We live in a world dominated by social media, and for an increasing number of us it’s how we get our news (more on that in a minute). What I’m wondering right now is whether or not we’re getting the same news, and what we should do about that.
Recently, when talking with a good friend, I brought up the Department of Justice (DOJ) report investigating civil rights violations by the Ferguson Police Department. Puzzled, my friend responded that she hadn’t heard of the report, but would be interested in reading about it. I was a little taken aback. From my perspective, the release of the DOJ report was the largest news story of the week. I could understand if my friend hadn’t read the entire 102 page report, but I was shocked she hadn’t even heard about it.
But then I remembered a conversation I had with my dad earlier this year. He called me, sounding frantic: “There’s a huge fire in Jackson by the Agricultural Museum! Are you okay?”
I was totally fine (although I do live pretty close to the Ag Museum). In fact, despite him being in Arizona and me being on the ground in Mississippi, a mile from the flames—I had no idea that the museum was burning. My father was watching the television news in Tucson, which was reporting on the fire. The Jackson news outlets were certainly featuring this story, too, but I don’t own a television.
I am not alone: Most of my friends don’t own televisions or subscribe to newspapers. According to the Pew Research Center, less than a quarter of Millennials (22%) read newspapers at least every other day, compared to 40% of adults overall. Overwhelmingly, Millennials get their news from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
What does this really mean? This is what it looks like for me.
Most of my friends who comprise my social network tend to hold views similar to mine. This means that the things that are posted on my Facebook and Twitter news feeds are generally things I’m already interested in learning about. Meaning, I rarely read pieces that challenge my viewpoint. Generally, I am presented with news and content in which I have already expressed an interest—and frequently presented it from a perspective with which I am likely to agree.
So, for someone in my generation who doesn’t have a real investment in what’s happening in Ferguson, news of the Department of Justice report is unlikely to reach them. While I recognize that it’s unreasonable to think many people would read the full 102 pages, I do think it’s necessary we seek out the sort of information released in the report, and talk about its implications.
This got me thinking not only about how this impacts me personally as a Millennial and a citizen, but also about how it impacts the work I do as a Community Engagement Fellow. My job is focused on social justice. The way that we approach social justice is from an informed perspective. In seeking to repair the world and fight for justice, it’s imperative that we first learn about the statistics and realities of injustices in our communities and throughout the nation. That’s why we like to begin our partnerships with Jewish communities with a needs assessment process—some sort of activity that asks them to research statistics in their area and learn about the realities in their communities.
Ferguson and the DOJ report represents an important example. The extensive report gives us a window into the realities of police brutality and civil rights violations happening in our nation right here, right now. It’s news to which we should be exposed, whether or not it’s in our self-selected newsfeeds. At least reading a well-assembled synopsis of the report is an important start, and helps everyone join the conversation.
Although my generation has exchanged TV screens for phone and computer screens, we are still engaged. This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. While there, I had the opportunity to hear President Obama speak. At one point, he said something I felt deeply as I read the Department of Justice report. The President said: “All we have to do is open our eyes and hearts to see that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”
Let’s open our eyes and our hearts, and continue the work of the brave men and women that fought against racism and oppression 50 years ago. I think it starts with all of us, not just reading whatever comes across our screen but seeking out information, multiple perspectives and most of all facts and full stories. We need to be aware that we might not all be getting the same news, and when we come across facts and full stories worth sharing, we should talk about them—online, and offline, too.
“Did you hear about the rabbi getting thrown out of a Jackson restaurant?”
Everyone at our office has been asked that by friends and family near and far, after the story made national news last week.
Of course we heard about it. Some may have even wondered if I was involved, since I am a rabbi in Jackson, Mississippi, and there are only so many of us. But I am not the rabbi in this story; it was my colleague Rabbi Ted Riter, the interim rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation here in Jackson.
Rabbi Riter went to a small Greek restaurant—one he’s been to before—and placed a to-go order. The owner made an anti-Semitic slur regarding the size of the side salad. The rabbi, puzzled, asked for clarification. Rather than change course, the owner just dug in deeper, asking if Rabbi Riter was Jewish. When he said yes, the owner responded by cursing him out and demanding he leave the establishment store. News of the incident travelled quickly, from social media to local media to national coverage.
The Jewish community sometimes gets criticized for being overly sensitive when it comes to anti-Semitism. History teaches us that, unfortunately, such heightened sensitivity is necessary – but it’s important to balance vigilance with reason. In a country as large as ours, there will always be individuals prone to words and actions that we find objectionable. As disturbing as these cases may appear, they should not be our real worry. One person’s ignorant comments do not represent an entire city.
