'A soft answer turneth away wrath'

Americans decry the loss of civility in many corners of daily life - from the schoolyard to the highway to politics and the Internet. Many are just as perplexed over what to do about it.

The American Jewish community - all-too-familiar with the sting of incivility from others - has been shocked to find it raising its ugly head right in the community's midst. Some key Jewish leaders have decided there is something they can do: not put their money where the loud mouths are.

Eleven of the country's most prominent Jewish philanthropies have launched an ad campaign to alert groups and charities worldwide that civil speech will now be a criterion for funding.

Last month, these philanthropies proclaimed their joint pledge on unity and civility in advertisements in 35 Jewish papers in the United States and Canada. They hope to encourage other foundations to join them. Their dramatic step flows from a deep concern that sensationalist rhetoric and even slander have become a divisive force in the Jewish world.

The level of irresponsible rhetoric first reached a peak at the time of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin four years ago, says Mark Charendoff, vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which started the ball rolling for the pledge. "It contributed to an atmosphere that allowed the assassination to take place," he says. "It was a real wakeup call."

But despite the determination of many to be sure things changed, "some of the lessons learned were very short-lived," he adds. "When issues started coming up again - the issue of religious pluralism, of who is a Jew - then you saw the level of rhetoric begin to rise also." Attacks were made against leaders of other groups, and entire denominations were being written out of the Jewish people, he says. The primary concern "was rhetoric on this side of the ocean."

So the Bronfman family foundations, which are dedicated to strengthening the unity of the Jewish people, found it imperative to take a stand. Learning that the Sapirstein-Stone-Weiss Foundation, which funds primarily within the Orthodox world, had similar concerns, Mr. Charendoff suggested they sign a pledge together, "so that it wouldn't appear as if it was directed at any one group or ideology." Foundations in other parts of the religious spectrum also jumped at the idea.

Some of the groups, such as Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation, fund primarily in the US, others in eastern Europe, and some in Israel, the US, and Canada.

One thing that became clear, Charendoff says, was "that there seemed to be an economic incentive to using hyperbole in language.... If you were the head of an organization and said something outrageous about another group, the media picked it up. Groups like being in the press because it's good for fund-raising."

So he and his colleagues realized the economics needed to change. "We decided to say ... 'This is a free country, you can say whatever you want. But ... what we are saying very strongly - all of the funders together - is that there are consequences to those decisions."

"Charity is about meeting the needs of individuals," he says. "Philanthropy is about changing the culture in which we live."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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