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Opinions | Sharply polarized political climate a threat to Jews

In my 34 years at the Jewish Community Relations Council, I have had the privilege of working on a broad array of issues from freedom for Soviet Jews to fighting hate violence, from supporting same-sex civil marriage to challenging the movement to delegitimize Israel. We have, as a community, achieved tremendous results on countless fronts — and yet, I have learned, there are few permanent victories. Jewish life is about continued vigilance in each generation — vigilance when it comes to obvious threats (the resurgence of global anti-Semitism) and when it comes to slow moving threats (the growing polarization in our society).

One issue that keeps me up at night is that societal polarization. Increasingly, Americans cannot tolerate people with different views. That helps explain the dismal state of political discourse in our country, a discourse increasingly peppered with intolerance and bigotry not just on the fringes but ominously creeping into the mainstream. This polarization is not good for the Jews, regardless of our own worldview.

According to a Pew Research Study, in 1994, 16% of Democrats had a very unfavorable view of the Republican Party. By 2014 it had climbed to 38%. Similarly, in 1994, 17% of Republicans had a very unfavorable view of the Democratic Party. Now that number is 43%. In addition, 27% of Democrats see Republicans as a threat to the nation’s wellbeing, while 36% of Republicans see Democrats the same way.

The 24/7 cable news cycle era combined with the blog-to-fit-every-view reality has changed the way Americans think about news and the issues and has contributed to the descent in the quality of political discourse. There is an ever-increasing tendency to tune in only to the channel or blog that validates one’s own perspective, while tuning out ideas that might challenge that viewpoint. People listen less to alternative views and engage less with people who hold them.

This trend is accelerating within our own community, particularly regarding attitudes toward Israel. It is harder and harder for people to sit in the same room as others with whom they sharply disagree about Israeli government policies.

For decades, the Jewish community’s security has been greatly enhanced by the drive toward the center in American political life — the left and right pivoting toward the center to forge a consensus on major issues. Moderation combined with strong democratic institutions is a good formula for secure Jewish life, a hedge against extremist views taking root.

So what can we do? In short, fight back. For starters, that includes being open to viewpoints beyond our own, appreciating that we sharpen our own thinking when we read or listen to thoughtful arguments from another position.

It is time to start a national movement of paired perspectives. Here’s how it works: If you tend to turn to one source for news, try to find a source that offers a persuasive counter-argument, even if you disagree with it vigorously. Reading multiple sources will at the very least sharpen one’s own argument, but beyond that it can lead to less certainty while not diluting one’s passion on a particular subject.

For 70 years, JCRC has served as an exemplar for civil discourse in our community by bringing around the table leaders representing diverse perspectives, from right to left, seeking common ground. On numerous occasions, members have developed strong relationships with people on the opposite side of the spectrum and continued their discussions not to try to change each other’s views so much as to fully understand them. It can be done.

Among the most enlightening parts of my job is that on every major issue we address — Israel, civil rights, immigration, religion and state, Muslim-Jewish relations — I am the recipient of multiple perspectives from community members with strong views. I receive dozens of articles each week representing wide-ranging viewpoints. It is through the exchange of ideas that we are not only able to develop a consensus approach that enables us to move forward as a community, but to hold the passionate center — harnessing the passions that come from the left and right into an effective community strategy. This is how JCRC has achieved its remarkable record of accomplishments since its founding more than 70 years ago; I am confident it will continue to do so.

As Abby Porth, my outstanding successor, becomes JCRC executive director next week, I will rest well knowing that JCRC will continue to serve on the front lines of community relations issues for our entire Jewish community.

A final note: a tremendous thank you to all the lay leaders and professionals with whom I have had the honor of serving at JCRC who have daily sharpened my critical thinking skills; to the Jewish Community Federation for decades of exceptional partnership; to the Jewish Federation of the East Bay for recognizing the value of covering both sides of the Bay; to my esteemed colleagues throughout the community who fulfill an extraordinary range of missions with top-flight professionalism; to the growing number of donors who appreciate how important it is for JCRC to have the necessary resources to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow; and to countless leaders within and beyond the Jewish community with whom I have had the exceptional privilege of working on issues of common concern. Your collective commitment continues to inspire me and bodes well for our future.

Rabbi Doug Kahn is the outgoing executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.