Just before September 11, 2001 (in many ways another era), I was in New York with my nine-year old son Salomon. I decided to take him to the newly opened Museum of Television to show him some TV shows from the 1950s which fascinated me as a child (youtube did not yet exist). Top among them was Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone", a sci-fi series with a strong moral message. And, indeed, Salomon loved it.
One episode in particular captivated him: "Monsters Are Due On Main Street". It told the story of a normal middle class American suburban block (Maple Street) where, when all electrical power was suddenly cut off for no apparent reason and stayed off for hours, the residents began spinning conspiracy theories pinning blame on each other. Based on the theory advanced by a little boy based on his own comic book reading, they started believing that one among their ranks was actually an alien from outer space and responsible for the total blackout. Determined to find the "alien", they start confronting each other. Soon the hysteria turns to rage and then deadly violence.
This TV episode is a parable from the midst of the Cold War, where the paranoia induced by a fear of sudden nuclear war hung over society. Yet this tale has a far wider application. Hysteria, scapegoating and mob action can emerge to derail and endanger societies. Today's instrument of choice is the Internet and the tactic is disinformation. The Internet spreads farfetched conspiracy theories worldwide in an instant, feeding suspicion, rage and violence. There is a childhood saying – "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me". But are we now witnessing more and more instances of the opposite ? Words are killing people. Think of the mass murders in mosques in New Zealand, those in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, here in Brussels at the Jewish Museum , in Paris and elsewhere in Europe.
The epilogue for "Monsters Are Due on Maple Street", recited by Serling in a cool dramatic style – stated: "The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and the thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own: for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined... to the Twilight Zone."
This month we celebrate Pesach, the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. On Friday night April 19 the IJC will hold its annual Community Seder to mark this holiday It was Moses who led the Children of Israel out of slavery. However the Book of Exodus records that the Israelites were often very unhappy with the burdens of wandering through the Sinai desert. At times, in hysteria, they sought to reverse course. They forged a golden calf and thought to return to Egypt and the certainties abiding there despite the cost (becoming again slaves). Conspiracy theories could have led to desperate violence. If mob rule had triumphed, the Children of Israel would have never reached the Promised Land.
I hope you can make it to the IJC Community Seder on April 19th and relive how we Jews went from slavery to freedom. Registration online can be found on the IJC website.
The President of the IJC