Terra Incognita: Holding hate accountable

People are encouraged these days to take on causes... and then direct anger at those they see as being politically different. But this is armchair hatred, directed against unseen enemies. That is the easy way.

Using Facebook on the Internet 370 (R) (photo credit: reuters)
Using Facebook on the Internet 370 (R)
(photo credit: reuters)

‘If your newspaper burned down and you all got cancer it would be too good for you.” Those were the words that welcomed me to the tarmac at JFK International Airport when I opened my phone to check my email. This was but one of a deluge of angry tweets targeting myself and other Jerusalem Post employees on January 7. Two weeks have gone by since, and it still leaves us marveling at how easy it is to spread hate these days on the Internet.

This isn’t a new observation; numerous people have written about the phenomenon of hateful comments posted on talkbacks, Facebook and twitter. The ease with which people can make these comments has also led to numerous scandals, such as Madonna being dragged on the carpet for using the n-word. Samira Ibrahim, an Egyptian woman, had a reward she was about to receive in the US canceled when her anti-Semitic tweets were revealed.
Whereas some people apologize for tweets that came out the wrong way or that represented momentary lapses in judgment, or delete them (as if a record of them doesn’t still exist), there are many that do not.
What was interesting about the twitter-bashing we received was that it came from a Jewish activist who is well known in some circles. Daniel Sieradski was described by The Forward as a “major figure in the Jewish Internet world and a cultural trailblazer.” He founded a website called Jewschool, a blog. He was involved in Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and has been a speaker at Limmud. Numerous Jewish publications have highlighted his work, including here at the Post in 2007. For a time, he was the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s director of digital media.
Sieradski’s twitter rage was set off by an editorial in the Post about African migrants in Israel. He noted, “I’m about to tilt into a blind, seething rage @Jerusalem_Post” at 11:04 am on January 7. What followed was initially harsh criticism: “your take on refugees is an abomination I will never forgive or let you forget.” Vitriol came next: “you should rename your paper Der Judische Sturmer, for your vile racist hatred.”
What was particularly galling was that his rant wasn’t directed at the Post, but personally at members of our editorial staff. He wrote, in a tweet that appears to have now been deleted, “may every ill that befell Sodom befall you and those you hold dearest.”
The anger was laced with Jewish references: “there aren’t enough Yiddish curses with which to adequately curse... except maybe a pulsa d’nura.”
The latter is a curse reportedly voiced on the eve of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.
Later he excused his behavior in a tweet: “if you insert yourself into a discussion about African asylum seekers in Israel to plead Israel’s case, you deserve abuse.” He also wrote that “I didn’t wish cancer on them – I said it wouldn’t be fair enough punishment for the evil they do to others.”
The Sieradski tweets are not important in themselves.
There is a sewer of hate speech on the Internet, much of it not from leaders and activists but from kooks. But these particular tweets and what they symbolize are important in terms of how Jewish organizations respond and in general how society responds. Those who hold positions of authority need to be held accountable for their behavior on the Internet and in public. This is a two-way street.
The Internet and new media make it easier to sound off when anger strikes. It also becomes an open source. A New Yorker cartoon recently showed three people in one frame and a crowd in another, with the caption: “How many people were offended/how many people were offended on the internet.” But this ever-presence of video, chat and phone technology means people’s real natures can be caught and recorded.
This happened to vegetarian activist Gary Yourofsky during an interview with Ynet. His anger and temper revealed on camera allow us to better judge whether his opinions, which we might have hitherto seen through the filter of print, should be taken seriously.
Now back to holding people accountable. Sieradski has been a speaker, according to his own website, at such places as Limmud UK; Limmud NY; LimmudFest New Orleans; Le Mood Montreal; Limmud South Africa; Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly; Rejewvination at the University of Toronto; Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan; and many other well known Jewish organizations.
Many of these organizations have core values that demand mutual respect, tolerance, and similar virtues.
They should not host speakers who abuse social media to call for a person’s workplace to be burned down, or to call for people to get cancer or wish harm on their loved ones.
We will never know the source of hatred. Why does a debate about African migrants in Israel inspire people to hate? Their hate doesn’t do the migrants any good. One of my friends worked with an Eritrean man who was unceremoniously fired for daring to participate in a strike of foreign workers. Was he helped by someone in New York spreading hate on twitter supposedly in the name of supporting his asylum-seekers’ cause? People are encouraged these days to take on causes, such as that of the Palestinians, and then direct anger at those they see as being politically different. But this is armchair hatred, directed against unseen enemies. That is the easy way. But we as a community, as does any organization that deals with people, have a responsibility to call to account those who spread hate from the comfort of their home; to call them out and say “if you won’t say it at Limmud or at our congregation, or at a university lecture, don’t say it on twitter, and if you want to say it on twitter you will be treated as if you said it here.”