It was not a particularly dignified moment for either man.
Columbia founder James W. Rouse and Rabbi Martin Siegel of Columbia Jewish Congregation appeared together on National Public Radio last week to talk about incorporating Columbia into Maryland's second largest city, but the conversation turned ugly and emotional when the pair engaged in a finger-pointing exchange. What set fur flying was Rabbi Siegel's acknowledgment that he has never attended a Columbia Association meeting in his 23 years as a civic activist.
Mr. Rouse was rightly taken aback by the revelation. Rabbi Siegel has long been a vocal critic of the Columbia Association and a leader of the current petition drive aimed at bringing the incorporation question before residents of the planned city. The Columbia founder fired back with a stinging, on-air assessment:
"If he's never attended a public meeting in Columbia, his interest in Columbia or his knowledge of Columbia has to be very, very limited."
Off the air, the two continued trading barbs. When Mr. Rouse exclaimed, "It's too damned bad you don't understand Columbia," Rabbi Siegel shot back, "Maybe you don't understand Columbia."
If Rabbi Siegel meant to score points with that one, he failed miserably. The 80-year-old Mr. Rouse certainly understands Columbia. He is a venerable member of the community he created 27 years ago and continues to live in today. He does not deserve such insults.
Rabbi Siegel's lack of participation in association meetings diminishes his criticism of the system. Mr. Rouse was justified in pointing that out, as he is in defending Columbia against criticisms. Columbia is not perfect, but it is one of the more livable places in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, if not the nation -- largely because of urban guru Jim Rouse.
But Rabbi Siegel is a respected and active member of the community in other ways. Some of his observations have validity. He is right, for instance, that Columbia residents tend not to participate in their own governance, and that the association lacks accountability.
The debate over incorporating Columbia is healthy, and the blowup between two respected members of the community may even have the benefit of focusing more attention on the matter. But if it devolves into a personal squabble, it will achieve more harm than good.