We expected the discussion to be about the topic at hand, and it was a very positive and wide-ranging conversation. That is, until one person challenged whether or not the event should have happened at all at that library. Her comments during the event were a departure from the questions asked by the majority of those present. She was concerned about drawing attention to “diversity” in any way. Her attempt to redirect the discussion to her viewpoint succeeded only briefly. Everyone wanted to get back to what we all came to discuss.
I felt that I had to speak with her afterwards and thank her for coming. Yet, in our conversation, she…
· Accused me of feeling superior because I was seated on the panel in the front of the room and that I was, therefore, necessarily “talking down” to her.
· Implied that I had nothing to teach her because I was from somewhere else.
· Was taken aback when I asked her name, then mocked me for asking as I walked away. I did go back to continue the conversation.
· Told me what she meant during the program when she asked, “Where is this discussion going?” She claimed that the goal of the event was to place inappropriate material on display in the library because “it had happened in Colorado” and it had been attempted in that library as well. I was told later that her claim was untrue.
· Objected to tables in the room bearing books on various topics related to diversity, marked with signs defining the materials as dealing with cultural, religious, sexual/gender and ethnic differences. When I told her that such a display was merely a mirror of reality, she snapped back that WE on the panel were defining diversity to leave HER out. Of course, the categories of cultural, religious, ethnic, and gender difference included her.
Most people gathered at the event responded to this challenge with grace. One audience member spoke about God’s love. Another attendee reiterated the widely-held religious belief that all are created in the divine image. I quoted Psalm 133, “How good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity,” noting that this sentiment should be our basis for wanting to understand each other.
I felt that this woman, a community leader, behaved towards me and my fellow panelists with inhospitality, hostility, disrespect. She made me feel unwelcome, a stranger. She besmirched herself and, by extension, the community which she claims to represent. She was in a room of people, however, who felt differently, who realize that diversity doesn’t mean that we have to agree, but that we do have a responsibility to listen and, if we are able, to disagree agreeably.
I have been the rabbi of congregations for many years with members who hold a wide range of political views and diverse positions on issue of the day. I believe in carrying on lively conversations with congregants while still taking stands on issues that I consider crucial for the well-being of our society.
Fortunately, the fear in that room was a small island in a sea of acceptance and a desire for mutual understanding. It was a learning experience far beyond what I imagined it would be. It reminded me that open-mindedness, agreeable disagreement and genuine dialogue, while affirming one another’s humanity, are essential to creating and sustaining a peaceful community. I continue to have faith that we are up to the task.