In Search of the Center

As the fall election season approached, the community relations field was focused intently on the idea of “the center.”  This was in response to what has been aptly described as the “polarization” gripping our country, our Richmond community – and most definitely the Jewish community. 

As election results came in during the week of November 3rd, and it looked like we may have a Presidential transition, many people spoke a great deal about how our divided country needed to be brought together – to find its center.  However, as the election results began to indicate a winner – we discovered that not everyone seemed interested in this ephemeral center.  And so, we found ourselves at another inflection point. 

This moment revealed what many already knew - that our election season was not just about disagreement, but also about seeing each other as polar opposites.  The rhetoric and ideology of our polarization not only pitted one side against another, but it also framed the divide as good against evil.  For many, this had been the frame for many years.  Students of history are well aware that this frame is actually a consistent one in our political discourse  The Civil War itself, Populism, Progressivism, the Red Scare, the McCarthy hearings, the 60’s, the 80’s – these have all been moments in our political history when it seemed as if the forces of evil were pitted against the forces of good.  For each side in this battle you could say it was either a foreign, liberal evil pitted against an American good, while the corollary would say an extreme, nativist, nationalism was pitted against a liberal communitarian good.

In the Jewish community, we often use the lessons of the Holocaust to frame how we see this battle.  We all speak about Nazi Germany as the case study for the rise of fascism, the use of propaganda, and the scapegoating of “the other”.  In our modern Jewish world however, there is no agreement on which of our political groupings is the exemplar and legacy of the Nazi era.  For many of us, it is the people in the other group who are the fascists.

Because our community does often rely on the lessons of the Holocaust, we are also very sensitive to times when a leader engages in rhetoric or proposes policies that bring those times into stark contrast with our modern life as a diaspora community.  This is to simply say that even many of my conservative friends admit that President Trump is not their ideal candidate nor their ideal model of leadership – and that yes, he does often engage in such rhetoric.  Many Federations have felt compelled to make note of this in the most respectful of ways.  But honestly, the more important point here is not what one man says or believes – but what the people who support him say and believe.  And I do not mean that as a critique of them – because this President was so much more than his problematic rhetoric.  If those who voted against the current President do not acknowledge the down ticket success of the GOP and take to heart their complaints about the left or the far left – we will have missed any opportunity to find that elusive center. 

On the flip side of that coin, I would ask my conservative friends and colleagues to see if there is any way to disagree with the left or the Democratic party without demonizing it.  As this article is being written, the President just retweeted a Dean of Virginia Wesleyan University who wrote “anyone who chose Biden for president is ‘ignorant, anti-American, and anti-Christian.’”   I will likely never change this person’s mind, nor will my articles have any impact on him or anyone who thinks similarly.  But I don’t believe this point of view should be the focus of our hard work ahead.

I have always believed that our country is made up of fringes and centers.  At times of great turmoil, the fringes are amplified and overshadow the well-meaning people at the center – this author’s version of the silent majority.   I do believe there were times when fewer differences existed between left and right - when it was just a matter of how much people would be taxed and not that taxes were evil.  When it was a matter of how much to spend on healing the environment, not that the environment was just fine.   When it seemed that immigrants were a valuable and necessary part of our society – but that we should clearly have a transparent process and limits.  This seems to be the conservative party of John McCain and the Democratic Party of Tip O’Neill.  But those subtle differences clearly were not enough to bring out the fringes of each party enough to sway elections.  And so – our polarization became entrenched. 

But if we believe the movement that elected Donald trump was all about racism and white supremacy, we would be making a very big mistake.  Just as it would also be a mistake to say those fringe voices were not emboldened.  Similarly, to say that the Democratic party is the party of Marxists, communists, and the radical left is a mistake.  But to say there isn’t a far-left message that millions of people in this country do not relate to – this would also be a mistake. 

The question is whether there is any desire to admit that these fringe opinions of each other have driven us to this polarization.  Our choice is about whether we choose to even find value in the center?  Do enough of us see that our community and our country may be a better one with less passionate extremism and more moderate compromise?  Isn’t this the kind of compromise we celebrate and encourage in other countries?

Speaking of other countries, this polarization clearly applies to the American Jewish community’s view of Israel as well.  Over the centuries, the Jewish community has done a very good job at debating Torah.  But when it comes to debating Israel, we don’t seem to have the same tolerance for divergent points of view.  It is no longer about a slight difference of policy from one candidate to the other – but that one is the best there has ever been on Israel and the other will lead to Israel’s destruction.  Is this not another example of the fringe driving the debate - the tail wagging the dog? 

What is ironic is that one of the things criticized most about the Palestinian leadership is their “maximalist” positions.  To want everything or nothing is said to be unreasonable and unproductive.  So, what about how our candidates and parties must view Israel?  Do they have the luxury afforded to the Israeli public – to hold positions that include critique, candor, and vigorous debate – but always with an unbending support for the country itself?   Both parties will be and should always be vigilant of anti-Israel based anti-Semitism.  But is there a way for us to return to a time when bi-partisan support for Israel was seen as of prime importance?  That will be the question we will have to answer in the months and years to come.

And in terms of the larger work for our community – and the country – we must admit that the work ahead is a noble endeavor that acknowledges and appreciates the interests and needs of the other side.  And as we recognize that – as our founding fathers and mothers did – we must also stand vigilant against an extremism and vitriol that could permanently damage our democracy and our future.  I would simply ask that if any of this work seems right and just, that you see the value in working toward a louder and stronger center.  And if you do – then this is the work that needs more adherents, followers, and friends.  Will you join us?