Benjamin Ish-Shalom

Let the Wise Speak with Caution

What is incitement? The legal and dictionary definitions narrow it down to an explicit call for illegal action or violence against a specific group or individual. The judicial approach even requires a high probability of violent outcomes. Such overt calls, heard from different directions against individuals and/or groups from the opposing camp, usually come from the margins of the different camps. Though undoubtedly dangerous, these calls are easy to identify and address, if only there is a political will to do so.

But the real challenge lies in the veiled calls of leaders addressing their flocks: Imams in mosques, Rabbis in their orations, and politicians in their speeches who use blurry messages and double meanings, feigning innocence, and speaking in a language that may or may not be interpreted as a call for violence. For shrewd leaders, this is the most effective strategy because, on one hand, it clearly impacts their audiences, while on the other, by cleverly taking care not to break any laws, these speakers release themselves from any legal consequences or responsibility for their words.

We have heard Imams call explicitly for violence. We have not heard any Rabbis do the same, but we have definitely heard Rabbis speak with double entendres. We have heard political leaders use violent language and make comparisons that contain threatening insinuations.

Perhaps some of the speakers who contribute to the violent discourse do not intend to do so. They are so naïve that it never occurs to them that their words can be interpreted as a call or recommendation for extreme actions. However, even if this is true, these leaders are not exempt from responsibility for the outcomes of their speeches. “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18, 21) – this is known to every person whose tongue lashes out like a double-edged sword, sometimes striking rivals, but occasionally also injuring friends. Once the tongue has been unleashed, the sword cannot be returned to its sheath.  Once the words have been uttered, they drift freely in the world, and their owner can no longer control them or curb their impact.

True, it’s not hard to distinguish between obvious, unqualified incitement and legitimate speech, criticism, and protest that are an integral part of the political discourse. However, words that generate a venomous atmosphere, delegitimization, and an unequivocal call to “do everything” in order to prevent, save, terrorize, and intimidate; prophecies of destruction, of Jews abandoning their faith, of a threat to the nation’s survival; and other such apocalyptic expressions, uttered whenever a change of government is imminent – these are the most dangerous of all. They are dangerous because at the start they are hard to identify, but they continue to emit toxic vapors, inducing decay in values and culture, breaking up the foundations of society, the last remnants of solidarity and mutual care. The ultimate peril of explicit incitement is physical violence against human beings. But violent discourse imperils the very foundations of society, its existence, and its survivability.

What is violent discourse? Violent discourse is not manifested only in harsh, offensive words. Blunt, crude, aggressive language attests to its user’s baseness and inferiority, more than it injures its target. However, violent discourse is also a discourse that professes to address political and public issues, supposedly in the name of a supreme divine authority that cannot be criticized or disobeyed. Violent discourse distorts the facts to advance political goals, while ascribing malice to rivals in full knowledge that these accusations are patently untrue. Violent discourse is discourse that attributes extremist views to opponents, twisting their positions in ways that arouse horror of any possibility of trusting or legitimizing these rivals. Extremism is not the way of Judaism. Even Maimonides, so many centuries ago, pointed to the middle path, and Rav Abraham Isaac Kook z”l wrote: “There is not even one virtue in the world that is not impaired by extremism.” (Igrot – Collected Letters of Rav Kook A, pp. 19-20)

Who would dare to confront political and religious leaders, or rabbis who call themselves “the Rabbis of Israel”, and hold up a mirror to their faces? Shouldn’t this come under the phrase “As it is a mitzvah to say what will be heard, so is it also a mitzvah to refrain from saying what will not be heard“? Humble and unworthy as I am, let me remind the scholars among us of what Abtalyon said in the Mishna: “Wise men be cautious with your words, lest you be condemned to exile, and be banished to the place of bad waters, and the pupils who come after you will drink and die, and the Holy Name will be desecrated.” (Pirkei Avot 1, 11)

And also: “Wherever the Holy Name is desecrated, the rabbi is not honored.” (Brachot Tractate 19, 2).

I urge you, with all due respect, “Be of the pupils of Aaron, a lover and pursuer of peace, who loves his fellow men and draws them closer to the Torah.”  (Pirkei Avot, 1, 12)

About the Author
Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom is the founder and president of Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, and the founding Chairman of “NATIV – the National Center for Jewish Studies, Identity and Conversion” – a joint Israeli government and Jewish Agency project that combines Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform perspectives while meeting the requirements of Jewish law. In 2004 Ish-Shalom was awarded the AVI CHAI Prize for Leadership in Promoting Jewish Unity.
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