Travelling westbound from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Hersheypark, the turn off from Exit 266 and on to Route 322 offers quite a contrasting drive from the miles and miles of multilane interstate.
The almost 20 miles from there to “the sweetest place on Earth,” where my family and I were headed Sunday to enjoy Sukkot at an amusement park with thousands of other Jews, go through pristine farmland and several small towns.
Driving through the western reaches of South Annville Township and entering Campbelltown, for instance, you become intimately aware that this part of the commonwealth is very different from Philadelphia.
The number of churches is one giveaway; the number of feed stores is another. Perhaps the biggest tell, though, is a monument made out of mattresses in front of one particular brick home: Spray-painted on the side facing motorists heading west is a patriotic slogan; scrawled in black on the side facing the street are the words, “F.U. NFL!”
I can only assume that the display was not a vestige of a protest against the 2012 referee lockout. For one, we took the same drive last year, and I don’t recall seeing the anti-football mattress monument. For another, Sunday marked just the third week of football games since President Donald Trump refocused the national spotlight on what had, up to then, been a decreasing protest by football players of the national anthem in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
But this isn’t a column about the NFL, the first amendment or Black Lives Matter. That installment came two weeks ago. It is instead a remark on what I believe is a strategic realignment of how we as a nation engage in political debates.
Meaning, whereas not too long ago we still used appeals to reason and logic to state a case, today we seem to have done away with such niceties in favor of the tried-and-true method of poisoning the well. (We’ve always done that, of course, especially around an election, but today we engage in it so much that the well water isn’t there anymore; it’s all sludge.)
As my kids enjoyed the roller coasters, Vice President Mike Pence made a show of attending — and then walking out of — the Indianapolis Colts’ 26-23 win over the San Francisco 49ers … before it even began. Pence tweeted that he and his wife, Karen, left because several 49ers knelt during the anthem, and Trump and he “will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.” Never mind that Pence had a plan already in place to storm out — reporters were told to stay in the motorcade because of the chance they’d leave soon, and Trump later claimed that he and Pence organized the whole show of outrage. My problem is the continued equality the administration makes between principled protest and anti-Americanism.
Just last week — days after gunman Stephen Paddock slaughtered 58 in Las Vegas with a small arsenal of semiautomatic weapons modified to behave like machine guns — an article appeared on the website of The Federalist decrying that all calls for enhanced regulations on firearms coming from the left were automatically suspect because what liberals really want is to repeal the Second Amendment. As with the Trump/Pence line of thought, here was a wholesale writing off of anyone who wasn’t conservative as enemies of the Constitution.
Lest you think that only “the right” is beset by this disease of logically-suspect hyperbole made worse by divisive accusations, during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal two years ago, it was many on the left who characterized all those against the deal as preferring war over negotiation. (Jewish backers of the deal were also smeared as “kapos” by some on the right.)
After the Iran deal was inked, I was hopeful that we as a community would heal the rifts the “debate” over the deal created and widened. And then the presidential campaign happened. And then the president took to governing by 140-character tweets, a medium not conducive to constructive dialogue.
And now, given Trump’s signaling of his intention to decertify Iran’s compliance with the deal, we will be treated to the Iran debate’s sequel as Congress muddles about for a path forward.
So be prepared for the attacks and counterattacks, wherever you may stand on the issue, because you’ll either be smeared as an enemy of Israel or an enemy of the United States in the days, weeks and months ahead. That is, of course, unless we collectively appeal to what President Lincoln long ago referred to as “the better angels of our nature,” and recognize that deep down, most of us truly want what’s in the best interests of America and the Jewish state.
My prayer is that, contrary to past experience, we as a community and a nation conduct this looming debate with mutual respect, patience and reason. At this point, the only thing that gives me hope is seeing Jews of all stripes, affiliations and ages celebrating Sukkot, a holiday regarded by our tradition as benefitting not only the Jewish people but the entire world, together.
Let’s bring that spirit of unity into our interactions with each other, no matter the issues that divide us.