I’ll probably post this column online, but only with half a heart. Social media isn’t just wreaking havoc on society at large, it’s also tearing at the very fabric of our Jewish community.
We tend to think that alt-right and hard-left anti-Semites pose the greatest online danger to Jews. But there is an emerging concern that some social media companies might constantly, deliberately and invisibly provoke everyone into antagonism. Conflict and outrage increase the time we spend on their platforms, so social media firms’ financial incentives may be inversely related to simple peace and harmony.
Consider, then, that regimes like Iran’s could be deploying bots to coarsen our online Jewish conversation and exacerbate our growing internal divides over Israel, similar to what the Russians are accused of doing in the 2016 U.S. election (and possibly Canadian, Israeli and other elections). None of this is beyond the realm of possibility.
Finally, transpose all this onto the already deteriorating internal Jewish conversation and you have a perfect storm. Social media is intensifying and accelerating intra-Jewish divides, just as our community’s “big tent” era disintegrates.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that when Jews discuss pretty much anything online, the conversations frequently end up like so much else on social media: caustic, hostile and even cruel.
What is surprising, though, is that, as a community, we’re doing nothing about it. Every irate online conversation about Israel, community politics or anything else creates yet another downward spiral. The global Jewish conversation is itself getting sucked into one giant, angry, ugly vortex.
Don’t believe me? Reacting to a recent column of mine, someone wrote on my Facebook page, “Had you been a Jew interned in a Nazi extermination camp during the Holocaust, you would have been a kapo, a Jew who helped the Nazis kill other Jews. That’s really how low you’ve sunk.” Unfortunately, such sentiments are not uncommon online.
We have a term to describe this phenomenon, and it’s a doozy: sinat chinam (baseless hatred between Jews). Our tradition tells us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam. What this really means is, when Jews stop treating each other with basic decency, we destroy ourselves from within.
The global Jewish conversation is itself getting sucked into one giant, angry, ugly vortex.
But our tradition also includes halakhah, the respectful disputation that lies at the core of our national character. In fact, we already have a highly developed body of halakhah dealing with permitted and prohibited speech. Perhaps such rules simply extend to online speech, or perhaps halakhah needs a digital update. Either way, we urgently need a reminder.
We should therefore begin to think about social media as a halakhic issue. Rabbis, for instance, could use their moral authority and religious wisdom to set parameters for online behaviour. While this would by no means be a comprehensive solution, rabbinic leadership would be a step in the right direction.
Our community organizations also need codes of conduct, including a firm prohibition on personal attacks. In 2016, after commenting on community politics, I was personally attacked by a Jewish communal professional on Facebook, and I asked for a simple apology. Two years later, I’m still waiting. Of all people, our paid and volunteer community leaders must meet a basic standard.
But at the end of the day, we all must take responsibility for our own actions. I’ve been trolled on Jewish issues, and I’m embarrassed to say that I sometimes took the bait. I hope today I would take the high road instead, and I’m encouraged by recent online conversations marked by thoughtfulness and equanimity. That is the path to which we should all aspire.
The challenge is great, but we must meet it. Our urgent, community-wide task is to foster a respectful, thoughtful and constructive online Jewish conversation. After all, though they may predate this cyber era, our tradition includes Hillel and Shammai, not Hatfield and McCoy.