We all grew up being told to be very fearful of sticks, stones, and other threats to our physical safety but not so much of words which we were assured could never hurt us.
Like many childhood sayings, this one was never true. As my dear friend and teacher Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out in his wonderful book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, the greatest pain most of us suffer in our lives comes from mean and inconsiderate words--not from physical injury.
But there's a big difference between mean and hateful. Mean words can hurt your feelings. Hatespeech can get you killed.
As I recently wrote, most criticism is not hatespeech. In all healthy, vibrant democracies it is essential that good people feel free to openly criticize decisions made by political leaders. But there are lines of civility, honesty, and decency that shouldn't and can't be crossed without turning healthy dissent into something very toxic and potentially deadly.
Reports from both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (prepared during the Bush administration) and the Southern Poverty Law Center have indicated a startling rise in both the number and activity level of Right wing militias and groups promoting domestic terrorism in the name of Conservative values.
As hatespeech, lies, and racism have become the dominant language of the Right wing in our country, it is depressingly reminiscent of what happened in Israel 15 years ago. The comparisons are becoming more frightening all the time.
In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords. He agreed to turn parts of Gaza and the West Bank over to the Palestinians and freeze the growth of Israeli settlements in exchange for Yasir Arafat's pledge to renounce violence and recognize the right of Israel to exist.
The move was hailed as a major breakthrough in much of Israel and around the world. Rabin. a former general and war hero, was hailed as a visionary who allowed hope to supersede his military past and his first-hand knowledge of Arafat's legacy of terror and broken promises. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award in 1994.
But not all Jews were happy. The ultra-orthodox leadership in Israel and Brooklyn were outraged. Just as Obama has been branded by the Right wing as a racist, a terrorist, and a Nazi who wants to destroy the American way of life, Rabin was demonized by the religious Right in Israel and America as a traitor who was destroying the Jewish state by ceding holy land to Palestinians.
As is the case in America today, lies and hatespeech took over the conversation and squeezed out reason and truth. Rabbis in America and Israel put a death curse on Rabin invoking the long obsolete notion of din rodef--a religious death sentence placed on the head of one who hands over his people or their land to the enemy.
Anti-Rabin rallies (town hall meetings? tea parties?) were held outside his residence and in Right wing strongholds including Jerusalem. Most Israelis dismissed these frightening activities as the actions of a handful of kooks, crazies and whack jobs. Sound familiar?
Not wanting to waste a political opportunity, Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu spoke at a major anti-Rabin rally in Jerusalem in October, 1995 where he was cheered by a mob screaming "death to Rabin" and carrying posters showing Rabin dressed as Hitler, and Rabin wearing a Nazi SS uniform.
As Bibi slammed Rabin for "giving away parts of our homeland." Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer reportedly pleaded with Netanyahu to "restrain your people. Settlers have gone crazy. Someone will get murdered--if not today then soon."
Rabin was angered by the tactics but apparently not that concerned about his safety. He refused to wear a bullet-proof vest at a peace rally in Tel Aviv weeks later when a Right wing Jewish rabbinic student--a follower of the rabbis who had called for Rabin's assassination--murdered him with two gunshots fired at point blank range.
The murderer Yigal Amir was about as far away from Rabin as Scott Roeder was from Dr. George Tiller when he walked up to him in his Kansas church in May and murdered him at point blank range.
Dr. Tiller had been vilified by Fox News host Bill O'Reilly dozens of times over a period of years. O'Reilly repeatedly referred to him as "Tiller the Baby Killer" and "a man with blood on his hands" since Tiller had a long history of performing controversial (but legal) late-term abortions in his Wichita clinic.
Today, 14 years after Rabin's murder, Amir remains unrepentant and is considered a hero by a large segment of Israel's religious community, many of whom still hold rallies in his honor. He was allowed to marry and father a child in prison and polls show that his eventual pardon is supported by 30 percent of all Israelis and more than half of those who describe themselves as "religious."
Today, months after Tiller's murder, his assassin remains unrepentant and is considered a hero by a large segment of America's pro-life community. Leaders of the pro-life movement reportedly communicate with and visit him in prison on a regular basis.
In each case, hatespeech-inspired murder seems to have accomplished its goals. Tiller's clinic was permanently closed a few weeks after his killing and there is no plan to reopen in Kansas or anywhere else. Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister of Israel less than a year after Rabin's murder and the peace process was dealt a blow from which it has yet to recover.
Like O'Reilly, Netanyahu insists to this day that his demonization of the ultimate murder victim had nothing to do with the way things played out.
When I met with Leah Rabin, the prime minister's widow, in her Tel Aviv apartment one year after his death, she made it clear that she personally blamed Netanyahu for the role she felt he played in whipping up angry mobs who had vowed to kill her husband.
"He incited them against my husband," she said. "I will never forgive him."
Mrs. Rabin was also critical of the majority of Israelis who stood by and did nothing as the hatespeech grew in volume. "They were too silent when the handwriting was on the wall," she said. "We now know it is no longer possible to remain silent."
Today, as then, we are too anxious to call these people crazy and say they are kooks but they are neither. They are evil and they are very focused.
When Glenn Beck calls Barack Obama a racist who hates white people or a Nazi who wants to destroy American way of life, he is either lying or he should hail as a hero anyone who would take the initiative to go after our President. Rush Limbaugh compares Obama to Hitler. Is there any Jew or patriotic American who wouldn't have taken Hitler out before he had the chance to murder millions of innocent people?
This is hatespeech pure and simple crafted to encourage true believers--an American version of Yigal Amir to do the right thing--the patriotic thing--and remove this liberal, socialist, death panel forming, terrorist, Nazi cancer from our midst.
In recent weeks, the hatred and threats against Obama have become less subtle. When a town hall audience member in California proudly declared himself to be "a proud Right wing terrorist," Republican Congressman Wally Herger said "Amen. God Bless You. There's a great American." When an Iowa town hall audience member said Obama is "acting like a little Hitler" and stated he would "take a gun to Washington if enough of you would go with me, Republican Senator Charles Grassley said nothing to discourage him. Kansas Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins said last week that what the Republican party needs most is "a Great White Hope"--a phrase first used by racists 100 years ago referring to their desire to find a white man to unseat Black boxing champion Jack Johnson.
Could the message be any clearer? What a disturbing and growing number of people on the Right wing want is some patriot with the courage to step up and do what needs to be done to restore control of our country to it's rightful owners. A Black president from Kenya? A Puerto Rican woman as a Supreme Court justice? What the hell has happened to our country? We need to take it back!
Sticks and stones? That's child's play. We're talking about toxic words--potentially fatal hatespeech--being invoked by people who claim to be true patriots but who are in reality potential accomplices to the unwinding of our democracy.
The only question is if and when the rest of us will stop calling these evil people "crazy" and start fighting back.
We live in a free country. People are entitled to their opinions. But they do not have a constitutional right to air them on television and radio channels that claim to be reporting news. And the sponsors of those programs certainly don't have the right to be exempt from blame for making that possible.
Those of us who still care about decency and healthy debate need to exercise our right to take our country back from the lying, angry haters who seem determined to pollute and distort public dialogue.
Some of them would clearly like nothing better than to see our duly elected leader meet the same fate as the late Israeli leader--a man who symbolized hope and "change you could believe in" to so many but who made the mistake of assuming those who despised him were a crazy fringe group of harmless lunatics.