Progressively Speaking: How do we respond to increased social media abuse?

Progressively Speaking: How do we respond to increased social media abuse?

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner reflects on a topical issue with a progressive Jewish response

When Holocaust Educational Trust chief executive Karen Pollock last week called out the horrifying extent of antisemitism and Holocaust denial on social media, it was a vital intervention, but perhaps not surprising.

Even the most occasional social media user will have witnessed hate speech directed towards Jews and other minority groups – and women.

It is worth remembering the punishment the Torah describes for those who committed the sin of lashon ha’ra – negative speech. They would be afflicted with a skin condition known as tzara’at and forced to leave the community for seven days, isolating them physically as a reflection of how their speech sought to isolate others. This punishment was only if the speech in question was true, but used in a negative way.

If such a harsh punishment was given in this case, we must think how seriously our tradition would view the true hate speech, abuse and smears that characterise many social media interactions.

It has become popular to cite free speech as a justification for not controlling what people can share online but free does not mean consequence-free. From stories in our Torah to lessons from Jewish history, we see that words may be freely spoken, but they will always carry important consequences.

The Holocaust Educational Trust, which my late father founded, exists to remind us of this.

Just as those guilty of lashon ha’ra were forced out of the camp, so too must social media platforms ensure that people who abuse and hate online face consequences and have time away to reflect on the damage they are doing.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – we must pursue justice and ensure it is seen to be done fairly.

We must not look only at the behaviour of others, though. Our community has questions to ask about how we behave toward each other. As regular victims of abuse and violent language, we should know better than to resort to them to communicate with each other.

Whether the conversation is about differences in religious outlook or viewpoints on Israel, there are places on social media where Jews abuse other Jews.

Collectively, we and wider society must ensure we do better.

Laura Janner-Klausner is Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism

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