What’s Worse than Lashon HaRa?

By now, many of us have seen the video. It opens with a horror-film score and a scene of everyday Israeli life. A dark, bearded, sinister man approaches the camera and raises a knife. You, the viewer, are the victim of a terrorist attack. The narration then begins, in the tone of a spy thriller. The leaders of four leading Israeli human rights NGOs — The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, and Hamoked: The Center for the Defense of the Individual — are condemned as European “plants” aiming to destroy Israel.

Yet Im Tirtzu’s latest ad is only the tip of the iceberg. The far-right Israeli political movement, which has traces of facism as stated by a 2013 Israeli court decision, ran the ad to support a bill by Likud MK Yoav Kish, labeling Israeli NGOs that receive foreign financing as “moles,” heavily restricting their activity and giving the state the power to dissolve them at will. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has proposed a bill placing additional scrutiny on left-leaning NGOs and their funding sources, and even Yair Lapid has suggested that Breaking the Silence is a stooge of foreigners seeking to hurt Israel. Even Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, has been accused of being everything from a traitor to a Nazi for appearing in the same forums as these NGOs and defending the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens. According to The Times of Israel, “threats on [Rivlin’s] life and personal attacks have become so common that they rarely make headlines anymore.”

Our Jewish tradition considers defamation and lashon hara (speaking evil tongue or slander) to be great sins. Lashon hara is distinguished from defamation (motzi shaem ra) in that the information spread may be true but does nothing to improve a negative situation, while defamation defines outright falsehoods and slander. Both are forbidden. The Talmud states that speakers of lashon hara are not tolerated in God’s presence and even compares lashon hara with shfichut damim (murder), and the ninth commandment tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbor, a clear proscription against defamation and lying.

Both defamation and lashon hara are clear in the behavior of groups like Im Tirtzu. Repeated accusations that individuals like Avner Gvaryahu, Breaking the Silence’s director of public outreach and a former paratrooper commander, are “traitors” and “plants” for insidious foreigners, or that Israel’s president and former chairman of Likud is a “Nazi” are clearly false and defamatory. The accusations aim to destroy the reputations of these figures and incite hostility and even violence towards them. Similar accusations – of Nazism, of treachery, of betrayal of the Jewish people – were leveled against Yitzhak Rabin. Only 20 years after his assassination, the same sort of incitement is being repeated by the usual suspects.

Meanwhile, bills like Shaked’s “transparency” law aim to accomplish the same goal without outright lying. By forcing organizations to only reveal foreign government donations – and not, for example, the hundreds of millions of private foreign dollars propping up far-right groups and the settlement enterprise without accountability – Shaked and her supporters are able insinuate treason while proclaiming that they are only interested in transparency. This is classic lashon hara: malicious use of “truth” without context to damage the reputation and safety of another person.

Regardless of what one thinks of President Rivlin or Israel’s human rights activists, this behavior is both dangerous and contrary to Jewish values and must be combatted. That starts with rejection of these false Zionist activists by the Jewish community.  People who see tough criticism of Israeli policy and defense of Israeli liberal and democratic values as traitors are a grave threat to Israel’s future.  Im Tirtzu, the racist Lehava movement, the Tag Mechir (Price Tag) vigilantes, and other foes of Israeli democracy must be denounced without reservation.

We must also act to ensure that no Jewish communal funds are provided to support violent and racist incitement against Israeli NGOs, Arab citizens of Israel, or Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Donations from groups receiving the benefit of tax exemption from the IRS should not be permitted to support these dangerous anti-Zionist organizations. Finally, we must call on the Israeli government to withdraw the proposed law on the registration of NGOs and other anti-democratic legislation and administrative actions that threaten the Supreme Court, civil liberties and artistic and cultural freedom for all Israeli citizens.

Israeli democracy is on the line. We cannot be silent.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.