Shortly after President George W. Bush won a second White House term, I was covering one of those run-of-the-mill rallies in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall that typically wouldn’t get much ink unless it happened to be a slow news day. On the sidelines, I struck up a conversation with a city councilmember who was incredulous that the Republican incumbent and the man most hated by Democrats at the time — well, maybe Vice President Dick Cheney was hated more — had been granted four more years by the American electorate.
I pointed out that at the very least, the president would be out of office at the beginning of 2009.
Don’t be so sure, this councilmember told me. There’s a very real chance that he’ll declare martial law, suspend the Constitution and declare himself a dictator-for-life.
I laughed, thinking that the councilmember’s hyperbole was an attempt at humor. Alas, this elected representative of Philadelphia voters was deadly serious.
The last few weeks have gotten my memory thinking back to that exchange from 12 years ago, not because a Republican has won a national election, but because now as then fantasy has seemingly replaced reality. Trafficking in the ludicrous is once again en vogue and the centrists among us, whether of the left or the right, are beset from all sides by the paranoia of those claiming to speak for the rest of us.
“To be apprehensive of chimerical dangers, to be alarmed at trifles, to suspect plots and deep designs where none exist, to regard as mortal enemies those who are really our nearest and best friends, and to be very abusive, are all symptoms of this distemper.”
As much as that quote seems to be an apt description for today, it actually came from Benjamin Franklin, as part of a letter to The Gazetteer in 1768. Back then, perceived machinations and actual misunderstandings between the British and the Americans, and between Loyalists and Patriots, were among the direct causes of the revolution. Everything turned out okay in the end, but nothing in our history was determinative that our great nation would result from the depression, war and loss and life that came a mere seven years after Franklin’s letter. Under similar circumstances, the French revolution ignited a reign of terror whose ashes allowed the trading of a monarchical despot for a military one dressed in libertarian garb.
That’s the danger in which we find ourselves when people seek to compare the results of a largely free and fair election with 1930s Germany or when they equate the failure to not sufficiently condemn with a full-throated positive endorsement. Nuance, that great medium of rational thought, is practically extinct in most political discourse today — to the extent that an editorial voicing objections to an administration appointee’s past statements, but nevertheless expressing hope that his undeniably pro-Israel stances portend a better era in U.S.-Israel relations can, at the time, consign the author to the dual charge of being beholden to the fringe of the alt-right and the pro-BDS mob.
Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the annual conference of the American Jewish Press Association, an organization which I have served as an executive committee member and which just elected me its treasurer. While much of the conference’s sessions focused on best practices in the areas of revenue growth, reader retention and editorial management, many of the conversations on the sidelines addressed the need — now, more than ever — for serious journalism to hold accountable those in power and to keep informed the energetic members of the public. While this is the general role of a free and active press nationwide, it is also the role of the Jewish press corps, because nowhere is rational and civil discourse more in danger than in the Jewish community.
Some feel that the answer to the ever-widening fissures in our community is to not focus on the debate, to rather exclusively devote our time to the feel-good stories of community involvement and Jewish growth. There’s an important place for that in this publication’s pages, but there’s also a necessary space to allow the different elements of our community to talk directly to one another. To use the recent election as an example, the fact that 70 percent of Jewish voters chose Hillary Clinton for president is not proof of a Democratic Party consensus. Anyone claiming to speak for the community by seizing on the statistic is bound to consign the 30 percent who mostly voted for Donald Trump to spaces outside the communal tent. It would be a sin as potentially disastrous as claiming to speak for the Torah in demanding the Israeli annexation of the West Bank: Such a position, wrong on its face because there are also rabbis who legitimately interpret Jewish law as allowing land transfer, would by definition cast an incredibly large percentage of the community outside of the religious tent.
Are such positions inherently bad? Is the existence of the debate itself a symptom of disorder? The answer to both questions is no, so long as Jewish partisans of whatever stripe can air their differences respectfully. And the Jewish press is here to enable them to do so, by providing the resources through which readers can challenge their previously-held assumptions with established facts.
The strength of our community does not lie in the purity of our views; it lies instead in our ability to view our neighbors as members of the same family in spite of our differences. It’s hard to do that when we throw reason out the window and grasp instead for hyperbole.
Joshua Runyan is editor-in-chief of The Jewish Chronicle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.