Talmud teaches: “Who is wise? One who turns an adversary into a friend.” Jewish tradition insists that we can always learn from — and frequently overcome — significant differences of opinion, if we are willing to truly listen to one another. This principle feels especially important in today’s polarized political environment, in which we tend to write off those with whom we disagree as not only wrong but ill-intentioned and even malevolent.
Alas, just a few weeks ago, I botched an opportunity to live — and lead — by this lesson.
On Martin Luther King Day, I gathered with scores of marchers beneath the Capitol rotunda for the state’s commemoration, featuring the keynote speech by my friend, Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid. The crowd was diverse, progressive and peaceful. Then a protestor climbed up onto a bench, quietly muttered a few words of discontent, and hoisted a poster that read: “Stop Whining — All Lives Matter.”
A wave of dismay passed through the assembly. On this, of all days — dedicated to the memory of a hero who gave his life for the civil rights cause — it seemed deeply rude and disrespectful to stand over the gathering and deride the Black Lives Matter movement as “whining.” Why didn’t this dissident recognize that the whole point of the movement is to affirm that black lives should matter equally to white lives — when all too often, because of pervasive systemic racism, they don’t?
In our upset and frustration, some of us — myself included — went out of our way to try to block this man and cover up his sign, to keep it out of sight. Even as I could see his anger visibly mounting, I continued to hold my wool hat over his poster. Moments later, another attendee furiously ripped the sign from his hands. Thankfully, a senator and security official intervened to de-escalate feelings and affirm that a dissenter has a right to free speech.
I sincerely regret my actions that afternoon. I lament that I let my ire and agitation get the better of me.
If, by chance, the aggrieved protester is reading this, please know: I offer my sincere apology. I missed an opportunity to learn and listen, and perhaps even to turn an adversary into a friend. In retrospect, I should have introduced myself to the protester, shaken his hand, and invited him to join me for a cup of tea or coffee after the event ended. I might have taken the time to listen to him, sincerely and intently. I don’t imagine that I would have changed my perspective on Black Lives Matter, a movement that strikes me as a matter of basic justice. He might not have shifted his position either. But we would have learned to see one another as fellow human beings, with all of the complications that entails, rather than two-dimensional adversaries.
We are living in turbulent times. I am now worried, for the first time in my life, about the very future of American democracy. The Trump administration’s policies trouble me to my core. But we can’t let our divisions and despair blind us to one another’s humanity.
Next time I find myself in a similar situation, I will strive very hard to consider my responses differently and replace adversarial actions with sincere dialogue.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.