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Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close

Jews in the diaspora must view fractious debate in Israel as the cacophony of the beit midrash, not embarrassment
Suzanne Last Stone, a former research fellow of the Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project, is University Professor of Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization, Professor of Law, and Director of the Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. She has held the Gruss Visiting Chair in Talmudic Civil Law at both the Harvard and University of Pennsylvania Law Schools, and also has visited at Princeton, Columbia Law, Hebrew

What does it say about a civic culture when political speech takes the form of spitting at a young girl, tossing a glassful of water on a fellow parliamentarian’s head, calling a female soldier who refuses to sit in the back of a segregated bus a prostitute, or dressing in concentration camp garb? During the past month, the headlines emanating from Israel broadcast these images across the globe, contributing to what is already a deep worry that diaspora Jews are questioning whether Israel is more a source of shame than of pride. To be sure, there is every reason to be extremely concerned about the underlying issue these various speech acts targeted: the place of women in Israeli society today. Yet, some of the dismay and even revulsion that I sensed among fellow American Jews when I returned home from Jerusalem last week was with form as much as with substance. The political discourse in Israel all too often seems to American Jewish ears overly raucous, overly loud, downright rude, or even primitive. Indeed, form and substance have become entangled. The uncivil form of political discourse is sometimes taken as the outward manifestation of a failed inner attempt to create a civil society in substance.
Is the Israeli public sphere unusually uncivil or are American Jews overly sensitive to incivility in the Israeli public sphere? I suspect that the latter may be the case. After all, the United States has seen its share of political theater over the past several years, from Joe Wilson’s shouting, “You lie!” in the middle of President Obama’s speech to Congress to the guns and placards of Obama in painted joker face, to the burning of effigies of George Bush by Iraq war protesters. And how many times did Glenn Beck compare President Obama and Democrats to Hitler and Nazis? And excitable speech is by no means confined to the purely political sphere. American citizens assault other citizens not only with slurs and epithets but through speech acts such as cross burning. Indeed, according to American public thinkers across the political spectrum and the overwhelming majority of the public itself, America is undergoing a severe “civility crisis.” [i]  
Political theorists have been quick to point out, however, that the relationship between civility and democracy is complex. First, American history shows that debate tends to be courteous during periods of social consensus when narrow questions of policy and efficiency are the focus; during periods of deeper political disagreement over fundamental values and national identity – over what it means to be “an American” – violent styles of discourse dominate. Israelis, like their American counterparts, are currently engaged in debating these fundamental questions of political identity and citizenship, and so we should expect that the form of debate will be more emotional, even at times violent. Second, what counts as “civil behavior” is also a matter of cultural style. As Cornell Clayton points out, interrupting the American President’s speech clearly violated an American cultural norm of acceptable political behavior; booing and hissing the British Prime Minister is common practice. [ii] Israelis and Americans, including Israeli and American Jews, do have different cultural styles. Within Israeli society, directness to the point of rudeness is often a gesture of intimacy or, at least, trust. Conversely, Israelis often experience American politeness as opaque, a mark of distance and lack of genuine friendship.
The “civility crisis” in public discourse may be a common problem for Israelis and Americans. Yet, how we, as Jews, fashion norms of behavior for a Jewish public sphere, should be of tremendous concern, nonetheless. After all, the public sphere is not given to us; it is a space we ourselves shape and construct within society, a space where citizens express themselves as citizens and ideally deliberate about the common good. The ancient Greeks called this space the pharhessia, or place of frank speech. Jewish tradition borrowed the word pharhessia to refer to public space or the place where expressive political communication takes place. In pharhessia, rabbinic tradition implies, the honor of religion is particularly at stake and so, paradoxically unlike the Greek model, expression is highly regulated. Jewish tradition provides us with an important alternative model, however, of how to shape a healthy and engaged public sphere: the rabbinic study house where plural, contested, and contestable discourse and deliberation takes place. Several observers of the Israeli public sphere have commented on the continuity between the fractious Israeli public sphere and older models of internal Jewish debate. The challenge for Israeli society is to self-consciously adapt the model of the beit midrash on egalitarian and inclusive lines. And the challenge for Jews in the diaspora is to process fractious debate in the Israeli public sphere as the cacophony of the beit midrash, rather than as embarrassment in pharhessia.

[i] See Cornell Clayton, wsm.wsu.edu/s/index

[ii] Id.

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