‘Reimagine our society as a diverse and knitted-together mass of communities’

Posted on Friday, June 12th, 2020

By Rabbi David Mason, Muswell Hill Synagogue

I was asked recently, by the Jewish human rights organisation René Cassin to give a contribution as part of an evening looking at the issue of hate speech. I was asked to look at Jewish perspectives on this issue. It would seem clear that a Jewish approach to life would eschew hate speech for several different reasons. Watching how we speak, encapsulated into commandments such as ‘lashon ha-ra’, bad speech, is an obvious place to start. But I feel that there is more to this issue.

The Torah, in chapter 19, verse 17 of Leviticus commands us: ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart’. This is one of the few places in the Books of Moses, that hate is specifically mentioned, and the reference here is to internal hatred. We can see here that if one will remove hatred from the heart, hate speech will clearly not be the next step. Of course, the Torah refers to ‘your brother,’ who will be much less different to you than others. It may be less likely that I will hate my compatriots, and more likely that I will hate those who act and look differently than me.

So maybe inoculation to hate speech can be created by ensuring people do not bare internal hate for others. But there is another important concept that is relevant here – guarantorship, or responsibility. The Talmud states that ‘All Israel should be guarantors for each other’. There are actually two versions of this statement.

One understanding is that all should be able to ensure the thriving of the other in a real and tangible way. In other words, I should guarantee the situation of the other. Alternative, there is a version where one should be responsible to act towards the other and should treat them properly, even if one cannot ensure that they flourish in life. To me, this concept assumes that people are social and thrive and work in a society or group. If we view life within a social lens, as did socialist thinkers over the last two centuries, it will reduce proclivity to hate speech. The other may be different, but he or she is part of my orbit, part of my group.

I remember being fascinated in a conversation with a friend of mine who is a Methodist Minister in Muswell Hill, that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, talked about the ‘holiness of the social’. In the social, there should be no place for hate speech and hate crime. Many today are setting up local ‘mutual aid’ groups, to help local people through the pandemic crisis. I was interested as to whether there was a history to this idea of mutual aid. Of course, to many, it simply is a term that means helping people in need, or at times of need. But the socialist thinker Peter Kropotkin wrote a work called ‘Mutual Aid’ in 1902 where he challenged the social understanding of Darwin’s scientific theories and emphasised that it is the desire to work together with others that has evolved from the animal kingdom, to humanity and on to modern societal structures.

Of course, today, responsibility for the other often clashes with the complicated nature of identity. The Talmudic statement itself states that ‘All Israel are responsible for each other’. But it depends of course how we define identity. There are multiple circles of identity that an individual lives within, from family, to community, to national or ethnic group, to wider society. Being human is itself an identity here, and demands its own level of guarantorship and responsibility, and a Jewish approach would take this value and understand its application across diverse human societies. There would be no eliding of identity here. But social responsibility would nevertheless issue forth from identity and so the potential for hate representing itself in speech or action would be much less.

There is one more aspect that I feel is relevant here. The Biblical figure of Abraham is in a fascinating position. He travels to the land of Canaan, which God tells him will be his family’s inheritance. But he is the first generation to live there. So, when he comes to bury his wife Sarah, he calls himself a ‘Stranger and a citizen’. Abraham self-defines as both. We are all both strangers and citizens. We may live and associate with a society, but in some ways there is always strangeness to many others in the society. That is what led the ethnologist Benedict Anderson to talk about nations as ‘imagined communities’. We are strange to many even within our own nation. But this common strangeness surely can evoke a solidarity of understanding rather than hate itself.

The present pandemic certainly offers us a massive opportunity. But the murder of George Floyd and the outpouring of support for removing racism from our society is one clear and tangible example of how we might build a better society. There is a great deal of work to be done, and there is also a great deal of embedded hate within our society, flamed by the politics of division. A politics of society and the social will look hopefully for a brave way forward which will bring people with it. We can reimagine our society as a knitted together mass of communities, many diverse and different, but still able to work together. Jewish history, and Jewish texts have the resources that can be deployed for these aims. This reimagining will hopefully reduce the place of hate speech in our society.