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Fake News and Alternative Facts


Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov

One of the most famous phrases —more than a mere phrase, a concept— that has become deeply embedded in our psyche during the Trump presidency is: Fake News.

On countless occasions, when faced with challenging questions posed by journalists about a myriad of topics, President Trump responded with two words: Fake News. What he was saying in essence was this: “I don’t have to answer your question, since it is based on fake news”. The exchange between the two usually ended right there.

This phrase has not only penetrated public discourse because of its “shock” value, but has served to shake the very foundations of security for many. If the news that reaches us through serious media outlets such as CNN and The New York Times is false or can be fake, how can we identify news that is not “fake”? How can we know what is true and what is a lie?

Within this whole political context, there is another novel phrase that, although it has not been repeated nearly as much, attracted a lot of attention at the time because of its originality: Alternative Facts.

In an interview on January 22, 2017, U.S. Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, was challenged on Meet the Press regarding the White House spokesperson’s description of the size of the crowds present at President Trump’s inauguration that did not match the numbers reported in the press. “What you’re saying is false. Our spokesman provided alternative facts,” was her response. The seismic shock produced by that comment won its place in history (having generated to date 1.87 billion Google searches; 500 million more than “Bible”!) [1].

Our sages teach us that everything that we see or hear has a lesson for us. This case is no exception. We can apply the concepts of Fake News and Alternative Facts in useful and constructive ways.

Let me share some examples that come to mind:

We tend to define realities based on our perception of them. The same is true regarding how we see ourselves. Sometimes we just have to tell ourselves that the negative opinions we harbor about ourselves are nothing more than “Fake News!”, there are “Alternative Facts!”. End of discussion.

This coming Shabbat, the Shabbat prior to the fast of Tisha beAv, is called Shabbat Chazon, namely, the Shabbat of Vision. The reason for that is because on this Shabbat we read the Haftarah that contains the prophecy of Isaiah that begins with the words Chazon Ieshaiahu, “the vision of Isaiah”[2]. This specific prophecy is always read on the Shabbat prior to Tisha beAv due to its contents that documents G-d’s admonishment of the Jewish people's behavior.

The great Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, understood Shabbat Chazon, Shabbat of the Vision, to also imply that on this Shabbat each one of us is shown —on a spiritual level— a vision of the Third Temple of Jerusalem to be built by Mashiach.

How do these two extremes, the destruction of the Temple and its reconstruction, come together in one and the same word and day of commemoration?

One answer is that the way to cope with destruction is by visualizing the eventual (re)construction. When you visualize how much better things can and will become, it motivates you to move forward to actually make it happen.

This is not merely an escape mechanism designed to make you feel better by dreaming about better times instead of dealing practically with the real and present realities. Dreams must not be confused with fantasies.

To dream is to have a vision of how things should and can be and then to work hard to realize that vision. A fantasy is when one imagines a better world or situation, and then waits faithfully for it to become reality, without bothering to actually do anything to help make it happen.

The first step to success is to visualize where you want to go. Chazon. If you are clear about what you want to build, why and how, you will be better able to endure periods of destruction and setbacks. Dr. Viktor Frankl would often repeat the well known quote: He who knows the 'why' for his existence, will be able to bear almost any 'how'.

My grandfather, Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov, A"H, used to say that it’s OK to have big dreams, as long as you keep your eyes open.

When low self-esteem rears its ugly head for whatever reason, just use the effective weapons of President Trump and his Counselor: disarm it outrightly as Fake News or Alternative Facts and continue working towards a brighter future. Learn how to say to yourself: Your negative perception is fake news and there are alternative facts. If you think about them, you will see them and achieve a much better future.

So this week’s tool is: Whether you think that you can or think that you can’t, you are right.


  1. Searched July 19, 2023. ("Fake news" showed 2.85 billion searches.)

  2. Isaiah 1:1-27


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