Do we have an obligation to correct misleading media bias when it comes to news coverage of Israel? For example, during rounds of rocket fire from Gaza, some media stations makes it seem like Israel is the aggressor, when they are actually the ones defending themselves against rocket attacks.
The difficulty with this question is that it pairs the value of correcting incorrect notions of the world with the particular value of Israel. If we were to ask the question, “am I responsible to correct media bias?” would we arrive at an answer that would then change once Israel is involved. Put another way, does the inclusion of Israel somehow increase an obligation to correct wrong information?
I first want to explore the question of correcting media and then discus the role of Israel. Recently, Berhman House publishing struggled with the issue of “fixing” incorrect information. Their magazine Babaganewz had run two stories about Rabbi Menachem Youlus who had stolen money from a charity he ran. The two previous Babaganewz articles about Youlus spoke about his heroic efforts to save Torahs. Berhman House was concerned about how to present the truth of his theft while making sure not to transgress the prohibition of embarrassing another. They wrote, “As we considered our options, we realized that two important Jewish values were present: Emet (truth) and Chillul Hashem (desecrating God’s name and bringing dishonor to the Jewish community).” The fear that they might embarrass someone else was enough to give pause to their correction. In the end, after consulting their in-house rabbis, they relied on Rabbi Michael Broyde, who said, “there is no significant chillul hashem in sharing information that is widely known already and it is a chance to address practical ethical conduct.” You can read about this incident here. This example demonstrates that when Emet –Truth – is on the line, its importance is mediated by factors of embarrassment. Truth is not an end that justifies every end.
The situation of media bias is not exactly the same as correcting previously articulated facts. The question of media bias, as opposed to a clear mistake, engages one’s opinion much more than facts. Evaluating the main stream media’s liberal or conservative bias is as much in the eye of the reader as the truth of the reporting. Rather than devolving into an argument over the state of today’s media, I want to point to a statement by R’ Eilah in Yevamot 65b. There he states, “Just as it is a mitzvah on man to say something that will be heard, so too is it a mitzvah to not say something that won’t be heard.” R’ Abbah adds, “It is a duty! As it is written (in Proverbs 9:8) “Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; Reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” We can understand from R’ Eilah and R’ Abbah that we should not waste words on those that will not hear us. One potential reason for such a strong statement is that in post-sacrificial Judaism, our lips become the vehicles for communion with the Divine. We must keep our mouths pure, lest we sully our prayers. Again, getting the Truth out, so to speak, is a value with limitations.
The problem with these approaches to Truth is they temper any sense of activism. How can we possibly advocate in the world if we are willing to temper Truth?
We see the importance of speaking truth to power early in the Torah, when Abraham argues with God in Bereshit 18. God asks Himself (Ber. 18:17-19), “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation… For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.” The implication of knowing God’s inner thoughts is that Abraham’s challenge (Ber. 18:23), “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” demonstrates his knowledge of what is “just and right.” God initially thinks that He should share with Abraham his future deeds so that Abraham can understand what correct justice looks like. Abraham, though, understands that justice is dynamic, and challenges God’s plans. We are the inheritors of a tradition that values justice because God told Abraham about his plans, evoking objection. In the face of injustice, we should act like Abraham and speak!
The difficulty with obligating one to speak in the face of injustice is that the definition of what is “just and right” is very difficult to pinpoint. Consider the previous story, God’s sense of justice and Abraham’s are not aligned. In Shabbat 145b it says, “If it is clear to you as it is clear that your sister is prohibited to you, say it.” By this, we can infer the importance of knowing the absolute truth before arguing a point. For a greater description of the importance of honest testimony, see Rabbi Benjamin Hecht’s response to a previous question on JVO here. Without absolute knowledge of Truth, we should speak with humility. Ultimately, we must recognize that the advocate for justice is not the sole arbiter of justice.
For me, the amount or rabbinic literature dedicated to the appropriate use of speech makes it very difficult to suggest that one should be obligated to speak up when a media bias exists, whether about Israel or any other political situation. The nature of Israel as a democratic state, something I take great pride in, means that the government of Israel or its military will act in ways that some Israelis may not like, let alone those in the greater world. The beauty of its democracy is that those people can criticize the state. Rather than be concerned with media bias, I would like to see Israelis and Jews around the world, take pride in the fact that Israel and the Jewish people can sustain critical democratic dialogue and still function as a state.
