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In the struggle to defend Israel, e-mail is emerging as new front line

June 9, 2002

As pro-Israel e-mails glut the inboxes of Jews throughout the world, the Internet has become a grass-roots front line in the defense of the Jewish state.

The current intifada marks the first time the Internet has been widely available during a period of war in Israel. The new medium has produced an e-mail frenzy, giving voice, power and speed to Jewish debates, discussions and pro-Israel mobilizations — and to their Palestinian counterparts.

But many say the phenomenon has its pitfalls.

One is an abundance of false information, according to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

E-mails with outdated information, or that urge boycotts against companies falsely accused of being anti-Israel, have proved so prevalent that the ADL has devoted a section of its Web site to “debunking Internet rumors.”

In one case, the organization found itself defending the Latin pop star Shakira, who was accused in an e-mail of making anti-Semitic statements.

The e-mail stated that Shakira refused to speak to an Israeli fan during a live appearance on MTV in Europe, saying she’d “rather have pigs listening to her music than Israelis.”

The ADL determined that the report was a “complete fabrication.”

The high “intensity of anger and concern” over the situation in Israel means fewer people worry about accuracy when they hit the send button, not realizing they could be setting off a chain reaction, Foxman said.

Apart from the hassle of devoting “too much time” to verify claims and complaints, Foxman said it’s nearly impossible to manage the myths.

“How do you possibly chase it down?” he asked, referring to the labrynthine path an inaccurate e-mail may have taken. “It undermines the credibility of our community, because anybody can set into motion an attack against anybody without any basis in fact or in truth.”

Determining the veracity of material on the Internet is a specialty of Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor of online journalism at Columbia University, who said one of the most circulated e-mail photographs of last year was a fake: a tourist atop the World Trade Center moments before the Twin Towers fell.

Heightened e-mail activity is typical when passions are inflamed, Sreenivasan said.

“By every account, e-mail volume has increased dramatically” since Sept. 11, he said, and those closely following the Indian-Pakistani conflict report a similar explosion of e-mail in recent weeks.

“In a crisis, like now in the Middle East,” people “want to get control,” he said. “Something in writing, if only e-mail writing, feels real, as opposed to water-cooler” discussions.

People can broadcast their thoughts to friends or mount an online petition, Sreenivasan said. He doesn’t know whether such offensives affect policy, but Sreenivasan said some journalists are very receptive to feedback.

For many “virtual” Jewish soldiers, e-mail is a tool to promote a pro-Israel message.

“Being an open Jew” in Dusseldorf, Germany, “I often get asked about the situation in Israel, and why Israel doesn’t properly respond to the Palestinian propaganda,” said Jacques Abramowicz, 33.

Due to what he considers widespread media bias, “I made it my job to inform people of the other side of the story,” Abramowicz said.

He began by sending pro-Israel messages to his 10-person “Jewish humor list.” His distribution group for the mass e-mails now includes 130 “multipliers,” Jews and non-Jews who pass his stories along.

“In a way, it’s my small contribution to the Israeli and Jewish cause, but one I believe is too important to simply leave for others” to do, Abramowicz said. “My reasoning is the more people that are properly informed or at least know both sides of the story, the better.”

The motivation to take Israel’s public relations into his own hands also drives sports advertising executive Alex Ramati, 27, to send out a mass e-mail nearly every day.

Before the intifada began, Ramati did not send “nearly the volume of e-mails” as he does now.

“The majority of my forwards were jokes or funny stories” before the intifada, Ramati said. “Now 99 percent are Israel-related.”

“I’m sure that a lot of what I forward gets deleted and some people may not check things out, but if they even read one of the things I send I will be doing my part to make sure people stay informed,” he said.

The e-mail mobilization doesn’t relieve Ramati’s distress about the situation,“but it feels good to know there are others out there who may feel like I do,” he said.

For John Bennett, who regularly discusses developments in Israel with friends via e-mail, the Internet has enhanced the level of conversation.

“It’s a significant improvement over cocktail party finger-pointing and vacuous talk radio ranting,” he said.

“For me, these e-mails are a relatively new means of participating in a debate which I’ve been following” for years, said Bennett, 40, who runs the Web site for a Boston-area bookstore. “E-mail certainly facilitates such debates, and in my experience actually raises the level of the discussion, away from the emotional to the logical and rational.”

Mass e-mails, however, “tend to be less interactive and therefore more emotional,” he said. “I generally tune them out.”

Some, like Foxman, think a cloying effect may neutralize the impact of e-mail. But for now, a bounty of pro-Israel zeal has found a nurturing home in cyberspace.

Lawrence Rubin, senior scholar at the Wilstein Institute, a Jewish think tank, calls the fervent outlet an opportunity for community building.

Rubin envisions a “virtual coffee shop” that mingles the “high energy and concern of the grass-roots community” with the “expertise and insight of the national system” to support pro-Israel activity.

“What I’m trying to do is develop effective connections between a grass-roots constituency that has been energized that may not have ties already with significant mainstream institutions, and those institutions,” he said.

Rubin thinks his approach will not only increase Jewish identification, but will help dispel some e-mail rumors by offering a system check.

He has broached the subject with some of the major Jewish umbrella organizations, and believes they are interested.

Technology is a “tremendous opportunity” that is “influencing the way we function as a community,” Rubin said.

For example, the pro-Israel rally that drew hundreds of thousands of people to Washington this April was organized in only five days. That was made possible by e-mail, Rubin said, in contrast to the 1987 Soviet Jewry rally that took weeks, if not months, to organize.

The question, he said, is not whether to use e-mail to help Israel’s cause, but “are we going to use it effectively or not?”

By Rachel Pomerance. Copyright © 2002 JTA.


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