Ziv Hellman, http :// Web of Hatred, Jerusalem Report, Jun. 18, 2008 (cover feature)
How pervasive is hatred on the web – and what can be done to combat it?
The Website bills itself as “the Internet’s largest scholarly collection of articles on Zionist history.” A seemingly endless list of topics includes “the genocidal plans of Zionism,” “Jewish banking and financial manipulations,” “Jewish mind control methods” (“liberalism” and “civil rights” among others), and “Jewish pornography.” A reeking cauldron of every anti-Semitic trope ever invented, it even manages the classic anti-Semitic double-think of seeing Jews behind communism and capitalism, government and crime, black slavery and the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
“Jew Watch” is no marginal site. When you google “Jew,” it’s the second search result. And it was dropped from first place only after Google was bombarded with complaints. In response, Google took the unusual step of adding a statement that appears together with the other search results for “Jew” noting that it does not in any way endorse the views expressed by the sites. The statement further explains that Jew Watch had attained its top-ranking position
solely due to the computer algorithms the company uses to rank websites. But in response to the outcry, the company made an exception and circumvented its standard algorithms so as to “demote” Jew Watch from first to second place in the search results.
The Web may be the most important new medium since the printing press, and with an estimated worldwide audience of 1.3 billion, it is a prime means of communication and marketing. But along with its explosive growth and its valuable and informative sites, it is also a major platform for spreading messages of hatred. Precisely because of its spirit of openness, the free exchange of ideas, and the absence of censorship, anti-Semitic groups have discovered that the Web offers them avenues of expression and recruitment that go beyond anything they could have dreamt of in the past.
The paradox is underlined by Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet Prisoner of Zion and government minister. “There is no doubt that the Web is an unparalleled democratic tool. The Soviet Union would not have succeeded as long as it did if the Web and satellite television had existed in its time. But even democracies need to defend themselves against dangers. Yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded cinema might be an exercise of free speech, but it is also a public danger. Anti-Semitism on the Web is definitely a public danger,” says Sharansky, now chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank
Even George Eliot, who wrote in 1878 that it is “difficult to find a form of bad reasoning about [Jews] which has not been heard in conversation or been admitted to the dignity of print,” would be astonished at what the Web has to offer. Sites range from purveyors of crude Nazi propaganda, to sophisticated-looking analyses of Jewish conspiracies behind 9/11, to cute games and cartoons for children. It is all there, from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to paeans to Adolf Hitler, to Holocaust denial, right up to the Islamic variety of Jew-hatred, with electronic calls for Jihad and the destruction of Israel. Osama Bin-Laden is idolized, unbridled Jewish conspiracy theories are rife, and there are celebratory videos of decapitations of “infidels” and “inferiors.” On the practical, operational side, there are terrorist instruction manuals and, experts say, even coded messages to terror cells.
Jewish organizations devoted to combating hatred and anti-Semitism have in recent years been channeling increasing resources into monitoring Web anti-Semitism. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has a Digital Terror and Hate division that produces an annual “iReport” on the subject. The Center on Extremism in the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) employs full-time researchers and analysts to monitor blogs and websites. “We’ve exposed sites by and for white supremacists and educated law enforcement officials about terrorist use of secret communications in websites,” says Myrna Shinbaum, the ADL Director of Public Information.
But the sheer numbers makes monitoring everything virtually impossible. The Simon Wiesenthal Center last year identified about 8,000 “problematic hate and terrorist websites and other Internet postings,” an increase of 30 percent over the previous year. It’s not restricted to anti-Semitism. “The overwhelming majority [of sites] are anti-Semitic in various forms,” says Leo Adler, the Wiesenthal Center’s director of National Affairs in Canada, who has been active in Web monitoring efforts. “But there are sites that are anti-immigrant, homophobic, anti-Muslim… it’s very democratic. Nobody is left out. There’s a hate group for everyone.”
