The 'Meraglim" among us: Truth, fake news, and Israel

The concept of fake news is as old as information itself.- and the Story of the Spies in this week's Torah Reading, is an early example.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran ,

Rabbi Safran new
Rabbi Safran new
צילום: INN:RS

I get all the news I need from the weather report…Paul Simon

In the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar 13), we learn of the twelve spies, meraglim, that Moshe sent out to scout the land of Canaan. One from each of the twelve tribes, these meraglim were sent to the Promised Land with the task of reporting back their findings about the agriculture and “lay” of the land. Essentially their task was to confirm God’s promise regarding the land.

Would that they had fulfilled that task! Yes, the twelve returned with positive news about the agriculture but more than that they painted a frightening picture of the inhabitants of the land. They described fortified cities and giants. Hearing their fevered reporting, the people recoiled in fear. They rebelled against Moshe’s leadership. They turned away from God’s promise to them.

They wandered in the desert an additional thirty-seven years.

Why? Not because of the news the meraglim were tasked to report. No, the turmoil and suffering the people endured was because the news the spies had brought back was “fake news”.

Why had Moshe sent the spies to begin with? He had no need for “eyes on the ground” for he had something much more valuable than “intel”. He had God’s promise that the people of Israel would conquer the land and it would be theirs. Yet, he acquiesced to the people’s demand that the meraglim be sent. He mistakenly hoped that by doing so he would soften their misplaced passions and dissuade them from pressing forth with their demand.

Caleb, one of the twelve, stopped at Hebron to pray for the strength and courage to resist the conspiracy of his comrades. That a man of Caleb’s strong character found it necessary to do this speaks to the powerful pull to “fall into the trap” of groupthink and negative propaganda. Indeed, the meraglim themselves were men of stature. Their intent was surely not to create a false report. But what they saw in the land spoke to their fears, not their faith.

When they returned from their mission, the meraglim did not report directly back to Moshe, the leader who assigned them the mission. Instead, they spoke directly to the people; filling them with their outlandish fear. They whipped up emotion and discontent, driving their rebellious natures. They sought “headlines” not truth; they wanted a rebellious reaction to fear, not a measured and appropriate response to facts.

This is a dynamic only too familiar to us today.

We see it on television. We hear it on the radio. We read it in our newspapers. Fake news. The voices of meraglim, not truth tellers.

Ramban, in commenting on the story of the meraglim, notes that the key word in their report, the word that revealed their lack of faith is efes, “but” (verse 28). You see, in a factual report there is no need for such a qualifier; a factual statement lays out what is. Yet, after noting that the land “…flows with milk and honey…” they stop short. BUT. “But…” That qualifier screams out, ignore what we’ve just said, ignore the facts, ignore truth. It is what follows that you must pay attention to.

But.

That “but” is the rhetorical flourish of a scoundrel. It is a trick as old as time and as modern as today. A sliver of truth “but…”

A hint of fact and a deluge of slander.

It is propaganda, designed to confuse any hope for a common language and conventions.

As disturbing as “fake news” is in our lives, we need to appreciate that it is not a new phenomenon. It has plagued us through the generations of our history, from the sly, seductive whisper of the snake in the Garden. The propaganda machine that powered Nazi Germany was, first and foremost, a powerful and effective method of creating a false narrative, or promulgating “fake news”.

The impulse to create “fake news” and our vulnerability to fall victim to it, predates even the evils of the last century. Rabbi Pini Dunner provides a thorough context for our understanding of “fake news”, noting that, “...the concept of fake news is as old as information itself.” He writes that the British philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon was already writing about it in the early 17th century noting that it was human nature to, “…seize eagerly on any fact, however slender, that supports his theory; but … question, or conveniently ignore, the far stronger facts that overthrow it.” He was, in different language, describing what modern psychology refers to as “confirmation bias.”

The Rambam taught that man, being a social animal, “…is drawn in his opinions and his actions after his friends and companions.” That is, we are primed by our natures to believe – and be responsive to – what we hear and learn from our friends. It is for this reason that the Rambam counsels that we, “…dwell amongst righteous and wise individuals.” By doing so, we can keep our distance from the wicked.

We must all be careful of the company we keep, and the information we encounter and the social media we follow. It was true for the Rambam. It is true now. Ultimately, “fake news” is not so much a function of media but of our inherent natures,

To be clear, the act of sending the meraglim was not “fake news”. As the Baal Akeidah notes (without using the term) the “fake news” was not in their mission but in their “editorializing” their report. Efes ki az ha’am – “But all this is for naught, because the nation there is too strong.” (Bamidbar 13:28)

Had they really editorialized? Had they really “overstepped”?

