When Richard Silverstein, a liberal Jewish blogger, claimed credit for shutting down an extremist right-wing Web site that listed the names of thousands of left-wing Jewish activists, the cyber-retribution was swift and harsh. Days after his blog posting went up in late March, Silverstein received an e-mail directing him to a defamatory Web site purporting to be his own.
The fake blog, called “Little Dickie’s Diaper Droppings,” wasn’t pretty. In addition to the scatological references, the site was riddled with graphic sexual innuendo. Even Silverstein’s children were targets: Underneath a photograph of Silverstein and his 4-year-old son baking cookies — lifted from the blogger’s own Web site — was a caption claiming that the two were making a bomb to put on an Israeli school bus. The site listed the longtime peace activist’s favorite book as “ Mein Kampf .”
The case of Silverstein, a 53-year-old former Jewish charity fundraiser who operates his “Tikun Olam” Web site out of Seattle, is but one example of the below-the-belt discourse that has taken hold in the world of Jewish blogging. Scurrilous barbs and sharp-tongued insults are routinely tossed back and forth through cyberspace from one Jewish blogger to another, appearing in long threads in the sections reserved for reader comments. The invective often revolves around political stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with bloggers on the left and on the right painting one another into corners and caricaturing one another’s beliefs.
“Because of the challenging views I’ve expressed with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I’ve been called a Zionazi by Left-wingers and a self-hating Jew by Right-wingers,” Daniel Sieradski, founder of the blog Jewschool.com, wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “I’ve had people write that I, personally, am why the Holocaust happened.”
In recent months, Sieradski said, he has begun editing reader comments on his blog to keep the conversation civil. But his first attempt at reconfiguring Jewish blogger etiquette came in 2005, when Sieradski, 28, launched a campaign to lift the language out of the gutter. “Jewish Bloggers for Responsible Speech Online” invited Jewish bloggers to insert a photograph of the Chofetz Chayyim, a 19th-century Lithuanian Jewish scholar who redacted the religious laws governing speech, on their Web sites. The picture would then link to an explanation of the edicts against speaking negatively of others, known in Jewish law as lashon harah. The move, Sieradski said, grew out of his frustration over verbal skirmishes with a competing Jewish group blog, Jewlicious.com, founded by David Abitbol. Dozens of Jewish bloggers have since added the link, Sieradski said, but Abitbol’s operation is not among them.
Abitbol, a 42-year-old Jerusalem resident, said that to adopt a code of speech for the Jewish blogosphere would tamp down the free and open debate that gives it its zest. “There’s a lot of testosterone on the Internet, a lot of swagger,” he said. What makes “the blogosphere interesting is the fact that it is dynamic and anything can happen.”
David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said that posting rules governing blog etiquette poses a significant risk of discouraging people from speaking their minds. Still, he said, laws that regulate speech do have a place on the Internet, despite the fact that exactly how and when to apply them is not always clear cut.
The vitriol that abounds on the Jewish blogosophere seems to be reflected in the wider world of blogs. By nature, blogs are a public forum, most often anonymous, used for expressing anything from political opinion to the most intimate matters — matters once reserved for the diary page.
In recent years, Jewish blogs have proliferated into the hundreds.
Jewishblogging.com, which indexes Jewish and Israeli blogs, counts a total of 664 registered on its Web site since 2005. The topics covered vary widely, from blogs devoted to views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to those that parse the often fractious issues of Orthodox Judaism.
One such blog, Orthomom.blogspot.com, which covers Long Island’s Orthodox Jewish communities, was the subject of a recent lawsuit brought by a local elected official who charges that she was slandered on the blog. Last February, the official, Pamela Greenbaum, who serves on board of education in Lawrence, N.Y., filed a lawsuit in a New York state court in an attempt to force Google, whose subsidiary hosts the blog, to reveal Orthomom’s identity. Greenbaum claims that she was called a “bigot” and an “antisemite” on the blog.
In response to Greenbaum’s lawsuit, Public Citizen, a national public interest group that has played a lead role in defending free speech on the Internet, rushed in to defend Orthomom and filed a motion to quash. A decision in the case is still pending.
Paul Levy, the litigator for Public Citizen who filed the motion, said that while some of the comments on the Orthomom blog are “over the top,” those of Orthomom herself do not come close to reaching the level of defamation. Orthomom, he added, is immune to liability and lawsuits for any comments that others post on her blog.
Levy called anonymity on the Internet “a good thing,” because it allows for people who wouldn’t otherwise speak out to do so, and it can be an important forum for whistle-blowing. “Our view has been that unless you show you’ve got a reasonable case, you shouldn’t be able to identify your critic,” Levy said. “Otherwise, anyone who can afford a lawyer can say, ‘I have a claim and I want to identify my critic.’”
The flip side, Levy added, is when anonymity is abused. In those cases, he said, there are remedies for wrongful speech on the Internet.
In Israel, the line between free speech and defamatory language over the Internet has already been tested in court. In 2006, Neve Gordon, a dovish politics professor at Ben-Gurion University, launched a civil suit against Steven Plaut, a hawkish professor at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Haifa, for referring to him in an article published online as a “fanatic anti-Semite” and a “Judenrat wannabe,” among other slurs. Plaut lost and had to pay more than $18,000 in fines to Gordon. Plaut is now appealing the case.
In the United States, Silverstein has invoked the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a 1998 law that covers copyright infringement on the Internet, in his attempts to have the fake blog taken down. Silverstein said that when he contacted Blogger.com, the Google subsidiary that hosts the defamatory Web site, to demand that the site be removed, he was only partially successful. The photographs, which he owned — and that therefore fell under the umbrella of copyright protection — were removed, but the blog itself remains active.
“Clearly the people who run these sites know they’ve violated copyright, and what they’re trying to do is thumb their noses at me,” Silverstein said. “But what they’re actually doing is putting themselves in jeopardy.”