”.
Fortunately he was reprimanded by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has learned that the use of such terminology is not only discourteous but counter-productive. A very disturbing example of the breakdown of civility is in the United States , where we have recently witnessed protestors referring to their President as a Hitler, who is preparing to introduce death panels in a new health care system. These are disturbing sights and sounds, very similar to the super-charged atmosphere in Israel before the assassination of Yitzak Rabin. Whether these protests are the product of real anger and frustration or manipulated by the political opposition, they represent a potentially dangerous phenomenon, as they did in Israel .
I presume that there are very few American Jews among the health care red necks but incivility is unfortunately not uncommon in our Jewish world. A JTA report on the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival brought out one such instance. The festival board, I think correctly, decided to show the film “Rachel” dealing with the tragic death of pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer. Corrie has become an icon for the anti-Israel left, and for the right, a victim of her own friends in the International Solidarity Movement. In an attempt to defuse opposition to the showing the festival board invited a pro-Israel activist to provide an introduction. Some of the leftists in the audience could not restrain themselves and hissed when Dr. Michael Harris called Corrie’s death an accident and reminded the audience that eight young Israeli Rachels had been killed by suicide bombers. There were those who screamed out “lies” and called on Harris to “get off” the stage. In the discussion at the end of the film, those who defended Israel ’s government and army were given more of the same treatment.
The JTA report did not mention similar discourtesies from the pro-Israel side but perhaps that was because they were in an uncomfortable minority at the event. Nevertheless I salute those who can suffer through a film and discussion antagonistic to their values and nonetheless restrain their passions.
Our newspapers also give witness to the rise of incivility. The Globe & Mail often has to close its comments from readers after running an opinion piece on the Middle East because the contributors descend into ad hominem attacks on the writer or one another. Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston is forced to publish his rules for commentators in order to restrain them, denying access to those who write in an abusive manner.
We are all certainly entitled to be passionate on a variety of subjects but passion and commitment should not conflict with civility and good manners. Our opponents are not “self-hating Jews” on the one hand or “racist imperialists” on the other, not a “virus” which must be eliminated from the body politic or a “religious fanatic” to be excluded from intelligent debate.
In pre-WWII Poland the political lines in the Jewish community were sharply etched and no quarter given in their internal battles. But in the Warsaw ghetto Bundists, Communists, Betarniks of the right and Hashomerniks on the left came together. Their ability to transcend ideology should remind us that community is a higher value than transient political attachments. Barack Obama stated it so well in his eulogy for Ted Kennedy: “His causes became deeply personal, his disagreements never did.” We can all aspire to that Kennedy standard of behavior.