Embracing the Moderate Middle

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As Hurricane Irma began its long march up Florida’s West Coast, having already decimated much of the Keys, my 14-year-old daughter offered a beloved family member a bit of counsel that, in retrospect, we all would be wise to consider.

At the time, my parents, having fled their smaller home outside Tampa, were huddling inside my uncle’s house, expecting a Category 3 storm or greater.

“Whatever happens, remember that as long as you and your loved ones are all right, everything’s good,” she wrote in an email to my mother. “Harvey and Irma may seem like curses, but they came in the nick of time. America was falling apart at its seams, but [the hurricanes] brought America together.

“Neighbors help neighbors, and volunteers from all over help everyone,” my daughter continued. “No one asks what political party you’re a member of or who you voted for. No one asks what your stance is on controversies. No one asks about your past or the legality of your citizenship. They only ask if you’re all right.”

In the end, my parents — along with many across the Sunshine State — fared much better than those who were deluged two weeks before when Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas. Having had plenty of warning, millions evacuated prior to Irma’s onslaught; those who didn’t faced wind, rain and surf, but tallies on Sept. 11 indicated seven deaths. My parents’ home was not damaged, although power remained out across most of the Tampa Bay area throughout the early part of this week.

Irma was still a massive storm. At one point, most of Florida was under a hurricane warning. A large chunk of Miami became a raging torrent of water. As in Texas, some lost their homes. Many who didn’t will return to significant damage. But as you read this, there are already aid convoys headed south, some dispatched by Jewish communities throughout the Northeast.

Harvey and Irma — the jury is still out on Hurricane Jose, which has stalled in the Atlantic Ocean above Puerto Rico and might strike America’s Eastern Seaboard — might very well end up revealing the best of ourselves. It’s probably a stretch to call these destructive forces of nature a blessing, but my daughter’s view offers an interesting comment on how far we as a society have come. If it takes a natural disaster to bring us together, does that inherently mean that we were so far apart?

The answer to that question ultimately depends not on how we behave when helping out a neighbor trying to rebuild or feeding a family who fled the storm, but on how we apply this newfound spirit of cooperation to the issues and politics that will always threaten to divide us.

In the same newspapers featuring headlines about the storm, other stories referenced the curious posting of an anti-Semitic meme by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair to his Facebook page. The image, borrowing from the old canard of Jews controlling the media, depicts George Soros, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, activist Eldad Yaniv and Meni Naftali, all foes of the elder Netanyahu. (It is Naftali, the former housekeeper of the Netanyahus, who successfully sued them for mistreatment.)

After withering criticism from Israeli and American Jewish voices, the younger Netanyahu took down the post. But when Barak suggested that Yair Netanyahu needed a psychiatrist, he responded by suggesting on Twitter that the former prime minister needed a geriatric nurse.

I have bemoaned many times in this column the prevalence of a political “discourse” that all too often devolves into name-calling, scapegoating and dehumanization. We’ve long seen that kind of rhetoric in Israel — making the Yair Netanyahu scandal not all that out of place in a country where legislators routinely call each other Nazis — but it’s become commonplace here in the United States and even in our own Jewish community.

It shouldn’t take someone writing in the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer that “Yair Netanyahu is a total bro” — yes, this really happened — to clue us in to the fact that something is seriously wrong. Whatever disagreements we may have with each other, when it comes to fellow citizens — and certainly to fellow Jews — we should never, ever see them as flesh-and-blood enemies. My guess is that we don’t want to feel this way; it’s just that our politics have given little room for nuance.

Here in Philadelphia, philanthropist David Magerman has an idea that will put into long-term practice the unity my daughter is observing in the aftermath of the hurricanes.

Writing on LinkedIn last month, he suggested that moderates financially support moderates as a way of diluting the influence of far-left and far-right political action committees made possible by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling. Magerman notes that he is no friend of Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s policies and would likely support a Democrat if there were one in the Senate race there. But he’d rather see Flake win against a far-right opponent in the primary.

Magerman wants to “fight ideological political giving, to cancel out the donations from the far left-wing and far right-wing of American politics, and to force candidates to answer to the broad spectrum of American voters and not just their billionaire patrons.” It’s in that moderate middle where most of us want to achieve the same things, even if the policies we favor take different paths to get there.

It’s the same moderate middle that is helping Floridians to dry out and Texans to rebuild.

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]