Thursday, April 23, 2009

Exaggerations, Distortions, and Lies

There is phenomenon going on in the Jewish world today that can really hurt us if it is not stopped - and quickly! It cuts across all lines and is not the domain of only a single Hashkafa or even solely Orthodox Jewry. It is the problem of exaggerations, distortions, and outright lies – in service of a good cause.

No matter what the motive - doing things like that will ultimately get you into trouble. And if too many people from a given community do it – it reflects on the whole. That entire community will lose all credibility.

There have been a few examples of this in the media recently which illustrate this and which have very serious repercussions.

First there is the case of the Chasidic Yeshiva Boys who were arrested in Japan for being drug mules. All kinds of stories were being spread about how they were being mistreated – even to the extent of torturous conditions. Pleas were coming out from all quarters about the Pidyon Shevuyim (the Halachic requirement to redeem captives). These poor suffering innocents caught in a trap not of their own making needed to redeemed by any and all means necessary!

First of all we do not know what level of guilt or innocence these boys have. But even if you presume complete innocence the fact is that they are not being mistreated at all. In fact they are being treated quite well during their incarceration by a civilized country with a fair system of justice that operates under the rule of law. These ‘innocent’ Yeshiva Bachurim are even being provided with Kosher food.

Lawyers for these boys asked that these kinds of rumors stop because insulting the Japanese government does not benefit their situation.

I do not mean to say that we shouldn’t try to extradite them back to Israel. But besmirching Japan with lies in order to garner sympathy for their cause is counterproductive and just plain wrong. Not only that – it hurts our credibility in general – as crying wolf always does.

But nowhere is the exaggeration greater than in stories about the Holocaust. Exaggeration, embellishment, and outright fairytales seem to be rampant. Some of these stories are decades old and have never been questioned – except by Holocaust deniers.

There is one legendary story that has been told that is truly inspirational. And it could have happened (which is a requirement for believability). It is the one where an entire group of Beis Yaakov girls committed suicide rather than being violated by their Nazi captors. The problem is that there is no verification that this ever happened.

The same thing is true about the ‘apple’ story of a Jewish boy in the camps and a Jewish girl who was passing as a Gentile. They found each other during the Holocaust, separated, and then found each other again many years later. They married and lived happily ever after. Poignant - yes. But a fairytale! It never happened.

As noted Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt has pointed out - these kinds of stories undermine the legitimate claims about the Holocaust. We have enough true stories to report that are just as gut wrenching or inspiring. We do not need to make any up. Once these fairytales are exposed as lies, they turn into ammunition for all the holocaust deniers who say that we Jews always exaggerate the holocaust and are not to be trusted at all about any of our claims about it.

I cannot emphasize enough the harm this does. Who will ever believe us about anything if we lie so easily? What purpose does it serve? I know that intentions are good. Those who do and perpetuate this kind of thing do it to generate sympathy for a good cause. But ultimately they bring shame and dishonor. Sympathy turns into ridicule. Credibility turns into distrust.

Is this what being a light unto the nation means? I don’t think so. Next time anyone has the urge to embellish a story they should think twice about the consequences. They are not good.

We are a people of Emes – truth. That should be the guiding principle of all we say and do. With rare exception - veering even slightly away from that can be the slippery slope to hell.