Dibarti dofi: I defamed a dead man

His name was Rabbi Judah Tillinger

My rabbinic (Master’s) dissertation is about the defrocking of wayward rabbis. In total, I’ve identified just seventeen rabbis, from the whole of Jewish history, who were stripped of their status. I’ve found a 21st-century rabbi who lost his title for stealing Torah scrolls, and a 19th-century rabbi who lost his title for the grievous sin of waxing his hair during Sukkot. But by far the most interesting, and least known, was Judah Tillinger.

I pieced together part of his completely-forgotten story from 1920s newspaper archives, and revealed it in a Twitter thread. In summary, I said:

He struggled to find rabbinic employment. Penniless, he converted (or went through the motions of converting) to Christianity at the behest of a kindly Greek Orthodox prelate who who supported him in his poverty.

He then popped up, under the name of Father Stanislaus Tillinger, spreading blood libels in more than a dozen articles for a Jesuit newspaper in Lviv, Ukraine, in 1899. His stories of how Jews used Christian blood for ritual purposes earned him a place as a key prosecution witness at the anti-Semitic trial of Leopold Hilsner, an innocent Jewish man who was framed for the ‘ritual murder’ of two young women.

In 1920, he emigrated to New York and held a series of rabbinic posts in Orthodox shuls throughout the US northeast under the name of Judah Elfenbein. (Astonishingly, while working in a shul in Youngstown Ohio, someone from ‘back home’ recognised him on the street, so he had to flee the city.)

He fled to a job at a shul in the Bronx, but rumours about his past soon began circulating in the kosher delis of Second Avenue, and eventually he was outed, and summoned to a public disciplinary hearing of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis.

A journalist present at the 1923 hearing later wrote that “Tillinger-Elfenbein, if not mad, is a case for the Freudians”.

I posted this Twitter thread the day after I first stumbled across this man’s name. It went viral. It was viewed more than 20,000 times. It was retweeted by academics and rabbis and genealogists and historians. And I can understand why: what a sensational tale (or “breath-halting”, as some of the American newspapers put it).

Very quickly, I began to hear from researchers and journalists around the Jewish world wanting to hear more. Articles about him quickly appeared in several local Jewish papers around the United States, plus a 19-page job in Ami Magazine.

All of this coverage came from the angle, naturally, that Tillinger was guilty as charged.

Unfortunately, it was only after Tablet magazine commissioned me to write a piece on the Tillinger affair that I began to have doubts about whether or not the wild accusations made by the 1920s Yiddish press were true.

He was definitely innocent of the most serious charge, that of having helped to put the innocent Hilsner in prison. The trial records show that conclusively. And while I can’t be certain about the wider allegations, anti-Semitic newspaper articles and the rest of it, I’m fairly confident that they were both false and hysterical. You can read more about my reasoning and my assessment of Tillinger’s personality here.

This blog post is my personal supplement to the Tablet piece. It’s something of a confession, because honestly, I feel really bad.

I rushed in, taking the sensationalist 1920s press coverage at face value, without stopping to think critically. If it was a living person, subjected to outrage by the Jewish Chronicle, I think I would have approached it critically. But for some reason, in this case, I didn’t.

The philosopher Nicholas Griffin once wrote that “a historian is accountable for the reputation of the dead whom they describe, and if they mistakenly or maliciously holds up to posthumous ridicule the character or actions of their subject, they commit an evil action and in addition mislead and poison the public mind”. I worry that this is what my Twitter thread did.

Until I stumbled across the story of Rabbi Tillinger’s hearing in February 1923, in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency archives, he was all but forgotten. I brought him back.

Tillinger spent his life being ‘found’ by people who claimed to recognise him, people who chased him from place to place, people who denied him a moment’s respite – and then, after he was finally at rest, I ‘found’ him, and dug him up, and outed him, and held him up to public obloquy yet again. I gave him a fresh place in the world of the living, but I did so with stories of him that others had written, stories that perhaps don’t reflect who he actually was.

Dibarti dofi: I spoke, and I wrongly damaged his reputation.

Nicholas Griffin always felt that, whenever he ‘discovered’ a new figure from history about whom to write, his consciousness “seems to function for a time as a surrogate home for the revitalised nature of a being who once lived”.

That puts it perfectly.

I feel a deep connection with Rabbi Tillinger. This partly comes from the fact that I identify somewhat with his story: I too was refused entry to rabbinic college (before re-applying, successfully, two years later) and felt deeply rejected. I too have been the victim of Jewish communal bullying, hysteria and hatred. I too have been labelled as the enemy, and the target of slanderous campaigns.

But what Tillinger suffered was, of course, on a different level altogether.

The true basis for my deep concern with Tillinger arises because it was my research that rescued him from historical obscurity. It was me who gave him a place in the modern world. I feel almost parental towards him now: as Griffin says, a like surrogate. This feeling is so strong that, when I eventually found out how and when he died (a very impressive online researcher found his coronial records: he died alone, in poverty, in a shack outside Rio de Janeiro, the only place he could find safety and solace) I shed a genuine tear.

