As we sat in our synagogues during the recent Jewish High Holy Days, we were repeatedly confronted with the importance our rabbis, our prophets and our sages have always placed on the concept of truth as a paramount precept. During the morning Shaharit service, we were reminded, as we are every day, 365 days a year, that we are commanded to revere and respect God, in private and in public, by acknowledging truth and speaking truth.
This insistence on truth as a core Jewish religious value stands in sharp contrast to the utter disdain for facts that has become commonplace in contemporary political discourse, both domestically and in the international arena.
One day before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust a "lie," and a "myth" invented by Western leaders to justify the creation of the State of Israel.
Speaking at the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp in June, President Obama denounced Holocaust denial as "a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful. This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts; a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history."
The good news is that much of the international community joined the White House in condemning the Iranian president's latest diatribe. The strongest response came from a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman who said: "Attempts to rewrite history, especially as the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II is being marked this year, are an offense to the memory of all victims and all those who fought fascism."
Holocaust denial is Ahmadinejad's big lie, a key underpinning of his demagogic calls for the destruction of the State of Israel.
Along the same lines, Bishop Richard Williamson, the renegade cleric whom Pope Benedict XVI sought to rehabilitate last January, has integrated his contempt for truth into a virulent anti-Semitism. Williamson's theology features "the false messianic vocation of Jewish world dominion, to prepare the Anti-Christ's throne in Jerusalem." He also declared on Swedish television "that the historical evidence is largely against, is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler. I believe there were no gas chambers."
Ahmadinejad and Williamson are hardly the only ones intent on twisting, distorting and ignoring the truth.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin claims that Democratic health care reform initiatives include so-called "death panels," even though she knows perfectly well that nothing of the sort is even remotely contemplated in any of the different plans that have been put forward.
Rush Limbaugh likens health care reform to Nazism and President Obama to Hitler. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) warns darkly -- and falsely -- that a bill to expand national community service programs would establish "re-education camps ... where young kids will have to go and get trained in a philosophy that the government puts forward."
Frank J. Gaffney Jr., a former Defense Department official in the Reagan administration, writes in The Washington Times, "There is mounting evidence that the president not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself." A gaggle of at least 10 paleo-Republican members of Congress further inflame their extremist base by insinuating that Barack Obama was not really born in Hawaii, and is therefore ineligible to be president.
This is not to say that all Democrats and liberals are paragons of veracity. John Edwards and Rod Blagojevich readily come to mind. But their disregard for the truth is tawdry, idiosyncratic and petty. The far right, on the other hand, has adopted prevarication as a deliberate and obsessive strategy.
Nor is this an attack on Republicans or conservatives. Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley Jr. were men of integrity, and I respect George Will, Senator Olympia Snowe, Joe Scarborough, Governor Charlie Christ, Kathleen Parker, David Brooks and Peggy Noonan, among others.
Why does all this matter to us as Jews? Because over the centuries we have suffered more from lies than any other people. "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the late 19th-early 20th centuries Russian forgery that purports to depict a Jewish conspiracy for world domination; blood libels; Henry Ford's slur that "Communism all over the world and not only in Russia is Jewish"; the American radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin's charge that the Great Depression was caused by an "international conspiracy of Jewish bankers"; the composer Richard Wagner's declaration that "I hold the Jewish race to be the born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble in it"; Communist claims that Jews are bourgeois exploiters of the working class.
The list goes on.
Heated political and ideological debates are cornerstone elements of democracy, but only if they are rooted in integrity on all sides. For us merely to acknowledge truth and speak truth is insufficient. We, too, have a "duty to confront those who would tell lies."
Menachem Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School and Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants