A Rabbi’s World: The Death of Civility

Those of a certain age and inclination will recognize this lyric from a great Buffalo Springfield song of the late ’60’s: "Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear…" That’s exactly what it feels like to me in America right now. Something’s happening. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but it feels visceral and scary, and I’m sure I’m not making it up.

The long and exhausting debate over the Obama administrations overhaul of our health care system is finally over. Depending on which talking heads one is inclined to listen to, this is either the beginning of messianic times or the beginning of the end of America as we have known it. No rhetorical stone has been left unturned. The debate has been vigorous, as it needed to be, and the issue has been resolved in a way that has left some elated and others very deeply disturbed.

Such is life, right? When debates on great and substantive issues are resolved, someone usually wins and someone else loses. Losing is rarely a pleasant experience, and one doesn’t expect someone who has lost to be happy. But I have been stunned by the level of rancor, and sheer petulance, of some on the Republican/Conservative side of the political spectrum.

For the eight years of the Bush (II) presidency, when the Democrats were out of White House, the Republicans wielded their power like a cudgel. Gone but not forgotten are Cheney, Rove, and the entire cast of characters that painted anyone who cared about civil liberties as unpatriotic, and much, much more. Though it was hardly entirely of their doing, they were the party in power as our economy nearly capsized under the weight of Wall Street’s excesses. As long as the business sector was thriving and government stayed out of its way, they were happy. We all know now how well that philosophy worked- for all of us.

So now there’s a Democrat in the White House, and the President actually- finally, really- used some political muscle to push through one of the most significant changes in the American health care system in decades. It took arm-twisting, promises here and there, cajoling…. In short, it took heavy-duty politicking to get it done, but it’s done. Yes, it will cost money, and yes, it remains to be seen exactly how well it will accomplish what it is setting out to do. But it is also true that while the Republicans were in office, the government spent billions of dollars on an undeclared war that was not funded within our budget and that proved to be completely unnecessary based on the stated reasons for which it was launched. And I can’t help but wonder…. Isn’t actually getting more Americans under some kind of health care umbrella a better use of government money than "shock and awe?"

To listen to Republicans now, you would think that President Obama and the Democrats had committed high treason. Vitriolic verbal attacks on the floor of the House of Representatives ("Baby Killer!"); racist taunts thrown at distinguished African American members of Congress; ugly anti-gay slurs directed at Barney Frank, anti-Semitic insults directed at our own Congressman Wiener- and just today, a suspicious white powder sent to his office…

What have we come to as a country? What has happened to the concept of losing graciously, and with dignity? The House and Senate used to be a place where at least the veneer of respect was a treasured tradition, but these days it looks and sounds more like the Knesset than the American Congress (and that is no kind of compliment).

I miss the country I grew up in. It was profoundly imperfect, but it never felt quite as mean to me as it does now.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik, spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1981

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.