Opinion

Mark Zuckerberg’s Carefully Curated Jewish Conscience Is Both Shallow and Evasive

Mark Zuckerberg's bland Jewish allusions don’t substitute for taking a real moral stand on Facebook's raw power to channel incitement, hate and electoral espionage

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg waves to the audience during a meeting of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Ceo Summit in Lima, Peru, November 19, 2016.
MARIANA BAZO/REUTERS

The richest Jew in the world gave us all a fresh take on teshuva, or repentance, this Yom Kippur. "For those I hurt this year, I ask forgiveness and I will try to be better," wrote Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. "For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better."

This was the most public act of teshuva in history (after all, Zuckerberg has nearly 100 million Facebook followers) - but also a very incomplete one.

Teshuva has four stages: leaving sin, regret, confession and committing to change. Since Zuckerberg has chosen to make us all part of his teshuva, perhaps he could elaborate on what sins he was exactly confessing to when wrote that he hurt people this year, and how he believes his work "was used to divide people."

And more crucially, seeing that he is in charge of the most powerful media ecosystem in history, how does he plan make things better in 5778?

Still only 33, Zuckerberg, his life and motives, has already been subjected to the sort of scrutiny usually reserved for heads of state. Profiles, biographies, a full-length feature documentary, and more. And of course there have been those obsessed with his Jewishness and spiritual trajectory. Google "Mark Zuckerberg" and "Jewish" and you will find everything from dissections of his romantic choices and philanthropic history from a Jewish perspective, to feverish conspiracies of how Facebook is a Jewish plot to brainwash the entire planet.

There are few things more repugnant than the media’s religious police. Just this week small-minded hard right "journalists" were hounding on the web a famous Jewish writer for having the temerity to appear at a public event on Yom Kippur. What Zuckerberg chooses to do with his private life is no one’s business. Just because he was brought up in a pretty standard Reform Jewish household and had a (Star Wars-themed) bar mitzvah, gives us no right to hold him to any religious standard.  

But when a public figure who happens to be one of the most powerful men in the world chooses to share with us tantalizing snippets of his spiritual journey, we should try and understand his motives. Zuckerberg isn’t just another millennial choosing to live his life on social media. His Facebook page isn’t just a window to an ordinary life – it’s a carefully curated and calibrated image, tailored to further whatever ambitions Zuckerberg and Facebook harbor, and they influence all of us.

Facebook Zuckerberg
STEPHEN LAM/REUTERS

Over the last decade, Zuckerberg has migrated online from atheism, dabbled in Buddhism, joined the celebrity cult around Pope Francis and recently taken a series of opportunities to reconnect to his Jewish roots. All legitimate, and once again, none of our business, except he chose to make it our business. Zuckerberg, who has embarked on a "listening tour" of all fifty states and hired the services of a number of political campaign veterans, may or may not be planning to join the presidential race in 2020, but through Facebook he already has more influence than most of the world’s politicians.

Zuckerberg’s personal political ambitions aside, his company no longer enjoys the brave pioneering image it had in 2011, when it was portrayed as a vehicle of truth, enlightening oppressed populations around the world and supplying revolutionaries with crucial information. All too often nowadays, it serves as a channel for incitement, hatred and targeted malicious misinformation.

So it’s all very well for Zuckerberg to cryptically refer to how his work has been “used to divide people,” but we can demand from him some answers about how he plans to stop this. And we can be just a bit cynical when he chooses to share with us a photograph of his daughter’s kiddush cup, end his Harvard commencement speech with a version of the mi she’berach blessing and pepper his posts with "as a Jew."

If we’re being really cynical, the most simple explanation is that his advisors have told him that in God’s own United States, an atheist will never be elected for high office. So he has to at least do the religious minimum. Fair enough. Politicians have to perform many acts of hypocrisy along the way. That’s the game.

What is more worrisome is that until Zuckerberg or his underlings present us with a serious policy in which they begin to address Facebook’s massive global impact, we have every right to suspect that his little Yom Kippur homily is a deflection. The question is not what kind of a Jew Zuckerberg is, or isn’t, but if he’s willing to take responsibility.

The problem with Zuckerberg’s Jewishness is not that it’s of the low-fat no-carbs variety. No-one has a right to judge anyone else’s commitment to Judaism. Just like anyone else, he can decide for himself whatever level of adherence and identity is right for him and his family. But what’s really disturbing about his Yom Kippur post is not that it’s a shallow and bland text, devoid of any real meaning, which looks like it was concocted for Zuckerberg by his publicists. If he wants that as his version of Yiddishkeit, then it’s his business.

What’s disturbing is that it’s a deflection – not of any duty to define his Jewish identity, but of his own duty as the leader of the most influential corporation in the world to take a moral stand.

Moral positions are controversial and expensive. They can cost Facebook billions and jeopardize Zuckerberg’s future political aspirations. Much easier to spout some words in Hebrew and make some vague, meaningless and non-controversial allusions to Jewish tradition. It makes him look a deep, moral and caring person, without the need to take any real and risky moral positions.

But Zuckerberg has a responsibility as Chairman and CEO of Facebook to billions of people around the world: that has absolutely no connection to his Jewish heritage, and that responsibility is what he is trying to deflect. Yiddishkeit should never be a substitute for menschlichkeit.