Every several years, the tenor of conversation in the Jewish community reaches such a feverish pitch that it necessitates a new call for civility. Now is one of those times.
In fact, many observers and activists well-seasoned in the rough-and-tumble world of Jewish politics say that they have never before witnessed the level of stridency and vitriol that is characterizing the current debate surrounding Israel. While this might be hyperbole, there is no question that the tone is exacerbated by the protective wall of e-mail, the blogosphere and social networking, where it's too easy to shoot off hatred and venom, rather than engage in true and legitimate debate.
The acrimony is hitting close to home and abroad. Though seemingly unrelated, the brouhaha surrounding last week's local launch of the left-wing lobbying organization J Street is finding echoes in Israel, where a fierce campaign to delegitimize some civil-rights organizations has taken on some outrageous, even anti-Semitic undertones.
One can legitimately question the policies of J Street and the New Israel Fund, the organization that is being accused of supporting groups that provided fodder for the controversial Goldstone commission, which accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during last winter's war in Gaza. But to portray NIF's chairwoman, Naomi Chazan, with horns protruding from her head — as she was portrayed in an advertisement attacking the group — is beyond the pale.
And to suggest that J Street is comprised of anti-Israel, self-hating Jews — as some right-wing activists have — is as ludicrous as J Street's suggestion that they've got the monopoly on being "pro-peace, pro-Israel."
In ways, the stridency is reflective of the discourse plaguing our society as a whole. Which is why the Jewish Council for Public Affairs' "Call for Civility" comes not a moment too soon. The umbrella organization will be debating a resolution at its plenum in Dallas later this month that decries the current "level of incivility, particularly over issues pertaining to Israel, that has not been witnessed in recent memory and that is having a major polarizing effect on our community."
Ironically, despite the high-pitched rhetoric that preceded the competing events at Hillel last week, once in the building, there was passionate but civil discussion, even among those with completely opposite perspectives on the right course for Israel and American foreign policy.
Perhaps we should all heed the advice of one Penn student, who, befuddled by the competing programs at Hillel, wondered if it wouldn't have been better to hold the programs separately to give students and others an opportunity to hear different perspectives, and then decide for themselves.
"I'm going to form M Street," he quipped, " 'M' for moderation."