‘Propaganda’: When words aid and abet killing

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Many of us were brought up on that old schoolyard defense against insults. However, time and again, the answer to the question “Do Words Kill?” is a qualified yes.

If you haven’t been to see the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s traveling exhibit “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” at the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix, time is getting short. The exhibit runs through this Sunday, June 1, and these thoughts are prompted by that fact and last weekend’s  gains by wildly anti-Semitic forces in the European Union.

I’ve been processing what I heard while attending “Do Words Kill? Hate Speech, Propaganda, and Incitement to Genocide” on May 7 at Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix with about 100 other people and here are some highlights gleaned from the panel of experts on hand – Steve Luckert, curator of the traveling “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda”; Mike Abramowitz, director of the USHMM’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide; Elizabeth “Barry” White, of the center; and Len Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post and now an educator at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School.

The whole topic of dangerous speech is difficult for Americans, who are used to First Amendment protections and so “they’re entitled to their opinion” is often used to brush off lies and hatred.

The occasion for the program was the exhibit upstairs at the library, which is open till June 1, that looked at the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda in enabling the genocide against Jews and methodical murder of other targeted groups, as well.

“The Holocaust started with propaganda,” said Abramowitz, the moderator of the discussion. Talking about why the Holocaust museum put the exhibit on the road and about the efforts of the USHMM’s National Institute for Holocaust Education, he said, “Young people are our most important audience” and that the exhibit and discussion where intended to help develop critical thinking skills in an era when “denial is so prevalent.”

Asked how we recognize what makes speech dangerous, White said that it’s a contextual judgment, involving the speaker, the audience, the speech itself and the social-historical context.

Luckert talked about the way the Nazi propaganda machine created “an alluring vision of a national community” while defining “groups of people who did not belong.”

Such propaganda “transforms those groups from citizens to pariahs” and by dehumanizing and blaming those groups for various ills provides a government or other organized group to offer a “solution” like Hitler’s: “Let the state take care of it.”

Downie pointed out the difficulty surrounding simple press coverage of issues and how words create impressions that may not be accurate or factual. “When do you call someone a terrorist or a militant?” he asked. Journalists face similar questions about including race as an element of reporting, he said.

Abramowitz interjected that while the Rwandan genocide was brewing, local radio commentators were calling the Tutsis (the victims of the genocide perpetrated by the Hutu majority) “cockroaches” on the air.

Luckert compared and contrasted the German society of the Nazis and the Rwandan society surrounding the genocide of the Tutsis. While Germany was highly literate and Rwanda was mostly illiterate, radio played a role in fomenting both genocides, presenting the propaganda in ways that were entertaining and appealed to young people.

“By the time the killing started, the damage had already been done,” White said.

“We are in a dangerous time right now,” Downie said. “We need to call people out on lies.”

White talked about how good faith efforts can reduce ethnic violence, citing Kenya, which had a history of violence surrounding elections. In 2007, ethnic violence erupted in Kenya over the disputed results, including false rumors spread via cellphone and texting that incited violence. The violence prompted a national effort to cool the temperature of dangerous speech surrounding the nation’s politics and in the 2013 election, “There was no outbreak of mass violence … Kenyans understood the risk and were committed to avoid another outbreak.”

There was no ultimate conclusion, but the panelists made it clear that we should all be skeptical of messages we hear and counter falsehoods when we can.

The program and exhibition are made possible in part by Amy and Andrew Cohn, the Rosenbluth Family Foundation, and Barry and Barbara Zemel.

The exhibition was underwritten in part by grants from Katharine M. and Leo S. Ullman and the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, with additional support from the Lester Robbins and Sheila Johnson Robbins Traveling and Special Exhibitions Fund, established in 1990.

