Felson: Civility on the Israel debate is an issue that must be addressed

Felson: Civility on the Israel debate is an issue that must be addressed

Ethan Felson
Ethan Felson

Ethan Felson brought some disturbing news to Pittsburgh Monday.

The vice president and general counsel for the Jewish Counsel for Public Affairs told the Chronicle that the JCPA is conducting a survey of American rabbis.

“The preliminary analysis shows that as many as half of the respondents feel that they are restricted in some ways in speaking about Israel in their congregational and other settings,” he said.

“That’s an unhealthy thing for a community that cares so deeply about Israel, for us not to hear from one another.”

But it points to a polarizing problem in the Jewish community. Like much of the country, when it comes to politics, Jews are increasingly breaking off into camps, talking at one another, instead of with one another and eschewing constructive dialogue.

That needs to change, said Felson, this year’s guest speaker in the series presented by the Frank R.S. Kaplan Memorial Fund for Ethics at Rodef Shalom Congregation.

He spoke Monday at a program arranged in collaboration with the Agency for Jewish Learning and the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The program, titled “Can we Talk … About Israel: A Community Conversation on Civility in Discourse about Israel,” was moderated by AJL Community Scholar Rabbi Scott Aaron.

Danielle Kranjec, AJL adult education coordinator, said the rabbis in charge of the program wanted to address civility.

“This year, Rabbi Bisno and Rabbi Amy Hertz, working together with Rabbi Scott Aaron, really wanted to bring this issue of civility to the forefront,” Kranjec said, “and one of their interests is opening the conversation, but also giving a Jewish context for the value of civility, that civility is already a Jewish value and how can we bring it to our discourse.”

In an interview with the Chronicle prior to the program, Felson said Israel has always had something of a polarizing effect on the Jewish world. Now, the problem is becoming acute.

“There’s also a polarization that is sometimes overwhelming in the Jewish community because these issues feel existential,” he said. “People feel that they have a tremendous stake and a conflict, and sometimes they inappropriately choose to act out the conflict here at home.”

How so?

“We are seeing more resorts to silencing opposing viewpoints,” Felson said. “We find people taking their marbles and walking away from institutions because that institution isn’t aligned with them, so less of a respect for the debate or, in some cases, some of the majoritarian influences in a community.”

He said he came to Pittsburgh to say something must be done to reverse the trend in the Israel debate, which starts with actively engaging the issue, not ignoring it.

“We can’t be on autopilot about this,” Felson said. “We have to take a look at the nature of the problem and figure what kinds of skills we need to have as leaders in the community to facilitate communication across conflict.

That doesn’t mean community leaders should steer debate away from hot button issues.

“Avoidance is often the enemy of what we’re trying to do; civility isn’t the shushing corner in the library,” Felson said. “We need leaders who are able to create safer spaces to hear from people representing multiple narratives. Fortunately, we’ve had some good experiences. There have been some significant efforts in at least a dozen communities that are yielding significant results.

He offered some examples:

• New York City has an Israel Speaks program, which facilitates conversations on hot-button issues;

• San Francisco had A Year of Civil Discourse, through which the community offered leadership training and worked intensively with organizations facing deep divisions; and

• Nashville, Broward County, Fla., and Westchester, N.Y., all developed civility statements through which communities determined what the norms of conversation would be.

“There’s something Jewish about fixing the problem,” Felson said, but fixing the problem requires Jews on all sides to listen to other viewpoints.

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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