From New York Jewish Week:
No Place For Slander In Jewish Discourse
by Ira N. Forman
Special to the Jewish Week
American Jews can take a great deal of pride in knowing that, when it comes to politics and public affairs, our community is perhaps the most sophisticated, astute, and engaged ethnic/religious minority in American history. While we are small in numbers (about two percent of the population), we are influential – with Jewish opinion leaders serving important roles in all walks of American civic life.
Yet an ugly trend is starting to make its way through our community, threatening to undermine our political clout: sinat chinam (baseless hatred). The politics of rumor, innuendo, half truth, and hypocrisy is on the rise in our community and it sullies us.
Noneof us should be so naïve as to think that others are not taking notice of this pollution of Jewish civic discourse. Our reputation as a community that is savvy about the use of influence and power is damaged when we demonstrate a vulnerability to manipulation by gossip, fear and rumor-mongering. Furthermore, our ability to exercise leverage and influence is crippled when candidates who were victims of such tactics are elected to office in spite of it.
There is nothing wrong with rhetoric that holds public figures accountable. Indeed, accountability is a bedrock principle of our democracy. If someone takes issue with Senator Barack Obama’s stand on the Iraq War or Senator John McCain’s support of the troop surge, that’s acceptable— loud and spirited criticism is not only legitimate, it is the American way.
Yet loud and spirited criticism on the issues and facts must not be confused with smears and baseless hatred. Lies and slander have no place in Jewish public discourse and it is against classical Jewish values to knowingly lie or distort the truth about an individual, in order to publicly shame him or her.
To engage in sinat chinam is also counter to the teachings of Jewish tradition. Our sages were so horrified by the hate that the various Jewish sects used against each other during the time of the revolt against Rome in 70 AD that they blamed the Second Temple’s destruction and our long exile on sinat chinam.
For an example of how sinat chinam is beginning to inject itself into our community’s discourse, one need only look at the recent smears against Senator Obama aimed at Jewish voters. What started as fallacious emails claiming the senator is Muslim, was sworn in on the Koran, and cavorts with anti-Semites, etc., has now made its way into semi-respectable websites and even onto the op-ed page of the Jerusalem Post.
In several pieces by Jewish authors on these websites, writers create the illusion of being “fair and balanced” by acknowledging the senator is not a Muslim. They proceed to do everything they can to associate him with Islam, anti-Semitism, and anti-Israel sentiment. Ignoring Senator Obama’s voting record, statements on Israel, and commitment to combating anti-Semitism, the authors seek only to create fear. They do so with half-truths, shaky logic, and hypocrisy.
Of course, Senator Obama is far from the only victim of such smear campaigns. Political opponents continue to use demagoguery in an attempt to create doubt about Senator Hillary Clinton’s support for Israel despite her stellar voting record. And who can forget the false attacks against Senator John Kerry in 2004, including the claim his wife supported Hamas?
Republicans are also victims of this hateful rhetoric. Recently a well-known Jewish blogger – with a sizable readership - wrote in response to President Bush’s visit to Yad Vashem during his Mideast visit: The President “…cares about dead Jews. The live ones not so much.” In a further example of hateful discourse aimed at a Republican, I have personally heard more than one Jewish proponent of the separation between church and state shamefully berate Gov. Mitt Romney because he is Mormon.
Sinat chinam spills into our community’s internal discourse as well. My organization recently received an email from a Jewish individual declaring: “I've read enough of your tripe to know you're a liar, and a stooge for the MoveOn.Org Hitlerite appeasement of Islamofascism.” Other Jewish organizations receive similar hate speech.
Nine leaders of non-partisan Jewish organizations recently signed a letter condemning the smear campaigns launched against Senator Obama. They took this action not because they supported him politically but because they understood the danger of such lies. We need more of this type of activity. It is time all of us— organizations and individuals— take the responsibility for outing and yes, even shaming, the purveyors of sinat chinam in our community — to protect our values and to protect our community’s genuine political interests.
Ira N. Forman is executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.