This Sunday and Monday, I had the opportunity to participate in the quarterly board meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
That is the umbrella organization for over 150 JCRCs, including our own Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and 14 national Jewish organizations. JCPA is the place in the vast network of American Jewish organizations and agencies where Jews from all religious streams, and Jews holding different political perspectives on both American public policy and issues regarding Israel and world Jewry, sit together and discuss both the issues that unite us and those that divide us as American Jews.
While much of the content of our deliberations this week centered around Gaza and its aftermath, the most important aspect of these two days were the formal and informal discussions we had about being civil in our discourse with each other, and the importance of being honest in what we say. While these values might seem self-evident, I ask each of you reading this column to think about how little light and how much heat is produced in both our media and in our own interpersonal discussions of issues of public policy or political campaigns. I am sure that most of you share my gratitude that after next Tuesday we will be liberated from the barrage of political ads and robocalls, most of which tell us what the other guy is against rather than explaining what a particular candidate stands for. Moreover, both our television and print media, as well as social media and internet sites, have become ever more concerned with getting a sensational headline than in reporting with accuracy.
If contemporary media had been around when the events described in this week’s Torah reading in Genesis 12, about Abraham and Sarah’s stay in Egypt, would not the headline have read: Abram Pimps his Wife Sari to Egyptian Pharaoh!!
While this statement is true according to the biblical text, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faith traditions all argue that the truth of who Abraham was and the truth that he represents to us is far different. How much more so is it problematic when, as we saw this summer, groups such as Hamas abuse the media not just to distort the picture of what happened, but actually to fabricate events for broadcast. How problematic is it, too, when Americans, in our zeal to support an opinion or a candidate, will attack those with whom we differ, and even attribute our biased fabrications to others? How much of a turn off is it for so many when the distinction between opinion and news is blurred to the point of distortion?
At the JCPA meetings, one of our primary topics focused upon how young people in particular, and Americans in general, are being turned off to public debates on both foreign and domestic policy by the heated arguments that shed little light. The same holds true in Israel and other western-style democracies. Those of us who care passionately about Israel, and about the impact that movements such as BDS are having on the American public’s perception of Israel, find that the issue of media bias and the distortion of truth on the internet, in the public square, or on college campus is something we talk about a lot these days. However, I realize that too few of us judge our own speech, or our own writing about others, in terms of the famous teaching of Hillel, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another. That is the whole of Torah! Now go and learn!”
Friends, I hope that every one of us will go out and vote next Tuesday. I pray that each of us will choose the candidates we feel can do a better job to serve our community and create responsive and responsible public policy. I urge us all not to be swayed by falsehoods propagated by political opponents. With the example of Abraham and Sarah in front of us, I hope we recognize that our Torah teaches us that we human beings all are imperfect, but that we are each endowed by our Creator with goodness, along with the “inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Let us also promise ourselves and each other that before our next election season rolls around we will ask ourselves and each other how we can become proactive, constructive promoters of greater civility in public debates, both within our homes and our communal institutions, and in the public square