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The Art of Slander

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The deepest sort of slander, the rabbis of the Talmud contend, is the type that was employed by Haman, the Purim story's villain. The arch-enemy and would-be destroyer of the Jewish people in ancient Persia used subtle innuendo as he spoke to the king about his Jewish subjects. Instead of openly venting his visceral hatred, he utilized snide insinuations - that the Jews were insular, unloyal, disdainful, dangerous.

Anyone who may have recalled that Talmudic observation over the Purim holiday may well have been struck with its timeliness - or perhaps better, timelessness. Subtle slander of Jews is no farther away than the nearest newspaper.

The fact that some American Jews (though, polls have shown, hardly a disproportionate number in comparison with the general American population) have joined many others in finding solace in the prospect of a world without Saddam Hussein in control of dangerous weapons has been portrayed by some as sinister; American Jews have been accused of pulling a puppet President Bush's strings. Much of the Arab and European press, predictably, are among the slanderers, as is, equally predictably, Pat "Amen Corner" Buchanan, who has been railing of late against the "War Party" of neoconservatives William Bennett, William Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and Richard Perle. Mr. Bennett is the odd man in the conspiracy, a Christian.

Representative Jim Moran seemed of similar mind, reportedly telling a Jewish reporter that "if it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing it." After being taken to task for his words, the Virginia democrat said that he regretted "giving any impression that [Jews] are somehow. behind an impending war." No doubt the regret is sincere, but he did not address the question of whether he actually believes what he said.

Much of the vilification is aimed, of course, at Israel. Like the words of Amiri Baraka, the former LeRoi Jones, who has been warmly welcomed with standing ovations at college campuses in the wake of the controversy over a poem he wrote. In addition to a scatological insult aimed at Colin Powell, a questioning of Condoleeza Rice's morals and a juvenile pun on Clarence Thomas' name, "Somebody Blew Up America" includes the immortal lines: "Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion/And cracking they sides at the notion." and "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/ Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/ To stay home that day /Why did Sharon stay away?"

Mr. Baraka, who was appointed poet laureate of New Jersey by that state's governor before the official became aware of the poem, was asked to resign. He refused, blaming his persecution on the ADL and on "paid liars and apologists for ethnic cleansing and white supremacy, bourgeois nationalists" and, in an amusingly ironic addendum, "the dangerously ignorant."

There is apparently no legal mechanism in New Jersey for firing an official state poet (or, it seems, for changing the title from poet laureate to village idiot) and so Mr. Baraka remains in his position.

Taking a cue from the headlines these days, Mr. Baraka, in a long, rambling and only occasionally lucid diatribe, denied that his poem is anti-Semitic. He asserts that he was only remarking on what he believes was Israel's foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks (a belief he explains was "everywhere on the Internet"), and contrasts the "little Palestinian girl who blows herself up in a Israeli Pizza Parlor" with Israeli jets "all but destroy[ing] the Palestinian Center of Governance, with its President, Yasser Arafat, inside sitting in the dark." He is amazed that "it is the Israelis who are [perceived as] victims and the little Palestinian girl or boy or young man or young woman or even elder, they are the terrorists."

For his part, Mr. Buchanan, too, goes after Israel, asserting that he, as the "recipient of $100 billion in U.S. aid, is demanding another $15 billion to hold our coat as we fight her war against Iraq."

Much of the contemporary Jew-hatred is indeed, in top slander-style, presented as hatred of Israel. But, as Agudath Israel of America's late president Rabbi Moshe Sherer contended almost thirty years ago, it is mere anti-Semitism in costume.

In 1975, after the famous "Zionism is racism" United Nations resolution, Rabbi Sherer wrote: "Through the resolution was supposedly aimed only at secular 'Zionism', the slander is an attack on the entire Jewish people."

"In truth, through," he continued, even if hatred was aimed only at certain Jews, "we would feel precisely the same responsibility to come to the defense of our brethren. While we may have our own quarrel with secular Zionism, when Jews are libeled, their affiliation does not matter; our love for our brothers and sisters draws us to their side." And, what is more, the celebrated Jewish leader observed most pointedly, "the U.N. resolution is aimed at all Jews, for it assails the historical Jewish right to Eretz Yisrael. The Torah bestowed that right and any attack on it is an attack on Judaism and the Jewish people."

Behind the United Nations' austere fašade, he went on, "lies a veritable jungle, crawling with well-dressed, diplomatically correct savages."

The more things change.

In Haman's time, as we just heard at the Megilla reading if we were paying attention, the Jews in Persia were delivered from their enemies through a determined turning to G-d, by fasting, repenting and recommitting to Jewish observance. As we survey our own increasingly bizarre and hateful world, all of us should seriously consider doing no less.


Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.



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