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Asking the Clergy: Responding to online religious harassment and bigotry

From left, Bob Yugi Festa of Huntington, Rabbi

From left, Bob Yugi Festa of Huntington, Rabbi Rachel Wiesenberg of Temple Beth Torah, and the Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr. of Church-in-the-Garden. Credit: Barbara Festa; Jonathan Frieberger; Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Pew Research Center recently reported results of a survey that found one in five Americans have experienced online harassment because of their religious affiliation. This week’s clergy discuss how to respond to hate speech on social media.

Bob Yugi Festa of Huntington

Zen practitioner

The short answer from the Buddhist perspective is that we can't control what others do or say, we can only control how we react to what others do or say.

In this case, the best response is to limit one’s time on social media, which is where this kind of harassment can occur. The right speech precept is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path of practices that leads Buddhists to the end of suffering in one's life. In his first sermon after enlightenment, Buddha explained right speech as follows: to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully; to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others; to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others; and to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth.

In essence, right speech means to tell the truth, to speak in a friendly, warm and gentle way, and to talk only when necessary. Getting involved in social media debates violates this precept in so many ways.

The Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr.

Pastor, Church-in-the-Garden, Garden City

We must take online religious harassment as a sign of bigotry. We can no longer afford to have a passive approach when we encounter this type of language and actions in our online environments and think that their origins are benign.

Bigotry is the soil that germinates religious harassment. The many facets of online harassment are the poisonous weeds that choke and infect cyber interactions and online discourse. In a world where everyone is online, especially our children, teens and young adults, there is a necessity that we stay hypervigilant and learn what online harassment looks like and its real-world implications. Too often, the rhetoric spewed in online forums and chats becomes the motivation and impetus for detrimental actions (hate speech and violence) to religious groups and communities in real life.

Often in my sermons, I talk about love and how we embody love in our daily practices. All of us can practice love by learning how to recognize hate and bigotry and stand against them. Additionally, I would encourage all who care about the proliferation of online harassment to seek such resources as the Online Harassment Field Manual ( to help educate and equip ourselves and our online communities.

Rabbi Rachel Wiesenberg

Associate rabbi, Temple Beth Torah in Melville

Judaism has a clear take on hate speech and harassment: All human beings are created b’tzelem elohim (in the Image of God), so we must treat each person, regardless of religion, race, gender identity, economic situation or political party, as if a part of God stands before us.

The Talmud (Gittin 61a) teaches that Jews are to sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick — among other things — for the sake of peace. Using these teachings as a compass, it is clear that we must all stand together against bigotry of every ilk. This is why I feel strongly that any institutional response to online hate speech must be publicly addressed. Handling these kinds of things in house, or quietly, does not send the right message to the bigots or the targets of their hate.

Rather than blocking or banning a user privately, or posting a vague message such as "This user has been blocked for violating our terms of use," a clear message like "This user has been blocked because or hate speech or harassment, which is not tolerated by (insert social media brand here)" would be a good start.

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