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Words, words, words. Every day we are assailed by words, not just those we speak or hear directly from others, but the torrent of words pouring out of our social media.

Words shape our world. They can connect, heal and inspire us. They can damage, harm and injure us. Words in the command of a wordsmith can be gorgeous, clarifying and elevating. Words in the armoury of an extremist can be gangrenous, confounding and devastating.

Since October 7, words have been supersonically weaponised against Israel and the Jewish people. A barrage of words charged with venomous lies, propaganda and misinformation continues to target us daily. We have moved from truth being a casualty of war to what the late cartoonist Bill Leak called Chronic Truth Aversion Disorder.

Philosophy professor Greg Elsoff refers to it as humanity’s capacity for self-deception, an unnerving ability to deny what you don’t like. Jewish Tradition noted this centuries ago – King David despairingly cried out “All humans are liars”. Our rabbis noted that the word for truth – emet – is dangerously close to the word for death – met. From outrageous accusations of genocide (while calling for Jews to be obliterated and driven into the sea) to blatant denial of the horrors of October 7, we are in a twilight zone of untruth.

Among the most grievous and egregious purveyors of toxic words in Australia are a number of radical imams. Calls for the Almighty to count the Jewish Zionists and then “kill them one by one” are preached in some Sydney mosques, as well as descriptions of Jews as “monsters” who “love to shed blood”. These preachers usually don’t even pretend to distinguish between their hatred of Israel and revulsion against Jews.

The failure to confront these extremists is a stain on our country. It’s easy to dismiss these sermonisers as unrepresentative of Islamic teachings, but it’s dangerous to ignore their influence on the naive and especially disaffected young men they attract.

Former PM Bob Hawke correctly noted that “Muslims have no monopoly on fanaticism”, yet at the moment, they appear to have largely cornered the market, franchising it and promoting it more effectively than other religious extremists. They make Judaism’s violent settler zealots (and occasionally unwise Chief Rabbi) look like kindergarten kids.

Despite this, we know too well the toxicity of holy words and texts used in unholy ways – Baruch Goldstein invoked the Purim and Amalek stories in his murderous attack on Muslims. The assassination of Rabin by a religious zealot was preceded by vile and violent words.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein presciently spoke of the young West Bank ideologues as full of idealism of the wrong ideals.

All religions have their difficult texts – narratives that are puzzling and ethically challenging. Texts that deride other religions and, when read by fundamentalists who take them literally, can be downright dangerous. We have them in the Torah (see the passages about Amalek); Christians have them (see reference for example to the “synagogues of Satan”); and Muslims have them (Jews are descendants of apes and swine).

Texts command attention, but they also demand interpretation. Zealots of all faiths have little respect for a nuanced and in-depth understanding.

It’s time for moderate Muslim imams and leaders to call out the radical preachers. It’s time for our politicians and security agencies to challenge and, where possible, prosecute them. And, if our law against prosecuting vilifying speech directed at fomenting hatred of entire groups needs tightening, what are our politicians waiting for?

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his brilliant analysis of religious violence (Not in God’s Name) notes: “Never say I hate, I kill, because my religion says so. Every text needs interpretation. Every interpretation needs wisdom. Every wisdom needs careful negotiation… Fundamentalism reads texts as if God were as simple as we are. That is unlikely to be true”.

It’s time to reign in the word assassins, and for all of us to treat our sacred words with the respect and perspicuity they require.

Rabbi Genende

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