Responding to Threats of Violence

Posted on August 25, 2022

12,233 days, over 400 months, almost 33 ½ years. That was the amount of time between Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a Fatwa, a legal ruling calling on Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, and the attack which took place a week ago at the Chautauqua Institution where someone tried to murder Rushdie. 

In 1988, Salman Rushdie published his book “The Satanic Verses,” and it is undeniable that the book is deeply problematic for Muslims. As one reporter wrote: “The novel offended many Muslims because of its portrayal of Islam as a deceitful, ignorant, and sexually deviant religion.” However, it is also clear that the issuing of a Fatwa which called for Rushdie to be murdered and the placing of a $6 million bounty on his head was a completely unacceptable, inappropriate, and violent response from the extremist Iranian regime. Salman Rushdie lived in hiding for a decade fearing for his life, and there were numerous threats and protests against bookstores for stocking and selling the book.  

But today, what is most striking me to is the fact that over 33 years after Ayatollah Khomeini called for Rushdie’s murder, a man in upstate New York attempted to fulfill the decree. Fifteen years ago Rushdie reflected on the Fatwa and said: “It’s reached the point where it’s a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat.” How wrong he was and how real the threat remained.  

The attempted murder of Salman Rushdie is a reminder that when extremists issue verbal threats calling for people to be killed or attacked, we unfortunately need to take them at their word and respond accordingly.  

While we might think that a religious decree calling for a person to be killed is something that could not happen today, it is not so far removed from the way that extremist groups will use social media to issue threats against groups and people with whom they disagree. Sometimes these threats are implicit and sometimes they are explicit, but far too frequently the words lead to actual physical violence and in the worst of cases people can be killed. A common Jewish trope is that our experience has taught us that when people say they want to kill us, we should unfortunately take them at their word and we must react.  

This week, I am thinking about the threats that have been made against the doctors, nurses, and health care professionals who work in the pediatric and adolescent transgender health program at Boston Children’s Hospital. It’s unfortunately an all too common story. A prominent social media account shared videos, images, and reports about the work that is done there, making false accusations about the ages of the patients and the nature of what is happening. This then snowballs as followers of the account retweet and respond. And ultimately it leads to actual threats of physical violence against these health care workers, who are left fearing for their own personal safety as a result of the vitally important work that they do.

On Tuesday, the hospital issued a statement about the “large volume of hostile internet activity, phone calls, and harassing emails including threats of violence toward our clinicians and staff.” As a result of these threats law enforcement is now involved and the hospital has had to remove doctors’ names and images from their website so that they would not be subjected to personal attacks or threats.  

We just need to take a moment to reflect on what is happening. Doctors and health care professionals who are providing vital support and treatment for children who are in need of real medical help are being threatened and fearing for their lives because of the work that they do. Today, it is those who are engaged in gender-affirming care who are on the front lines facing this attack, and we cannot allow them to stand alone.  

We are not powerless in responding to these threats of violence. 

The first thing we should do is follow the advice that if you see something, say something. While we know that social media companies are all too often slow and lax in their responses to extremism on their platforms we should nevertheless be vigilant in reporting hate speech and threats of violence whenever we see them. And perhaps we don’t stop with the social media companies who appear unable to fully police their platforms and instead also report what we see to the law enforcement authorities, who are well aware of the rising threats of hate groups today. They are aware of the threats and they are seeking a way to respond.  

And then we need to reach out to those who are on the front lines. We know people who have been targeted, threatened in this latest round of intimidation and violence. In speaking to them we have heard how important it is to have people reach out and offer support. So, if you know someone at Boston Children’s let them know that you are there for them; being on the frontlines can be very lonely and we don’t want to let them stand alone. And even if you don’t have a personal connection, consider writing a letter of support to their department to let them know that they are not alone in this work or in facing this threat.  

And alongside this we need to make a public statement that we will not tolerate or accept these acts of hate and threats of violence. We need to find those ways to stand up to hate and to spread love. At Temple Shir Tikva, one of the ways we are doing this is by joining with other local and national Jewish organizations to join Thrive: The Jewish Coalition to Defend Trans and LGBQ+ Youth! This project from Keshet allows us to make a public statement and provides a tangible way for us to be involved in this vitally important work and to let those who are being targeted know that we stand with them in support and solidarity.  

Salman Rushdie is just one of countless examples of the way in which words of hate can quickly become acts of hate. Our Jewish history is filled with far too many examples of times when we should have unfortunately believed them when they threatened us. But history has also taught us that the voices of love and peace, truth and justice, hope and compassion are always stronger. Today, with threats against one of our local hospitals, threats against medical professionals, threats against those who are caring for others we have the power, the ability, and the obligation to respond – to stand up to hate and spread love. I know that we will be up to the task.