Over the course of our week in Aspen, we engaged in a variety of salons, dinners, conversations, and consultations with other senior leaders of national Jewish organizations, national policy leaders, long-time supporters, and emerging leaders; intellectual, philanthropic and communal.
The issues we addressed intersected many domains including religion, ethics, spirituality, technology, politics, economics, culture, Israel, and American and American-Jewish identity.
The theme that was a thread throughout our conversations was, whether between conservatives and progressives, Trump voters and Trump haters, liberals and traditionalists, religiously engaged and secular unaffiliated, capitalists and socialists, conventional Zionists or young anti-Zionists etc., etc. – was our need to better understand the profound polarization in both America and in Jewish life, and our need to develop a robust political, cultural and religious pluralism.
Here are some reflections on our conversations…
1. Polarization is always an expression of wicked or complex problems to which there are no easy answers. In other words, hyper-partisanship is a consequence of no one’s policy prescriptions being sufficient for the complexity of the problems. The subsequent uncertainty and ambiguity about the future inevitably leads people, even with the best of motivations, to double down and ever more fiercely defend their own positions and even dismiss or demonize those with whom they disagree. While media and our public culture tend to diminish complexity, the job of genuine leadership is to DISTILL complexity.
2. We are called upon to match our unprecedented sociological and demographic change as well as our technological and innovation revolution with an expansion of our Moral Imagination. Underneath our fierce and polarizing debates about economic, social and foreign policy, are serious differences in worldviews and values. Yes, our world is shaped by patterns of power, technology, and finance, but the major challenges of our time have important “spiritual” elements about the nature, the meaning and the purpose of life – about our VALUES, our fears, our hopes, and about what we love. Policy debates that do not entail honest conversation at this level as to how we weigh our values differently, cannot lead to new solutions to our complex challenges. Repeatedly, our conversations clarified that whatever policy or strategy conversations people have, there is no escaping the need to get beyond these ideological existing framework policy debates and to reflect more fundamentally on our VALUES, and to re-ask ourselves what, if anything, we OWE each other as members of a community and as citizens of the country. What collective responsibility do we really have?
3. In all serious intellectual and political debates, both sides tend to be correct about what they affirm, and wrong about what they deny. We work to understand the partial truths of those with whom we disagree. It is possible both that we have never had it so good, and that much has to change. It is possible both that never have more people had more rights, and that more people still need to be given a voice, and be more personally responsible. It is possible to both celebrate the past and remember that often our past has been built on injustices. It is possible both that globalization has benefited millions upon millions, and has hurt many who still need to be helped. It is possible both that technology has expanded our webs of connection across all sorts of borders, and caused painful cultural loss. It is possible both that there are indeed many perspectives that make up the truth -that our unique contexts and biographies shape and relativize the truth – and that some perspectives are more true than others. It is possible both for Israel to be one of the greatest accomplishments in Jewish history, and far more morally complicated than we thought. It is possible both either/or and both/and are true.
4. Leading in a period of polarization requires seeing ourselves and our own points of view as part of a bigger picture, a larger whole, where our opponents and their points of view are an inherent part of who we are ourselves. This invites curiosity about another’s view however uncomfortable it makes us. In sitting with our discomfort, we not only gain a better understanding of another’s view, but get to know ourselves better. There is no me without you, no right without left, no up without down, no conservative without liberal. Rather than resist, blame, or dismiss “them,” or become depressed, angry, or cynical because of “them,” we, especially those of us who see ourselves on the leading edge, as cultural creatives, as the educated and financial elite, need to take responsibility to see the bigger picture and realize – be it spiritually, ethically, or technologically – that whatever “us-them” there may be we are all in this together.
5. Perhaps most important, addressing our complex problems and polarization requires a mix of intellectual fierceness and humility. We do not need less debate, rather we need to deepen our debates in conversations across domains, expertise, perspectives, and worldviews. Such conversations take time to cultivate and require people to learn each other’s languages and ways of thinking. They require us to challenge norms while appreciating the accumulated wisdom embedded in traditions, and to demand that we contribute without knowing the final answer.
6. Pluralism is messy, unnerving, and even dangerous at times, but it beats destroying each other… and it is possible. Only a robust pluralism, a pluralism to which we at Clal have been committed since our founding, can prepare the ground for the emergence of a healthier, more integrated, more compassionate next stage in our collective Jewish, American, and human experience.