Saturday, April 10, 2010

Words create and words destroy: Hate speech then & now

This sermon was delivered at B'nai Israel on Friday, April 9th, for the Shabbat before Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It is printed here upon request from several congregants who heard it that evening.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Warning: You are likely to find the following words profoundly disturbing.

“As recently as 1960, our race was 90 percent of America’s population. Today, true statistics be told, we’re less than half. And we’re dropping fast, while the dark peoples multiply like rats all around us, and as more tens-of-millions of them invade our country from all over the world. Our race is drowning literally in seas of colored mongrels.
… Since 1973, our jew controlled government orchestrated the murders of 40 million helpless white babies thru legalized abortions, and replaced them with twice that many dark aliens. Meanwhile, the jewish controlled mass media (properly called the jewsmedia), promotes race-mixing, 24/7/365. 
… "He who has learned of the jew, but refuses to warn his kinsmen of the jewish menace, is an accomplice of the jews, and an accessory in the jewish enslavement and genocide of his own people"
We might imagine that these words, particularly those speaking of Jews, were written in 1930s Germany.  In fact, these are words found in America today - the words of Glenn Miller, white supremacist, taken directly from his website.  Glenn Miller is running for Missouri representative in the Senate as a ‘write-in’ candidate and has caused a furor in recent weeks because, in becoming a declared candidate, he has a federal right to run unedited political radio ads that spew hatred toward African-Americans, immigrants and Jews.
Glenn Miller is probably the most extreme example of public hate speech currently in the news.  But hate speech has been in the news a lot recently, and much of it is coming from elected officials and public figures who use their right to free speech and take absolutely no responsibility for the potential, uncontrollable consequences of their words.  TV and radio commentators, likewise, are feeding lines that will, I fear, almost inevitably lead to a radical or unbalanced individual feeling compelled to act upon them. 
Just as Billy O’Reilly’s constant references to Dr. Tiller, the doctor who legally performed late term abortions in Kansas, as ‘Tiller the Baby Killer’ and then distanced himself from any responsibility when Dr. Tiller was murdered, so others like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter who are listened to by millions are playing with fire with speech that is not only making targets out of political representatives, but are also fanning the flames of hatred toward minorities – African-Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.
Every year, during a unit on ethical issues, I run a discussion with our eighth grade class about hate speech and free speech.  We place the conversation in the context of Jewish ethical teachings about lashon hara – literally ‘evil speech’, which often gets summarized as ‘gossip’ but actually refers to much more than that.  Lashon hara is any kind of speech that causes harm.  It is an aspect of Jewish spiritual practice that I care deeply about, and we have rich wisdom teachings in our tradition about the power of speech to create and destroy that challenge many of the dominant and negative trends in our broader society regarding the abuse of free speech.
Whenever I teach this class, my students, who have clearly already been well-educated in the American constitutional right to free speech in middle school, have absolute clarity that free speech is a fundamental right, even when people say things that we find offensive and distasteful.  I grew up in a country where the principle of free speech was tempered somewhat by shades of gray.  A radical Muslim cleric, Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal was jailed by British authorities in 2003 for seven years after being convicted of  inciting his followers to kill Christians, Hindus, Jews and Westerners and for encouraging them to use chemical weapons against their enemies.  One of the suicide bombers who detonated devices in London in July 2007 had attended the south London mosque where  al-Faisal was Imam, as had Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" who attempted to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight.

In recent weeks we've heard that Ann Coulter was taken to task in Canada and reminded by the vice-president of the University of Ottowa prior to the speech that she later cancelled there due to student protests, that she should review what constitutes hate speech under Canadian law.  For instance, he told her, ‘promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges.’ 
So, forgive me, and please do feel free to debate me on this issue – maybe its because I grew up in a different country with a different culture - but I’m ok with someone being arrested for using blatantly hateful words that provide the inspiration for others to carry out actual hate crimes.  I’m ok with clear and unequivocal statements that denounce the use of our God-given gift of speech to lessen the status and deny basic rights and safety to groups of people based on a category of identity.  I believe that human life takes precedence over being able to say whatever you like about another group of people.
Now, I know that I am citing some of the most extreme examples to be found in recent months, but I also know that many of you are equally aware of the inflammatory statements and distortions coming from the lips of some politicians that are similarly dangerous.  Earlier this week I was speaking on a panel at Norwalk Community College reflecting on 12 years since the murder of gay teen, Matthew Shepard.  To claim no relationship between the ways that homosexuality is presented in some political and religious arenas, and the violent acts and verbal attacks perpetrated against GLBT people, is simply a lie - it is to shirk responsibility for the power and influence of words.  Jewish teachings on lashon hara demand that we take responsibility for how words have the ability to create and destroy worlds.
We Jews know this well.  While I do not wish to make false comparisons between the hate speech of radical individuals and state-sponsored hate speech and propaganda, I do believe that there is a connection.  The hate speech and propaganda of the Nazis began years before Jews in Europe found that there was no route of escape.  It was unimaginable that those words could lead to the horrors of the Holocaust.  Only words.  Likewise, it was only words on the radio, describing the tutsi as cockroaches, that contributed to the 100 day genocide by hutus against tutsis in Rwanda.  It began with 'just words'.
When we pause each year and remember the Holocaust, we remember the genocide and destruction of generations of our people, the loss of whole communities and cultures.  We remember what humanity is capable of doing.  But when we say ‘Remember; Do not forget; never again’ but think of a historical event, specific to one time and place, then we have learnt very little.
Baruch she-amar v’hayah ha-olam, baruch Hu.  From our morning liturgy – Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being.  And, I would add, cursed be the one who speaks and brings about hurt, murder, and destruction.


  1. Wow. This was wonderful. Sorry I missed hearing it in person.

  2. Alicia Leonard BrownApril 11, 2010 at 8:54 AM

    Jeff and I both thought it would have been fine if Ann Coulter had not been warned and been arrested instead. I must admit that I have always had mixed feelings about the term "hate crime." How do you tell the family of a victim of a random act of violence that the perpetrator's sentence will be less than that of someone who acted out of "hate" or prejudice. I've always felt that motive should be used to solve a crime, not to determine punishment. When it comes right down to the nitty gritty, I simply do not understand why people feel the need to tell others how to live their lives, or why people hate other people that they don't even know.

  3. I think you have a point here; except that what makes a hate crime of a different order is that, while the individual victim may have been randomly selected, the effect is to cause fear among a specific group of people, and so the 'victims' in a hate crime include a much larger no. of people. Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz