The last time Pamela Geller plastered heinous anti-Muslim messages around town, it was in the subway systems of New York and D.C. Of those base and hate-filled ads, I wrote: "These words belong underground because they are way beneath us as Jews and as human beings. They do not speak for the Jewish community..."
Now, Geller has posted similarly odious messages on D.C. buses. With that move, she has emerged above ground -- where unfortunately, she has revealed how low she can go, using images of Hitler in painfully irresponsible ways. The good news is that Geller plummets to this level virtually alone. I am writing to remind Geller and those she has hurt that these words do not speak for the vast, vast majority of the Jewish community.
Driven by the same values that I was before, I speak out now as I did then and reaffirm my words:
As an American, I insist on the right to free speech, even when I deplore the message. As a rabbi, I insist on the responsibility to speak out against hateful speech, particularly when it comes from one of our own.
The antidote to bad, ill-advised free speech is good, healthy free speech. Judaism teaches that we should begin with righteous rebuke, and then go from there.
About rebuke, the Torah teaches: You must rebuke (hocheach tochiach) your neighbor and not bear sin because of her. So, Ms. Geller, here's my tochecha -- that is, here's what I have to say. If you have a political statement to make:
1. Check that it's not actually hate speech in political garb.
2. Keep the Quran out of it. Unless you also want to reference suras like this one (there are many): "Indeed, I, God, sent down the Torah, in which was guidance and light, and the prophets judged by it, as did the rabbis and scholars." (Quran 5:44)
3. Be righteous in the way you engage religious texts -- others' and our own -- in all contexts. All sacred texts can be used to elevate us or to appeal to the basest of human instincts. Choose the high road, share teachings of peace and understanding, respect and love. If you do so, it will strengthen others in doing the same.
The Talmud teaches that all who do not intervene in wrongdoing share in the responsibility for it. So to those of us in D.C. subject to these hurtful words and images, let's take the driver's seat and redirect the bus toward higher ground. If you literally find yourself on one of these buses, go the extra mile to smile at one another, wish each other well, engage in a positive way with someone who may appear different than you. (Keeping "stranger danger" in mind, of course, this suggestion is for adults only.) At home and school and at work, be bold and start bridge-building conversations about the things that unite us as well as respectful, open-minded conversations about subjects that divide us. Listen well. Be the change you want to see in the world.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us: In a free society, not all are guilty, but all are responsible. Let's take responsibility for countering hate speech wherever we encounter it, lest we all go crashing down together.
Rabbi Rachel Gartner serves on the board of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
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