My barber is a sweet Lebanese Muslim man with a warm smile, a wife and three small kids. I love the guy. Recently, while cutting my hair, he started telling me about his latest trip to Lebanon to visit his family. He spoke lovingly about his old neighborhood, his buddies, his large extended family, and the laughs and food they had all just shared. He then matter-of-factly said that things are getting better in Lebanon because “Hezbollah is really helping people out.”
I immediately froze. Hezbollah?! The same despicable terrorist group that has vowed to destroy Israel and has killed numerous Americans and Israeli’s, including civilians?
My mind raced. What do I do? Get up and storm out of there? Calmly tell him that I think Hezbollah is the very embodiment of evil and an imminent threat to a land I love? Or just sit there, change the subject and let him finish cutting my hair? I was experiencing, it occurred to me, a true Larry David moment — on one hand this man had just endorsed Hezbollah and offended me to my core, but on the other hand, he’s a nice guy and was in the middle of giving me a really good haircut. I chose the latter option.
But the experience stayed with me. It raised a question that has become an issue in these divided times: At what point, if ever, do we allow political differences to break up relationships with people we care about?
We all have our stories. Perhaps it’s a friend, a co-worker or a family member who holds views you find so wrong and offensive that you begin to question whether you can even maintain a relationship with the person.
An old friend of mine, an opinionated guy who lives out of state and I rarely see, has become quite vocal on Facebook lately about his support for the BDS movement and his harsh anti-Israel sentiments. I don’t believe he’s an anti-Semite — we’ve been buddies for over 40 years — but yet I am horrified at his brutal attacks against Israel and I find myself confused, saddened and wondering how I can stay friends with him. I’m a passionate pro-Israel advocate; it’s a core value of who I am, so how can I possibly put this aside and carry on the friendship as if this doesn’t exist?
Rabbi Paul Yedwab of Temple Israel always tells me to never underestimate the power of pleasant exchanges with people. We don’t always have to engage in heated debates with people, he says. There’s beauty in just getting along and enjoying each other’s company. I love that advice. It’s simple, true, powerful and particularly important in these testy times.
Yet still, I question if there is some point where one should draw a line, whether out of principle or self-preservation, and just walk away from somebody. If one were a racist or something hateful like that, then the line becomes clear to me, but if the differences are based strictly on political or ideological views, then isn’t that very different? Can one’s political views ever become so repugnant to our core beliefs, so unacceptably character-revealing, that the decision to cease a relationship becomes easier?
I recall that shortly after the 2016 presidential election, I went to dinner with some Republican friends. One of them, after a few drinks and knowing that I was upset with the result, angrily snarled at me that she was “gloating, double gloating” that Trump had won. It was a deliberate, malicious taunt intended to disturb me, and it did. I was seething with anger, but I kept my composure as best I could. It could’ve been a terribly ugly moment — and surely would’ve resulted in an end to a few friendships — had I fully unleashed the anger I was keeping inside.
I recently attended a lecture from a Kabballah scholar on the topic of “healing anger and angry people,” a topic I saw as especially relevant during these contentious times. Rabbi Laibl Wolf calmly told us that anger has no redeeming qualities; it’s a bad, destructive emotion, and we must train ourselves to not be angry, even when it might be justified. The trick, he said, was to work to transform anger into listening and empathy and compassion.
It was an interesting perspective, and one that I’m trying — really trying — to master. I accept that we’d be better off if we could adopt Rabbi Wolf’s words, but it’s sure easier said than done.
These are not ordinary times. We are a severely fractured nation. Our Jewish community faces frightening external threats and internally we aren’t as united as we need to be. A bitter presidential election is only two years away, Congress is sharply divided and any thought of peace in the Middle East at this point is sadly just a pipe dream. In many ways, if we’re being honest, things are a mess. We are in for a lot more disagreements ahead, and many of them will get downright nasty.
But we can commit to disagreeing in a civil way. We can still act like adults and carefully consider our words and temperament. Before we hurl ugly insults that could irretrievably hurt people whom we care about, we can think about the consequences of forever damaging or destroying those relationships. We can think twice before we demean, taunt, gloat or shame those who hold contrary views. We can, as the rabbis teach us, strive for more pleasant exchanges, more empathy, compassion and listening.
Those are skills we can all learn to get better at, and for the sake of our community, our nation and the cherished relationships in our lives, we had better learn quickly.
Mark Jacobs is the AIPAC Michigan chair for African American Outreach, a co-director of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council-AJC and the director of Jewish Family Service’s Legal Referral Committee.