Fostering more civil discourse in community a worthy goal

Imagine if the Bay Area Jewish community handled disputes, even passionate ones over Israel, with courtesy and mutual respect. That will describe our future if the Year of Civil Discourse goes according to plan.

A project of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Northern California Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Year of Civil Discourse launched last week with a lofty goal: minimize nasty cross-talk and maximize points of agreement.

The initiative is part PR, with 140 rabbis signing a statement urging civil discourse within the community. It also has a more boots-on-the-ground component by intervening directly with six local Jewish institutions threatened by internal discord.

As our story starting on page 6 explains, this initiative grew out of the fallout from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s 2009 decision to screen “Rachel” and invite Rachel Corrie’s mother to speak.

The incident inflamed those who felt the SFJFF was serving as a mouthpiece for anti-Israel propaganda. Their uprising then angered those who feel Israel cannot embody democratic ideals as long as it maintains a presence in Palestinian territories. And the fight was on.

Organizers believe the Year of Civil Discourse will have a salutatory affect, so that if another “Rachel” situation arise, community institutions, leaders and activists will have the tools to foster constructive dialogue.

We applaud this initiative. It can only have a positive effect, which may ripple outward.

Our one regret is that the project will probably reach only those already open to civil discourse. The more uncivil, extreme elements on both sides –– Jews who harshly criticize Israel and Zionism, and those who view any criticism of Israel as tantamount to coddling terrorists –– will likely never sit down at the table with each other.

Yet it is these same fringe elements that make the most noise and foment the worst dissention. They think of dialogue as weakness, common ground as ideological suicide.

The sizeable majority in the middle, composed of those who lean left and right, are the ones who will take part in the project. And typical of the JCRC, their talking is done behind the scenes.

It may not make for sexy headlines, but this kind of “capacity building,” as organizers call it, is the brick and mortar of a strong, united Jewish community.

We wish the project the best of luck, and we hope the result will be true shalom bayit (peace at home) for our beloved Jewish community.