I hope, now, that my Tablet article has at least given Rabbi Judah Tillinger-Elfenbein a fair(er) hearing, and that the amazing life of this adventurous, hopeful, hopeless man can re-enter the historical record with some of the dignity that he deserves.

Zichrono livrachah, may his memory be a blessing.

#NoSafeSpaceForJewHate… except at the ‘Jewish Chronicle’

When Wiley went on his anti-Semitic rampage on Twitter last year, the Jewish community was united in horror, and the #NoSafeSpaceForJewHate hashtag was born.

The President of the Board of Deputies, Marie van der Zyl, demanded that “social media companies … be required to appoint a minimum number of staff … to moderate content that is harmful”.

The editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, tweeted: “You refuse to act against Jew hate, Twitter. You enable the likes of Wiley to spread their poison. You choose to allow it on here.

There were two values underpinning the community’s approach to anti-Semitism on social media:

  • It’s not ‘just words’. Hate speech against Jews endangers Jews.
  • Those who provide and control platforms have (at least) a moral responsibility to police and moderate the content that others choose to post on those platforms.

These are extremely sensible principles and I endorse them both wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately, Stephen Pollard does not endorse them wholeheartedly, because when it comes to other forms of hatred, on platforms controlled by Jewish institutions, these principles apparently go out of the window.

Earlier this week, the Jewish Chronicle published an article about the two new students who will be joining myself and my colleagues at Leo Baeck College in September. They’re both women, one a former campaigner for the Democrats and the other a founder of the Jewish chapter of Extinction Rebellion.

How did the Jewish Chronicle Facebook page react to the news that two left-leaning women are to be allowed to study for the rabbinate? The reaction wasn’t positive. Specifically, the page was a cesspit of hate. My new colleagues were repeatedly called “kapos” (Nazi collaborators) and “enemies of the Jewish people”. Those who gently spoke up for them were labelled “arseholes” and “insane”. Their Jewishness was questioned. The Jewishness of the Progressive movements in general was questioned.  I was even labelled a bad rabbinic student for having chosen the name ‘Omri’ for my son.

And what did the Jewish Chronicle do about it? Nothing.

At about 11pm that day I personally reached out to a Jewish Chronicle staffer I know (whose role is nothing to do with the social media side of things) and she very kindly and very nobly logged on there and then to delete the nastier comments. The next day there was another tranche of “kapo” filth, and honestly I felt too bad to approach her again, because it’s not her job.

Whose job is it? Stephen Pollard’s. He’s the editor. He’s the senior manager. He must “appoint a minimum number of staff to moderate content that is harmful”. And Marie van der Zyl must push him to do that, in the same way that she pushed Facebook itself.

He can’t shrug his shoulders and say it’s a case of sticks-and-stones, because we all (sadly) know that the real-world impact of sustained social media abuse against named individuals can be disastrous, especially women, who are so often the target for the most vicious abuse.

He can’t shrug his shoulders and say that he’s not responsible for what other people post, because it’s his estimable organ that’s providing the platform and allowing these vile people to come together and find an audience. What was it he said to Twitter about online anti-Semitism? “You enable the likes of Wiley to spread their poison. You choose to allow it on here.” Well, Stephen Pollard chooses to allow mental-health-related abuse, and the ‘kapo’ slur, in his newspaper’s online space.

Let’s remind ourselves of the two values that motivated the communal response to Wiley:

  • It’s not ‘just words’. Hate speech against Jews endangers Jews.
  • Those who provide and control platforms have (at least) a moral responsibility to police and moderate the content that others choose to post on those platforms.

These are both uncontroversial and sensible values, and indeed they find their root in Jewish texts. The Talmud says that someone who uses verbal insults in a way that causes another to blush, is tantamount to a murderer. The Mishnah says that we must not participate in the building of amphitheatres, because the blood sports that happen therein – even if we personally don’t take part in them – are morally abhorrent, and we would be enabling them to take place if we helped to construct the building.

The Jewish Chronicle must clean up its act, and stop providing a platform for hatred, bullying and (in the case of the word ‘kapo’) outright anti-Semitism. Unacceptable comments need to be deleted immediately. Repeat offenders should have their commenting privileges removed altogether. And if the newspaper lacks the budget to dedicate sufficient staff time to moderating its social media presence, it needs to shut down its social media presence. If Stephen Pollard can’t afford to run a Facebook page in an ethically responsible way, he can’t afford to run a Facebook page full stop.

#NoSafeSpaceForJewHate.

Is calling the founder of a Jewish environmental group a Nazi not a form of Jew hate? Is stalking a rabbinic student’s family and using their 4-month-old baby as a weapon not Jew hate? Is saying that the Liberal and Reform movements are only ‘Jewish’, and only have ‘rabbis’, with sceptical quotation marks, not Jew hate? Is attacking a Jewish woman as “insane” and an “arsehole” not Jew hate? All of these epithets comprise hatred directed against Jews. The fact that they [well, some of them] were written by other Jews doesn’t affect that.

A communal newspaper is providing a safe space for Jew hate. I call on Stephen Pollard to set out an action plan for improving moderation of the social media spaces for which he has responsibility, and I call on Marie van der Zyl to hold him to the same standard to which she holds others.

Then, maybe, there will be no safe space for Jew hate.