Jews did not come to the United States during the early twentieth century’s “Great Wave” because they were seeking democracy – they came to escape persecution and pogrom. And for the first time since the Dispersion, they had a haven where they were accepted collectively and individually and were free from government harassment. “Equal Protection” under the Constitution meant they were no longer subject to official discrimination and “Due Process” gave them the same judicial rights as gentiles. Perhaps most important, the First Amendment assured freedom of speech, belief, and assembly without fear of reprisal. Though antisemitism certainly existed on American shores, it was not government policy, and Jews could finally live without the specter of state-sanctioned segregation and abuse.
In light of this history, then, it seems curious that so many of their descendants would continue to support progressive politicians who advocate censorship and legislation intended to control thought by restricting language. One can dispute opposing viewpoints without denying the right to disagree, and debate without government interference has been a hallmark of American society since the republic’s founding. But the tradition of open dialogue hasn’t stopped the Biden administration from abusing its authority to stifle discourse. First, it weaponized the Department of Justice to label as “domestic terrorists” parents who dared oppose progressive indoctrination of their children in public schools. Then it created a “Disinformation Governance Board” (the status of which is currently in limbo) within the Department of Homeland Security to malign opposing views.
Political efforts to censor speech and dictate content, however, clearly violate the First Amendment. And the use of governmental resources to indoctrinate the public resembles state-sponsored propaganda systems found in dictatorial regimes, like the “General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press” in the former Soviet Union and the “Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda” in Nazi Germany.
It really is that blatant. Policy-based censorship is bad enough – but using the power of government to spread disinformation and incite communal discord contravenes Jewish tradition, particularly when it preys on ignorance and encourages lawlessness.
The tension between deceptive speech and traditional Jewish values struck me when I was preparing the Torah reading for Shabbat Kedoshim a few weeks ago. When I came to the verse stating, “lifnei iver lo teetayn michshol,” (Vayikra, 19:14), which means “do not put a stumbling block before the blind,” I consulted the commentaries elucidating the text. In expounding on the verse, Rashi explains it as a prohibition against taking advantage by using deceit to influence decisions by those who are ignorant of essential facts. Saadia Gaon goes further by describing it as a prohibition against the use of deception to enable the commission of sin. Both explanations equate the term “stumbling block” with deception and “blind” with ignorance.
It would appear that verbal dishonesty by elected officials inherently contradicts these prohibitions, particularly when intended to undermine civil liberties and foster political strife through obfuscation. Regardless of party affiliation, all Jews should be alarmed at the politicization of language to inflame partisan tensions, which often culminate in antisemitic rhetoric and violence. Illustrative of this dynamic are recent reports correlating anti-Israel comments by members of the Democratic “Squad” in Congress with surges in antisemitism.
Governmental attempts to control speech have skyrocketed under Biden, but the process has been simmering since the 1960s and before, with each attempt at overreach setting the stage for the next.
The “Fairness Doctrine” of 1949, for example, was imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) to require public broadcast licensees to provide airtime for differing viewpoints on controversial topics of public interest. Though radio and television stations are corporate entities, the Fairness Doctrine reasoned that they controlled the public square and were thus subject to some content regulation. It quickly became a political cudgel for controlling the airwaves – particularly by Democratic administrations that used it to muzzle political opponents in the 1960s and 1970s. The doctrine was finally abolished in 1987 during the Reagan administration.
The FCC is still in the business of regulation, focusing on decency standards during broadcast hours, the granting and renewal of broadcast licenses, and its original mission “…of promoting safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communications.” This stated mission, however, remains susceptible to political abuse.
Since the 1980s, lawmakers have attempted to accomplish through “anti-hate” legislation what the Fairness Doctrine ultimately could not. Hate-crime legislation creates greater degrees of culpability for crimes motivated by prejudice and sometimes calls for outlawing certain kinds of speech altogether by designating it “hate speech.” Such initiatives are often well-intended but frequently ill-conceived, leaving critics to wonder whether they open the door to government intrusion into matters of personal thought and belief; and the question is a legitimate one. As repugnant as murder may be, for example, the victim is dead, and the survivors left to cope with loss regardless of whether the crime was motivated by bigotry, personal animus, antisocial impulse, lust, or greed.
Legal scholars and philosophers question the utility of rating depravity by degree and whether punishing malevolent thoughts could pave the way for legislating political beliefs and criminalizing dissent. Politicians, however, rarely seem concerned.
Regardless of the intent behind anti-hate legislation, it often represents government’s attempt to regulate thought by restricting speech. The inherent danger is that such regulatory intrusion could be weaponized to silence political opposition, enjoin unpopular ideologies, or criminalize religious beliefs. Though anti-hate laws are often analogized to civil rights statutes, the comparison is inapposite. Whereas civil rights legislation aims to eliminate discriminatory conduct that deprives victims of essential rights and freedoms, hate-crime statutes often seek to control speech and influence thought. The former pass constitutional muster because they regulate violative behavior, while the latter fail when they restrict constitutionally protected expression. Even the most odious speech is protected by the First Amendment.
Those who believe government would never engage in thought control should take note of past abuses of the Fairness Doctrine and the Biden Administration’s attempts to gag expression through a partisanized DOJ and draconian Disinformation Governance Board. They should also consider the implication of state legislative efforts to ban the use of gender-specific pronouns to placate radical minorities; or the demonization of religious beliefs deemed incompatible with progressive ideology; or the politicization of science to claim inter alia that men can become pregnant and sexual identity is socially constructed, not genetically and biologically determined. Moreover, they should be skeptical of those who say “follow the science” until the science contradicts their political agendas.
The purpose of government speech restrictions is to divide and conquer, and the result is a fractured political landscape of excruciating toxicity. The radicalization of language for political purposes, moreover, encourages lawlessness, inflames class and racial tensions, and increases the incidence of antisemitic violence in cities, suburbs, and college campuses. While the media’s job should be to report governmental excess and incompetence, it instead acts as an echo chamber to excuse this administration’s social, economic, and foreign policy failures and to vilify critics of progressive excess. Small wonder that establishment media credibility is at an all-time low as consumers look to other news sources for objectivity and honest reporting.
And through it all, the liberal Jewish establishment seems to exhibit a blasé acceptance of progressive efforts to control speech, quash dissent, and promote groupthink. If history teaches us anything, however, it should be that authoritarian governance never ends well for Jews. Those who joined the Soviet “Jewish Section” to assist in eradicating their own culture and religion under Stalin were still ultimately purged for being Jews. That should give pause to democratic socialists nostalgic for the days of the “great socialist utopia.”
In Jewish tradition, words are not simply abstractions – they have material consequences. This is reflected in the Hebrew word “davar,” which means both “word” and “thing” and thus encompasses esoteric concepts as well as concrete realities. Indeed, the Sages taught that words are more than expressions of thought, but tangible things that effect real change. The power of language is articulated in the Torah itself, which relates how G-d created the world with ten utterances. Words uttered with purity of heart can ascend in prayer to the gates of heaven, but when used to espouse senseless hatred can bring disaster and destruction on the earth.
It’s no wonder, then, that Jewish law equates lashon hara – evil speech – with murder. No less destructive is the use of deceptive language as a stumbling block.
These are the sensibilities that should inform the Jewish response to the use of censorship and verbal deception as political currency; and these are the sensibilities that are sadly lacking in so many of our communal leaders and institutions today.