Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Discriminatory Mikvas, Deceptive Headlines

The Times of Israel reported on a recent Knesset decision regarding Israeli mikvas (ritual baths). I'd like to point out two things that bother me here.

The law itself

The law that was passed gives local rabbinates the power to choose which organizations can make use of public (state-run/funded) mikvas, which effectively means they have the power to deny non-Orthodox groups the ability to use their mikvas to perform conversions. I'll offer a few brief thoughts on this issue:

1) I prefer to live in a country where religion is a private matter, and the state stays out of it, and yes, that includes the Jewish State. So for instance, do there really need to be "public" mikvas run by the state? I don't know. Yes, I recognize that there is value in having a "Jewish character" to the State of Israel, and that part of that might reasonably involve investing government resources to help enable Jewish religious practice. But investing resources in mikvas is different than "presiding over" them.

2) If the state has to have a say in religious practice, as in administering public mikvas, it should do its best not to discriminate. "Do its best," meaning let's say a church wanted to perform a baptism in a public mikva. I personally don't have a problem with it, in all honesty, but I can see where others would - notably including many of those who oppose the law in question! Point being, I think there's a place for reasonable compromise here, where we can accommodate religious sensitivities while also not allowing discrimination to prevail.

3) One such compromise might be to designate a certain number of public mikvas for anyone to use. I say "designate" to refer to mikvas already built and in use. There is talk about the Jewish Agency building mikvas for non-Orthodox use, but people are expressing doubts as to when (if ever) those will be funded or built.

4) Regarding the argument, "But the Reform and Conservative movements are relatively small in Israel," I'll say this: How a country treats its minorities says a lot about how just and ethical the society is. A law like this exemplifies the use of power to discriminate against a religious minority. Some may justify this on the grounds that they abhor this particular minority, that they want to live in a Torah society. I would rather live in a society that gives people the freedom to choose things I myself do not choose. That to me is a far more moral, more just, more desirable place to live.

Okay, on to part two.

The headline

The Times of Israel headline and subhead read:
"Knesset approves law to bar non-Orthodox from ritual baths. Legislation approved 41-35 after lengthy debate; Jewish Agency slams move that ‘circumvents’ High Court"
If you don't have time to read the article, what's the obvious takeaway? That anyone other than Orthodox Jews are now banned from using any mikvas in Israel. But that's not the case!

Granted, headlines are necessarily concise, but if you give the wrong impression, that is irresponsible journalism. I should add that I don't know if the misleading wording was deliberate in this case or not, but there is an editorial bias toward creating more "sensational(ist)" headlines, simply because it draws more readers.

What we have here is the use of language that is "technically correct" but which lacks crucial facts and thus spreads misinformation. There's a reason people are sworn to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Because a half-truth can be as much of a deception as an outright lie.

Yes, the law is arguably highly problematic. Yes, there may well be cases where individuals are discriminated against at mikvas. Yes, such a law could be used to creep toward a ban on non-Orthodox mikva usage. But that doesn't make the headline "correct."

So what if it's not true?

This is a real issue - apathy toward truth. What I've noticed lately ("lately," meaning now that I'm looking out for it more) are cases where not only are lies being passed around (shared, liked, etc.), but when you point out the lie, the reaction is often... silence. People just don't seem to care.

Alternatively, you get people reacting by going on the attack, assuming that because you've voiced any words of critique that you're supporting the "other side" of the debate. By merely pointing out an untruth within the side you otherwise agree with, you have made yourself a traitor, a pariah, or at least a "stooge" for the enemy.

In other words, so many people will either a) ignore the lie or b) actively rationalize it.

The latter group will say that in this particular case, it's "deserved." They've deemed the ones they're fighting against public enemy #1, evil incarnate, and so therefore it's gloves off, ethics tossed aside. Anything goes as long as the "right side" wins. The end justifies the means. Which, it should be noted, is the modus operandi of terrorists. Or, from a more idealistic perspective, people frame it as an eit la'asot, a "time to act." (Eit la'asot is a Jewish term referring to a special case scenario where, in order to deal with an emergency situation, the normal rules are temporarily abrogated.)

But what people like to think of as an eit la'asot is in reality nothing more than a mitzva haba'a be'aveira, committing a transgression in the attempt to fulfill a mitzva, an act that Jewish tradition regards as unequivocally misguided. It's a self-deception, a rationalization of wrongheaded, cruel, criminal or even violent behavior.

I'll add one more example, pertaining to the upcoming U.S. elections. Author and skeptic Sam Harris was speaking in an interview about the criticism of Donald Trump:
"[Trump] is someone who you almost cannot malign enough. He's so worthy of being buried in scorn. The immune system of civilization has to fully encase him and just export him from our political process and forget about him. But when I see some of the stuff that's done to him, it's completely without an ethical core."
In other words, yes it is possible to be both intensely critical of someone and also be critical of the criticism against them, when it's unfair, untrue or unethical. There are so many examples, so much to say on this topic, but I'll sum it up as follows:

Just as important as it is to give criticism where it's due, it is important to protest against criticism where it's not due. 

By selectively not caring about the truth where it concerns an ideological foe, we

1) diminish the credibility of our own argument,
2) are guilty of slander,
3) show disdain for the value of truth, and
4) contribute to an environment where a lie is a legitimate weapon, and ultimately where things like blood libels are able to thrive.

Beyond all that, there is the concept of teshuva, self-reflection, self-correction. Even when we deeply believe in the cause we're championing, we need to be concerned for areas where we've overstepped, been amiss, done or said things wrongly. When faced with criticism, rather than automatically deflect, we might reflect.

And when we offer criticism, or even report facts, take pains to be fair and truthful. It's really that simple.