— Salvatore Caputo


Rabbi Dov Lipman: Attempting the impossible

Rabbi Dov Lipman

Rabbi Dov Lipman speaks at Temple Chai in Phoenix during a Valley Beit Midrash program on May 7. Photo by Joel Zolondek

When Rabbi Dov Lipman was growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, he attended a rally to free Soviet Jews when he was 13 years old. Each protester held a sign with a name on it; his sign had the name Yuli Edelstein.

Flash forward about 30 years, after Lipman becomes the first American-born member of the Knesset since Rabbi Meir Kehane was elected in 1984. Lipman is now an MK in the 19th Knesset; and the speaker of the Knesset is Yuli Edelstein.

At that time – when he was a young teen in Maryland and Edelstein was in a Russian prison — the idea of them both serving in the Israeli Knesset would have seemed impossible, Lipman told the attendees of a May 7 Valley Beit Midrash lecture at Temple Chai.

After Lipman became a member of the Knesset, his grandmother traveled to Israel and visited him in the Knesset building. She is a survivor of Auschwitz who entered the camp in May 1944 (70 years, to the month, before the Temple Chai lecture). When she visited her grandson in the Knesset, his grandmother said that it would have seemed impossible when she was younger to imagine that there would be a Jewish state and that she would be there with her grandson serving in its government.

Lipman, a member of the Yesh Atid party led by former journalist Yair Lapid, said his dream to have Israel become a leader in tolerance, equality and the environment ­­– to truly be “a light of the nations” – may also seem impossible, but “the founders of Israel did the impossible,” too, and he is hopeful that he can help lead the country to that point.

(One thing, however, that he wasn’t optimistic about was the peace talks: The Palestinian Authority joining with Hamas makes it impossible to have peace talks, he said.)

Before entering Israel’s government, Lipman was an educator, and shifted his career choice to politics after becoming active in the 2011 haredi conflict in Beit Shemesh, after haredi men harrassed schoolgirls on their way to their Modern Orthodox school because they felt they weren’t dressed modestly enough. His new book, “To Unify a Nation: My Vision for the Future of Israel,” was published earlier this month.

Some of the issues that the party has tackled so far are proposing to legalize nonreligious marriages in Israel, with a civil union bill. Currently, all Jewish marriages are under control of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and about 9,000 couples each year leave Israel to get married in Cyprus, Lipman said; their marriages are recognized when they return to Israel.

But “Israel has to be a place where every Jew can say, ‘This is my home,’ ” he said. The bill is scheduled go in front of the Knesset this summer.

Lipman’s role seems to be an Orthodox voice in the  secular Yesh Atid party. “I feel that if we work together, we can solve many of these problems together,” he said.

Another issue Lipman’s party is working on is  a bill designed to increase haredi enlistment in the IDF and participation in the workforce. Not only will haredi and secular Jews have to work together to accomplish their tasks, but such an effort would also help people get jobs and get off charity, he noted.

He said that Lapid told him that they’ll never agree 100 percent on how the country should look, but they should work together on the 80 percent they do agree on and discuss the 20 percent they disagree about. “In the end, the country will not look 100 percent like he wants it to look and it won’t look 100 percent the way I want it to look, but let’s find a way to do it together.”

Another pressing issue concerns agunot (“chained” women whose husbands won’t give them Jewish divorces, leaving them unable to remarry). Steps are being taken to change the law to state that men who won’t grant their wives a divorce won’t be able to obtain passports or driver’s licenses – and other means of coercion without violence. (The audience at Temple Chai cheered that one.)

Questions from the audience included the response the Orthodox have in Israel to the Reform and Conservative presence there (that will take time, Lipman said, because these movements are so new in Israel) and the way Ethiopians are transitioning into Israeli society (the most important thing right now is helping the children with their education, Lipman said, because their parents didn’t grow up going to school and are unable to help them).

Lipman emphasized that an understanding between Israel’s secular communities and religious communities is crucial for the country’s future.

The Temple was destroyed because we didn’t get along with each other and we can’t rebuild it unless we get along, he said.