Around the country, Israelis were horrified at the news of the gruesome murder of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher in Jerusalem’s Ein Yael forest on Thursday, by a Palestinian terrorist who confessed to the killing.
Ansbacher was a National Service volunteer, in her second year of helping children and teens at a nature therapy center nearby. According to her supervisor, she went for a walk to clear her head and never came back.
Arafat Irfaiya, a 29-year-old Palestinian man from Hebron, encountered her in the forest with his knife in tow, and “attacked and murdered her,” as the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) said in a statement.
The IDF, Shin Bet and Israel Police did an impressive job of identifying, locating and apprehending Irfaiya. They showed that when attacks of this kind are committed, Israel knows how to reach the perpetrators. Rarely are there cases when terrorists stay on the run for more than a few weeks.
Reports on the circumstances of Ansbacher’s tragic murder have remained vague, relying on adjectives like “brutal” and “grisly” to describe what happened to the young woman.
Despite a gag order preventing the release of any further details, it was not long before Rav-Seren Shmuati – a Hebrew expression loosely translated as “Maj. Rumors” and implying the spread of unconfirmed stories – sprang into action. The rumor mill went wild. Horrific descriptions, bordering on snuff, were spread through social media and messaging apps. They made the rounds on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Although none of these gory descriptions were confirmed by any officials, they whipped the public into a frenzy.
Among those spreading the made-up details were people with significant social media followings, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son, Yair Netanyahu. He later edited his Facebook post, leaving only accusations of media and police incompetence, removing the gruesome descriptions of the murder.
Outrage following a terrorist attack is understandable, and protests and calls to change the government’s policy are legitimate. There is also nothing wrong with criticizing the police for first claiming that Ansbacher’s death was a suicide, when it seems implausible that she could have brutalized herself. Criticizing some news outlets for not giving this terrible attack prominence in news coverage is also fair.
But all of that is true even without making up graphic details so that the attack sounds even more horrifying. Isn’t the fact that an innocent teenager taking a walk was butchered by a Palestinian bad enough?
All the spreading of rumors does is bring pain to the Ansbacher family and sully Ori’s memory. It also scares Israeli children, many of who are on these social media platforms and follow the feeds of some of the rumor disseminators and their colorful descriptions.
As a result, the police took the unusual step of calling on the public to stop spreading the rumors, saying: “There have been various reports, particularly on social media, about the circumstances of the murder, including irresponsible depictions of horror. We want to make it clear that these are groundless reports harming both the victim and the family’s dignity and misleading the public.”
There are no laws currently on the books that govern the WhatsApp rumor mill, and in any case, our lawmakers need to be extremely careful when regulating speech. In fact, it would be better if they avoided infringing on free speech entirely.
But that does not exempt the public from taking personal responsibility to not spread vicious and hurtful rumors. Before pressing “forward” on WhatsApp or “share” on Facebook, everyone should think twice about what they are amplifying. Pay attention to whether the information comes from a reliable source. And if you read that there’s a gag order, but then see details of the story online, think about why that order exists.
This is called civic responsibility; everyone needs to show some and put Rav-Seren Shmuati out of service. The rumor mill is problematic on the best of days, and this weekend was one of the worst times for it to spread. It only caused pain and anguish for Ori Ansbacher’s family and for the entire nation.