When President-elect Donald Trump met with President Barack Obama at the White House last week, most observers expected a frosty encounter, but the two emerged from the meeting with expressions of respect for one another and each other’s concerns about our country as it makes the transition to a new administration.
The civility after more than a year of hostility on the campaign trail – and half a decade of Trump denying Obama’s citizenship and thus his legitimacy as president – was refreshing and unexpected. Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s concession speech and Trump’s acceptance speech also included calls to work together.
But how can the various sides stop lobbing verbal firebombs and actually get down to the business of governing?
Two very different sources who are not normally mentioned in the same sentence – Chris Christie, New Jersey’s Republican governor and a Trump transition team official, and Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont who mounted a strong challenge in the Democratic primaries against Clinton – have parts of the answer.
Christie, when asked whether Trump would apologize for past remarks against Obama during their White House meeting, told NBC’s “Today” on Nov 10: “What these two men recognize is that now this is about governing and leading the nation and the world. And they have a lot more important things to talk about besides slights, real or perceived, in the past.”
For his part, Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, told CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation” on Nov. 13: “If
Mr. Trump in fact has the courage to take on Wall Street, to take on the drug companies, to try to go forward to create a better life for working people, we will work with him on issue by issue. But if his presidency is going to be about discrimination, if it’s going to be about scapegoating immigrants or scapegoating African-Americans or Muslims, we will oppose him vigorously.”
Opposition doesn’t have to be ugly. Whatever happened to this idea of tolerance: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?
The Jewish community, divided as it is over so many issues, including over the current president and the president-elect’s differing stances on Israel and the Iran nuclear deal, could lead the way – guided by the ethical principle against evil speech (lashon harah) – and talk with one another rather than past one another about our varying concerns. Civility begins at home.
We’re encouraged by some baby steps toward unity such as the Shabbat Project, which aims to get Jews worldwide to observe one Sabbath (last weekend) a year together. Can we all enjoy the inherent camaraderie of engaging in Jewish worship and activity such as challah baking (see photo Page 1), and use that as a beginning point for dialogue about how much more connects us than separates us?
Similarly, the Jewish Community Relations Initiative (see Page 1) seeks to find some common ground while avoiding partisanship in the effort to make our community better.
With any luck, this past presidential election touched the bottom of the swamp of incivility. Let’s hope that discourse pushes off from there to break the surface and breathe fresh air.