The speed of innovation also enables hate groups to upgrade their techniques on a continual basis. The advent of Web 2.0 – which encourages information sharing and collaboration – has given rise to tools like video sites, social networks, games, blogs and three-dimensional virtual worlds that are seized upon by hate merchants as soon as they became available. Entering “Jew” into the search function on YouTube brings up videos such as “A Jew Defends Hitler.” Holocaust denial sites portray themselves as paradigms of historical research. Islamist and white-supremacist sites push annotated conspiracy theories blaming the Jews for everything from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to engineering the Holocaust itself. Fantasy games give players the illusion of fighting in a neo-Nazi army that is confronting and killing hostile, dark-skinned “Nigs.” There are even on-line suicide-bombing simulation games, such as Kaboom, that grant points to players who manage to kill as many civilians as possible.
Experts are concerned about the effects these new media can have on young and impressionable minds. The Wiesenthal Center’s iReport notes that many sites use “persuasive story-telling” to make the messages seem initially innocuous and emotionally appealing to the young. According to the report, they use combinations of “civilized messages, humor…, simple and persuasive appeals, claims of self-preservation and product advertisements; educational narratives, stealth images, dialogues… metaphor and marketing rhetoric.”
The perception of authority that hate-filled websites manage to present is perturbing. Most adults can remember when virtually all printed materials were edited, fact-checked and distributed by publishing houses and newspapers. Radio and television stations operated under official licences. “Published” was synonymous with “authoritative” or “factual” and there are still many people who accept what they see on a website as true or real because it has been “published.”
“The major problem with on-line anti-Semitism is the effect it has on the casual observer,” says Andre Oboler, a research fellow at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based think tank, who runs a site devoted to combating on-line anti-Semitism. “It is not the sites of extremists that pose the greatest threat; they are usually clear about who and what they are. Rather it is the low level of anti-Semitism on-line that left unchecked will create social acceptability of anti-Semitism in on-line communities. In a heartbeat, decades of work countering racism and discrimination and creating a culture of tolerance to individuals, while designating racism socially unacceptable, can be undone.”
“The anti-Semitism on the Internet is not innocuous. It hurts, and is dangerous,” says Leo Adler. “People often take what they see on the Web as authoritative, and messages on it can then seep into thoughts, beliefs and eventually actions. The false images of Jews that are being created are appalling .… In many schools, if you ask students how many Jews there are in the world, you might get answers such as ‘hundreds of millions’ – which they believe must be the number because ‘Jews control the world.’ There are students going to Holocaust denial sites for material for school essays.”
The Internet developed within a free-wheeling, anything-goes and anti-authority ethos. Although it was initiated and funded by the United States’ Department of Defense, and intended to function as a flexible communications network in case of a Soviet attack on the American mainland, the academics who laid down its original infrastructure were influenced by the left-leaning atmosphere on American campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They conceived of the Internet as a democratizing tool, enabling any and all views to be expressed freely, outside the reach either of official arms of censorship or the self-restraint of mainstream publications, and their motto was “information wants to be free.”
This made it attractive to purveyors of anti-Semitism, who often found their ideas shunned in mainstream publications, and their Web presence has grown with every new development. Neo-Nazis were early adopters of bulletin boards – simple, text-only precursors to the Web – which made Nazi-slanted writings widely and easily available for the first time since the Second World War. As early as 1984, The New York Times reported that The Order, a neo-Nazi spin-off of the Aryan Nations group, was using stolen money “to purchase a state-of-the-art computer system … [for] access to the Internet.” The invention of IRC (internet-relay chats) enabled geographically scattered groups to find each other and open direct lines of communications. Newsgroups allowed topical groupings of writings to attract devoted user bases. When the Web as we know it today arrived in the mid-1990s with the first browsers, neo-Nazi sites were quickly established.
