People who expose racists are not the bad guys

In the beginning, it is appropriate to rebuke somebody in private, with gentle and kind words, in order to avoid humiliating them. But if they refuse to change their ways, there is no doubt that we are commanded to expose the wrongdoer, and publicise their wrongdoing, and rail against them.

Sefer ha-Chinuch 239

In 1996, a series of anonymous letters containing horrendous anti-black and antisemitic statements, including, “The Negro wolf is destroying American civilisation with rape,” and, “TV networks should be in the hands of the American public and not the Jews,” were sent to various addresses in Long Island, New York City. An investigation revealed that their author was a serving NYPD officer named Thomas Pappas. The NYPD promptly sacked him on the grounds that his actions would undermine public confidence in the police. Pappas sued for unfair dismissal.

In the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, an extraordinary argument was raised on Pappas’s behalf. It ran as follows: sure, press coverage of the racist letters undermined confidence in the police, but that wasn’t Pappas’s fault because he had sent them anonymously; rather, the public scandal was the fault of the investigators who exposed him. If they had just kept quiet, nobody would have found out and thus nobody would have been hurt.

Justice Leval dismissed this argument in no uncertain terms:

In essence, it is said that, upon learning that Pappas was violating its rules by disseminating bigoted racist materials, the NYPD should have swept the matter under the rug hoping no one would ever learn the facts;  and if it chose instead to bring charges against Pappas, it has only itself to blame for the resulting harm to its reputation, and may not discharge Pappas for his misconduct. This is seriously misguided.
We have little sympathy for the suggestion that the proper course for the NYPD was to hush the matter up and hope to keep it secret. Had the NYPD taken this course and the truth had eventually become known, the harm to the NYPD would have been all the greater because it would be perceived as tolerating Pappas’s acts and being in passive complicity. While it may be true that the NYPD could have avoided adverse publicity had it covered up Pappas’s misconduct rather than proceeding against him, that does not make it the right thing to do

This reasoning is obviously correct. The idea that a police officer who is known not only to hold antisemitic and anti-black views, but who actively propagates those views, should be allowed to continue in a position of authority so long as the public doesn’t find out about it, is ludicrous.

Yet this very reasoning was adopted by none other than the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to justify its failure to sanction a racist member. Because it turns out that it’s all my fault, for… erm… exposing the racism.

Peter Baum, who represents Southend and Westcliffe Hebrew Congregation, regularly posts racist content to his social media platforms, including tweets describing the late Desmond Tutu z”l as a “black Quisling” and the Palestinians as “human excrement”.

However, when I complained to the Board of Deputies, their code of conduct panel decided not to impose any actual sanction on Baum because:

Without [Gabriel’s] intervention there was little reason to believe that a connection between Mr Baum’s views and the Board would have come to light.
… The Board have been [sic] damaged as a result of the combination of [Baum’s] views and Mr Kanter-Webber’s action … It is likely that Mr Baum’s comments may have passed without significant public awareness were it not for Mr Kanter-Webber’s decision to share them with Jewish News – an act which guaranteed them publicity which itself has damaged the Board
… This cannot be laid exclusively at Mr Baum’s door.

They added that I had done the Board a ”disservice” by exposing one of its members as a racist. (Shome mishtake, shurely? -Ed.)

This is astonishing stuff. The fact that Peter Baum, an elected member of the Board of Deputies, chose to tweet that Desmond Tutu z”l was a “true black coward” and that “Palestinians are Nazis” cannot, apparently, “be laid exclusively Mr Baum’s door”. Apparently he is not responsible for his own, reprehensible, actions. In fact, the damage that Baum’s racism caused to the Board of Deputies is my fault because I could have just not told anyone about it and then the whole sordid affair “may have passed without significant public awareness”.

Such reasoning is not only specious (for the reasons that Justice Lever gave in the case of Thomas Pappas), it is deeply hypocritical. When the Board of Deputies considers that somebody has crossed a line – typically for antisemitism – they do not hold back from publicly demanding action, and rightly so. Yet just imagine our reaction if, say, the Labour Party had said, “Oh, we’re not going to suspend Jo Bloggs for tweeting that Jews are all scum, because if you lot hadn’t made such a song and dance about it then it would never have come to light. The public furore is all your fault.” Such an attempt to blame the Jews for the harm caused by an antisemite’s antisemitism would be just as offensive and ridiculous as the Board’s attempt to blame me for the harm caused by Baum’s racism.

As a perfect recent example, last month the Board published a letter it wrote to the Director-General of the BBC demanding disciplinary action against BBC head of news Fran Unsworth over comments she made in a private meeting. But… surely, if the Board hadn’t told the whole world about those comments, “an act which guaranteed them publicity”, no harm would have been done? So it was all the Board’s fault for airing its disquiet? Or is it possible there’s a double standard at play here?

Meanwhile, Peter Baum is still a member in good standing of the Board of Deputies, and he is still merrily inciting racial hatred (eg, two days after the panel’s decision, “The Palestinians are simply child abusers”).

Instinctively, I feel that this is a teeny bit inconsistent with the Board’s claim to be firmly opposed to racism, and that it seriously undermines the Board’s claim to be committed to ending anti-black prejudice in the Jewish community.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s not Baum’s fault for saying racist stuff, it’s just my fault for noticing it.

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