Opinion

Outing White Supremacists Is Kosher According to Judaism. Here's Why

While every human life is inherently valuable, we must not give too much priority to the rights of the white nationalists and too little to those being threatened

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" during the United the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.
CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP

“Jews will not replace us,” a group of white nationalists ranted together in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend. Carrying torches and weapons, and chanting Nazi slogans, they paraded past the synagogue in Charlottesville several times. Counterprotesters and media organizations almost immediately began circulating videos and images of the demonstrators online to “name and shame” them.

Some are calling these efforts “doxing” – publishing someone’s private information for the purpose of punishing them and inciting others against them – and saying they are therefore unethical and illegitimate. According to this view, the demonstrators have a right to express their opinions, no matter how odious.

Get the best of Haaretz: Follow us on Facebook

From my perspective as a professor of applied Jewish ethics, they’ve got it wrong. While every human life is inherently valuable, this view gives too much priority to the rights of the white nationalists and not enough to our obligations to the people being threatened.

Certainly, Jewish ethical teachings wouldn’t support the sloppy internet detective work that led to threats against and harassment of innocent people mistaken for those demonstrating at Charlottesville. Ruining someone’s reputation and livelihood is a serious matter – this is why the teachings on lashon hara, the spreading of gossip, are so extensive. The rabbis of the Talmud avoid singling out one another for crimes as minor as reeking of garlic, and even God refuses to inform on sinners (BT Sanhedrin 11a).

But the Chofetz Chayim (1873) outlines conditions under which we can talk about someone’s theft, fraud or cursing: If I’m an eyewitness, I’m sure of what I saw, I’m not exaggerating, I’m doing it for the right reasons and I’ve tried a gentle rebuke, I can talk to others about what I saw. But if I can handle the matter just as well in some other way, the Chofetz Chayim says I should do that.

Exposing the fact that someone participated in a public rally for violent racism and anti-Semitism doesn’t seem like it fits into the category of lashon hara. If anyone ruined the participants’ reputations, it was they themselves. But the Chofetz Chayim’s teaching of introspection about our own reasons for reporting someone else’s wrongdoing does apply. If we are acting out of a desire for revenge, we’re on the wrong path.

But reporting white nationalist demonstrators’ identities to the public, in order to warn others and help them protect themselves from danger, may be not just permissible but required. We have not only a right to defend ourselves and others, but an obligation to do so according to teachings about the rodef, or pursuer. Ideally, we should stop the rodef without violence – something the “name and shame” project may or may not accomplish.

Spreading the word about people who participated in the demonstration informs the authorities about the identities of people involved in crimes, such as the killing of Heather Heyer, the beating of Dre Harris and the injuries of many others. It also lets the public know of potential danger. Prominent white supremacist Christopher Cantwell (who was not accused of Heyer’s murder) told Vice News, “We’re not nonviolent. We’ll f***in’ kill these people if we have to.” It also exerts social and economic pressure on the demonstrators, letting their communities and employers know of their involvement in white nationalism.

Yet Jewish ethics also teaches us to recognize basic human dignity in each person. To that end, the practice of rebuke – or calling someone to account for their sins and to repent – pertains.

We have examples of former Nazis who came to understand the error of their ways and transformed themselves. As Vice News’ interviews with leaders of the Charlottesville demonstration made clear, the demonstrators do not wish to be interpreted as being safe to talk to or be around. This means the traditional form of rebuke involving a compassionate conversation held in private is not possible.

Rebuke aims, ultimately, toward rehabilitation and redemption. This recognizes the essential spark of human dignity that exists in each person, even though the racist actions and beliefs of the people being rebuked are evil and do not demonstrate this dignity. But to demonstrate our own dignity, we should act in a way that fits with Jewish ethical teachings.

Letting the community know who the publicly avowed white nationalists are is a favor to the community, which has now been warned, and to the person being rebuked – because it gives them a chance to turn their behavior around. This is probably the closest we can get to recognizing their human dignity while prioritizing our own safety.

With additional white nationalist demonstrations slated for the near future, identifying and warning the public about participants will undoubtedly continue to be a part of the public discourse around stopping them. Those doing the warning should frame it as part of a process of guiding white nationalists to a set of more ethical actions and beliefs, rather than as a form of vengeance.

Jennifer Thompson is the Maurice Amado Assistant Professor of Applied Jewish Ethics and Civic Engagement at California State University, Northridge. She is the secretary of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry and the author of "Jewish On Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism."