Diaspora Diaries: Anti-Jewish conspiracy vs. human error

The Jewish community should not assume that nonsense claims are always malicious and designed to ridicule.

Kyle Broflovski 370 (photo credit: Courtesy South Park Studios)
Kyle Broflovski 370
(photo credit: Courtesy South Park Studios)
“Rabbi bans students from eating soy in case it leads to gay sex.” As a headline, it’s got all the elements designed to send a news story viral: sex, food, extremist religion, and questionable science.
It’s very much the sort of story I’d enjoy writing and reading, then tweeting about with some kind of irreverent hashtag. No wonder the Independent in the UK, along with several other news sites, pounced on it, noting that the ban had been issued because the rabbi in question believed that the hormones in soy "could cause boys to become effeminate" and make their teachers become attracted to them. Who wouldn’t want to report that sort of bizarre logic?
Only one, tiny problem. The story was a few soy beans short of being true. As detailed by Tablet Magazine, it came originally from a little-known haredi blog, and, via various instances of sloppy reporting, developed from a post about soy being removed from the menu of a yeshiva into the aforementioned mainstream news expose of the peculiarities of the ultra-religious Jew.
Yet another example of everybody being out to get us, then? The sites that mistakenly reported the soy story have now acknowledged their error and taken it down, but there is no way to erase it from the minds of those who saw it and presumed it accurate. The journalist behind the Independent’s story, having tweeted it to her nearly 7,000 followers, did subsequently state that she had removed the story to check out its authenticity, but her original tweet remains there for all to see. Unless readers search for the story again – keen to share with friends this bizarre tale – they are unlikely to discover that it was, in fact, nonsense.
There has always been a market in the media for tales of the weird and wonderful, of people doing unusual things or of secretive communities following odd traditions. We all enjoy these "strange but true" stories -  a particular favorite recently was one that circulated in the British media, about a man who washed himself and his dishes with bottled water, claiming it was cheaper than paying his utility bill – we marvel and snigger over them as we go about our mundane duties. Perhaps it is schadenfreude; reading about the eccentricities of others reinforces our own sense of normality.
And we cannot be so blind as to argue that the Jewish community – or at least its extremes - is not a bountiful source of these tales, from the photograph that went around the globe a few months ago of an ultra-Orthodox man wrapped in a plastic bag while flying above a cemetery, to the American Jewish woman who sued Lancôme because her make-up did not last for the whole of Shabbat.
Such stories crop up every so often and spread like wildfire, posted on Twitter, shared on Facebook, gawped over on websites like Gawker and depicted as a window into a little known world by the more serious publications. And the Jews are hardly singled out in this respect; think of the Mormon community, satirized by the South Park creators in a smash-hit Broadway musical that depicted most members as fools.
Our community - like any other - has both eccentrics and eccentricities; exposing them to the light does not necessarily expose us to any danger of prejudice. For all that many in the community grumble when internal dissent or obscure behavior is aired, complaining that such publicity makes us all look bad, the alternative – hiding the reality – is the wrong choice.  We should never try to conceal what is; we are a community that thrives on debate, and if we are ashamed of something, perhaps we should seek to change it.
The danger comes when, as was the case with the soy scandal, the stories are based on misunderstanding and miscommunication, where journalists put their desire for a good story and their hunt for a hilarious headline above their pursuit of the facts. For all that we must be able to blush good-naturedly when a true story makes us feel like laughing stocks, we shouldn’t have to do so when it is false.
But while we should be vigilant – as was Yair Rosenberg, who pursued the original soy story and challenged those spreading it – we should not paint ourselves unnecessarily as victims. We should not assume that nonsense claims are always maliciously made, designed to ridicule us.  In the 24-hour news media, information is inevitably disseminated in a hurry. Mistakes are very often down to looming deadlines and the fear of being scooped, not to a willful intent to cause hurt.
Of course at times someone with a vested interest will deliberately stoke the fire (though this tends to happen more frequently with stories about Israel than those about Orthodox Jews per se). And indeed, the precedent is difficult: from the blood libel to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, we have been the victims of malicious rumors for centuries. Our ancestors suffered as lies were dredged up to make them pariahs; throughout our history there have been people who have set out to deceive, to make false and venomous claims.
Undoubtedly, those people still exist - a brief Google search is testament to the number of conspiracy-theorists out there convinced that Jews control the money, the media, and the government for their own nefarious aims – but the likelihood is that they will believe this irrespective of what they read.  After all, rationality is surely not the conspiracy-theorist’s strong point.
A false story about a rabbi and a ban on soy might be uncomfortable reading for anyone who applies logic; but for somewhat who already hates the Jews, it is unlikely to be anything more than the smallest amount of ammunition. Rational people do not lump every member of a community in with one peculiar individual. For most, it is a quirky tale read in passing, a dinner party anecdote, or an offhand retweet. It is like almost every other news story: of interest temporarily, but fish and chip wrapping (or browser history) in the long term.
We must correct inaccuracies as we see them, but let’s not imagine that everybody is always out to get us.  Let us be careful not to identify conspiracy and hatred where, most of the time, there is merely human error.