The Shloh asks, “Hadn’t Moshe asked them to report whether ‘…is it strong or weak… few or numerous... good or bad… open or fortified...’”? Don’t such questions invite, no demand, “editorial” comment?

Yes and no. In most situations, when we seek a factual, objective report, that is what we should get. Yes, context and insight can clarify those “facts”. As Jews we rely on our sacred commentaries to understand the intricacies of our texts. But away from the world of scholarship and devotion, away from the world of faith and when it comes to the Land of Israel, “objective and factual” always seem fall short.

It was thus in the days of the meraglim and it is true today.

For the eleven days of the confrontation between Israel and Hamas, what did we hear from our “meraglim”? Not about Hamas’ rocket fire. Not about how they “protect” their rockets and weapons with human shields and install military assets in hospitals and schools. Not about how Israel seeks to avoid civilian casualties by going so far as to notify the people before they attack a target.

We heard none of this. We only heard of the cruelty of “apartheid” Israel. Of the “inhuman” Israel. Of the “disproportionate” response Israel rained down upon the “helpless” people.

And who were the meraglim who delivered this “fake news”? Certainly the “usual cast of characters” – the anti-Semites, the haters, the Hamans of our generation. But today, just as Moshe chose the spies from amongst the twelve tribes, we also have our own meraglim, our own spies whose report seeks to roil the people.

Erev Shavuot, a group of close to a hundred non-Orthodox rabbinical students signed an open letter attacking Israel even as she battled against Hamas! Future leaders of Progressive Judaism banded together to condemn Israel in her fight for survival. As Rabbi Dov Fischer noted, there is often dissension in families. However, there are times when even the most acrimonious family puts aside their differences and pulls together.

When Hamas is raining thousands of rockets on civilian population centers killing innocents, is not the time to question, criticize or condemn Israel. These pseudo meraglim considered the land and saw only what they wanted to see, and reported back their fears, distortions and biases!

Moshe was under no illusion about the meraglim and the report they would make. That there were fortified cities in the Land, or descendants of Amalek in the south or any number of other threats and dangers would have come as no surprise to him. He knew that these facts “on the ground” did not and could not change the truth of God’s promise. He believed, and he trusted that the people would believe too. He believed that the meraglim who wanted to go and see the Land for themselves would return with words of strength and encouragement. After all, they had seen with their own eyes the redemption from Egypt; they had experienced themselves the many miracles God delivered to Am Yisrael. How could they return without an affirmation of God’s promise?

Like those who built the Golden Calf, they saw the fortified cities and the people let their fears drive them. They forgot God’s promise; they concluded disaster. The consequences of their failure of faith had direct consequences to the people in the desert. The same consequences exist to this day – there are those who continue to evaluate our connection to Israel with the same limited considerations as did the meraglim. That is, we evaluate faithlessly and thus we create fake news.

In other facets of life, data suffices. But when it comes to the Land of Israel all we need to know is that without God we could not possess so much as a sliver of the Land – not then, not now. Natural law does not govern Israel; no derech ha’teva there. God governs Israel. Period. In Devarim (11:12), the Torah states it as a given, “the Land upon which Hashem your God seeks its welfare constantly; His Eyes are upon it from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.”

Israel is unique. It is governed by God’s rules, not man’s.

Moshe believed. He did not need reports, data, information, editorials and UN Security Council analyses. He did not need the meraglim or their report.

And yet, the meraglim report and we quiver and quake. Rambam is right. Man “…is drawn in his opinions and his actions after his friends and companions.” The simple fact is that the public is not well-equipped to separate quality information from false information. This is particularly true for young people. It was true then. It is true now. The people did not have the tools to discern between the words of God and Moshe and the meraglim.

“Fake news”

How do we separate fiction from fact? Most people think they can tell the difference. But like the people hearing the report of the meraglim, they cannot. Worse, people tend to believe “information” that supports their preconceived ideas. They retreat to their news source “echo chamber”, which simply amplifies the things they already believe. As a result, not only are positions hardened but traditional media – conventional wisdom and the common narrative – becomes distrusted.

When "rabbinic" students deliver this fake news, we must weep for the institutions being eroded at their foundations. Just as the people in the desert, driven to rebellion and fear by fake news, were punished by the consequences of “fake news” so will we whenever we continue to embrace it.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is a long time educator, author and lecturer. His highly acclaimed "Something Old, Something New - Pearls from the Torah" has recently been published by KTAV. His "Kos Eliyahu - Insights into the Haggadah and Pesach" was translated into Hebrew and published by Mosad Harav Kook. His writings regularly appear on the web.



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