Further, if we turn our attention toward every isolated attack, we give such people more power than they deserve while giving ourselves unwarranted and unending anxiety. Instead, as a Jewish community our attention must be focused at how these individuals are received, not just by us, as Jews—but by everyone else in our community. The reactions are even more important than the initial action.
In the case of this incident, there is an easy way to gauge the reaction of the average person. Most of the online press coverage allowed for reader comments. Anonymous internet comments are not always pleasant to read, and probably should be avoided in most cases. However, in this case reading the comments can help us understand how others viewed the actions of the store owner. Hundreds of comments appeared within a day of the incident. Here are some examples:
I am so sorry that this happened to you.
Are you serious???!!! How ignorant.
I’m so sorry that you were treated that way. Please know not all of the Jackson Metro area is like that!!!!!!
Let’s boycott this restaurant
Unbelievable…it makes me sad
Disgusting and an embarrassment to the rest of Mississippi!
Terrible. He does not deserve his business to be successful while treating another human being this way.
I will never step foot in that restaurant ever, and that is just awful. God is watching and I feel sad that someone would do that to that rabbi. I am never going to understand the ignorance of that owner. I want to wish that rabbi happy Rosh Hashanah, and blessings to him and his family.
Internet comments are rarely a source of inspiration. Yet, in this case these comments can serve as a gift. At first, Rabbi Riter’s lunch experience seemed like an unbelievable insult on the eve of the new year. But this unfortunate incident has turned into a blessing. We enter 5775 knowing that our neighbors are as appalled by this behavior as we are. People rushed to take the rabbi’s side and assure everyone, near and far, that this anti-Semitism is not a sentiment shared by other Mississippians. They have reached out to share their regret and show their support.
That’s the real story here.
May we be grateful to live in a country that both allows for people to say whatever they believe, and in which the overwhelming majority chooses to believe in righteousness, decency, and love. May 5775 be a year of increased love and respect among all peoples, here in Mississippi, across this nation, and around the world.
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This week, my Facebook news-feed is filled with outrage about the fact that Hobby Lobby won’t carry Hanukkah decorations. Many Jews are upset by this; some are even calling it “anti-Semitic.”
But is it anti-Semitic of a Christian company to not sell Hanukkah decorations?
Merriam-Webster defines anti-Semitism as “hatred of the Jewish people” or “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews”. Is an openly religious Christian store not selling Jewish holiday objects really hatred of the Jewish people?
Perhaps all of this would be less of an issue if the representative in New Jersey who answered the phone had been trained of a more neutral way to explain this. I think her using the term “you people” is indeed offensive, but that’s not the company. Incidentally, Hobby Lobby does say it is now investigating the actual comments made by the employee.
To me, this is merely an act of ignorance and poor training. Hobby Lobby has the right to order and sell whatever merchandise they want. Would we blame a Judaica store for not carrying Christmas ornaments? What if the staff of the Judaica store said “oh, we don’t carry objects for non Jews”?
This is not a far-fetched; sure, Hobby Lobby isn’t a “Christianica” (new word) store, but it is a Christian store. Just read the Hobby Lobby Statement of Purpose:
In order to effectively serve our owners, employees, and customers the Board of Directors is committed to:
Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.
Offering our customers an exceptional selection and value.
Serving our employees and their families by establishing a work environment and company policies that build character, strengthen individuals, and nurture families.
Providing a return on the owners’ investment, sharing the Lord’s blessings with our employees, and investing in our community.
We believe that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured. He has been faithful in the past, and we trust Him for our future.
This is a crystal clear worldview, spelled out institutionally for the company. Perhaps we are the naive ones to expect to find Hanukkah decorations at a place that defines its mission so clearly. We may not like that we will have to go elsewhere for our holiday decorations, and maybe because of that we will decide to not go there for anything at all – which is completely within our rights. But this is not an act of anti-Semitism. If they wouldn’t sell their products to Jews, or were discriminatory in their hiring processes, and that sort of thing – that would be another issue. But that’s not what we’re discussing here: The issue is simply that they are not selling products for a religious holiday outside of their corporate religious adherence.
In the South, we are very familiar with dilemmas like this. We live in the buckle of the Bible Belt. This incident was in New Jersey, but feels familiar. But I’m hesitant to call something “anti-Semitic” when it’s really just “a different demographic.” We can always shop at Michael’s, or Target — or, of course, our synagogue’s Judaica shop, where there will be plenty of Hanukkah decorations, but probably no candy canes.