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The Halacha of WikiLeaks

If Julian Assange were an observant Jew, would he still have publicized his WikiLeaks?

Aside from shaking up the world of foreign policy, the flood of diplomatic cables that Assange released November 28 has caused a corresponding flood of questions about the leaks’ morality and legality.

Assange’s defenders claim that he’s making the world a more open place by creating transparency and promoting freedom of information — values long championed in democratic society. Those who oppose WikiLeaks, however, claim that Assange has caused irreparable damage to the trust and confidentiality needed for successful diplomatic correspondence. Some accuse Assange of trying to undermine the United States’ global influence.

But don’t look to Jewish law to decide whether Assange is a hero or a villain.

Halakha and Jewish values give no clear answer as to what would happen if the WikiLeaks founder faced a rabbinical court. The prosecutors in such a court would perhaps call Assange a liar and slanderer. Assange’s defenders, however, might counter that slander does not apply to the leaks given their importance to world affairs.

The first point in the prosecutor’s case might be that Assange’s lack of diplomatic credentials throws the accuracy of the leaked cables into doubt. This would put him in danger of trespassing Exodus 23:7, which warns the Israelites to “Stay away from a lie; do not kill the clean and righteous, because I will not justify an evil person.” If potential misinformation in Assange’s cables ends up contributing to global conflict — a lie that leads to death — he could be in halakhic trouble.

Most of the prosecutor’s case, however, would rest on the biblical prohibition against slander. Leviticus 19:16 states, “Do not spread slander among your people,” which Maimonides in his “Laws of Slander” explains to be “Someone who goes around claiming certain things, and says ‘This person said x. I heard x about this person.’ Even if what he says is true, this still destroys the world.” Given this law, the veracity of WikiLeaks would not save Assange. As a slanderer, he would be punished.

Rabbeinu Gershom, a 10th-century Ashkenazic scholar, strengthened these rabbinic laws of privacy by prohibiting the reading of other people’s mail — another support for the case against Assange. True or not, dangerous or not, Rabbeinu Gershom might have convicted Assange of trespassing his statute — simply because the diplomatic correspondence was not his to read.

But Assange’s defenders would have some halakhic sources on their side as well. Countering the slander charge, they would cite the Chofetz Chaim — the early 20th-century expert on slander. The Chofetz Chaim writes in his Laws of Slander that an exception could be made to Maimonides’s prohibition if the information at hand would prevent someone from entering a bad business deal. In other words, the category of slander does not apply if someone needs to warn his friend not to sign a contract with a liar. Given this exception for personal business deals, certainly Assange is not guilty when his information sheds light on global economic interactions.

Assange’s defenders might claim, moreover, that his publication of the WikiLeaks fulfills the second half for Leviticus 19:16: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” — which creates the imperative to save people who are in harm’s way. By exposing the content of diplomatic dealings, Assange is giving activists the necessary information to fight against global injustice.

Today’s rabbis also have something to say on WikiLeaks and Jewish morality. Rabbi Dan Ain, Rabbi-in-residence at 92Y-Tribeca and formerly a practicing attorney, praises Assange as a journalist and affirms the role of the whistleblower.

“Moses is the ultimate whistleblower,” Ain said. “It was by virtue of him being in the inside that he was able to enter Pharaoh’s palace and say ‘Let my people go.’” Ain added that public curiosity about WikiLeaks stems from a “sense of unease among young people.”

“People have a real unsettled feeling, even though we have access to information and the Internet,” he said. “They don’t know what to rely on. They don’t know what to believe in.”

Rabbi Ethan Tucker, head of the egalitarian yet traditional Yeshivat Hadar in New York, agrees that WikiLeaks plays into an innate human desire for confidential information, saying that “everyone likes to find out something they weren’t supposed to know.”

“People play all kinds of disingenuous games behind closed doors,” he added. But on the other hand, Tucker noted the value of such confidentiality.

“Coming from a rabbinic perspective, confidentiality creates very important spaces for certain things to be discussed,” he said. “In a world where that disappears entirely, that’s quite concerning.”

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