by Jane Eisner
Published July 16, 2014
The Jewish Daily FORWARD
Yesterday, Jews and Muslims in Israel, New York and other communities decided to take advantage of a calendric symmetry to assert their connection to one another, if only by breaking bread after a daylong fast.
For Jews, it was the 17th of Tammuz, when the walls around the ancient city of Jerusalem were breached, marking the beginning of the end of the Second Temple. It was also the 18th day of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims refrain from eating from sun-up to sundown.
If a ceasefire can’t hold between Israel and Hamas, at least some Jews and Muslims could create one of their own.
Personally, I didn’t observe the fast, but I think this kind of nonviolent religious protest and attempt at reconciliation is a lovely idea.
But never mind Jew-to-Muslim. With all that’s happened over the past weeks, it looks like we need a fast day for reconciling Jew-to-Jew.
I’ve been in journalism a long time. I’ve written about Israel and overseen coverage and commentary about the Middle East for both the general and Jewish media for many years. I am accustomed to the vitriol that passes for comment, the mean personal attacks, the license that some Jews feel free to exercise in harshly judging other Jews.
I won’t say the level of discourse has reached a new low because it’s impossible to compare anything to today’s digital landscape, where every tweet is amplified and rules of engagement no longer exist. But it is bad out there. Very bad. As rockets fly and civilians die, we have lost the ability and the desire to speak civilly with and to one another.
This happens only when the topic is Israel. You can take controversial stands on intermarriage and conversion and child sexual abuse — and I have — and for the most part, commenters will stick to the subject at hand. But Israel is a version of our own third rail, except rather than being the subject too controversial to broach, it has become the subject too controversial to discuss with anyone other than your ideological fellow travelers. Oh, and those who disagree with you should be excommunicated from the Jewish people.
This is troubling me anew because of the reaction we’ve received to our coverage of Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli assault on Gaza prompted by Hamas’s assault on Israel. J.J. Goldberg’s writing, in particular, has drawn enormous readership and serious criticism.
Some of those critics, like the response penned by an Israeli diplomat, try to counter J.J.’s argument. That’s precisely the kind of discourse we want to host. But others resort to personal attacks that are uncalled for in their viciousness.
The same thing has happened to me with regards to my essay on religious Zionist settlers on the West Bank. I welcome those comments, Facebook posts and emails that disagree with my perspective and challenge my assumptions. But too often, this correspondence descends into the disgusting.
“You are a very good writer,” one person said in an email. “But, regretably [sic], you have no Jewish soul.”
If an overpaid sports star or the president of Turkey said these things, the Anti-Defamation League would immediately demand an apology. But we Jews don’t hold each other to those same standards.
I anticipate that some will counter: What do you expect when you publish such controversial material? Here’s my answer: I expect that you will debate the material, and not attack the writer.
What do to? Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, similarly diagnosed the problem in a blog post Sunday for The Times of Israel: “As sad as the situation in Israel has been over the past month… the climate that has emerged on social media has made the experience of living through all of these traumas substantially worse.”
His proposal also played off the calendar by suggested that Tuesday’s fast be “a silent fast,” in which we commit to keep quiet on social media platforms and “mute the urge to interpret the news for others or judge the political opinions of those with whom we disagree.”
Considering some of the ugly email I received yesterday, I’m not sure how many followed Kurtzer’s proposal but I applaud the intention to focus on how we use social media to talk to one another.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has had a civility project for years, training leaders to bring the Jewish notion of “sacred disagreement” into the public sphere. It is times like these that prompt JCPA president and CEO Steve Gutow to push even harder for what he says is “the most important thing happening in Jewish life today,” he told me. And to remind us: “This should never be about a person. Ad hominem attacks are always wrong.”
When missiles slice through the air and bomb shelters are jammed and full-scale war seems a single misstep away, our emotional rawness can overwhelm our reasonableness. This is an extremely stressful time in Israel, and some of that stress is expressed in our conversations here. But that’s why we need to be all the more careful to focus on the argument, and not the Jew.
Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com Follow her on Twitter @Jane_Eisner