Not too long ago, two of our Birmingham Jewish Federation staff members, one of our long-time volunteer leaders and I, in my role as our Federation Executive Director, were discussing a disturbing trend we’ve seen evolve over the past five years: Growing polarization in our local Jewish community.
While this problem also is plaguing our country in general, our focus in our Federation roles was on the growing schism in our local Jewish community.
The problem, fueled by the growth of social media and the Internet, really began to gain traction in our community during President Obama’s tenure. It has intensified during President Trump’s term, and this knot of divisiveness is getting pulled tighter and tighter.
I see this reflected in the emails and Facebook comments I get from anti-Trump people whenever our Federation newsletter publishes or I post an item that suggests President Trump has taken an action favorable to Israel.
People often respond not by addressing the substance of what was written, but rather by criticizing the President in other areas and suggesting that by highlighting a positive action or decision by Trump affecting Israel, that we are endorsing or ignoring everything else the President says or does.Conversely, if we publish, for example, criticism by national Jewish groups of a Trump decision or policy, the responses from some of the President’s supporters are just as pointed.
The language people use in these responses, more often than not, is animated and strong, reflecting how passionately they feel about their point of view.
Some level of polarization — in our community and country — always has existed, though it hasn’t been as visible and omnipresent as it is today. The advent of social media and the Internet have played a role in amplifying our disagreements with each other, providing venues for people to debate and argue 24/7. Yes, debate and informed differences of opinion are healthy, but for a small, traditionally tight-knit Jewish community such as ours, being continually ripped apart over issues, including issues that go beyond Trump, is not a good thing.
Meanwhile, a recent piece by retired Harvard law professor and Jewish activist Alan Dershowitz caught my eye. Widely circulated and covered on the Internet, Dershowitz wrote about friends shunning him and ostracizing him from their social circles because of views he has expressed about Trump.
In Birmingham’s community of about 6500 Jews, the growing polarization and inability to discuss Trump and his actions civilly is creating ongoing tension in some families and, as Dershowitz discovered, leading friends to ostracize friends.
I do believe we’ve also entered an era of extremism, which I suppose is a byproduct of polarization. Gradations of opinion, nuance and context seem to be vanishing as discourse deteriorates into a zero sum game: “I am 100 percent right. You are 100 percent wrong.”
I started to see the beginning of these trends during the last few years of the Obama administration when almost anything I would write about Obama and Israel would draw criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. In trying to write thoughtfully about Obama’s actions and attitudes toward Israel, and provide context, I was called everything from an Obama-hater to a shill for the Democratic Party.
So, in our Federation discussion a few days ago, we reflected on much of the above and discussed the challenges of growing polarization — and what role, if any, there is for the Birmingham Jewish Federation as our Jewish community’s central convening agency, to play in addressing the situation in our community.
We came up with several ideas, all of which are in the formative stages. In the meantime, our Federation will continue to try to provide thoughtful objective commentary to the best of our ability, knowing that we won’t please all of the people all of the time.