Year of Civil Discourse a role model for respectful dialogue

Israel and Middle East politics seem to stir the passions like few topics, often to the point of full-blown acrimony. The divide between Jews who ardently defend Israel and those who condemn it has never been wider. For that reason, in December 2010 the Jewish Community Relations Council launched the Year of Civil Discourse, which recently wrapped an ambitious 12-month pilot program.

As our cover story this week indicates, the program succeeded in many ways.

The Year of Civil Discourse brought together rabbis from across the denominational and political spectrum, Jewish community professionals and congregants from area synagogues to develop skills for engaging in respectful dialogue, even when the subject matter triggers intense polarization.

It was never the intention to have participants alter or water down their political views. That never could have worked. Yet by showing a willingness to listen, participants managed to build bridges across that political gulf where none seemed possible before.

There are important lessons here. For one, thanks to the Year of Civil Discourse, Jewish communities now have a road map to navigate the rough terrain of the Israel-Palestinian debate.

This matters, because American Jews can ill afford the deep schism this debate had begun to open. True, we do not, and should not, march in lockstep. But our community is stronger when we understand and respect each other, and we can do so only when we speak civilly to one another instead of resorting to shouting and insults.

It matters also because within Israel, especially recently, the debate over key domestic issues has grown exceptionally heated.

The latest furor over Haredi harassment of women and girls — in which women were assaulted on public buses and an Orthodox girl was called a whore for not dressing modestly enough — shows Israelis, too, have much to learn about civil discourse. Perhaps they might take a page from the Bay Area’s new playbook.

We salute the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and Walter and Elyse Haas Fund for subsidizing the program, and the JCRC, Northern California Board of Rabbis and S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation for putting it together.

There is more work to be done. Workshop participants volunteered, showing their willingness to engage. Now organizers must reach out to those who may not feel so eager for dialogue. It won’t be easy, but we have to make the effort.