It’s time to reject rhetorical violence

By Simon Greer, JTA New York

Sarah Palin did not shoot Rep. Gabriella Giffords. Neither did Glenn Beck. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or even Giffords’ opponent in the 2010 campaign, Jesse Kelly.

Giffords was shot by a mentally unstable terrorist, who after attempting to assassinate Giffords, kept shooting into the crowd that had gathered outside a supermarket in Tuscon, Ariz.


Americans reacted with shock and horror, which should tell us something about our expectations. In a world rife with political carnage, in a country whose history is laden with ideological bloodshed, it matters greatly that in 21st century America, political violence is rejected wholesale.

Now we have to start rejecting rhetorical violence.

The media personalities and politician listed above may not be guilty, but perhaps we should set our bar a little higher. Are they, to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, responsible? And what about the rest of us?

Language sets a tone, creates an atmosphere and points us toward what’s acceptable. In the months leading up to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Yitzhak Rabin, each man was vilified in the most crass, violent language imaginable, routinely presented as a legitimate target for rage — rage that ultimately robbed the world of great, visionary leaders.

This is why the Jewish tradition has long warned against harmful words. We are told again and again that “lashon hara,” evil speech, hurts not only the target but also the speaker, listener and broader community. Indeed, lashon hara is considered a sin on a par with murder.

But it’s not enough to simply not engage in hateful rhetoric. If we don’t actively oppose its use, if we don’t replace vitriol with respect and consideration, we perpetuate the dangerous cycle, and each step down in our public discourse paves the way to the step below it. The outer edges of acceptable behavior are pushed closer and closer to the margins, and behavior that once was considered beyond the pale finds its way in.

Palin and Beck specialize in demonizing people and organizations who don’t share their views. Is it difficult to listen to them and not be afraid?

“Death panels!” Palin warns.

“Death camps!” Beck exclaims.

Jared Lee Laughner may not have been a devotee of right-wing talk shows, but there are avid listeners and watchers who have resorted to violence. The most horrifying example is Beck-devotee Byron Williams, who last summer loaded up his car with guns and ammunition and drove to San Francisco. Had he not been stopped and arrested by state police after a highway shootout, Williams might have succeeded in, as he said, “kill[ing] people of importance at the ACLU and Tides Foundation.” His choice of the Tides Foundation was clearly inspired by Mr. Beck’s regular attacks on the otherwise largely obscure institution.

Leaders who become victims of smear campaigns are invariably those who have shown courage and resolve, just as Giffords did when faced with scathing opposition to her support of the health care law and comprehensive immigration reform. So, too, we must be courageous, and like Giffords, refuse to bow to the demands of expediency.

We must speak out plainly against extremism and provocation, unafraid to hold our media and our politicians accountable, while presenting real solutions to the very real problems facing millions of Americans. We must recognize the humanity of those with whom we disagree and honor the dignity of all our fellow citizens. Rather than frame our differences in the starkest of terms, we must find a way back toward reasoned debate and honest engagement.

In short, let us demonstrate the same courage, the same resolve as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. And let us find comfort in the hope that we may yet play a part in healing our nation.

(Simon Greer is the president and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice.)