Anti-Semitism and the Internet





Ellen Haskell, a Ph.D. candidate in History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School, in Sightings (Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, May 6, 2004):

In the weeks before Passover and Easter, a search on the word"Jew" at the popular Internet search engine Google returned a vehemently anti-Jewish site, JewWatch.com, as the first link. "Jewish Mind Control,""Jewish Power Lords," and"Jewish-Run Organizations" (identified as the New York Times and the NAACP) are among the many distressing links presented on the site.  The Jewish community was outraged, petitions circulated and angry articles appeared in Jewish newspapers around the country.  Google refused to make any changes to its list, stating that it determined a site's placement by a system of algorithms designed to calculate a site's relevancy.  Unless a site was blatantly illegal, Google would not interfere with these algorithmic calculations. 

Due to the petitions and protests, Google now posts a note about its methods and views as the primary link when searching the word"Jew."  In addition, a"Google-bombing" campaign run by various Jewish groups has changed the primary"Jew" link to an informative and neutral encyclopedia article.  However, the situation is far from resolved, and raises several important questions about anti-Jewish sentiment and the nature of the Internet.  How could a hate-filled site rise to such a prominent position in the first place? 

Although Google spokesperson David Krane suggests that changing uses of the word"Jew" since World War II have resulted in Jewish groups using this term less frequently than anti-Jewish groups, the situation is actually more serious than a simple linguistic shift.  According to a recent survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), anti-Jewish incidents remain at a distressingly high level in the U.S., and a 2002 ADL survey shows a rise in the number of Americans with anti-Jewish attitudes.  This rise follows on the heels of a ten-year decline in anti-Jewish violence. 

Likewise, in the past few years Europe has seen an increasing amount of anti-Jewish violence.  Much of this anti-Jewish violence seems spurred by the difficult political situation in the Middle East, which has resulted in a strange combination of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiment.  Thus, many people falsely claim Jews have a stronger allegiance to Israel than to their own countries (in 2002 this rate was 45 percent of Europeans and 33 percent of Americans), and are resentful of this imagined situation.  (See www.adl.org for more surveys and statistics.)

However, there are factors inspiring anti-Jewish sentiment that lie outside the realm of politics.  For example, the anti-Jewish stereotypes and deicide accusations portrayed in the recent Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ seems to be affecting American attitudes.  A recent survey conducted by The Pew Research Center ( www.people-press.org) reports that American belief in Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus has risen from 19 percent in 1997 to 26 percent in 2004.  A climate of violent misunderstanding is emerging and we begin to realize how a film like the Passion helps to cultivate it.  In fact, the ADL website mentions that it received a barrage of anti-Jewish hate mail when the ADL questioned the movie's portrayal of Jews. 

This is not simply a problem of vocabulary.  The rising level of anti-Jewish sentiment in America is the result of numerous political and ideological factors, all of which are unfortunate in a country that prides itself on liberty and justice.  And these factors combine to further the spread of violence-inducing misinformation like that featured on JewWatch.com, whose three year reign as the primary link to the word Jew on Google seems to correspond to this rising anti-Jewish feeling.

The fact that this increase is reflected on the Internet is unsurprising.  After all, the Internet is constantly changing, and reflects popular culture.  The use of the Internet to foment hatred and violence is, however, unfortunate and alarming.  Due to the subdued nature of JewWatch.com's presentation (a plain, straightforward layout with no anti-Jewish caricatures), it is quite possible that schoolchildren could interpret the site as an academic resource and become, not only grievously misinformed, but also new bearers of a hate message. 

Apparently, there is little we can do about such situations on the Internet, other than conduct Google-bombing campaigns like the one that knocked the inflammatory site from its prominent position.  But, of course, Google-bombing campaigns can work for people with a variety of questionable interests.  Even the ADL endorses Google's right to not alter its placement policies. 

How then can one address these types of threats?  Through awareness, education, and the spread of truth, not prejudice. 


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