Talking to, not at, each other
May 2, 2012
A few months ago we created a weekly e-newsletter called “Responsive Reading,” which pairs pro and con essays on the big issues , from Iran and Hamas to Holocaust humor and intermarriage. I think it honors the great Jewish tradition of argumentation, especially what the rabbis called “arguments for the sake of heaven” — debates that seek to uncover the truth, not to belittle or undermine an opponent.
“Responsive Reading” is itself a response to a trend I see in Jewish life — that is, the refusal of a lot of folks to accept that there is more than one side to the big issues. I read dozens of e-mails or Facebook posts from friends and readers every day, and I am struck by the ideological consistency and purity of their messages. It feels like everyone is running for something, and that to express a doubt or acknowledge an opponent’s point will hurt their chances for victory. I think I’m having a conversation, and find out I’m a guest on The O’Reilly Factor.
But there are smart and well-intentioned people on both sides of the aisle, and the more I work on “Responsive Reading” the more I keep finding them in the same places. Below are some websites that encourage multiple viewpoints, respectful dissents, and the occasional eruption of apostasy.
• The Scroll (www.tabletmag.com)
I usually start my reading day with this blog, chiefly maintained by Marc Tracy of the on-line Jewish magazine Tablet. Tablet itself has a diverse stable of writers, but I turn to Tracy not for debate but perhaps the best one-stop aggregation of Jewish news and opinion links on the web. The Scroll provides “Daybreak” and “Sundown” posts with links to breaking news and must-read articles. In his long-form posts, Tracy alerts me to arguments under way across the Jewish blogosphere and provides sharp, insightful commentary of his own. He also makes me laugh: Last month he reported on the New Jersey appeals court ruling that a non-Jew can sue if subjected to comments that would be considered anti-Semitic by “a reasonable Jew.” Added Tracy: “Efforts to locate and question a reasonable Jew were unsuccessful.”
• iEngage (www.iengage.org.il)
I keep writing about and quoting iEngage, an effort by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem to elevate the Israel-Diaspora dialogue. Unlike most think tankers, its contributors and house scholars — Tal Becker, Donniel Hartman, Yossi Klein Halevi, Suzanne Last Stone — seem genuinely interested in inquiry, not victory. Its faculty has spoken to AIPAC and J Street, a rare crossover in the Jewish world. In a recent issue of its journal, Havruta, writers on the Left and Right reached out to one another, trying to define terms for a civil debate on peace, Zionism, Iran, and Orthodox extremism. “How then to begin the process of transforming our discourse?” asks Klein Halevi. “One way is by acknowledging that the fanatics don’t in fact define their respective camps…. The fringes need to be discredited — and that can only be achieved by the mainstream in each camp.”
• Open Zion (www.thedailybeast.com/openzion)
Open Zion is a new blog from Peter Beinart, whose new book, The Crisis of Zionism, and his call for a boycott of the settlements has made him a target of angry reviewers and angrier bloggers. But for a site ostensibly designed to defend Liberal Zionism, there is a surprising amount of dissent and disagreement. Take a look at a recent debate between historian Gil Troy and Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi over plans by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center to build a “Museum of Tolerance” in Jerusalem on the site of a Muslim cemetery. According to Khalidi, whose ancestors were buried in the cemetery, “hundreds of sets of remains have been disinterred and carted off for disposal,” while the Wiesenthal Center clings to “a flimsy defense that the sanctity of the site has long since diminished.” Troy counters that “the Mamilla Cemetery was officially abandoned decades ago by Muslim religious authorities,” and that the “legal, historical, and religious record” are on the side of the Wiesenthal Center. It’s a heated, even angry debate, but one you might not find elsewhere.
• Bitter Lemons (www.bitterlemons.net)
Ghassan Khatib, director of the Palestinian Authority Government Media Center, and Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, founded this site to “promote a civilized exchange of views about the Israel-Arab conflict.” Participants range across the Israeli and Palestinian spectrum. Each week the site posts four essays on a given topic — recent issues included the possibility of a third Intifada, the implications should the Palestinian Authority collapse, and the ramifications of the “Israel-U.S.-Iran confrontation.”
None of these sites is encyclopedic, but all offer a glimpse of what it might be like if we actually agreed to talk to, and not at, each other. As Hartman’s Tal Becker puts it, “It cannot be that all the good arguments lean only to one side. Accepting the difficulty of an issue, whatever position one ultimately favors, does not betray a failure of conviction but a connection to reality.”
To subscribe to Responsive Reading, go to njjewishnews.com/signup.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.