With the collapse of civil discourse in this country, it seems that I could write every day, if I were so inclined, on the latest instance of rhetoric that violates norms of basic decency. I could institute a “Civility Watch,” pointing out the many people expressing themselves in the public square in ways that fashion language into weapons of attack, personal insult, and even demagoguery. But I fear that my posts would grow long and monotonous, burdened by the weight of countless examples.
So it gives me real pleasure to celebrate a striking triumph of respectful speech today in the San Francisco Bay area. On May 2nd, vandals attacked the home of Rabbi Michael Lerner, a Jewish leader outspoken in his loving critique of policies of the State of Israel that harm the peace process or betray ancient Jewish ethics. Rabbi Lerner has long been a highly controversial figure, revered by many and reviled, perhaps, by more; that has been the nature of his rabbinate. He has been the recipient of sharp verbal attacks and hate mail on many occasions. The attacks have escalated of late because of his sympathy for Judge Richard Goldstone, author of the controversial report alleging Israeli and Palestinian war crimes during the recent war in Gaza. But on Sunday night, posters containing personal attacks on Lerner as a supporter of terrorism and “Islamofascism” were attached to the door of his home. The attack on his home, as distinct from a verbal debate in mail or media, was clearly intended to threaten Lerner and his family with personal harm.
The good news is that today a remarkably wide range of Northern California Jewish organizations, including two rabbinic organizations, the Jewish Community Relations Council, and the regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, usually more conservative in its views of matters related to Israel, issued a joint statement condemning the attack. "We unequivocally condemn criminal acts perpetrated against Rabbi Lerner's home," read the consensus statement. "Political disagreements must be resolved in a civil manner, and not by resorting to violence.” The statement praised the Berkeley police for their rapid response and urged a thorough investigation. In addition, Rabbi Lerner received calls of support from Akiva Tor, the consul general of Israel for the Pacific Northwest region and from Rabbi Steve Gutow, the director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a national umbrella over all the major religious movements and public affairs agencies. As most members of the Jewish community would readily assert, such unanimity is rare in our community.
Perhaps it is a sign of the times that an expression of support for a person whose home has been attacked is even noteworthy. But given the general standard of verbal violence that prevails in our country, and especially around the highly contentious issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations, this consensus call for civility, personal respect and nuanced discussion of complex issues is a breath of fresh air. One dialogue colleague in Berkeley wrote to me excitedly, suggesting that the pendulum might be swinging back in the direction of ethical and thoughtful speech. This may be overly optimistic, but the triumph of human decency in California this morning is to be celebrated.