The Potential for Civil Discourse
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From Where I SitOpinion

The Potential for Civil Discourse

A Jewish-themed bus trip teaches teens an important lesson.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Dave Schechter
Dave Schechter

At the American Jewish Press Association meeting last month in Atlanta, one session was titled “The changing face of Judaism: Human Rights and Jewish Identity.” Part of the conversation under that banner concerned the role that Jewish news media can play in connecting a diverse community.

Jill Savitt, president and CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, urged editors and writers to seek out the so-called “purple people,” those able to focus on similarities rather than differences, who can speak civilly and disagree without attempting to throttle each other. That call was echoed by Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, who acknowledged that the task is complicated by divides along religious, generational, racial, ethnic, sex, gender, political and ideological lines.

While the Jewish journalists pondered these issues, a Jewish-themed effort to promote civil conversation was rolling along America’s highways and byways.

The 40 teenagers aboard the Etgar 36 bus (all but two of whom are Jewish) range in age from 14 to 18 and hail from 14 states. Since setting out from Atlanta in late June, they have been visiting sites of historical and cultural significance, and meeting with activists who hold opposing viewpoints on controversial issues, including abortion, guns and immigration.

Etgar translates as “challenge” in Hebrew and that certainly fits the mission, which includes teaching the importance of asking questions with the intention of learning, rather than for scoring points in an argument. Etgar 36 founder and director Billy Planer said that the number 36 comes from the “double chai” of being both Jewish and American, and “of realizing that our lives are connected to other people.”

Barely two weeks after the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that access to abortion is not a right protected under the U.S. Constitution, the teens met with representatives of abortion rights and anti-abortion viewpoints.

“The best example of listening has been their first meeting of the trip, four days into the trip. They met with Andrew Smith, state director of Texas Pro-Life Action, about the issue of abortion,” Planer said. “Most of the teens identify as pro-choice, so it was speaking to someone directly on the opposite side of the issue, especially in light of the Supreme Court decision. It was a respectful exchange of ideas, questions and debate.”

The potential of respectful exchanges was at the heart of a recent letter published in Philanthropy Today. (Note: The following is not intended as an endorsement of any opinion.)

Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, described how a series of conversations informed his transformation from a leader of the anti-abortion movement to a self-described “pro-choice evangelical.”

Schenck wrote that documentary filmmaker Abigail Disney, an “unwaveringly progressive women’s-rights icon … deigned to listen to me hold forth on why I disagreed with her views on abortion,” sometimes for hours. Still, she “waited for me to finish each time. Only then would she ask the kinds of probing questions that indicated she wanted to both know — and understand — why I opposed a woman’s right to choose, assigned full human rights to a fetus and called for laws compelling women to give birth and raise children.”

Schenck credited Disney’s “willingness to listen to words that ran counter to everything she believed.” Had she “been unwilling to engage in this intentional, albeit sometimes painful exercise, I’m not sure I would have ever changed my opinion about abortion.”

The final paragraphs of Schenck’s letter apply well beyond the debate over abortion.

“There is nothing to be gained by closing down dialogue, refusing to listen, or denying each other opportunities to share sincerely held opinions. When it comes to the common spaces of ordinary life and social intercourse, we must respect one another enough to endure discomfort at the conversation table — literally or figuratively — for the sake of the greater good,” he wrote.

“Learning to trust those with whom we disagree, respecting their sincerity and checking our own certitude is crucial to understanding one another and healing our nation’s dangerous polarization — arguably more important now than at any time since the Civil War. Trust is among the most persuasive tools available to us,” Schenck concluded.

This is the lesson the Etgar 36 teens are learning. Their parents’ and grandparents’ generations have struggled in this regard; now it is up to them.

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