Reading the news lately has become an act of daring.
Like many of my peers I feel depleted, defeated, as though the gut-punch from the headlines were physical and not “merely” emotional. I worry that my children will grow fearful, or, worse, that they will come to consider the wave of murders at home and abroad as normal. I worry that nihilism will result as more and more people, subject to ever more frequent tragedies with ever diminishing recovery times, decide it is too overwhelming to attempt to understand or to care.
In attempting to comprehend the massacres inspired by ISIS in Orlando and Nice, the brutal murders of Hallel Yaffa Ariel and Miki Mark in Israel, and the attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, I see a common thread — the impact of incitement on riling emotions and transforming them into deadly action. So-called “lone wolves” are anything but alone; instead they are part of a global community that communicates not only despicable hate messages but also deliberately incites followers to express their hatred through stabbings, bullets, and cars driven into crowds.
This week’s parsha aptly reinforces the power of words. King Balak repeatedly asks the prophet Balaam to curse the Jews, and Balaam responds over and over that he can say only words that reflect God’s will. Ultimately, he is unable to pronounce a curse against the Israelites, and instead mouths a blessing that is part of our daily liturgy.
But if God’s will is inevitable, why are Balaam’s words — whether blessing or curse — given such importance? It seems that the act of speaking, for good or for evil, inspires others, and thus has independent power to make those words become fulfilled by human actions.
This power is not always readily acknowledged. As children, we learn to distinguish between “sticks and stones” and the words that “can never harm” us. But as the link between inciting words and menacing acts grows stronger, and the proliferation of words on social media means that potential actors are exposed to an avalanche of inciting messages that previously had been unimaginable, we need to re-examine our notions about when speech becomes something more.
Incitement played a critical role in recent attacks in Israel, including the murder of 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel. The teenager who carried out this unimaginably brutal, bloody slaughter was an avid (and vulnerable) consumer of media messages, including those regularly distributed by the Palestinian Authority and its highest levels of leadership. Repeated calls for violence against Jews, language that portrays Jews as subhuman, and praise and rewards for those who carry out attacks come from PA President Mahmoud Abbas himself, as well as from PA officials at all levels. A measurable increase in online slogans urging terror corresponds directly with the wave of violence that began last fall and has claimed dozens of victims’ lives. And this says nothing of the social and human costs to Palestinian Arabs. It is a particularly vile form of child abuse to raise children to murder their peers.
There was a positive step forward in May, when the EU and many major IT companies agreed to establish a code of conduct to ensure “that online platforms do not offer opportunities for illegal online hate speech to spread virally.” This month, the Middle East Quartet (the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia) issued a report clearly condemning Palestinian incitement and its role in escalating violence. According to the Times of Israel, “[T]he report goes to considerable length in describing how Palestinian terrorists are glorified” and “takes Palestinian leadership to task for failing to curb the ugly phenomena.” It remains to be seen if the code of conduct will cover the speech referenced in the Quartet’s findings.
In the meantime, Knesset members are weighing laws mirroring those in Europe, which allow judges to order sites to remove content and hold internet services accountable for failure to remove the material. An Israeli non-profit, Shurat HaDin, has filed suit against Facebook on behalf of American victims of Palestinian terror. It seeks $1 billion in punitive damages for “providing material support and resources” to perpetrators of terror, such as use of the platform, failure to remove dangerous posts, and algorithms that foster connections between potential perpetrators and those who seek to inspire them. Similar suits have been filed by families of ISIS victims in Paris, and surely suits by families of recently murdered American police officers will follow.
Both the laws and the lawsuits require leaders to grapple with the line between protected political speech and incitement to commit crimes, addressing fundamental questions of the limitations our free society faces in fighting those who use cherished freedoms to launch attacks.
What can we as individuals do to fight against incitement and create a more positive discourse? First, we need to make it clear that the hateful rhetoric must be tamed. This involves actively reporting incidents of hate speech and urging media executives to enforce their own standards. Second, we must actively express our intolerance for hate speech, and more actively call out those who express racial or religious prejudice. Just as social support gives potential criminals the courage to act on their evil impulses, so too can social condemnation discourage it. Finally, we can practice affirmative compassion in our own lives, using speech to build trust and bonds between groups.
In “The Town Beyond the Wall,” Elie Wiesel wrote: “Words are a double edged sword. To some they bring light, from others they withdraw it. They urge some to salvation, and others to ruin. It is through the word that God created the universe, and it is by the word that man is destroying it.”
Let us consciously strive to silence words that injure and to use our voices to make positive change.