Thursday, March 23, 2023

Several years ago, I was in the supermarket and a gentleman I knew was on his phone clearly trying to correctly retrieve the item he was sent to get. When he hung up, I commented that as hard as he tried, he was bound to bring home the wrong thing. His reply was that bringing home the wrong thing sometimes didn’t bother him so much, but when his wife’s reaction was “What were you thinking?” it got to him.

Much of the discourse that passes for debate these days is one side saying to the other “What are you thinking?”

A number of debates have been going back and forth in this newspaper and others. Some old and some new. Wear a mask or not. Open up shul or wait. We waste too much money in our day schools, which causes tuition to be too high. In much of this discourse, the two sides not only can’t see the other point of view, they have a completely different frame of reference. What exacerbates the problem is that often when someone espouses an opposing view they are demonized. Last week a letter writer called out the “name withheld” signature on a letter to the editor. I tend to agree, but given the choice to not know who wrote the letter vs. not hearing an opposing view out of the writer’s fear of retribution, we need to accept the latter as a reality.

Let’s be honest, as debaters we want to frame our position in a way to make a persuasive argument. If there were two positive cases last week and four this week we could say “only two new cases” or we could say a 100% increase. Neither choice gives the proper context to understand the full picture.

Let me try to present an example of how there are at least two real sides to a hot topic: the expense of a day school education. Here are the facts: (1) Tuition is expensive even at the low end. For a family with three children in day school, tuition easily eclipses their mortgage payment and all home expenses. (2) As a former school board member, I can tell you that 70-80% of a day school operating expenses is staff compensation. Keep tuition where it is, and more and more people will need financial assistance. Drop it and teachers will be compensated less or lose their jobs altogether. So either parents take money from tzedaka to make up the shortfall or teachers will need money from tzedaka to feed their families. (A gross over-simplification, I know, but I think it makes the point.) The arguments get really heated but there are points to be made on both sides.

So, what is next? I believe that every debate deserves a respectful discussion from both sides. Really, every debate. Last week Andrew Silow-Carroll wrote: “No one needs to hear the ‘other side’ represented by avowed racists, neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, climate ‘skeptics,’ anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, quack scientists or the mentally unstable.” He lumps racists, Nazis, quacks and unstable people with Holocaust deniers, climate “skeptics,” anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. If a thoughtful, earnest person wants to question the Holocaust, rather than dismiss them, maybe we could help educate them.

Here is my big “ask”: Before engaging in a contrary opinion, start with the assumption that the other person has a valid point to make. Assume that they are thoughtful, smart, caring people that have come to a different conclusion than you did. Often the disagreements stem from an entirely different set of facts and arguments. Often it is impossible to find common ground when the two journeys to get to the point are completely different.

Keep in mind, all humans share 99.9% of the same DNA. As Jews, that number is even higher. On top of that, as observant Jews we share very similar views on Shabbat, kashrut etc. In the grand scheme of things, the disagreements we have are around the margins. Circling back to the tuition discussion, for example, we can all agree that a Jewish education is important and that our teachers should be compensated for their work.

When having a dialog with someone, let’s first acknowledge how close the two sides really are before we point out where we disagree. Because if there is no common ground, there is no room for discussion.

Mark Zomick is SVP of Data Strategy at VM1 (a division of Zenith Media). He is a past president of the Young Israel of Teaneck and current co-president of TABC. He also serves as a producer and music director for the Nachum Segal Network, a position he has held for more than 30 years. His opinions are his own but should be yours as well.

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