Jews and the Internet

Delivered Saturday, October 12th,
By Matt Cohen, NKU Webmaster
Beth Abraham Synagogue, Dayton, Ohio.

The invention of the Printing Press in the 15th Century was the start of a communication revolution. Books could now be mass-produced for anyone to read, and authors were able to get their message out to a much wider audience.

In 1986 a national computer network was formed as a method for universities and research institutions to transfer information between themselves. Later, the Government saw its value as a defense communications network, and heavily subsidized the formation of what we now call the Internet. At that time, most of the internet was simply email communication and the transfer of files, allowing a professor at one institution to collaborate with someone across the state, or in another country. Then in 1994, the World-Wide-Web exploded on the scene. The Web allowed graphics and the 'hyperlinking' of documents to one another. It opened up the popularity of the internet, since it was much more friendly-looking with its point-and-click navigation.

The World-Wide-Web has caused a second communications revolution, because now the power to publish is within the reach of anyone with a computer and a modem. Similarly, people are becoming active participants in the expansion of the World-wide-web, rather than simply passive spectators. The ability to create web pages, once the privilege of businesses only, has now been brought to the individual as well.

For example, on my own web page I have information about Macintosh Computers, A picture of a computer I turned into an aquarium, some artwork I've created, a list of internet humor, and pictures of myself and my wife, as well as descriptions of our hobbies, where my wife goes to school, and links to the days of our lives page.

Beth Abraham also now has a web site, which only 65 of you have visited as of Friday, so lets get some visits and get that number higher. :^) The Beth Abraham site has pictures of Rabbis Press and Deutsch, descriptions of services and programs offered, as well as a great explanation by Hallie Blazar of the stained glass windows you see to each side.

Of course, power to publish means freedom to publish as well. There are no guidelines to abide by, and no group that can censor what you wish to say on the web. Students at universities have discovered how easy it is to take their various social causes and put them up on the Web. Businesses can advertise for any product: condoms & lingerie alongside T-shirts and children's toys.

It is true that there are people and companies who maintain the internet, the 'net gods', they are not watching over us making sure that everyone is following the rules. The internet is a demonstration of anarchy at work. The saving grace of the internet is that it was started by educators, who imposed their values, which we now call 'netiquette', on the first group of web surfers, such as myself. When America Online offered cheap access to the internet to anyone who could spell their name, 'regular people' were able to gain access to the internet 'club', much to the dismay of us high-and-mighty academic types. :^)

But 'regular people' aren't the same as college students or academics. People who are new to the internet expect to find a new level of reality, that transcends the petty differences found in human contact, and will bring out the best in all people. But people are people, and businesspeople see financial opportunities, promoters see mass-distribution of sales materials, and of course, the fringe groups of society see yet another way to gain attention.

Last spring, my wife received an email from a Jewish-oriented mailing list, describing a 'plot' by a white power group to create their own newsgroup so they could congregate and espouse their white supremacist ideas. On the internet, where power is measured in bits per second, formation of newsgroups or other bandwidth-using projects are subject to a vote, which regulates the amount of traffic on the net. This letter was a call to arms for rabbis and other Jewish leaders to vote 'no', so that this white power group would not have a forum to gather and make their plans.

This brings up an interesting comparison - had this group instead petitioned to make a demonstration at the capitol building, what is the reaction they would have received? Our personal feeling might be to say, "no, you cannot make a demonstration. Your ideas are offensive and disturbing and I don't want to provide an outlet for them." However, the 1st amendment guaranteeing free speech and the right to assemble protects any group's ability to congregate. And so in the US, the KKK or the Aryan nation are allowed to put up a cross in fountain square in Cincinnati.

Returning to our original situation, why should the internet be any different? Remember, the internet is a global network which transcends national boundaries, and is not constrained by US Law. That makes the internet more free, not less.

