Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties


A Highly Unworthy Cause

November 9, 2016
Posted by: Jeremy Russell, Communications Manager

In the novel Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield pays a visit to an old English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who tells him, “I don’t want to scare you, but I can very clearly see you dying nobly, one way or another, for some highly unworthy cause.” Looking over the last year we’ve seen a lot of people ready to engage in and turn blind eyes to some highly unworthy causes. Whatever your political leanings, and wherever you place the blame, you have to acknowledge that the level of discourse in this country has degraded.

Those who track such issues have measured a massive rise in online hate speech. Facilitated by social media platforms, expressions of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism and bigotry have skyrocketed. We have seen specific targeting of Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, LGBTQ people, African Americans and women of all backgrounds. ADL’s recent report on “Anti-Semitic Targeting of Journalists During the 2016 Presidential Campaign” showed a deluge of anti-Semitic messages, as well. In the words of Brittan Heller, who published an article about online extremism last week in Tablet, “The internet has a hate problem.” This problem is now leaking into real life. And there are real victims.

Two local recent examples come to mind: Less than two months ago a Sikh man was assaulted in Richmond in a brutal attack that authorities are pursuing as a hate crime. And, just blocks from my home in Alameda, the former residence of the Islamic Center of Alameda had its window smashed by vandals. Acts of violence like these, motivated by the victims’ religious attire or affiliation, are something with which the Jewish community has a deep experience. FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program statistics indicate that in 2014, of the 1,140 victims of anti-religious hate crimes, 56.8 percent were victims of crimes motivated by their offenders’ anti-Jewish bias.

Israeli statesman and former President of Israel Shimon Peres, z”l, once remarked, “We know already that computers are mightier than guns.” He meant it with all optimism, but we’re beginning to understand that this power is a two-edged sword. Information technology in its present form is as likely to act as a vehicle for extremist instigation as it is to move people towards peace.

While there have been some positive developments this year – earlier I wrote about Facebook and Google’s efforts to develop “counter speech” and, just last week, YouTube announced powerful new tools for shaping the tone of conversations it hosts – we need to pay attention to why people are connecting. Is it for inspiration or incitement? As Mr. Antolini’s quote reminds us, even good people are sometimes willing to devote themselves to some highly unworthy causes. If hateful voices are further enabled, we risk losing freedoms of faith and expression...and that could be the least of our problems.

With the 2016 election now behind us, we need to come together to push back against hatred both online and as it bleeds into the real world. When anyone is victimized because of identity, heritage, immigration status or religious affiliation, we must be ready to respond.


PHOTO: “When love and hate go head to head…” by RecycledStarDust via Wikimedia Commons.