Web 2.0, with its focus on user-supplied content, has enabled millions to air their views without the expense and effort of maintaining a site. This has fuelled the blurring of the boundaries between legitimate criticism of Israel and the nastiest tropes of anti-Semitism. The neo-Nazi sites are fairly easily identified and occupy their own niche. “The sites with overt swastikas and explicit expletives about Jews, exist,” says Adler, “but everyone condemns them. The more subtle sites are much more disconcerting.”
The hottest battlefields now are on mass-market sites such as Facebook, where groups praising suicide bombers or titling themselves “Israel is a terrorist country, we all hate Israel,” pop up regularly; the open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia, where the entries on “Jew” and “Israel” were long ago locked against general-audience editing due to repeated vandalism of their contents; or the Guardian’s Comment-Is-Free, which on a daily basis attracts anti-Israel postings from around the world faster than its moderators can delete them.
The unforeseen dynamic of the past decade that brought together jihadists, white supremacists and elements of the far left into a de facto alliance of anti-Zionist ideology might not have developed to the extent it has without the Web. Islamic expressions of hatred towards Israel, and even the adoption of classic anti-Semitic imagery in the Arabic press, are not new phenomena. But the Web has enabled themes to be shared between disparate groups much more easily than in the past. Jihadist claims that the West’s war on terrorism is the nefarious invention of a small cabal of Jewish neoconservatives intent on humiliating and controlling the Muslim world, especially through the agency of an “illegal” and “illegitimate” Israel, were amplified by repetition on the Web, and found a willing audience among leftist groups who were already inclined to regard American policy as “imperialistic” by definition. Extreme right groups, who have for centuries peddled the idea of an international “Jewish conspiracy,” found it very easy and convenient to adopt a slight shift in terminology and embrace the idea of a “Zionist conspiracy.”
The speed, openness, anonymity and volume that characterize the Web have played a part in blurring traditional political positions. Groups espousing rightist social views have claimed the mantle of anti-colonialism and presented themselves as left, while the left, wittingly or not, absorbed language that had once been confined to the far right. Copy-and-paste, either literally or metaphorically, brought about a situation today in which sentences taken from extreme right websites, Jihadist writings or left-wing postings can appear identical – all of them resurrecting and normalizing, in one form or another, the traditional anti-Semitic image of Jews as supernaturally powerful and able to shape world events.
The theme of a shadowy Jewish/Zionist conspiracy, say monitors of anti-Semitism, has gone beyond fringe groups to attain a legitimacy in elite circles that was once unthinkable. It becomes easy to believe that, say, the Iraq war was initiated by “Jewish interests,” when that claim appears endlessly on the Web, and is then repeated by figures such as British Labour MP Tam Dalyell, who stated that Tony Blair was unduly influenced by a “cabal of Jewish advisers,” or academics at elite American universities, such as Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh of Yale Medical School, who made a similar accusation with respect to the Bush administration.
“Attitudes start taking root,” says Adler. “Even when they are not publicly expressed, they become part of ‘private anti-Semitism’ – when professionals get together and know there are no Jews around, negative comments about Jews start being said.”
Just as disconcerting to the experts is the fact that many anti-Jewish messages are cloaked in ways that make them seem like dispassionate analysis. For example, instead of speaking openly about a “Jewish conspiracy,” code words like “neocon” – which many understand as referring to Jews because of the prominence of neoconservative Jews – are used. Complaints that many anti-Zionist expressions are indistinguishable from classic anti-Semitism are often dismissed as attempts to stifle criticism of Israel, thereby putting those fighting anti-Semitism on the defensive.
“When we look for anti-Semitism on the Web, we use an operative definition: If it quacks like a duck and has feathers like a duck, it’s a duck,” says Adler. “There is a legitimate discussion of the rights of Arabs in the democratic State of Israel, but when Israel becomes characterized as a Nazi state perpetrating a holocaust – that’s anti-Semitism. The difficulty is that there are a lot of Israeli and Jewish academics who are the first to use this terminology.”
