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There was a time, well within recorded memory, when political differences and legislative proposals that people had could be discussed and decided with a modicum of civility and even courtesy. That seems not to be true anywhere in the world any longer. Here in Israel we are accustomed to bitter politics and a great deal of personal venom. Yet, somehow this pales in comparison with the current political climate in the United States.

The catalyst for all of this has been the election of Donald Trump as president. However the underpinnings of hate and vitriol all have been in the making for many decades. Fueled by ideology and the certainty of beliefs, encouraged by people who make a living out of rabble rousing, this situation approaches a dangerous one. Violence is never far from the surface and in the society where there are more guns than people, the domestic situation can readily deteriorate.
American democracy has been the strongest form of democracy in world history. However, the United States once fought a bitter and protracted civil war that killed over 600,000 of its citizens. As President Lincoln himself put it in his remarkable second inaugural address: “Both sides prayed to the same God for victory and each was convinced of the righteousness of its cause.” The same can be said of much of the political dispute currently wracking the American public. And, what happens in the United States has consequences here in Israel as well.
The great Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin in the introduction to his commentary to the Torah points out that the basis for the destruction of the Second Temple was the baseless hatred that existed between scholars and different sections of the Jewish people at that time. He points out that the underlying cause for this baseless hatred was the inability to discuss and disagree on issues in Jewish life in a sensible and civil manner.
Rather, the contending parties resorted to name-calling and even demonization of their ideological opponents Those that disagreed with one side were immediately labeled by them as heretics and nonbelievers. Such an attitude inevitably leads to personal and eventually baseless hatred. This was the main reason why the Jews were unable to successfully resist the Romans. The Temple was destroyed and our long exile amongst the nations of the world began.
The lack of civility in public discourse, the personalization of disagreements with others and vehemence of partisanship over all else creates a society consumed by hatred of others that will eventually morph into self-hatred as well. The hallmark of all totalitarian states is the demonization and eventual destruction of all those that do not agree with the stated policies and worldview of the state itself. One need only view the wreckage of the 20th century and its wars of extermination in order to realize the danger that begins with the lack of civility in political and even religious issues and discussions.
Our religious world suffers from these deficiencies in a very intense manner. One of the hallmarks of the great men of the Mishnah and the Talmud was how they tolerated each other personally even though they may have strongly disagreed on matters of law and principle.
Shamai and Hillel disagreed on three matters of Jewish law. Their disciples in later generations disagreed on 312 matters of Jewish law. Yet we are told that in spite of these strongly held views and disagreements both groups tolerated each other and were willing to hear and sometimes even adopt their opponents’ viewpoint.
It is this nobility of spirit and selflessness that allows these two groups to march in unison throughout Jewish history till this very day. Politicians and communal leaders make their living off of the differences – many times minor ones – that exist between groups in society. It is those differences that justify their presence in leadership positions. However, for the good of the society similarities should be emphasized and differences minimized and managed.
When the sole purpose of remaining in power is paramount then differences are not only pointed out and sometimes even manufactured, these differences very soon sink to the level of incivility. From there it is a very short road to bitter dispute, demonization of the others and even to violence and the shredding of the fabric of the very society that these types of leaders claim to guide and protect.
Shabbat shalom
Berel Wein

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