Be Careful When You Cry Incitement

To the Editor:

I am deeply concerned about the tone and arc of Tamar Pileggi’s article that appeared in Monday’s edition of the Times of Israel: “Jerusalem terrorist reportedly angered by plan to move US Embassy.” The angle that this article takes – and, possibly more alarming, its misleading byline – seeds dangerous direction for our anger and sadness, by implicitly and irresponsibly pointing fingers at religious and political leaders on the other side of the barrier while offering little basis or context.

The byline of the article reads: “Relatives say Fadi al-Qunbar expressed agitation after hearing sermon at local mosque criticizing Trump’s campaign promise, which the PA ordered imams to focus on.” The apparent accusation here – not stated explicitly in the article, but strongly implied by its focus on the role of religious leaders in the motivation behind the attack – is “incitement.” Al-Qunbar heard a sermon about a highly charged political issue, was angered, and went out and killed four Israelis. It follows, the article implies, that blame can be traced to 1) the attacker’s imam, and 2) perhaps the PA itself – since “PA leadership instruct[ed] mosques it controls to focus” on the Trump campaign’s promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Headline displayed in the Times of Israel Daily Edition email, Monday, January 9, 2017.

I believe that the blame upon the PA and al-Qunbar’s imam in this article is harmful both for the pursuit of peace generally, and for the crucial challenge of combating incitement in particular.

Incitement is a real, terrifying problem in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is essential that we call incitement by its name in all faith communities, and work to prevent religious leaders from actively inspiring acts of terrorism and violence that plague our region.

But when we “cry incitement” any time religious figures address political controversies that directly affect their constituents, we undermine our capacity to address incitement in its real and most explicit forms.

We need to play the incitement card carefully if we believe it can be an effective tool for calling attention to and preventing acts of terrorism in Israel. If we want the international community and the PA to condemn and prevent incitement, we need to be precise about what we mean by incitement, and careful about when we attribute Palestinian terrorism to incitement. If we use the term too loosely, it, like accusations of anti-Semitism, begins to lose its power. And by centering an article about this week’s attack around a sermon the attacker heard – about which we know the topic, but not the text – we both weaken any argument suggesting that incitement must be addressed in the peace process, and imply easy answers to truly complex questions about why these acts of terror occur.

As a religious Jew, I look to my own clergy for guidance that is relevant to the real struggles I and my people are facing. I would, of course, never accept my rabbi advocating violence in response to a political decision I didn’t favor; and clergy must often tread carefully when it comes to taking a particular political stance (my father, a rabbi in the US, is constantly navigating this fine tension based on the diverse needs and views of his congregants). But if a major political conversation arose that had important implications for my community, and my rabbi stood up in synagogue that week and did not reference that conversation at all, I would have serious questions about that rabbi’s efficacy as a leader.

Political issues are often a matter of morality; and political decisions have very real effects on individuals and communities. What is the role of religious leaders if not to guide our communities through the major struggles of our times; if not to express moral outrage at what they see as injustice? If we expect this of our own religious leadership, I cannot expect silence from Muslim and Christian clerics in the Palestinian community when the president-elect of the United States has pledged to break with decades of US policy in a move toward acknowledging complete Israeli control of Jerusalem. We might argue as to what the appropriate message can or should be, but to take issue with Palestinian clerics “focusing on the matter” is, to me, absurd.

The line between moral outrage and incitement can be difficult to define. Religious leaders, particularly in traditional communities, have profound influence on their communities, and it’s every cleric’s responsibility to ask him or herself the question: how will my words affect my congregants?

But it is also the responsibility of writers and editors to ask the question: what is my responsibility toward my readers when I report on a terrible tragedy embedded in a complex, age-old conflict? What readers, looking for someone to blame for the pain and loss they feel, will skim the click-bait title of this article, the quotation cited from an imam with no proven link to the attacker, and cry incitement; and in so doing, undermine efforts to prevent future violence when incitement truly is involved?

About the Author
Shani Rosenbaum is a non-profit professional and Jewish educator. She recently relocated from Jerusalem to Boston, where she is pursuing rabbinic ordination at Hebrew College.
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