We live in an increasingly difficult world where facts alone are no longer necessary, where outright lies by those holding the highest elected offices are uttered without much surprise by most and where the sins of lashon ha-ra (evil speech) and motzie shem rah (defamation) are uttered wilfully by those who should know better.
In December, an organization called Canadians for the Rule of Law advertised a “teach-in” at Beth Tikvah synagogue in Toronto, ostensibly to discuss groups that allegedly threaten the rule of law in our country. As reported in The CJN, the group’s website stated: “There are organizations and ‘political tribes’ that threaten the rule of law in Canada. These groups include free speech disruptors and deniers on campuses, terrorist-funded Canadian jihadi organizers, Muslim Brotherhood public curriculum developers, hate speakers on social media, returning ISIL fighters, victimized me-first exceptionalism that overrides the survival of Canadian values, violence-promoting anti-Semites and deniers of religious pluralism and freedom.”
Some speakers scheduled to address the teach-in have publicly engaged in homophobic, racist and Islamophobic speech. Michael Coren, a well-known columnist writing in NOW magazine, made specific mention of participants like evangelical minister Charles McVety. Coren says that McVety “has long been at the forefront of anti-gay and anti-Muslim campaigns and more recently the Ford government’s crusade against the modern sex-ed curriculum.”
He also pointed to ACT for Canada, one of the sponsoring organizations, which has supported far-right individuals like the English Defence League’s Tommy Robinson, whom British MP Stewart McDonald referred to as a “racist thug” in the House of Commons.
Full disclosure: Coren interviewed me for his article, in my role as the chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. As I told him, I was disappointed “to see some otherwise respected players within Toronto’s Jewish leadership lending their good names to those who preach anti-Muslim hatred, homophobia and bigotry.”
I also contacted Beth Tikvah’s leadership, to give them a heads-up about the article and the justifiable concerns it would be expressing. Many others voiced similar sentiments to the synagogue. In the end, Beth Tikvah asked the event organizers to find another venue, due to “security concerns.”
A few weeks later, an obscure Internet publication published its version of events. According to the reporter, Coren labeled Beth Tikvah as “anti-Muslim” and inferred strongly that I had threatened the Beth Tikvah community by commenting on Coren’s column. This is the worst kind of lashon ha-ra, since even a cursory reading of the NOW article will demonstrate that it is simply untrue.
This is only one example of how truth is distorted by those who manipulate facts and use hyperbole and bullying to disparage and threaten others.
In the last year, I have found myself being obsessively targeted on social media by hard-right Jewish groups. They have labeled me a self-hating Jew, a traitor to the Jewish people and even a kapo. They point specifically to my work encouraging Muslim-Jewish dialogue.
I have been in this business a long time. I have faced down neo-Nazis, racists, bigots and other assorted fools. I have even been on a white supremacist hit list. Today, however, I have to confront some in my own community who engage in the un-Jewish practices of intimidation and menace.
How did this happen to us? In other generations, Jews certainly held different political positions. Bundists, communists, socialists and Zionists argued with great passion, but one thing they never did was attack the other person’s character.
Those of us in the public eye must have a thick skin. However, some in our community must also relearn the lessons of civility. The rabbis taught us that the tongue is a very powerful weapon. It is for this reason that ha-Shem gave it two guardians – our teeth and our lips.