My semester as a fellow at Kulanu—Cincinnati’s Reform Jewish High School coincided with the 2016 presidential election cycle. Coincident with the election cycle the school’s director asked me to develop a semester-long curriculum around social media based on a two-session elective class that I had taught in a synagogue religious school setting. The director wanted to offer a course that involved Jewish ethics and the responsible use of social media. I was unprepared for the deluge of news material that flowed out of the major political parties, much of it negative, untruthful, and filled with hate. A disturbing element of the election was the inflammatory language that loosened social constraints and provided space for incitement of hate against people of different beliefs, skin color, and national origin, as well as against people who did not conform to a binary female-male gender identification. Most alarming for me and the Kulanu students were the indignities and shameful language directed against women.
Teaching this course, I had to face an issue to which I had not given considerable thought: the language of social media. As a 63-year old male — a social media immigrant — I was responsible for conducting a class where the students were all social media natives. I committed to a classroom style that would involve a short lecture or setup of the lesson’s enduring understanding, evolving into discussions, workgroups, or student presentations on select topics. This process helped mitigate the language barriers and empowered the students to express their opinions, concerns, and in many cases fears.
The second challenge was how to wrap a discussion of Jewish ethics around the daily inflammatory news reports. A portion of Hillel’s Jewish message of universalism and consensus building, from Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a, resonated with the class: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” The class sensed that language was the great divider in this election, so we tended to focus on what was said, how it was said, and to whom it was said to understand how people were being affected. As the semester and election cycle progressed, I sensed a gradual shift away from a universalistic ethical viewpoint toward a particularistic Jewish viewpoint, which only became more pronounced with the uptick in anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic acts committed against Jewish institutions after the election.
We had a tremendous array of materials produced for classroom settings to encourage students to become engaged in the election process. One incident was the verbal attack on the Kahns, a Muslim immigrant couple from Pakistan who lost their son in Iraq. Their son was an officer in the US Army and proud to be an American, and the Republican camp demonized his father, commenting on how Mr. Kahn, a Muslim, controlled Mrs. Kahn, his wife, at the Democratic National Convention by not allowing her to speak. They assumed that this was the case. In fact, Mrs. Khan was unable to speak in front of a convention audience because of the grief she still carries with her over the loss of their son. The Republicans did not recognize the sacrifice their son made and the sacrifice that the Kahn family made to America. Not to be outdone, the Democrats offered voters plenty of their own “basket of deplorable” blunders and missteps, alienating many voters in the process.
The ninth through twelfth grade students supported Democrats or third-party candidates but in a few cases had parents who supported Republicans, and this resulted in unique classroom dynamics. The discussions were lively and fair minded, drawing out student feelings and thoughts on the election process. One of the ethical concerns we discussed weekly was that of לשון הרע (l’shon hara) — evil tongue or hateful speech. The students had a strong awareness of the impact that hateful language has on people in a society and that angry and disgusting language forms the building blocks for coordinated attacks on marginalized groups.
After the election, these Jewish students witnessed segments of their high school student body become emboldened by the Republican victories across the state and country, expressing in small ways what the Republican party had loudly framed during the election. Friendships were strained and individuals were ostracized due to their differences. In response to the election outcome, we mined social media and internet sites that were producing new materials illustrating how people might engage in meaningful dialogue across the political divide, which seemingly had grown into a jagged chasm. I was impressed by how the students handled the fear they felt and worked to make their friends feel safe and welcome, their many differences notwithstanding.
The students at Kulanu became my teachers. Their maturity and sense of fair play brought light to a difficult election cycle and enabled me, a social media immigrant, to learn and grow with them. They were resilient and practiced לשון טוב (l’shon tov) — good tongue, civil speech — shunning hateful rhetoric. We discussed many aspects of Jewish ethics including how we treat others and especially the stranger in our midst, but invariably we returned to the act of speech, the greatest tool we have for change and combating hatred.