More importantly, because I have to speak truth with humility, I have to recognize that the game of geo-politics is formed through a number of highly complex interactions and relationships. More than trying to correct media bias by arguing facts, we should encourage all to investigate with an eye towards complexity. Could it possibly be so simple that one side is right and one side is wrong?
The idea that we should not speak lest we present false information, answers the question, presuming that, if we could be absolutely sure we were correct, we could then speak our piece. But there is another voice in the rabbinic tradition that would advocate ignoring the truth on behalf of Peace. R’ Eilah continues on Yevamot 65b saying, “One can change a statement for the sake of peace.” This is similar to a line in Derekh Eretz Zuta, “All manner of lying is prohibited, except it be, to make peace between one and his neighbor.” This discussion began by looking at moments when Truth is tempered by other factors. Here, we see that Truth can be dispensed with for the sake of peace. An obligation to correct bias would place Truth as the highest possible value.
In his excellent new book, A Prophetic Peace, Alick Isaacs, presents an argument for “theologically disarmed religion,” which, using the previously mentioned texts, “places peace above other values (33).” By placing peace above other values we are required to accept the possibility that we may, in fact, not hold the entire Truth, rather just a part of the truth. Isaacs’ theologically disarmed religion is not secularization but a shift in priorities and a reimagining of the Divine. Building off of the name for God in Judges 6:24 – Adonay Shalom, Isaacs writes:
Shalom is the name of the messianic promise that cannot come true in a world we know, a dream that concludes our prayers but resides outside of them, outside of our imagination. It is a great surprise stored up nowhere we can know and promised us by a God we cannot fathom. Peace is an aspect of God through which we apprehend the created world – a broken and mysterious form of revelation – not merely a political situation. It is a name of God (34).
In a world where God is Peace and we cannot own Truth, where we are compelled to give voice to those who cannot speak yet we must do so with humility, we are forced to see our actions and obligations beyond the small stage of human politics. Our obligation becomes the pursuing of peace.
Your question is posed well and definitely deserves a response. It is related to another question that was asked a while ago on Jewish Values Online and I will end with that question and my response to it below.
To be quite honest, media bias is another one of my pet peeves. I cannot help myself and I speak about this bias with family and friends, but rarely if ever do I deal with it in sermonics and Torah writings.
What immediately comes to mind is a positive mitzvah in the Torah, that stems from the verse in Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You must admonish—hokhay-ach tokhee-ach— your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17)
The next Torah verse is far more familiar, “Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people. You must love your neighbor as [you love] yourself. I am God.” (Verse 18)
In all fairness, this mitzvah of admonishment may not fit exactly and it may fit more closely in relationships that you have with other Jews who are transgressing; nonetheless, this mitzvah can shed some light on our relationship with any situation where someone may demonstrate a bias affecting the Jewish People in general and the State of Israel in particular.
Let us look for the moment at Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, in his Book of Knowledge, Deot, Chapter 6, Law 7. “ If one has noticed that a person has committed a sin or followed the wrong path, duty demands that he should restore him to the right path by pointing out to him that he is doing wrong to himself … He should speak to him gently and tenderly, informing him that it is only for his own good that he ie is telling him this….”
We are naturally troubled to see many in the media that report Israel’s reaction first and then only later present the provocation for Israel’s action. Sometimes, it seems that the reason or provocation is nowhere to be found. This is most certainly the case in such a circumstance as in Gaza and rockets being fired into Israeli towns and centers.
Perhaps our hokhay-ach tokhee-ach—admonishments of our neighbors (media) may have to take the form of letters to the editor of a newspaper, requesting a clarification or even a retraction. Support for organizations that seem to share a similar perspective as yours, may be a part of the to-khay-ha in this instance.
I contend that there are so many, both Jews and non-Jews, who are unaware of so much that transpires affecting Israel and Jews, that we are all duty bound to share whatever knowledge we have with others, even momentary or casual acquaintances about our knowledge and perspective.
Perhaps there is a proviso in the Talmud in the Tractate of Yebamot 65bthat limits the admonishment of others. This is when you have fore knowledge that it will do no good. The Talmud says, “R. Ile'a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: As one is commanded to say that which will be obeyed, so is one commanded not to say that which will not be obeyed.” The Talmud brings wisdom concerning this from the Biblical text in the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 9, Verse 8,”Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you.”
I shall end with my response to the following related question:
“Is it appropriate to criticize Israel when other nations and states commit the same actions, and much worse, without any comment from the world community? At what point does self-examination become almost masochistic?”
Implicit in your question is your desired response. There is a clearly delineated imbalance in the way Israel is perceived and treated in the community of nations.
While studying in Jerusalem, a fellow student and friend once said that Israel is treated as the Jew amongst nations of the world. It may see itself as a democratic, modern country, but it is seen as the Jew is seen in the eyes of the nations.
I am one who avoids commenting as a rabbi on political matters, choosing to leave this to others who excel in the field of political and social sciences. However, it is impossible, as a rabbi, to ignore the excesses that are so obvious in the media characterizations of Israel, while seemingly ignoring the very same issues and worse that are being carried out in other nations, many of whom are allies of our own nation.
The Jewish people are charged by G-d and Torah to be a fair and just nation. We are taught that we must use honest weights and measures and not to recognize the mighty in the face of the weak. Therefore, it would seem unfair and inappropriate for us to contribute knowingly to the castigation of the State of Israel on the world stage.
This does not mean that one has no right to challenge or question Israel when they may feel that there is due reason for it. But, opening wounds publicly and jumping on the bandwagon of the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people, seems to me unnecessary and to be avoided at all costs.
I, personally, do not want to be the source of criticism, but rather the source of support and caring.
It certainly appears that one may not openly express words of both support and criticism, without discovering that only the negative words are reported, while totally ignoring the positive take on the matter.
Since this is s the case and a universal in the world of the present day media, it therefore appears to me that one can only publicly express support for Israel and not join in on the public condemnation feeding frenzy that is so pervasive.
I offer this by way of guidance, but cannot say that this is an halakhic –Jewish legal pronouncement.
Answer: Yes, we do have an obligation to correct falsehoods, and especially those that slander the Jewish people. "Keep far from falsehood!", the Bible commands (Exodus 23:7).
This correcting may be done in various ways, depending on the nature of the social situation at hand. Refuting misimpressions can help the other person in the conversation realize that he or she has been unthinkingly repeating an opinion, believing it to be a consensus, when in fact it is both incorrect and hurtful. Whether to emphasize passion or tact is a situational decision, but the guiding value is the defense of fellow Jews against prejudicial attack.
Whether speaking to an acquaintance or writing a letter to a newspaper editor, it is important to have reliable information at one’s disposal. There are, fortunately, many good sources of information on the Israeli “matzav” (political situation).
None of the above is intended to convey the impression that Israel is beyond some legitimate criticism, but much of the criticism of Israel is in fact illegitimate. It ignores context, fails to hold both sides of the conflict to comparable standards, and often makes excuses for the immoral acts of Israel’s enemies.
In sum, one should weigh one’s words to guard against diminishing the effectiveness of one’s well-meaning speech, but certainly speak out whenever it can have even some good effect on the public or on fellow defenders of Israel.
The main tenet of responsibility within Judaism is found in Deuteronomy 16:20. The words are tzedek tzedek tirdof/righteousness righteousness shall you pursue. As there is no punctuation within the Torah scroll, it is usually punctuated with a comma between the two words “righteousness”. But if we place a question mark after the first “righteousness” and an exclamation point after the word “pursue”, then the Torah asks whether it is righteousness that is the main pursuit of the individual, and answers the question as a moral imperative. Thus, in answering the question as to whether it is our responsibility to be bearers of truth wherever we find it, the Torah gives us the answer. It insists that we declare the truth, even if it places us in a less than favorable light. As to the reporting concerning Israel’s right to exist and tender its response toward those who seek its destruction, one’s bias should not be offered when reporting fact. Opinion is one thing; fact is another. The Torah commands fact and honor. Those values should be our guide.
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