Ob­ser­va­tions

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CON­TENTS - DANIEL GORDIS

Can you imag­ine liv­ing in a world in which free­dom of the press didn’t mat­ter? Not a world in which it wasn’t the law, but one in which even if it was it would make no dif­fer­ence. The truth is you al­ready live in a world that’s come very close to that. Free­dom of the press mat­ters only if the press mat­ters. For the press to mat­ter it must do its job well, of course. But peo­ple also have to take re­port­ing and opin­ion se­ri­ously. In other words, they need to be­lieve there is some cor­re­la­tion be­tween what they are read­ing and re­al­ity, and they have to care about that. If they no longer care about facts, or if they have no faith that the press rep­re­sents the facts, then free­dom of the press could be fully en­forced with­out it mak­ing a bit of dif­fer­ence.

There are rea­sons to be­lieve that we’re quickly headed to a world in which facts do not mat­ter, and that is re­flected on both sides of the prover­bial po­lit­i­cal aisle. Last week’s re­minder of that was Ju­lia Salazar’s vic­tory in the pri­mary for New York State Se­nate. Since there is no Repub­li­can run­ning against her in the gen­eral elec­tion, she is au­to­mat­i­cally go­ing to win the seat.

Salazar won handily af­ter it was proved that she lied about a slew of is­sues. She said she was Jew­ish, but she was raised Catholic and has no record of hav­ing con­verted. She im­plied that she was a grad­u­ate of Co­lum­bia Col­lege, but didn’t get the de­gree. She de­scribed her­self as an im­mi­grant from Colom­bia, but was ac­tu­ally born in Florida. She claimed she’d been raised poor, but mem­bers of her own fam­ily at­test to their hav­ing been very mid­dle class. The list goes on.

What is sur­pris­ing is not that an in­ex­pe­ri­enced 27-yearold novice politi­cian would lie; what is still some­what stu­pe­fy­ing is that so many peo­ple on the Left who voted for the self-de­fined demo­cratic so­cial­ist don’t seem to care. When the fun­da­men­tal facts about a can­di­date’s life no longer mat­ter, how far are we from a world in which facts in gen­eral don’t mat­ter – and in which it would ul­ti­mately make lit­tle dif­fer­ence if free­dom of the press didn’t even ex­ist?

Salazar, of course, is in some ways fol­low­ing the model of the pres­i­dent of the United States who has shown both dis­re­gard and dis­dain for facts since his own elec­tion cam­paign. Coun­selor to the Pres­i­dent Kellyanne Con­way gets credit for the phrase “al­ter­na­tive facts.” But in fair­ness to her, she came up with the phrase while try­ing to but­tress Pres­i­dent Trump’s bla­tantly false claims about at­ten­dance num­bers at his in­au­gu­ra­tion. Every­one – in­clud­ing his base – knew that he was ly­ing, and no one who sup­ported him re­ally seemed to care.

THIS PAST week, as Hur­ri­cane Florence was bar­rel­ing to­wards the Caroli­nas, the pres­i­dent once again re­jected Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity’s widely ac­cepted es­ti­mate of ap­prox­i­mately 3,000 deaths in Puerto Rico from Hur­ri­cane Maria, in­sist­ing the num­ber was a Demo­cratic con­spir­acy. No one who is not in the pres­i­dent’s camp takes his al­lergy to facts se­ri­ously any longer. But what is fright­en­ing is that among his base the con­tin­u­ous ly­ing seems not to mat­ter.

That both Salazar the so­cial­ist and Trump the not-clear­what-he-be­lieves got passes from their bases – who will­ingly ig­nore con­tin­u­ous ly­ing – is in­di­ca­tion that this is not a prob­lem of Right or Left, Repub­li­can or Demo­crat, young or old. This is an epi­demic in con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety.

At the time of the year when the phrase “For the sin we have com­mit­ted be­fore You by de­ceit and lies” rings (or at least should ring) loudly in our com­mu­nal ears, it would be nice to be­lieve that we could ex­pect rab­bis – also on both sides of the “aisle” – to take the can­di­dates they may well have sup­ported to task for the vi­o­la­tion of a fun­da­men­tal Jew­ish pre­cept: a com­mit­ment to truth. As the Tal­mud in Trac­tate Shab­bat so fa­mously says, “Truth is God’s own seal.” And it should be ours, as well.

Imag­ine if rab­bis who sup­port Don­ald Trump – for his Is­rael poli­cies most likely but per­haps for eco­nomic or other

As the Tal­mud in Trac­tate Shab­bat so fa­mously says, ‘Truth is God’s own seal.’ And it should be ours, as well

rea­sons – lauded what they ad­mire but fo­cused their com­mu­ni­ties on the in­suf­fer­able – and un­for­giv­able – beat­ing that truth as a value is tak­ing dur­ing this ad­min­is­tra­tion. At the same time, imag­ine if lib­eral rab­bis in New York – who may cel­e­brate Ju­lia Salazar’s vic­tory for a mul­ti­plic­ity of rea­sons – took care to rel­ish the win they’d hoped for even while as­sail­ing in no un­cer­tain terms her wor­ri­some de­par­ture from truth as a value, long be­fore she even takes of­fice.

Nei­ther of those is likely. Our world – in which pol­i­tics have be­come so toxic and the po­si­tion of rab­bis often so ten­u­ous – is one in which we can no longer ex­pect from re­li­gious lead­ers what they long did for us: speak truth to power, re­mind us of Ju­daism’s fun­da­men­tal com­mit­ments, and show a devo­tion to world of nu­ance in which we can sup­port a can­di­date but also ex­co­ri­ate him or her for egre­gious vi­o­la­tions of val­ues we con­sider sacro­sanct.

If Jew­ish re­li­gious lead­er­ship can­not do that, what do we re­ally need those lead­ers for? And if Jews can­not model some­thing crit­i­cally im­por­tant to the world at a time like this, what would we say if some­one asked why we are here in the first place?

The writer is the Koret Dis­tin­guished Fel­low at Shalem Col­lege in Jerusalem. His lat­est book, Is­rael: A Con­cise His­tory of a Na­tion Re­born, re­ceived the Na­tional Jew­ish Book Award as the 2016 ‘Book of the Year.’ He is now writ­ing a book on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Amer­i­can Jews and Is­rael. This is his fi­nal col­umn as a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Jerusalem Post. Fu­ture columns will ap­pear from time to time.

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

‘FAKE NEWS’ or ‘al­ter­na­tive facts’? Re­porters with var­i­ous forms of ‘fake news,’ 1894 il­lus­tra­tion by Fred­er­ick Burr Op­per.

‘FREE­DOM OF the press mat­ters only if the press mat­ters.’ (Jeff Djevdet/Flickr; speed­prop­er­ty­buy­ers.co.uk)

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