Sharansky tells The Report that the way to distinguish anti-Semitism from legitimate criticism is to apply what he terms “the 3D principles: look out for demonization, delegitimation, and double standards.” “Just as you need to wear special glasses to see a 3D film, you need to apply these 3D principles to understand what is really going on with much of the anti-Zionism that is expressed on the Web,” says Sharansky. “Criticism of Israel – even extreme criticism – is acceptable, if it passes the 3D test. But when people begin describing the Palestinians as undergoing a form of Auschwitz, the first of the 3Ds, demonization, becomes evident. I’ve been to Palestinian refugee camps, and they are not pleasant places, but neither are they Auschwitz.
“When people say that Jews are not a nation, that’s delegitimation,” says Sharansky. “And when criteria are applied to Israel that are not applied to any other nation, that’s a double standard. Has there been any initiative to cast an academic boycott against Iran? Or against Saudi universities? In Russia there used to be laws requiring Jewish merchants to pay twice as much in taxes as their non-Jewish counterparts. The age-old double standards against Jews are now revived in double standards applied against Israel.”
What can be done to combat the proliferation of anti-Semitic messages and sites on the Web? There are two main tools being used with varying degrees of success: legal and educational.
In the worst cases, hate sites can endanger human life by containing information on how to perform acts of terrorism, serving as recruiting fronts for terrorist organizations, or inciting violence. Those cases often attract the attention of law authorities, but prosecuting offenders is not easy. Laws vary, and by the very nature of the Internet, written and visual materials can exist in various forms on servers scattered around the world, making it difficult for agencies bound by national borders to track them down.
“Hate sites can be prosecuted in Canada, for example,” says Adler, who is a Canadian attorney, “but a lot of sites are anonymous. You don’t know who is involved, and who is behind it. That makes it impossible under current law to get those responsible. Sites go off-shore, where they can’t be traced.” Adler advocates putting together “international efforts, under international treaties and regulations, to find the responsible parties.”
“It is a daily struggle to keep up with developments,” continues Adler. “The police and intelligence services are in a race against the hate sites, and they are struggling. There is no doubt, however, that technological tools can be developed [for the purpose].”
“We have had positive response from EU states with respect to shutting down anti-Semitic servers, as part of the broader fight against racism, hatred and discrimination,” notes Aviva Raz Schechter, director of the Department for Combatting Anti-Semitism in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who says the subject is a component of Israel’s dialogue with the European Union in the framework of the ENP (European Neighbourhood Policy, a framework of political, economic and social relations between member states of the EU and nearby countries).
Raz Shechter tells The Report that there is a clear distinction between U.S., European and Canadian policies regarding the use of the law to prohibit Web servers from carrying anti-Semitic messages. The freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is broadly interpreted as protecting nearly all hate speech, including that appearing on websites. In contrast, says Raz Shechter, “the Europeans and Canadians are far more willing to use laws to go after hate sites and do everything needed to shut them down. Israel’s Foreign Ministry is active with many countries in seeking to expand international efforts and co-operation to reduce expressions of hate on the Web.”
Others experts say that the legal approach is insufficient. What can, and must be done, they say, is to educate people how to distinguish between legitimate analysis and hate, and to establish reputable websites that counter the offensive ones.
“Reining in the Internet is very difficult, if not impossible,” says Sharansky. “And running after each individual site, among the thousands, is also difficult. But what we can do is explain why this is a dangerous phenomenon for a free society. Atmosphere is very important. If only one person raises a voice, it can be ignored, and others may be too frightened to say what they believe. But if 30 or 40 individuals speak up, the atmosphere changes. The arguments used by the anti-Semites are really very weak and easy to disprove. We need to have our own sites answering all their claims, and to get a lot of people involved. This is too important to ignore.”
Oboler seconds the call for concerted action, and charges that “Jewish organizations are behind the times and are not devoting the resources necessary to stop the hate virus from spreading.” He adds: “Those who are trying to engage with the on-line world are over a decade behind and are mostly seeking to individually remove, through legal action, the most visible hate sites. The impact is, in most cases, insignificant and the communities of hate will simply move on to a new location. Today’s Web is centered on searches and social media. The community needs to get on-line, and to upgrade their skills.”
