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After a website breach, an ulpan teacher takes to Instagram to school hackers — on grammar

When the owner of a Hebrew language school in Tel Aviv discovered that the websites for his business and hundreds of others had been hacked to display the same mistake-riddled text, he knew just what to do — correct it.

On May 21, Yaron Sivan woke up to texts from friends and students, alerting him that instead of schedules for online classes and testimonials from satisfied graduates, the website’s homepage displayed a black screen, a video with simulated footage of Tel Aviv burning, and messages in Hebrew announcing that “the countdown for the destruction of Israel began a long time ago.”

Except it actually said something like, “Opposite counting to the demolition of Israel will begin a long time ago,” said Sivan, who as a professional Hebrew teacher immediately noticed the “ill-written” nature of the text.

The May 21 attack was no hack job, despite the grammar issues. It is actually thought to be the latest skirmish in a cyberwar between Israel and Iran. While the hack has not been explicitly linked to Iran, Iranian hackers may have been involved. About two weeks before the hack, on May 9, computers at Iran’s important Shahid Rajaee port briefly crashed as a result of hacking attributed to Israel. In late April, Israel detected and ultimately prevented an attempt to breach some rural water distribution systems, which was later linked to Iran.

Sivan runs an ulpan, or intensive Hebrew learning program for tourists and immigrants. Ulpans date from Israel’s first days as a country, when mass immigration necessitated a standardized crash course in basic Hebrew. The Israeli government still offers five months of Hebrew instruction to recent immigrants. Some ulpans are public; Sivan’s, Ulpan Bayit, is a four-year-old private program located in Tel Aviv’s trendy Florentin neighborhood, serving mostly students in their twenties and thirties. Years as a teacher had rendered him attuned to the mistakes of non-native speakers.

So he decided it was time to give the hackers an impromptu Hebrew lesson.

Sivan took to Instagram to point out the numerous grammatical blunders committed by the hackers. In a sentence warning people to “be prepared for a big surprise,” they had confused the imperative and infinitive tense, he wrote in a post. Later on, they’d made the mistake of using unnecessary prepositions.

The stunt was a way to let students know that they shouldn’t use the compromised website (among other things, it asked visitors for webcam access) and inject some humor into an otherwise stressful situation. Hundreds of websites, most hosted by the Israeli internet company UPress, had been affected by the breach, and Sivan said that when he checked UPress’s Facebook page for updates, he found it flooded with customers furious about the hack.

“Especially with the corona situation, people are so frustrated and irritated,” he said.

For Sivan, the episode was the cause of some household role reversal. His wife, stand-up comedian Tom Yaar, was incensed about the hack. Meanwhile he, a pragmatic teacher, was content to spend the morning cracking jokes.

“I’m not a person who gets frustrated from things I can’t do anything about,” he said. “I just do what I like, which is posting funny, stupid things on Instagram.”

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