“… [L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” FDR spoke these words at his inauguration in January of 1933. The nation was in a dark place, struggling to gets its equilibrium in the midst of a terrible depression.
FDR understood the power of fear and how it subverts attempts to change and do things in a new way. His mandate was to move beyond the binary good guys vs. bad guys motif to a clarity of purpose. At least for some overarching ideals, he saw that to be an American is to be on the same side, to be united in common cause.
These days there are few messages of common cause. Instead, we see a world increasingly divided and divisive. You’re in or you’re out. Black or white. Republican or Democrat. Have or have-not. Conservative or progressive. Battle lines are being drawn.
All around us are social media and specialized news sources that cater to specific ideologies. We tend to stick with the news sources that most closely support our worldview. We hunker down and circle the wagons.
We embrace a cultural worldview that provides us with order, meaning, importance and, ultimately, self-esteem. The effectiveness of this strategy depends on the agreement of others who share our beliefs. Meanwhile, the existence of other people with beliefs and values that differ from our own can subtly undermine the protection this worldview provides. So, according to the theory, when these beliefs are threatened, we will go to great lengths to preserve and defend them.
Pointing out and accusing the Other – the one who disagrees with us – is a powerful tool. It provides us with an immediate enemy upon whom we can hang our mistrust. This fear that our way of life is threatened by people with whom we disagree or who look different than we do is growing, here and all over the world.
In Israel, this phenomenon is growing at a geometric rate. Religious Jews vs. secular Jews. Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic vs. Russian vs. Ethiopian Jews. Jews vs. Arabs. Two-state vs. one state. Democracy vs. nascent autocracy.
I should not be surprised by all of this, but it hurts nonetheless. I am so disappointed to be living in a time where fear has become a tool to maneuver public opinion. Anxious people respond to conspiracies and mobs and the Other with a predictable hardening of boundaries.
That’s why this past Tuesday night I was so proud that we sponsored an evening of conversation with J Street between two men of differing outlooks on Israel. Dr. Mike Makovsky, the president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, is a mainline political conservative regarding Israeli and American politics. Jeremy Ben Ami, the president and CEO of J Street, is a mainline political progressive regarding Israeli and American politics. They disagree on a lot of issues. But they don’t objectify each other. They are keenly aware of the need for dialogue and a fair exchange of ideas.
Ben Ami and Makovsky proved a few things. They showed that civil discourse is possible, that two men from different sides of the struggle could enter into conversation. They showed that it was possible to listen to the Other without becoming defensive or apoplectic.
The most important takeaway for me and I hope for the entire audience was that when people are willing to speak with open hearts, we are able to discover a middle ground. There were things they both agreed on. That doesn’t minimize the differences, but it does underscore the danger of battle lines and how they obfuscate our common humanity and, in this case, a common love of Israel. If we can agree on even a few issues, then we have a common ground. This is the beginning of true communication and the end of manipulative fear-mongering.
“Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” remains a clear and present danger in this country – and in Israel. And it’s only getting worse. The only way to mitigate against this pernicious toxic cloud is to allow the light of truth and common cause to shine through it.
I know it’s far-fetched and perhaps only a dream that there could be civil discourse between 2 people with profound political differences. But I saw it happen in our sanctuary. I hope to see more of it. “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one”.