Yom Kippur Morning 5781 / 2020 – The Death of Truth

A sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

Take a minute and imagine the scene: The Children of Israel, after a forty-year journey through the desert, are poised to enter the Promised Land. They are arrayed awaiting the instructions on how to live and what to expect. Moses, their leader for the entire journey, begins his exhortation. “You are about to enter the Promised Land… but as you cross over a great miracle will happen… you will ride on eagles wings to the real promised land: Miami – in a State called Florida, in a country across an ocean called the USA….” The people begin to murmur, “what the hell is this guy talking about? We are supposed to be going to a land flowing with milk and honey” says one. Another says, “we have been walking across a desert for 40 years, how are we supposed to cross an ocean, and an eagle isn’t big enough to hold one of us!” Moses continues, “You know, I found out about the Promised Land – it isn’t such a great place – there are bad people there, very bad people. And the milk? It is spoiled – and the honey smells funny. No – we are going to Miami. Nice beaches, they have these vertical homes called apartment buildings and you can live way up in the sky. There, the palm trees have coconuts, enough with these dates, they are all shriveled and have pits, Yeech.” One can only imagine the kind of insurrection that would provoke.

Or, would it? In the past decade we have witnessed what can only be called “The Death of Truth.” While not the fault of one person, or even one party, this is not a phenomenon felt only in our country, but in many places around the world. Where, once upon a time, news was shared by a few trusted sources, The New York Times was considered the paper of record. The Associated Press shared reporting with local papers. With the advent of radio and television there were trusted figures we invited into our homes to tell us what was happening, with an unjaundiced view – “Just the facts,” “that’s the way it is,” “all the news that’s fit to print.”

But as the media expanded — more papers, more radio stations, more television stations – different points of view were introduced to help us to see things a certain way or consider the impact of events. Newspapers became known for their biases. Soon it became, for the New Yorkers among us, The Post vs The Daily News and The New York Times vs The Wall Street Journal. As cable television exploded, so did all sorts of news outlets, but it was hard to find one that did not have some bias, one way or another. Add now the internet, and the choices have become almost infinite. The search for truth became more difficult and truth became malleable – it is truth according to our point of view. And as the points of view became more extreme so too the surety of the reporting. One could cherry-pick a story, enlarge its impact, to advance a viewpoint. Truth became more elusive.

But now we are assaulted by half-truths, or even outright lies, which if distributed through what has been considered a source of news, is legitimized. Once that happened, the whole game has changed. Conspiracy theories are promulgated and can be shared through myriad outlets and within seconds, be read by millions. And people who are in the public trust abuse their power to spread outright lies.

In the beginning of September, Representative Steve Scalise, Republican from Louisiana, disseminated a video clip of Ady Barkan, a progressive activist, asking Joe Biden, “Do we agree that we can redirect some of the funding for police?” Biden responded, “Yes, absolutely.” Except, according to a NYT Editorial (Sept 4, 2020), Mr. Barkan, who has ALS and speaks using a computerized voice did not include the words “for police” in his query. Those words were inserted by Mr. Scalise’s staff – to imply that Biden expressly supported the defunding of police. But Mr. Biden’s plan actually includes an additional 300 million for police departments. Ady Barkan called out Scalise and demanded an apology. But the clip remained out there. And it continued to be shared.

Propaganda has existed for centuries, far too often, it is used against the Jews. The 14th Century Black Plague was blamed on the Jewish people and thousands of Jews were murdered in retribution across Europe. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 1903 forgery by Czarist Russia’s secret police, asserted that Jews seek global domination. In fact, Russian Jews at that time cowered in the restricted Pale of Settlement in fear of pogroms. (c.f. David Harris “Covid 19, Conspiracy Theories and Antisemitism” May 6, 2020) Hitler used this tome to gin up hatred against the Jewish people and to this day one can find copies for sale in the bookstore at the Warsaw airport, or downloadable on the internet. September 11th unleashed further lies about Jewish involvement in the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Covid-19 fueled the flames of antisemitism again. It didn’t matter that Jews died in both crises. Nazi imagery was used against the governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, who is Jewish, accusing him of consolidating power and restricting others’ freedom. “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work will set you free”), one protester’s sign directed at him said, referring to the notorious three words at the entrance to the Nazi camp at Auschwitz. This also happened to Colorado governor, Jared Polis, who is also Jewish. “Meanwhile, the FBI killed a white supremacist in a shootout in Kansas City on March 24, shortly after he posted, “This whole thing [COVID-19] was engineered by Jews as a power grab.” Not surprisingly, given its hatred of Israel, Iran’s Press TV said, ‘Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of coronavirus against Iran.’” (Harris ibid)