Oboler himself has established a site, ZionismOnTheWeb.org which describes itself as “on-line facts to combat real world hate.” He warns particularly against what he terms “Anti-Semitism 2.0,” which he defines as “the use of on-line social networking and content collaboration to share demonization, conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, and classical anti-Semitic motifs with a view to creating social acceptability for such content.”
Shinbaum rejects claims that the major Jewish organizations are ‘behind the curve’ when it comes to combating Web 2.0 anti-Semitism, and insists the ADL is ‘cutting edge.’ “Just as there has been no one antidote to anti-Semitism over the centuries, there is no one method for stopping its proliferation on the Web,” she tells The Report. “That is why the ADL is engaged in a multi-pronged approach. We devote resources to train law enforcement officials on extremists’ use of the Internet and create curricula for educators to help combat cyber-bullying. Our expertise is relied upon globally, and we have had significant results, including convictions.”
Apart from the establishment Jewish organizations, some scattered groups on the Web have made their own efforts to fight anti-Semitism 2.0. GIYUS (Give Israel Your United Support), a site initiated by WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students), gives users a “digital megaphone” alerting them to on-line articles and surveys presenting one-sided accounts against Jews and Israel and enabling them to respond in on-line comments and blogs. The success of GIYUS (which means mobilization in Hebrew) in increasing the vocalization of pro-Israel views has itself fuelled anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, with rumors now circulating on the Web that the Mossad has equipped GIYUS with artificial-intelligence robots producing automated writings ready to be affixed to comments, blogs and surveys.
The Web battles on these issues continue to rage. Facebook groups calling for the destruction of Israel or praising suicide terrorists are confronted by other Facebook groups calling for the deletion of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel Facebook groups. Conspiracy-minded YouTube videos are debunked by counter-videos. Given the fluid and fast pace of the Web, links, sites and groups can be created or disappear with the click of a mouse. Oboler complains that after he published a report on Anti-Semitism 2.0, “one activist saw fit to remove every link to Zionism On The Web from Wikipedia. These links (and it turns out there were a few hundred of them) had been added over time not by myself, but by well-known Wikipedia contributors who found the historic information on Zionism On The Web and our collection of primary source material a vital resource. This was not only damaging to numerous pages related to Zionist history, but shows how an elite can control the encyclopedia. I’ve asked for the matter to be addressed by Wikipedia administrators, but so far no one seems interested in considering it, let alone taking action.”
Raz Shechter admits that Web 2.0 presents new challenges. “Our efforts at the Foreign Ministry are focused on getting as many countries as possible to pass laws and enforce existing laws against websites expressing flagrant hate messages, at the state level,” she says. “It is easier – although still a hard challenge – to use legal tools to combat sites entirely devoted to racism. It is unclear what legal tools can be used effectively against user-content sites that are not hate sites in general, but include anti-Semitic elements. Right now, the best that can be done is to use the strengths of Web 2.0 itself – mobilize large numbers of people to participate on those sites and present a different message.”
“I recall speaking to Simon Wiesenthal before he passed away,” says Adler. “The hardest fact for him to accept was that anti-Semitism was restored, after the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism always manages to take on new faces, and the Web is just the latest format to which it has attached itself.” Adler’s remarks bring to mind a remark by novelist Iain Pears: “Anti-Semitism is like alcoholism. You can go for 25 years without a drink, but if things go bad and you find yourself with a vodka in your hand, you can’t get rid of it.”
Calling on individuals to help combat anti-Semitism on the Web, Sharansky says, “We have a responsibility to protect our own image, as best we can.”
The danger goes beyond concern for Jews alone, he says, likening Jews to the canaries in mines. “Jews are the early warning system for civilization. If hatred of Jews is not stopped, it eventually expands to hatred and destruction in general.”