By Jake Novak
It was a rare and touching moment of humanity in the otherwise inhuman world of news. Fresh from the sudden tragedy of her husband’s death, Facebook Chief Operating Officer and tech sector superstar Sheryl Sandberg shared in a Facebook post what seemed like an extraordinary outpouring of emotions experienced and life lessons learned from the unexpected death of her husband Dave Goldberg. Sandberg led with her Judaism out front, beginning the post noting that the Shloshim for Goldberg had just passed and now she wanted to share what she had learned with the world.
But now, Sandberg and her public persona as a thoughtful and decent Jewish tech executive is in tatters or at least in grave doubt. The good news: there is something real we can learn from this stunning fall … but only if we resist the temptation to gush over celebrities, billionaires, and others simply for saying what we may want to hear.
Let’s start by going back to that time in June 2015, when Sandberg posted that statement. It quickly became a big deal in much of the Jewish American community because it came from a celebrity who was embracing and discussing her Judaism and Jewish traditions in public after a very personal and emotional event. It was such an example of low hanging fruit for sermon material, that hundreds of Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox rabbis read all or parts of Sandberg’s post to their congregations in the Shabboses immediately following its appearance online. Here, many of them said, was an example of a Jewish woman living proudly as a Jew and learning as a Jew even in the midst of this tragedy. And how lucky we all were to have her share that with us to teach us something we needed to know about compassion, mortality, and humility.
All of this was revisited somewhat about a year ago when Sandberg’s second book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy was released and a second series of fawning articles and comments about her flooded the airwaves, newspapers, and pulpits of America.
It’s true that Sandberg’s messages were good, and undoubtedly inspiring to many who read them. Perhaps some Jews were inspired enough by them to learn more about our laws of mourning and recovery. Perhaps there were some Jews who took Sandberg’s example and decided to be a little more open about their Jewish heritage in appropriate secular settings. This column is not meant to scorn any of those positive sentiments.
But flash forward to 2018, and Sheryl Sandberg’s public persona as an executive and as a Jew is taking a major hit. It appears that same icon of public Jewishness in the business world stands accused of overseeing, or at least not bothering to monitor, a Facebook public relations scheme that simultaneously sought to cultivate anti-Semitic sentiments across the world while at the same time claiming to be a victim of anti-Semitism. The news broke earlier this month that Facebook hired a firm known as Definers Public Affairs, which has allegedly worked to tap into formal and informal anti-Semitic online networks by baiting them with stories about how Billionaire George Soros is behind much of the criticism of Facebook. In other words, Facebook hired a firm that tries to sic anti-Semitic dogs on its critics. At the same time, Facebook was also reportedly claiming it was the victim of anti-Semitism and much of the criticism of the company over everything from privacy breaches to attempts at political lobbying were the result of anti-Semitism against its many Jewish executives, including founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sandberg herself.
Sandberg has denied these charges, but she does admit that she was not closely overseeing the work Definers was doing on Facebook’s behalf. No one is accusing her of promoting anti-Semitism herself, but the culture of detrimental neglect is right at her doorstep.
And this comes after years of strong claims by pro-Israel and other Jewish groups that they have been subject to unfair rules by Facebook that have led to bans against them on the social media platform while blatantly pro-terrorist and anti-Israel Facebook pages aren’t taken down.
Again, Sandberg may not be directly responsible for these Facebook practices. But before we crown her as an icon of American acculturated Judaism, we need to consider her ultimate responsibility as the day-to-day chief of Facebook operations.
Even more importantly, we need to remember that celebrities and politicians are not like the rest of us. They spend a lot of time, energy, and money cultivating their images in a way normal people cannot. Facebook has a history of showing just how important image is to its top executives. Zuckerberg rarely goes six months without a major stunt to show his packaged virtue to the world. He’s given massive cash gifts to two public school systems, including a $100 million donation to Newark, NJ schools. He made the point of taking long paternity leave when his children were born. He also let us all know he’s trying to run five miles a week.
Of course all of that is packaged nonsense. The gift to Newark was predictably squandered, in the way that massive gifts to charity often are when the point of giving them is to get good publicity and not so much to solve a problem. No one believes Zuckerberg really took his hands off the big decisions during any of his paternity “leaves” from Facebook. And as for the effect of the weekly running… well that’s between Zuckerberg and his doctor.
How then can any of us know if Sandberg’s publicly virtuous messages and emotional sharing were any less phony? The answer is, we don’t. The bigger the celebrity, business tycoon, or politician, the less we know.
Yes, any good message should be given its due praise regardless of who says it. But taking the extra step of worshipping or even overly lauding the celebrity or politician who says them is foolish and sometimes even dangerous. That’s what so many of us did with Sheryl Sandberg three years ago.
I don’t doubt the veracity of Sandberg’s grief and circumspection, but I worry about the points she may have been trying to score beyond just sharing some good life lessons. Again, we also must ask if she really wrote those powerful words, and what other goals she hoped to attain in doing so.
How many of the rabbis who gushed so publicly over Sandberg in 2015 will challenge her now that she’s so close to an anti-Semitic scandal? How many of us will learn from this and stop treading dangerously into idolatrous territory every time we try to make heroes out of people simply because they make a lot of money, act well on screen, or can hit a ball 450 feet with a wooden stick? Remember, it’s okay to be a big fan of capitalism, good movies, and baseball. But it’s more important to know that good businesspeople, actors, and ballplayers may or may not be good people… even if they happen to be Jews.
Sandberg or no Sandberg, what Facebook has done regarding its use of anti-Semitism is a disgrace and terrible insult to the true victims of anti-Semitism now and in the past. How she fixes this is beyond me, but at least we have another strong example of why human hero worship isn’t good for America and it certainly isn’t good for the Jews.
Jake Novak has been a TV news producer and editorial columnist for more than 25 years, with expertise in political, economic, religious, and cultural issues. He has produced shows at CNBC, CNN, FOX, and several local stations across the country. Novak is a graduate of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University, and a master’s degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny and read his columns on 5TJT.com.