Last week, I received an email, out of the blue, from a Canadian media research company. A part of its business model involves scraping writers and journalists’ internet data, putting it into a public database, and then “enabl[ing] PR professionals to identify the right contacts for their press work.” I found out about it because they approached me. They showed me information they had, which identified me solely from writing this column. They suggested that, unless I revised and improved the profile, it was about to be publicized online as they sent it.
Lots of our data is on the web. It’s not private. I’m not contesting that. I haven’t hidden my identity. However, I felt unsettled by this contact and my lack of control. First, I wondered, did this company’s mission have any benefit for me? The answer to that would be, no. I didn’t want to be barraged by press releases. Also, based on what I wrote about in the Jewish Independent, what would those PR professionals want to market? Jewish book subscriptions? Time-saving devices for Jewish moms? I was baffled – but their approach has more problematic angles as well.
The first would be ethics. I’m a writer, but I didn’t go to journalism school. I write opinion pieces, knitting patterns and, occasionally, informational articles. I have written books for knitters and fibre artists. I’m not a hard-hitting journalist. I’ve signed no official ethical code of conduct. Even so, it doesn’t do me (and most writers and journalists) much credit to assume that, if I were low on ideas, with a deadline coming, that I would rely on press releases for something to say. Essentially, those public relations professionals write press releases so that they can get free publicity or information distributed for their clients. It’s about money, buying and selling.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve written a press release or two of my own. I wrote them to market a new piece or design I’d made, and I sent them to my newsletter subscribers, or editors I worked with – people who might choose to read my work or knit my design. Perhaps they’d like it. So, I am not completely above the fray here, ethically, but I was asking them to read my (low-cost or free) work. I’m not marketing the next best expensive gadget to clean the kitchen floor. In these self-distributed press releases, I suggested people check out my writing. If they liked it, to say so, and I followed up with “thank you.”
The second issue was that of the public distribution of a person’s contact information. I’ve written for Jewish publications over the last 15 years. I’ve had my share of hateful letters, emails, phone calls and threats. Although many of our physical institutions have boosted security, with security cameras, guards and police contacts, as individuals, we don’t all have the same monitoring. Heck, I don’t even earn a salary for what I do. So, in light of the rising antisemitism around us, I pick and choose carefully what to write and what I say. It’s a balancing act. I want to speak out, be proud of my Jewish identity, and also be safe.
These decisions about our personal safety are usually done behind closed doors. Mostly, it’s unconscious, a gut-level response. For example: “Does this dark shortcut look like a safe place to walk at night? Nope, let’s walk farther, along the better-lit sidewalks.”
While I thought about these issues, after a whole spate of antisemitic and racist events in North America and Europe, I was reminded of the discussion in the talmudic tractate of Moed Katan. In this tractate, the rabbis examine what it is to ostracize or excommunicate someone, usually a rabbinic colleague, in the Jewish community. The decision is a hard one, and the details vary from one case to another.
Ostracizing someone is a temporary move. The person is still allowed to study Torah, earn a living, and can seek readmission to the community once he (it’s almost always a “he” here) seeks to correct his wrong or apologize. The notion of excommunication is much more severe. The most well-known “modern” excommunication is of Baruch Spinoza, who was famously excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam.
While I’m not a rabbi, and certainly lack any level of importance like Rav Yehuda (Rav Judah HaNasi), I do feel like these lessons he offered on page 17 of Moed Katan are still useful. His message is that we cannot separate a scholar from his actions. Even someone who has conducted himself poorly and others have reported that bad behaviour can be suspect. We can choose to separate ourselves from that person.
I asked the newswire to immediately remove me from their database. Their mission didn’t align with mine. In any event, I didn’t feel safe with what they wanted to amplify about me online. It was, in a small way, my chance to distance myself, if not ostracizing or excommunicating.
The recent events surrounding the Freedom Convoy and its allies, throughout Canada, also have given me ample moments to reflect. We were out on the Winnipeg River trail last Saturday, taking a Shabbat walk with kids and dog, when we heard the trucks honking. Freedom Convoy allies protested in Winnipeg, along with displays of antisemitism. I didn’t personally see the Juden stars and swastikas, but, like Rav Yehuda, I didn’t need to. I believed the reports of fellow Winnipeggers. In my gut, things felt out of control. We climbed off the river, up the riverbank and headed home.
Our choices to publicize or keep private, to behave in an upright way or not, to separate ourselves from those whose behaviours don’t align with our values, are personal ones. The talmudic rabbis recognized these behaviours long ago. It’s also a pressing modern-day question. Do we wear things that identify us as Jews? Do we choose to keep good, upright companions around us? Do we speak out against injustice? These are sometimes unconscious steps to protect ourselves and those around us.
Rav Yehuda isn’t here to tell us how to act, but I think most of us know already. When someone approaches us, and the situation seems unsafe? Listen to your gut. We have thousands of years of struggle behind us, helping us to keep safe in perhaps dangerous, or just unknown, waters.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.