Adapting from the poet John Lydgate, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln once famously remarked: “You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.” Based on this quote, it is entirely possible that President Lincoln once worked for Ottawa’s Jewish community.
A couple of years ago, I found myself at a cottage near Toronto. When a friend of a friend’s mother discovered I work for the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, she let loose with a litany of complaints about the Toronto Federation, with some things dating back decades. (Before I said a single word, the one-way “conversation” had lasted 15 minutes). While this personal exchange struck me as comical, I do encounter similar situations in my roles with Jewish Ottawa. And I struggle with it.
On the one hand, I am delighted that people want to express their opinions and that they care and are passionate about the Jewish people. This is indeed positive and commendable.
On the other hand, how do you distinguish between venting and unfair criticism based on a lack of facts, or bias, versus a genuine desire to engage, understand and make things better?
In the age of social media, it is increasingly complicated. Disparaging comments can be made so quickly on Facebook feeds, levelling thoughtless criticism at people and institutions.
Can this passion be channeled constructively? I don’t know, but I hope so. I do know that I have a strong personal preference for working together to try to solve issues, rather than spending time on planning how and if to respond to public criticism. And I also know that I am only human. While I try to be objective, there is no question that it is easier to work and find compromises with folks who reach out personally rather than attack publicly.
I often quote from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
Though they have their place, the best arena is not Facebook or the Ottawa Citizen. One stark example is the recent column by Andrew Cohen, which criticized the work of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). Far better and more constructive are the coffee-shop discussions and meeting rooms where people who want to elevate our community debate, plan and dream. And, most important, people who really want to make a difference do it in their actions, rather than just observe and criticize.
Many years ago, a friend of mine had travelled around Southeast Asia and was struck by the poverty. Most of us would be touched by such scenes and perhaps share our angst about the suffering on Facebook. My friend was different. He started a non-profit organization designed to offer meaningful employment to the most disadvantaged in Cambodia. It now operates in several countries and employs hundreds, bringing entire families out of poverty.
Commentary and criticism can be useful. Constructive action is even better.