Blessings, curses and the power of words
Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 15 July 2019
For three years the Jewish community have been asking for the Labour Party to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism. Yet whilst much has been said, little has actually been achieved. On Wednesday night, eight brave Labour insiders spoke out about the antisemitic abuse they have been suffering as part of the Labour party in the BBC Panorama documentary.
The documentary reminded us, as a community, how Labour’s antisemitism crisis began in April of 2016. Remarks made by former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, on the steps of Westminster alleging that Jews were working in cahoots with Nazis to establish state of Israel, began a surge of other insensitive and hurtful commentaries on the role of Jews in British society and in the creation of the state of Israel.
The information this documentary broadcast was not new to us as a Jewish community. However it had a new power to it, as for the first time we have heard real people publicly share their stories and their pain. Those featured in the documentary talked about how they were driven to despair and depression. One, Sam Matthews, even said he contemplated suicide. We heard the disappointment for many of these young people, for whom Corbyn was supposed to represent the hope of a different, better kind of society.
The majority of the slander was done on online forums, with comments posted on the internet, and social media including Facebook and twitter. The young whistleblowers spoke of how they would post a tweet in their personal lives, with no reference to Judaism or Israel, and the response would be antisemitic just by virtue of their religion.
Documentaries such as these cannot be made without people putting themselves on the line, willing to face the backlash that comes with speaking out. Many feared speaking out for they were referred to as liars, their feelings labelled as smears and exaggerations. It is as if these Jews, uniquely among ethnic minorities, could not be trusted to share the racism they faced.
Rather than confronting the message, the Labour party have attempted to diminish and deny the scale of the problem. And it has followed on the same online forums that the abuse began. The Labour party has taken to its twitter to denigrate the views of the whistleblowers, referring to them as embittered employees and seeking to attack the motives of the messengers.
Whether by the words they speak, or the lack thereof, the Labour party leadership has become directly complicit in antisemitism. Spanish Medieval commentator Maimonides tells us speech is a gift God has given only to humankind, and hence it must not be used for that which is degrading. Although Corbyn himself denies being antisemitic, by remaining silent on issues or by not using his language in a more careful manner, by tweeting things that can be interpreted as degrading, he too can be seen as abusing the gift of speech and spreading hatred.
We as Jews should not be shocked by the power of words to both destroy and create. We are the religion of words. God spoke and the world was created. God spoke again to tell Noah the world would be destroyed. God gave humans the power of words and the ability to name the animals. God took away that same power of words following the Tower of Babel, when we were given many different languages to halt our ability to communicate after thinking that we held ultimate control.
Language in Judaism is holy. As we are unable to see the face of God and live, the way we communicate with the divine is through words. Words in Judaism are revelation.
The book of Numbers, Bamidbar, contains the same root letters dalet-bet-reish which form the Hebrew word l’dabeir, to speak. It is in this book of Torah that Eldad and Medad are found speaking publicly in ecstasy, leading Moses to wonder what would happen if we were all prophets? Later we read that Miriam and Aaron slander their brother, leading to Miriam’s leprosy. And the evidence of the power of words continues just last week as we read about Moses hitting the rock rather than speaking to it. This rush into action rather than attempting to talk through a situation leads to Moses’ death sentence just outside the land of Israel. Further, Aaron too was punished, for he had the chance to speak out, and yet choose not to, as if he too was complicit in Moses’ actions.
This book of Torah, that contains the only other talking animal in Tanakh, a donkey some 2,000 years before Shrek, demonstrates the importance words in the Israelites journey to the promised land. As they battle their way through the wilderness, the Israelites did not conquer other nations in the customary way. Rather as they approached a land, they vowed a vow to God, God listened to their voice and they would succeed in battle. Or they sent messengers, warnings, possible peace treaties, which when refused were met by strength. Their power was in speech, and in communication with God.
The Israelites present a unique challenge in battle, a challenge of words, and therefore it is no wonder that Balak worries about the Israelites, who were making their way into his territory. Midrash Tanhuma states that Balak sought the advice of the Elders of Midian, where Moses was raised. They tell him that ‘his power is only in his mouth’.
Balak states ‘Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field’ comparing the Israelites to the Ox, for both use their tongue to conquer. Consequently, Balak decides he wants to challenge them on their playing field, with someone who also has power in their mouth. As Israel relies on words of prayer and blessing, so too will Balak, who entrusts Balaam to counteract his foes with the words of curses. It is with words, not weapons that Balak plans to take down his enemies.
Our tongue, our words, can be our best friend, or our worst foe. They have the power to create, praise and heal. But they also have the potential to cause great harm, to be used for evil. They can build up an entire world, and then tear it back down in an instant.
We are gifted with the ability to speak both blessings and curses, given true free choice in our language. This tension between the positive and the negative exists to provide us with a constant challenge. Effort must be put into speaking wisely and kindly, so that our words do not lose their significance. We are led towards lashon hara so that when we praise it is even more thoughtful.
The Labour party need to take responsibility for their use of language and work to restore the faith of all their members. Now is the time for them to truly listen to what has been said, reflect on the impact of their words, and acknowledge the deep hurt felt in the Jewish community. It is their responsibility to eradicate the source of antisemitism from their party.
The lessons of this book of Torah ring so true today. In life our biggest gift is that of our words, but they can also be our greatest weapon. We must think before we speak, turning our words from evil to good, and our curses to blessings. We must be aware of the power of speech and the consequences it can have. Ultimately, we must own the choice to use our words positively, negatively, or to withhold them completely.
May we never think that we can hide from our words by posting them online. May we always be willing to speak out in support and solidarity to those who need it. May we embrace the power of our words, and the responsibility that comes with them.
Yihiyu l’ratson imrei fi, v’hegyon libi t’hilatecha, adonai tsuri v’goahli.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to you God, my Rock and my Redeemer.