Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 6, 2020 / 9 Adar 5780
Summary: Today’s Oasis Songs is a major statement by me of why civility is essential as a bedrock value of a free society and why it is at risk. I apply some of those lessons as we approach the end of the World Zionist Elections.
I want to make one last pitch for people to vote in the World Zionist Elections, which closes on March 11th. And I want to do so by first talking about what civility is and is not, and then applying that understanding to an extremely offensive advertisement put out by one of the Slates running in this years World Zionist Elections. Because our vote matters.
An Argument Against Civility
In December 2019, an article by Adam Serwer appeared in the Atlantic that deeply disturbed me. Serwer’s basic premise is that civility allows the status quo to stand, and therefore, from his lens, for societal injustice to remain in place. He writes, and I apologize for his choice of words, “There are two definitions of civility. The first is not being an asshole. The second is “I can do what I want and you can shut up.” The latter definition currently dominates American political discourse.”
Serwer focuses on this second definition, and proceeds to give examples from American history as to how civility allowed racism and racist policies to continue unchecked. As he sees it, American politics has always been marked by turmoil and anger and despite the heated rhetoric we see coming from all sides, notes that political violence today is at a relatively low level.
What Civility Really Is
I take issues with Serwer’s premise, not because he has his history wrong, but because he conflates, or confuses civility with capitulation. Being civil does not and should not mean that we allow historic injustices to stand; civility does not mean that one side gets a voice and the other does not; civility also doesn’t mean that I get to say hateful things in a pleasant manner.
Rather, civility is a set of guidelines for how we argue our case and even the sorts of arguments we can make. Civility is the means by which we can engage those who are against us and fear us and even demonize us. Civility is a tool to turn enemies into acquaintances, and acquaintances into friends.
When a society relinquishes these civil rules of engagement, everyone loses, because what replaces reason—the bedrock of good public policy and a shared public square—is a turn toward fear and anger and ultimately violence.
It will surprise no one that our political rhetoric is now steeped in fear and anger and constant demeaning of our opponents. In fact, we no longer have opponents, but “enemies.” Along with a toxic environment, this creates really bad outcomes.
Why Incivility is More Dangerous than Civility
Something else happens. If Serwer is correct that civility allows injustice to stand, then logically we have to ask if incivility and violence, when used by an oppressed minority, produces more positive results. And here, history is rather mixed. Syria is just a recent example of how that turn can actually inflict more self-harm on those who are oppressed or underrepresented. The angry demonstrations that began in Syria on March 15th, 2011 turned into the largest refugee crisis of the modern period with more than 13 million displaced individuals and the wholesale destruction of a country, while the ruling, dictatorial elite remains in power. This is hardly a surprise; if a society is unjust, those who have more than their share also tend to have greater power and will use it to further oppress their opponents. Serwer’s prescription, in other words, carries moral and physical risk and the greater weight of history goes against him.
Once a society accepts the turn to ugly, hateful rhetoric, it is hard to turn back the clock. In fact, people begin to believe that the only way to oppose those who peddle fear is to use the same techniques. We are watching this in real time, in many places throughout the world.
Incivility, the World Zionist Elections and What is at Stake
These thoughts came to me when earlier this week, I saw the truly heinous and ugly tactics employed by Slate 1 of the World Zionist Elections. Slate One represents Eretz HaKodesh (The Holy Land), and if you read the platform, it sounds rather positive. Yet here is the ad they sent out to rally support.
It argues that the World Zionist disbursements supported “indoctrinating Israeli children in pluralistic Judaism; fighting to change the process of marriage, divorce and conversion in Israel to conform to their agenda; and promoting the absorption of halachically non-Jewish Russians into society.”
These statements may not shock you as much as they do me. They may on the surface even appear to be civil, but I hear in these statements deep incivility and a desire to maintain a status quo that is unjust. I’d like to explain.
Indoctrinate Children? NO
To argue that World Zionist disbursements indoctrinate children in pluralistic Judaism is to completely misconstrue and distort what pluralism itself is. Pluralism states that people are different, are allowed to be different, and that society must make room for that difference.
Pluralism is the very opposite of indoctrination. Rather, it is those who oppose pluralism who are indoctrinated to their own thin slice of reality and wish to force that slice on to all others. To be opposed to pluralism, in religion or any other area, is to believe in a form of authoritarianism. It is to assume your truth is more true than others’ truth. In religious terms, those who do not believe in pluralism worship at the altar of idolatry, and mistake a small part for the whole.
An Agenda of Marriage and Divorce? NO
Slate One argues that those of us “fighting to change the process of marriage, divorce and conversion in Israel” are doing so “to conform to their agenda.” There is no doubt that Slate 6 and those of us who believe in religious pluralism wish to change the process of marriage and divorce, but we do so not to conform to our agenda but to prevent those who have an agenda from dictating their repressive forms of religion on everyone else. We are not asking to interfere in how other parts of the Jewish world administer the rites of marriage, divorce or conversion. We are demanding that we can do so for our own religious communities. We have no desire to enforce that on anyone else.
A Russian Fifth Column? NO
Those first two arguments make my blood boil, but it positively spills over when Masorti/Conservative Judaism is accused of “promoting the absorption of halachically non-Jewish Russians into society.” The reality is so much darker and more twisted than this. The current religious establishment makes it virtually impossible for the one million Russian Jews who relocated to Israel to become Jewish. Let us recall that another repressive regime, the Soviets, denied our Russian co-religionists the freedom of religion. Because of that oppression, these Russian Jews weren’t allowed to assemble and pray together, or to educate their youth in our Jewish beliefs and practices. And then, when they were rescued and permitted to return to our ancestral homeland, and to reclaim their Jewish heritage, the Charedi (Ultra-Orthodox) religious establishment does everything in their power to prevent these individuals from assimilating. They have refused to convert more than a handful (a few dozen a year, if memory serves) of that million. They are the ones who have put up impossible barriers for these Russians to become halakhically Jewish. As a result, much of that Russian community wants nothing to do with Judaism—because of how they have been treated at the hands of religious Jews.
The Masorti/Conservative movement wants to make these Russians halakhically Jewish. We want to bring them closer to Jewish community, not distance them.
The Goals of Civility
What I have attempted to do in this column is to show how civil discourse can challenge hateful speech and tactics. It is to remind us that civility is the necessary tool to challenge injustice and institutional bias. Civility is not capitulation to evil. It is the very opposite of evil and injustice, stating plainly and clearly what is at stake in a situation. It makes its case without subterfuge, in part so that those who disagree with its conclusions can argue against them using those same tools of civility. Civility, in other words, is the use of calm rationality so that people who disagree can live together. Civility is how we pursue truth, and how we share our understanding of truth with others in the only way that it might be heard.
A Personal Ask
If you care about freedom, tolerance, equality under the law and a host of other basic societal goods, I hope that you will press this link and vote in the World Zionist Elections, which close on March 11th.
Even more, I hope that you will endeavor to embrace this deeper view of civility as the means to fight for what is good and right. Without a commitment to it, I don’t believe that any society can long remain free.
Shabbat Table Talk
- What does civility mean to you? Does it just mean talking in a nice tone of voice, or does how and what you say play a part?
- Do you think civility is a form of capitulation to the status quo?
- Is America today less civil than it used to be? Why do you believe what you do?
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.