By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel, Lebanon
Surviving this past year without technology would not have been possible. From the moment I get up in the morning, to the moment I lay my head down to rest, my thoughts are occupied with the concerns of our sacred community. If not for my cell phone, I would not know anything about how we Jews are making it through the winter months.
If not for the internet, many of you would not be able to imbibe the words of Torah as you have. In that vein, I thank G-d for applications like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Zoom, to make our community’s presence known to each other, and to reach for holiness in a way that only us moderns can.
While their supporters have stood up to insist that this is a breach of their First Amendment rights, I think the Jewish understanding of this concept needs to be historically fleshed out. Before you submit a generic defense of “free speech,” think about the struggles of your Jewish ancestors. Why did those ancestors leave their countries for America?
My appeal here begins with an understanding of the most destructive force known to world Jewry - the mob. As a Jewish person, it doesn’t matter whether you have ancestry in Eastern Europe, or Spain, or the Middle East, North Africa, or elsewhere. Jews are always threatened by the mob. Every historic Jewish settlement has been targeted by the uneducated masses, and it was that very fear that required most Jews to demand an edict of royal protection before settling in a land.
A ghetto often protected the Jews inside from the violence outside of it. No matter where they settled, Jews would petition the royalty for protection from abuse at the hands of the uneducated. The Jews of America’s first synagogue in Rhode Island similarly petitioned George Washington, for they knew too well the Voltaire quote, “Those who can convince you to believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” And the perpetrators of atrocities were the unreflective, violent mob.
The pattern is as follows. A disgruntled leader would become confronted with a political situation they wished to avoid. Rather than “face the music,” that leader would whip his constituents into a wild-eyed populist fury, almost always blaming the Jews. Usually (in the Middle Ages) this was over money, as Jews were forced to be moneylenders. A leader would need finances for war, or for the country’s development, and Jews would assist in helping the court develop and modernize.
Once the ruler had exhausted the loaned funds, rather than pay back the Jews, the ruler would begin to spread lies and calumnies, ultimately kicking the Jews out. The most common lie was known as a blood libel - “Jews used a child’s blood for Passover Matzoh.” But there are equally outlandish lies such as “The Jews control the weather,” or “The Jews control the stock market.” You have heard these canards before.
As you might imagine in the Dark Ages, an illiterate population of land-bound peasants wouldn’t be able to go back to their feudal share-cropping if they were whipped up to believe that Jews were out killing babies! Or making a plague! Or creating a famine! While a trend in modern philosophy is to call any perspective a reality - this perverse understanding of history is not reality. It’s manipulation. Or to borrow a modern term it’s a “Psych Op,” a “psychological operation,” to get uneducated people to do a commander’s nefarious bidding by twisting the populace’s understanding. This blasphemy often marks the start of pogroms, riots, and mob violence, which has the potential to decimate Jewish settlements.
The internet, for all of its blessings, has allowed dangerous slander and disinformation to perpetuate unabated. With that lack of censorship, we have seen an unprecedented targeting of Jews which seem to mirror the language of the Middle Ages. A real result is that synagogues need more security budgets, Jews need to blend into society more discreetly, and all of us live within a more hostile environment. Especially now, as we have spent a plague year connecting with each other digitally, some of these anti-Semitic beliefs have come to hold a primary status in fringe groups. And some of these fringe groups are now becoming mainstream.
The chief conspiracy of QAnon, one of the domestic terrorist cells that infiltrated the US Capitol last month, is that there is a ring of pedophile politicians who engage in child trafficking and abuse of minors. This QAnon group entered the Senate with signs reading “Stop the Steal,” and “Save the Children!” These conspiracists babble nonsense in their delusional episodes of unrest, and we Jews should be very wary.
I believe that it is not a coincidence that the QAnon-targeted ring of supposed- pedophile politicians are mostly Jewish. I believe that this modern “Blood libel” claim is filling the same historic role as conspiracies in the past. And while we can bemoan the loss of a civil society’s freedom of speech, as Jews we should know and understand that this digital censorship and “deplatforming” is to prevent the torches and pitchforks from appearing at the gates of our homes and shuls. We don’t need more people radicalized on Parler, we need more critical thinking and exercises in empathy.
I am proud that Holocaust denial is immediately taken offline. I am proud that we have editors who curate the internet's biggest websites. And I am proud to know that not everyone’s perspective of reality is bona fide truth. I love being Jewish too much to let hate-spewing morons neutralize my Judaism. Yes I can debate with any insensible person who chooses to ignore Jewish history, but I cannot stem the tsunami of disparaging falsehoods which line the comments section in every major social media platform. This year has proved a sad truth, that there are limits to a free and open society. As a Jew, I believe that the future threat of mob violence is enough to deplatform someone, even if that someone is a President or world leader.
This past year has allowed me to connect with individuals who live over vast geographic regions and belong to different age groups. I have been able to pray with those whom I care for. I have been able to use my digital presence to bring more light and peace into the world, as I charge you to do the same. We all have options with the tools we are given, to use technology for good, for unity, for peace, and for the establishment of God’s holiness on Earth, or to do the opposite and to join forces with the congregation of Korach. This winter, please don’t be like Korach.
Together, we will get through whatever comes around the bend, and we will do it by living with a sacred purpose. The American Jewish spirit is indomitable and lively here in South Central PA - no matter the clouds on the horizon, we will experience freedom next month celebrating Passover.