On the stage were representatives of the liberal and conservative intelligentsia. The topic was the breakdown of civil discourse in the Jewish world due to polarization in politics.
“I’ve heard this: ‘I can’t have so-and-so at my Shabbat table, this person voted differently,” said Jewish studies scholar Erica Brown, moderator of this clash of intellects.
“I don’t freak out about polarization the way other people do,” said Leon Wieseltier, Brookings Institution fellow and resident liberal. “I’ve never regarded civility as a primary intellectual virtue. I think that people who are arguing about fundamental questions should thicken their skins.”
But conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks disagreed, saying he does mind polarization.
“In part because I think it’s a violation of humility,” and humility is necessary for people to see themselves from an outside perspective, he said.
The March 15 discussion accompanied the inaugural academic conference of George Washington University’s Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. Brown is the center’s director.
The Mayberg Foundation endowed the center, and covered initial programmatic, academic and administrative expenses.
(Louis and Manette Mayberg, trustees of the foundation, are members of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.)
The center offers courses for graduate and undergraduate students working toward careers in Jewish leadership. It promotes debate on pressing issues in Jewish communal life and offers seminars for Jewish community professionals and the public. But Brooks, who has taught at Duke and Yale universities, said starting a debate among students is not always easy.
“In universities among students, it’s often hard to get an argument started, and often students want to apologize first: ‘I’m sorry to disagree but …’” said Brooks.
Wieseltier said there is a responsibility to remember that some issues have two sides, where every person may have a piece of the truth. But other issues do not.
“There are certain questions that we debate in which there is no other side to the question. The question of whether the Holocaust happened is not a question that has two sides,” he said. “It’s very important to know when we have to engage intellectually and when in fact we have a political battle on our hand against patent falsehood.
“We have to have the spine to look someone in the face and say, ‘Actually, you are completely wrong,” he said.
Earlier, the center held its inaugural academic conference, attended by 25 educators and educational experts. At the panel discussion, Brown said one conference participant noted that the Jewish community is so focused on fixing problems, it does not celebrate what is working well.
So Brown asked her panelists what the Jewish community doing well.
“I’m not a great admirer of the current spiritual, cultural condition of the American Jewish community,” Wieseltier said. “I think that American Jewish identity has been wildly overpoliticized. … Our community has basically been transmogrifying into a lobby …”
“So, getting to the positive side…” interrupted Brown, to laughter.
“I’ll tell you what is positive,” Wieseltier responded, “you can eat quinoa on Pesach.”
Brooks — who joked that Wieseltier was “too optimistic” — applauded the organizational growth of Jewish community institutions such as Chabad, Hillel and federations.
“Everywhere I go, you see organizations that are structurally strong and thriving,” he said. “So to me, that is a sign of hope.”
The Maybergs see the new center as a place for future Jewish leaders to continue discussions like the one between Wieseltier and Brooks.
“This center is fueled by our shared desire to inspire Jewish educators and leaders in new ways with measurable results,” said Mannette Mayberg.
“There is an urgency for Jewish leadership as time speeds up with every technological advance,” said Louis Mayberg, a George Washington alumnus. “We feel increasing distance between today’s Jewish people and the ancient wisdom that has guided our future for thousands of years. We have high expectations that our center will make great strides in bridging past to future.”