Over the weekend, the Israeli Maariv newspaper ran a story that spread like wildfire on news sites and blogosphere: a Rabbinical court sentencing a dog to be stoned to death as the reincarnated spirit of a disgruntled lawyer. As they say in the business, it was a fact too good to check. It turns out to be false and Maariv has issued an apology, but not until the story ran on sites from BBC to Drudge. For some who thought the story did not smell right, they were right.
It was another curious case right out of the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze.
Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
The story was recounted how a large dog was found in the Monetary Affairs Court near the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim and was deemed a menace. One of the judge recalled that about 20 years ago, a famous secular lawyer once said that his spirit would move on to the body of a dog. The lawyer was angry with the court. Offended and believing the dog to be the lawyer, the judge reportedly sentenced the dog to be stoned to death.
Now, the newspaper has issued a retraction and an apology:
“On 3rd June 2011 we published an item headlined ‘Meah Shearim: A Bet Din (religious court) instructed that a dog be stoned.’ In the article it was reported that a complaint was made to the police by the Israeli animal protection society against the Rabbinical Court for Monetary Matters in Jerusalem.The article also brought a categorical denial of this accusation from the head of the court, Rabbi Yehoshua Levin. The Rabbi said, amongst other things, ‘There is no basis for cruelty to animals, not in Halacha (Jewish religious law) and not in logic.’ According to him, workers from the municipal authority collected the dog from the court. The headline of the article did not reflect the full story and we apologize to the court and its members for the distress caused.”
This the second faux story that has taken off this month with such embarrassing results.
As a dog lover, I did flag the story this weekend to check the basis. We often discuss issues of religion as well as animals and lawyers. What could be more interesting than religious extremists stoning a dog believed to be a lawyer? It was the trifecta of story for this blog. I could not, however, find any confirming information. I did find (to my surprise) that there are some within the Halachic community that views all dogs as impure — another shared view with the views of some Muslims.
There remains an interesting story here. This would appear a deliberate and vicious lie perpetrated by someone who had direct contact with the media. It would appear that, after failing to pursue the story (though some news outlets did report a denial from the Rabbi), those unexpended efforts should be directed at finding the culprit. No stoning, just public recrimination will do.
There also remains the question of possible defamation action against the newspapers. Under U.S. standards, this would be negligence. Even if subject to the New York Times v. Sullivan standard, it would likely constitute a violation of the higher standard for public officials or public figures under the actual malice test. Even if not known to be false, it would be arguably reckless disregard of the truth.