Correction appended, July 28, 2015.
Politics is like parenting—what you say in anger is remembered for a long, long time. Here’s a lesson from a lifetime of watching and participating in public disputes: Do not speak about your opponents in a way that will make it impossible to find common cause with them the next time. Don’t close and bolt the door. You are never fighting the last battle.
This past Sunday at a rally about the Iran deal, I told the crowd opposing the deal not to make the terrible mistake of using anti-Semitism or Holocaust analogies. There will be another vote—and another battle—and we must always be ready to embrace tomorrow those with whom we disagree today. The speaker following me got up, and saying he was not so evolved, pronounced those who supported the deal “morons.” Not a coalition-building strategy.
And then there’s Mike Huckabee, a former governor and presidential candidate, who said Saturday that with this Iran deal, the president is marching Israelis to the “door of the oven.”
Can we not call a moratorium on analogies to the Holocaust? I have made my opposition to the deal well-known, but when a former Mossad chief, as well as various other Israeli intelligence professionals, support the deal, along with about half of all American Jews, do we need to imply that those who negotiated it are the SS? No one with a strong argument has to reach for rhetorical nuclear weapons.
You can speak passionately without speaking insultingly. You can have a deeply held opinion without believing that those who oppose you must be idiots. The passion with which a belief is held says nothing about its validity—nothing. Argument, reason, and, yes, inspiration are the tools of an effective rhetorical strategy. “Moron” never convinced anyone. “Hitler” even less.
The rally I attended Sunday was held on the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’av, when we mourn for the destruction of the Temple and other disasters of Jewish history. The Temple was destroyed, according to the Rabbis of the Talmud, because Jews could not get along with one another. It is not often remembered that the Romans first came to Jerusalem because there was a civil war among the Jews, and the Roman leader Pompey was invited in to help settle the dispute. The Romans decided never to leave.
Yet repeatedly I see people in the Jewish community, and the larger political community, make the same mistake. We denigrate Donald Trump for his name calling, but he is merely the heedless id of the larger culture. Public figures, along with social media commenters, continue to denigrate and vilify, forgetting that tomorrow, or the next day, we will still need one another, and words spoken in anger sting both at the moment and in memory.
This is a free country. We are free to compare our leaders to Nazis if we choose, but it is a disgrace to do so. Civility and decency are not luxuries; they are the gates we raise against chaos and barbarism. Argue with sharp conviction. Leave the name calling to the playground, a place we are, as adults, supposed to outgrow.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the position of Pompey. He is a Roman leader.