We are a people who put a premium on learning, who are guided by the written and spoken word. That can make it hard to comprehend why today’s discourse, especially online, is filled with ignorance, both willful and unintentional. Wannabe demagogues trigger outrage on social media, and it’s become a popular pastime to sneer at them and the triggered alike. Anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, sexist, transphobic and homophobic conspiracies alternate with public contempt for white people and their associated privilege. Some of these things are worse than others, but none of it is any good.
The common denominator is ignorance. People don’t seem to understand that unchecked falsehoods about Israel or beliefs that George Soros is singlehandedly bankrolling mass illegal immigration creates the conditions for violence against Jews. But we saw the tragic consequences in Pittsburgh. It was the same in Quebec City, where a lunatic who believed Muslims are waging war against the West picked up a rifle and murdered six worshippers at a mosque.
But ignorance is not always the same as stupidity. Brushing off those who espouse anti-Semitism online as stupid or deluded isn’t getting the job done. Neither is calling them racist, sexist or homophobic – even though that’s what they are. Attempts to deplatform haters – to take away their ability to use certain social media sites – and to shut down their media outlets, not to mention threats to commit violence against them, isn’t getting the job done, either.
We have learned that the purveyors of hate are canny operators. The trouble is that few, if any, are willing to step onto their turf and call out their falsehoods to their faces.
It makes sense that many are justifiably afraid of being mobbed or physically attacked if they speak out. We’ve seen exactly that type of thing happen time and again. But if the targets of hate are too frightened to strike back, then those who benefit from the spread of ignorance have already won. Reporters can fact-check all they like, but unless their subjects are directly confronted with their own falsehoods, it becomes a perfunctory exercise. Thanks to the distance provided by social media, it’s easy to ignore one’s critics.
What we need – and what the Jewish community must seek to develop – is a group of trained, skilled debaters and social media influencers who are wise to the haters’ verbal tricks and traps, in addition to the Nazi-punchers, the deplatformers and the behind-the-scenes operators.
When we read, for example, that the haters have commandeered a library to hold a memorial for Barbara Kulaszka, the lawyer who defended Canada’s most prominent white supremacists, it is not enough for Jewish leaders to express shock and to heap shame on the library, as valid as those feelings are. We must also recognize that the library’s own policies are being co-opted for malicious purposes and call out the white supremacists’ tactics for what they are.
Without a doubt, this is a difficult task, because it involves remaining rational, while standing up to those who would hurt and kill us if they had the chance. It involves recognizing that while the enemies of democracy are our enemies, they are very good at what they do and taking their skills seriously is not “humanizing” them – rather, it is treating them as the serious threat they are, instead of some caricature.
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Online anti-Semites cannot be defeated with memes, fact-checking tweets, national anti-hate strategies or virtue-signalling protests. Right or left, populist or establishment, they and their falsehoods must be faced directly and destroyed with relentless truth. Doing this would put the haters on notice: The Jewish people know who you are and where you are. And we will not allow you to spread your lies without having to meet, confront and justify yourself before the people who you are lying about.