This kind of propaganda is rife on the internet and the airwaves. But it becomes even more toxic propagated by political leaders. In an op-ed by political scientist Greg Weiner (“The Towering Lies…” Sunday Review section NYT Sept 13) he writes, “Five centuries ago, Niccolo Machiavelli calls this the ‘effectual truth’: Claims that are true, he wrote in “The Prince,” are not so because they correspond to objective reality but because they are politically ‘useful.’”

While the source of many of the lies and conspiracy theories seem elusive, we can point to a major provocateur: QAnon. ( c.f. David Livingston Smith, Sept 2, Forward) “Originating in 2017 on the … racist … website 4chan, its members believe that the world is really being run by a secret cabal of devil-worshiping pedophiles, who include billionaires like Bill Gates, celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, and high-profile Democratic politicians like Hilary Clinton, who traffic children, and rape, torture and murder them, to satisfy their depraved appetites. These monsters drain children of their blood and drink it during Satanic rituals — and the current President is their arch-nemesis…. Consider the disturbing fact that the current President refused to distance himself from the QAnon zealots, that he retweets their messages, and that he has recently said that mysterious ‘people in the dark shadows’ are controlling his rival Joe Biden. And a QAnon believer won a Georgia primary, all but ensuring her a seat in Congress.”

QAnon and other purveyors of lies and deceit and conspiracy theories have been aided and abetted by the internet – and the major players of the dissemination are FaceBook, YouTube, Zoom, Instagram – which have allowed this filth to stream unfettered.

In Pirkei Avot 1:18 we read:
רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (זכריה ח) אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם:
Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: by the prophet Zechariah (8:16). “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates”

The time has come to reject this culture in which lying is commonplace and no longer even raises an eyebrow. A little over two weeks ago, I signed on to a letter to the heads of Facebook – a major source of propaganda and unchecked lies. Several hundred rabbis, from all denominations, challenged Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, “We… appeal to you because antisemitism, hatred and disinformation online threaten the safety, dignity and rights of our congregants and communities. Antisemitic hate groups and neo-Nazis are flourishing online and promoting hateful ideology—including Holocaust denial—to vast audiences. Coordinated disinformation efforts by conspiracy theorists and a host of bad actors are using your platforms to promote hate, to sow division and to undermine and suppress votes. As the architects of the largest communications system in human history, you bear a responsibility to use the capacity that you have to reduce the influence of hate, disinformation and harassment. Jewish tradition gives guidance for conditions where we lack adequate laws or norms. Rabbi Hillel is quoted in the Mishnah saying, “In a place where no one is standing up for what’s right, strive to be that person.” (Avot 2:5) This is taken to mean that we should replace inertia and indifference with decency, courage, and character. Where laws are not yet formed, our tradition calls on us to take upon ourselves the highest moral standard and to proactively mitigate injustice or harm.”

It is with some hope that we acknowledge the first steps seem to have been taken in just the past few days. I find it fascinating that SF State University tried to host an on-line event featuring the convicted (Palestinian) terrorist Leila Khaled. Originally it was to be broadcast on Zoom. The day before the event, Zoom refused to carry it. At the last minute, SFSU tried to mount it on YouTube. After several minutes, the screen blacked out with a message “This video has been removed for violating YouTube’s Terms of Service.”

So maybe someone is listening. But that will only continue if we are vocal when bombarded by lies. Newspaper fact-checking is one thing. But how about a more active response – if we demand it, if we call out the distributors of the real “fake-news” – if we call our cable providers and tell them that we want certain channels removed, as we don’t want our cable bill to be used to support those stations. Elie Weisel taught: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

As a New Year is opening before us, I hope that it is not marked by the Death of Truth, but a year that celebrates Truth’s triumph. The Apocryphal Book of Ezra states: “Magna est veritas et praevelet – Great is the Truth, and it prevails.” That can only happen if we demand nothing less than facts, science, demonstrable evidence, transparency and honesty. That would be a welcome blessing.

G’mar Chatima Tova – May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for blessing.

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