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Dear Friends,

In an article from ten years ago Rabbi Daniel Gordis makes a direct connection between the festival of Purim and the evil of Amalek, an enemy of our people in antiquity who attacked our community from the rear, targeting the most vulnerable in the community. (Those who were least equipped to protect themselves were kept at the rear. Amelek’s tactics, sadly familiar in our own day, effectively ran counter to the Geneva Convention of their day.)

Rabbi Gordis writes,

“Jewish tradition has it [that we are obligated to hear a]  passage from Deuteronomy that commands us to obliterate the memory of Amalek, the tribe that in Jewish tradition has come to represent pure evil.

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers.

Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

What’s being asked of us, of course, is utterly impossible. How are we supposed to blot out the memory of Amalek and at the same time not forget what they did? Do we seek to destroy the memory of past horrors, or preserve it?

That’s hardly a new challenge. Think of the Hebrew words that many people say after they say Hitler’s name: yimach shemo ve-zikhro—may his name and memory be erased. A fitting sentiment, to be sure; but why, then, do we spend so much time and money preserving his name and his memory?

That’s the tension that Purim is all about. The groggers for blotting out Haman’s name are cute—but they’re totally ineffective. Why? First of all, we first have to hear his name before drowning it out. But even more, because we’re so intent on blotting out his name, what’s the word that the kids are most focused on? Haman. So much for erasing him.”

Rabbi Gordis goes on to make a point about the power of memory, but his words made me think of the ways in which social media has been weaponized in recent months. Spend five minutes on any social media platform these days, and you will be overwhelmed by the amount of anti-Israel and Jew-hating posts. They are ugly. They are painful. They are enraging. And for many, the visceral response is to post something that calls out the overt hate. But one must ask, is pushing back on the same hate-filled platforms helpful or, like blotting out Haman’s name, is it “totally ineffective”?

At one of the conferences I recently attended, I gained insight into how social media is employed for hate. I was surprised by what I learned. Not only are 25% of the posts you see generated by bots, but at least 20% of the ugly social media posts filling our feeds have been tracked back to Iran. In other words, just as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis are Iranian proxies in the current military conflicts in the Middle East, so too is Iran using social media as an offensive weapon.

But there is more. At a session during ADL’s Never Is Now entitled, “Disinformation: How Social Media Shapes the 2024 Election,” one of the speakers made the point that when we see something on social media that enrages us and we feel the need to reply, to push back, to correct facts, we inadvertently amplify the initial post. In other words, just as blotting out Haman’s name ultimately emphasizes him by encouraging us to specifically listen FOR his name, responding to hate online may actually help spread the very hate we seek to combat.

That does not mean we should never respond to social media posts, but it is a reminder to slow down and weigh the pros and cons of replying to inflammatory content before we do. While we don’t want to do the work of detractors for them, what I heard last week was that our engagement with bad actors can, unfortunately, do just that.

Instead of playing into and amplifying their hate, perhaps we need more posts that show our love for Judaism, our joy at celebrating community, the beauty of our tradition and our strength as a people.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen