September 25th, 2012
02:30 PM ET
By Dave Schechter, CNN
(CNN) - Forgive those who have sinned against you. Seek forgiveness for your sins against others. Forgive yourself.
In a nutshell, that is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which begins at sunset Tuesday.
There are many forms of sin, to be sure.
In their sermons some rabbis will no doubt voice concern about the way American Jews talk to each other about Israel, about politics and even what it means to be Jewish, lamenting an often divisive and sometimes caustic tone.
These rabbis may suggest that on Yom Kippur some among their congregants may wish to atone, at least symbolically, for the nasty language and name calling too frequently employed in discussions that turn to argument, whether in-person or online - notably in the comments sections after articles at Israel and on social media platforms such as Twitter.
Twitter provides abundant examples of caustic exchanges. Without naming the offenders and focusing instead on the type of language used, there was the Jewish organizational leader who suggested that a politically liberal Jewish commentator might be a registered lobbyist on behalf of Nazis, while that same liberal Jewish commentator referred to an organization well-known for its attention to hate crimes and anti-Semitism as “flatulent frauds” and to a well-known Jewish academic as “dementia-struck.”
Old-fashioned, face-to-face discussion also has become problematic. “When it comes to talking about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian situation, that heat can burn up even the most well meaning friendships, community relationships, family connections,” observed Rachel Eryn Kalish, an organizer of the San Francisco-area Year of Civil Discourse Initiative that was “designed to elevate the level of discourse in the Jewish community when discussing Israel.”
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles was asked by Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal, why he would deliver a benediction at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month, given the polarized political climate. “I see this not as politics but as prayer,” Wolpe said. “It’s a chance to present Judaism on a national, if not international, stage. It’s a shame some see it otherwise.”
Eshman followed with a comment of his own: “Yes, a shame — but a predictable one. Hyper-partisanship has infected the Jewish community, as it has America. Too many of us have bought into the idea that our side has all the answers. But no party, like no person, is invested with perfect insight and far-seeing wisdom. Fixing Medicare? Boosting unemployment? Defanging Iran?
To quote Woody Allen, most of us don’t even know how a can opener works.”
The idea that argument is central to the Jewish experience is not new. Serious debate over the meaning of phrases within the holy books has existed almost since the beginning – and this is the year 5773 on the Jewish calendar. The old joke about “two Jews, three opinions” did not originate without some measure of truth behind it. But the most modern communications technology has brought a new intensity to disagreements.
Ron Kampeas, the Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a news service utilized by Jewish newspapers, online services and other media, offered CNN this perspective: “American Jews are eager to attach their Judaism to their broader ways of thinking - political, social mores, even what and how they eat. America's is the first society in which Jews, like other minorities, were encouraged to take pride in their difference from others.”
“It took decades for American Jews to figure it out,” he said. “But when they saw what ethnic pride did for the American Irish, the American German, the American Italian, they embraced it with a vengeance. By the 1960s, cultural refractions of Judaism through literature, movie, pop culture, song became de rigeur. And then, with the ascension of political figures like Bella Abzug, Ed Koch and Jacob Javits this was true of politics. So real differences in outlooks - from what's funny to what role government should play in out life - become enshrouded in Jewish rationales.”
And as these differences in outlook extend into discussions of politics or Israel, there is strain. “Because Jewish identity is so fraught - even as it has evolved into an outright pride, Jews are still acutely aware of the humiliations that once attached to being Jewish - these arguments are more prone to become bitter exchanges over self-definition,” Kampeas said.
That theme of a community tearing itself apart also was evident in a piece written last year in The Jewish Daily Forward by David Hazony, author of “The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life.”
“With so many Jewish ‘umbrella’ groups, Jewish community centers, federations and so on, it’s easy to believe that, at least on the face of things, Jewish peoplehood in America is thriving,” Hazony wrote. “Yet, something does seem to be dying in the American Jewish fire. The infighting among Jewish groups, the polarization on Israel and the willingness to demonize whole communities of fellow Jews have become so extreme that one begins to wonder what, exactly, is left of the Jewish family.”