Think of this scenario: All the people on this mailing list who received this letter go out and vote against the formation of this group. Now, in order to prevent ballot-box stuffing, email addresses of voters are recorded. The formation of the newsgroup fails because of these Jewish voters, and the white power organizers see that a group of Jewish people stopped them. In retaliation, the white power membership petitions the same 'net gods' that called the vote for their own newsgroup to call a vote on soc.culture.jewish, a popular forum for discussion on Jewish topics. The vote is called, and this time the supremacist group rallies their members and the Jewish newsgroup is dissolved.

Even if we don't think about the threat of return-attacks, we have to consider: is it really our business to restrict what people do on the internet? Unlike the television medium, the internet is a passive environment, meaning that it does not bring information to you, but you must actively seek it. If you do not visit certain web sites, or get on certain email lists, you will never see what they have to offer. At the same time, you cannot be offended by something you do not see. If I had never received this email, I would never know that such a newsgroup was forming.

I am not saying that we should just ignore it, and it will go away. Far from it. Rather, I am saying we should not reduce our activities to work against the issue of anti-semetic groups, but simply redirect our efforts. Jews have never been much for proselytizing, or for correcting the other person's viewpoint. We even turn someone away three times before we allow them to start the conversion process. We should take this position with us onto the internet. Jews have a great insight on social injustices because of history, and we must use that positively, to encourage others to be proud of their own Judaism, and to be more vocal in their displays. The Jews for Jesus group had a web page up a couple of years ago, one of the first religious groups to do so. Rather than striking out against them, our response was to create the United Synagogue Web site, not to try and actively protest their pages.

People who visit my web page sometimes ask: "Aren't you worried about saying you are Jewish on your page?" The people who have made such comments are usually referring to the fact that a)I am one of three Jewish people at the University where I work, and b)I have released my work phone and address, and could become the target of harassment by anti-semetic individuals or groups. Yes, I am making public something that is potentially hazardous. But I feel that the Web is more friendly than it is made out to be. I think there are enough of us old academic types around who tip the balance to the side of benevolence. Additionally, I don't worry simply because it is much more difficult for someone to harass me on-line, instead of them simply calling me up on the phone. I'll focus my efforts on watching out for anti-socials on the streets, rather than becoming paranoid of cyber-life.

One of the Jewish strengths, and one of the positive stereotypes of Jews, is that we value education and the family. Numerous Jewish life cycle events bring us together, and the fact that you are here today is because you wanted to share in Judaic prayer and learning. We need to remember this when we are thinking about some of these fringe groups on the web. Instead of being afraid of what our children might be exposed to - yes, there are cults on the web- we should instead apply the same Jewish family values we observe in real life. Just as we are encouraged to spend time with our children outside of school, so too should we join them when they are surfing. In fact, 'surfing the web' can be a great time to talk to your child, since some pages take 2-3 minutes to come down the pike on a busy night. I can see it now, the Headline reads: "Proposal for faster modems fought by ADL because of threat to family time." Seriously, taking an interest in what your children like is always a good idea. Explore this new frontier with them. Computers are losing their stigma as being complicated, scary machines, and becoming very user friendly. Besides, your child figured it out! Get out on the web, look up your synagogue web page, find a list of Jewish links and web pages, or even create your own page. Be vocal, be proud of your heritage and religion, find others like yourself in a Jewish newsgroup and find out how playing Jewish geography is even more fun in cyberspace.

Returning to the original situation that began this train of thought, we ignored the call to arms against the white power group, and the formation of their newsgroup failed because even though the 'yes' votes were in the majority, the total votes failed to reach the minimum number of ballots needed. Even more interesting, this vote happened last fall! - That means 9 months before we received the letter, the issue was already over! This is the reality of the internet - time passes much more quickly on-line, and time-lapses like these are par for the course. Had I responded to the call for votes, I would have been wasting my time striking out against an operation that had already dissipated, instead of spending more time adding the latest Jewish site to my own web page, which I'm expecting you to visit sometime soon! To emulate the presidential debates, you'll find me at, listed under the NKU Webmaster. Come by and sign my guestbook and tell me what good Jewish sites you found! Shabbat Shalom and Baruchim Tovim.

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