Periodically, after I write something disparaging about a right-wing Jewish blogger or political figure, one of their readers or supporters invariably accuses me of lashon hara, speaking ill of others. Almost always, the claim is so transparently used for political purpose that it’s hardly worth rebutting. It’s interesting that these kvetchers seem to complain when they believe I’ve gored their ox, but when their ox (blogger) gores another, then the lesson of lashon hara is lost on them.
Recently, after Rahm Emanuel’s father made an anti-Arab racist statement in which he noted his son would ensure the White House was pro-Israel, and that the latter wasn’t an Arab, which of course meant he wasn’t going to the White House to sweep the floors.
An Orthodox Jewish reader, who says he was an Obama supporter and a member of the “religious left,” took me to task claiming that my ‘inflammatory’ commentary on Emanuel’s statement was lashon hara. The difference here was that this reader claimed to be a supporter of Obama and a Democrat.
Here are a few of his claims:
What you are writing is clearly loshen hora. Please do us all a favor and remember that Hillel said that the whole of the law can be summarized as “What is hateful unto you, do not unto others”.
…You have yet to realize that what the elder Emanuel said was no way “racist”, but simply a very understandable idiomatic way of pointing out that his son was not going to subvert Israeli security.
…My understanding of “loshen hora” is [that it is]…any comment about another’s actions that can create, or contribute to, an atmosphere of baseless hatred.
…My understanding was that Emanuel’s comment…was intended to convey that his son was not an “Arab” in the sense that Arabs are known to support the detriment of Israel as a state.
…I am not criticising you for reporting the matter. I am criticising you for adding your own inflammatory editorial comment which I fear only increases the tension and defeats your efforts for Tikkun Olam. And while I do not in any way condone Emanuel sr.’s comments if they were indeed racist, I cannot condone your indignation, as righteous as you may believe it to be…
I went back to find out what was so “inflammatory” about my comment. Here is Emanuel’s original statement and my commentary:
Dr. Benjamin Emanuel said he was convinced that his son’s appointment would be good for Israel. “Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel,” he was quoted as saying. “Why wouldn’t he be? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floors of the White House.”
Seems to me, in this odd and gratuitous non-sequitur, the dad is inadvertently sabotaging his son’s prospects; not to mention how the Arab world is going to react to a statement like that which is probably already featured prominently at Al-Jazeera. I realize Rahm Emanuel’s father doesn’t speak for his son. After all, I have more progressive politics than either of my parents. But still, this kind of jingoism and racism is absolutely unacceptable and inexcusable even in one’s father.
If I understand Eben’s claim, I have created ‘baseless hatred’ of Emanuel, Sr. by calling his statement “jingoism and racism” and “unacceptable and inexcusable.” In other words, I can publicize Emanuel’s comment but I cannot call him a “racist” because this would provoke hatred of a fellow Jew. Eben further takes me to task for lacking compassion for Emanuel and other targets of this blog. It seems I’m at fault for also being “slow to forgive,” when I’m not aware that any of my targets have ever asked for forgiveness or done teshuva for their words or beliefs.
He also adds this criticism:
…You should try to understand how counterproductive your willingness to indulge in lashon hara and intemperate, ill tempered attacks is in our struggle to bring the greater Jewish community together again as a force for human decency and egalitarianism, as it was before 1967.
Personally, I think Eben’s claim that my remarks were “intemperate” or “ill-tempered” is unfounded. He clearly has little experience with most political blogs where my language would be considered quite temperate. Besides, I’m not aware that the Jewish right shares Eben’s taste for “human decency and egalitarianism” in their rather savage attacks on their Jewish targets. And even if I concede that my own language or style shouldn’t be dictated by my opponents, why should our goal for Jewish political discourse be all dulcet tones and sweetness and light? Politics is a hard game. It should always be a human game and acknowledge the human dimension. It should never be so harsh as to forget this. But I simply don’t believe that politics or political blogging involves the lion lying down with the lamb and a little boy leading them.
The world is a harsh place. The struggle to make it better can also sometimes be a harsh one. Of course, one should always strive to be as humane as possible given the circumstances. But tone is very much a product of context. I reply to opponents in the context of their own approach to me. Respect (though it might be mixed with criticism) is met with respect. Derision is met with same.
I think Eben has a fundamental misunderstanding of what a political blog is. I am the first to admit that my rhetoric is strong and at times sharp, especially when I face an argument or opponent who lies or deliberately distorts either the facts or my own record. Would it be better to always be kind and gracious even to one’s opponents? Perhaps. In fact, I admire bloggers like Phil Weiss who never seem to raise their “voice” even when people shower him with abuse. But the beauty of blogging (and Judaism) is that there is no formula for doing it. The motto is “let a thousand flowers bloom.” Phil is great at some things which I can admire and I’m probably good at other things and he can admire that (I hope).
But let’s examine Eben’s claim about whether speaking out forcefully against the views of a fellow Jew IS indeed lashon hara. To introduce the discussion here is what Wikipedia has to say about the subject:
Lashon hara is the prohibition in Jewish Law of telling gossip – negative disparaging but truthful remarks about a person or party who is not present…
The main prohibition against lashon hara is derived from Leviticus 19:16: “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD”…
There are times when a person is obligated to speak out, even though the information is disparaging. Specifically, if a person’s intent in sharing the negative information is for a to’elet, a positive, constructive, and beneficial purpose, the prohibition against lashon hara does not apply…
I don’t for a minute believe that my criticism of the political views of right-wing Jews constitutes lashon hara. But even if it did, the closing paragraph above certainly characterizes the intent of this blog. The problem of course for my critics is that they do not accept that there is a “beneficial purpose” to criticizing Israeli policy or those who support it. This proves once again, as I wrote above, that lashon hara is very much in the eyes of the beholder.
The last word here goes to an Orthodox Jewish blogging friend of mine who holds forth on his view of the matter:
…Lashon hara…does not apply to matters of public record or public knowledge. But in this case, not only is what Emanuel said a matter of public knowledge, but many Orthodox Jews would agree with it. Ditto with the racism charge. I once called an Orthodox Jew a “racist,” and he said, “Nu?”
It is a mitzvah to rebuke Jews, and it is a moral obligation to wash dirty linen in public, if you can help clean it thereby. There may be times when it is more effective to proceed quietly. But to squelch criticism of Jewish offenders would be to increase their number…
And another Israeli Orthodox blogger (and reader of this blog) writes similarly:
…The laws of Lashon Hara apply to social behavior, what we would consider to be in the realm of “privacy rights,” not public policy matters. To argue against you on the basis of Lashon Hara is a major mischaracterization of this concept, and itself can be classified as falsely accusing someone of a transgression, and is probably in and of itself very problematic halachically (i.e. malbin pney chaveiro – an unwarranted and wholly unjustified insult). Having said that, if the case were that you made up facts against our friend Rahm then, yes, it would be halachically inappropriate, but to the best of my knowledge (and this goes to all your posts) your quotes and facts are rock-solid, and you fact-check your arguments very thoroughly.
So for any readers of this blog who oppose my views and intend to wield the “lashon hara” club against me, this post will be my resource and touchstone. Come to terms with it before you make the charge.