Hazony went on to say that “the problem may be at its worst when it comes to politics. Here, American Jews are ferociously divided, with each side accusing the other of fraternizing with a perceived enemy. For Jews on the left, conservatives have joined forces with that most fearsome part of America, conservative Christians, to undermine the liberal, secular space that Jews have worked so hard to carve out for themselves as the real solution to the Jewish problem. For Jews on the right, liberals have joined forces with pro-Palestinian activists, universalists and others who threaten the Jewish state that we worked so hard to create and protect as the real solution to the Jewish problem.”
By most estimates, only 20-35% of American Jews have visited Israel, although a survey of more than 1,000 American Jews by the American Jewish Committee found that 41% said they had visited Israel. “That a majority of American Jews have never been to Israel, and that those who have are, for the most part, infrequent visitors, is an old and sad story,” the American Jewish Committee’s media director, Kenneth Bandler, wrote in The Jerusalem Post.
This could be interpreted as meaning that a significant percentage of the American Jewish community is getting hot under the collar and on their keyboards about a place that exists firmly in their hearts, without ever having been there.
Last month, author Daniel Gordis referenced the response he received to adding his name to a petition on an issue related to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Gordis, who has written that “Fairly or not, I’m seen as slightly right of center on Israel,” did not foresee the response to his signature. What “genuinely shocked me has been the level of vitriol, blatant intellectual dishonesty, and expectations of conformity,” he wrote.
“As the Jewish world prepares to commemorate Tisha B’Av, the date of the destruction of both Temples, the second of which the Talmud claims was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews, I find myself despondent about the way we Jews talk to one another and what it means for our future. If the ugliness that the rabbis said led to the destruction of the Temple is now the tone we take for granted, why shouldn’t young Jews just walk away?” Gordis said.
“Comments sections are, of course, the province of those with too much time on their hands, and our culture of Web anonymity invites terrible excesses,” Gordis wrote, adding “Have we learned nothing at all about the dangers of language run amok from the horrors of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination? Are we wholly unchastened by where we’ve been in the past as a people? Do we not believe that there should be limits on what we can and cannot say to one another?”
Scientific American recently published an article titled “Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry?” in which Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas characterized online comments as "extraordinarily aggressive, without resolving anything.”
"At the end of it you can't possibly feel like anybody heard you. Having a strong emotional experience that doesn't resolve itself in any healthy way can't be a good thing,” Markman wrote.
Among those who, depending on your viewpoint, inspire or provoke online is M.J. Rosenberg, who is active on Twitter, where, as in the writings on his website, he pulls no punches. Rosenberg’s resume ranges from working for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, widely regarded as among the most powerful advocacy organizations in Washington, to a stint as a foreign policy fellow at the Media Matters Action Network, a politically liberal organization.
Asked why American Jews have such difficulties with civil discourse over matters related to Israel, Rosenberg told CNN: “The answer is that both sides take this issue very seriously and, frankly, believe that the other is risking the survival and security of Israel and the Jewish people. I know I feel that way about the right and I know that people on the right feel that way about my side - the left. I think both sides feel that the other is jeopardizing a basic part of our selves, our Judaism and the Jewish state.
“And that produces anger and even fury,” he said. “Those on my side are particularly angry because the right tends to act as if it is speaking for all Jews. It isn't. We need to speak all the more forcefully to be heard. Additionally, they have resources we don’t have. We only have our voices.”
From what might be termed the other side of the political spectrum is this perspective from Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, who told CNN: “There's a reason for the old adage that one should never discuss politics or religion in polite company. These topics often lead to impoliteness, and it's no less true of Jews discussing Israel and religion as anyone else.
“I spend a lot of time in my job arguing about Israel, and the fact is (as verified by polling) that American Jews are pretty unified on a range of Israel questions – they are firmly on Israel's side in matters of war and diplomacy,” Pollak said. “However, there is a small minority of left-wing American Jews who dissent from this consensus, and they have an unfortunate tendency to invoke their Jewishness in the course of denouncing Israel, as if their religious affiliation lends some higher credibility or insight on the question of what to do about Hamas or Iran or the peace process.”
“Me, I'm fine with heated arguments,” he continued. “Jews have been arguing for thousands of years - we privilege and enjoy debate, and as far as my side is concerned, I'm pretty sure we have the winning case.”
But if everyone believes they have the winning case ...
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