Friday, April 10, 2015

Racism and Hate in the Times of Israel: A Case of Stolen Identity

Earlier today, a blog posted in the online newspaper, Times of Israel (TOI) quickly began to spread like a wild fire. It was a racist rant, entitled “Understanding the Idea of Israeli Land Under Talmudic Law.” In fact, after reading a few paragraphs I was more irked that the so-called author was calling for religious law to be implemented in Israel that I frustratingly stopped reading it after the first paragraph. However, with all on twitter discussing the level of  hate and racism expressed in the article, I decided to go give one more try. On second look (and even third) it was clear that this text was downright genocidal; in fact, it was so vile that I will opt out on sharing the whole article, and will suffice with sharing the below (it even gets worse than this!):

By the end of the author's long rant it seemed almost certainly that this was the job of a hacker, or as suggested, satire gone really bad. Apparently, the TOI took the piece down almost immediately, but it was shared on an archive backup site in order to create as much damage as possible. Furthermore, due the time difference, with it still in the wee hours of the morning in the land Down Under, it would take some time for this incident to unravel, with the author completely unaware of this malicious hacking attack.

However, by early evening New York time, I received a tweet from the person who had supposedly authored the piece, a successful Australian lawyer, Mr. Josh Bornstein, who categorically denied writing it! What? Yes, you heard right, this case was much more complicated than it had seemed to all! 

So what happened? 

Well, if it was simply a case of someone hacking Josh Bornstein’s blogger account, this might have just ended as another major embarrassment for the TOI, which just last summer was caught up in a scandal when one of its bloggers actually did call for the genocide of Palestinians!

This case ended with the blog post being removed, an apology from the author, and most importantly, the TOI issuing a statement that the author "blatantly breached" the blog guidelines. It also reiterated that it would not countenance posts that incite violence or criminal acts, while clarifying the newspaper's policy towards its open blog platform.  In short, this was a case of a blogger's abuse of trust, where bloggers are allowed to post upon their own discretion. In other words, no editorial team goes over the posts before going online.  

What occurred in the current case is obviously much more damning. It was not that a blogger "abused the trust," or breached the guidelines; nor, was it a case of a blogger with good intentions who was maliciously hacked. It was that Josh Bornstein not only did not write this article, but had never written for the Times of Israel. Rather it was an impostor posing as Mr. Bornstein, a case of stolen identity, in which the impostor duped the Times of Israel’s editorial team, convincing them that he was indeed the well-known attorney. About 12 hours after the news hit the twitter headlines, an official statement was released by TOI: 

The statement ended with the following words:

A Breach of Trust

This incident marks a low point for the paper that went online three years ago and is a clear breach of trust between the newspaper and its readers. It is incumbent upon the founder and editor of the newspaper, Mr. David Horovitz, to provide a account of how this scandalous incident occurred, and to explain what steps can be implemented to ensure that this will not happen again.

For now, I will not ponder on why someone chose to steal the identity of this upstanding lawyer, who seems to be a true mensch. The real questions need to be directed to the Times of Israel itself. Clearly it has failed a major test of credibility.

In fact, this was not the only article that was submitted by the impostor. Almost 10 articles were submitted over the last 15 days, some apparently lifted from Mr. Bornstein's own writings found on the internet (why TOI's editorial team thought he would chose their paper to write about Australian labor laws and taxes beats me). 

I contacted Mr. Borstein, and he informed me that he first learned about the incident after receiving bizarre emails and tweets," adding that "some were threatening." TOI also contacted him early on, and disclosed that the impostor had "made a very convincing application to blog on their site."

Due to the severity of the issue, and possible motives of the impostor(s), Mr. Borstein kindly did not elaborate further (which makes perfect sense because of the obvious legal issues and possible criminal activity related to the case). 

If you would like to read some of Mr. Borstein's work, have a look at his blog and a list of writings (some of which have appeared in the Guardian). You will be happy to see a very different person than what many of us thought just 12 hours ago!

For now we can sigh a deep breath of relief at the fact that this has ended peacefully and that Josh Bornstein is safe since this malicious act could have ended really ugly; not to mention the amount of anguish he and his loved ones have suffered.

For now, we will need to wait and see if the Times of Israel is prepared to answer the real hard questions that remain, in a case that seems far from over. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Turkey's Day of Chaos: the New or Old Turkey?

Here in New York, it is 9:00 PM in the evening. In three more hours it will be April 1, or what many know as April Fools Day. However, what we experienced today, March 31, was like an April Fools day gone bad in Turkey, where it became a day of chaos. 

Despite the over four-thousand miles that separate me from Istanbul, a place which I consider as one of my homes, I could feel the immense amount of tension hitting at me via the social media waves. It was 7:00 am my time, 2:00 pm Istanbul time, and I wish I had not checked my twitter. Indeed, I had just went to get a cup of water and planned to go back to sleep. 
Blackout in Turkey (photo by Alec Perkins Daily Digest) 

At the first glance, I saw numerous tweets about a massive electrical outage that had struck the whole country. My feed was filled with tweets and news reports talking about metros, air fields, and stores closing, due to the fact that simply at one moment a major blackout had taken over the whole country. Some tweets were comical, others poked at the lack of accountability of the government. 

For me, this seemed like just another strange day in a country that for the last two years has been full of surprises; the Gezi protests,  recordings released on twitter pointing to mass corruption, the Soma Mine disaster that killed 301 miners, and the electrical outage that struck the polling booths during the presidential elections, which state officials blamed on the work of a stray cat. 

Then, I came across one tweet that with in one second clearly surpassed the story of the electrical outage. A state prosecutor. M. Selim Kiraz, had been taken hostage by a radical militant leftist group, the DHKP-C, which demanded information be released concerning the police killing of the 15-year old Berkin Elvan, who was shot in the head and seriously injured by a teargas canister during the Gezi protests, after laying for months in a coma, until he died. 

Picture of one of the hostage-takers and the prosecutor
The hostage crisis was surreal to say the least; it was splashed across our twitter feeds, with live tweets appearing to come from the hostage-takers themselves, two university students; we only saw the one dressed in a suit, with a beret on his head and a red scarf over his face, who held a gun to the prosecutor, with a Soviet hammer and sickle in the background. As someone who teaches Turkish history, this seemed like it was straight from the 1970's, from the days of Deniz Gezmis; certainly not from 2015.  But it was. This is the reality. 

In mid-afternoon my time, late evening there, slowly the electrical blackout was being replaced with a media blackout of the hostage crisis, and it was clear that the story would not end well. Negotiations between the two parties went astray and in events that are still not clear the two sides clashed, ending with the prosecutor and the two hostage-takers dead. Truly a tragedy for all the families. 

Even if one can only imagine what was going through the two hostage-takers head, who could easily have been my students, and even if one can argue that perhaps the Turkish special forces were too quick to pull the trigger, with it clearly being a botched operation, with the prosecutor now dead, the truth needs to be told: justice cannot be found at the tip of a loaded pistol. This act, regardless of their intentions, needs to be condemned with the strongest words.  

For me however the day symbolized much more. It had seemed that the system had gone totally astray, that the country was going off the rails, spiraling into chaos. Conspiracy from both sides spread like a wild blaze, that was best symbolized by a false report of a fire at an historic Ottoman barracks later that evening.  I too tweeted that there were reports of a fire, which seemed to have been confirmed along side the pro-gov mouth piece Sabah.

False reports of a major fire makes headlines
in pro-gov newspaper Sabah

Happily people in the region of the alleged fire quickly confirmed this to be false. However, the damage done was the fire that was ignited inside of us, and it had taken its toll. 

Tonight we were once again reminded that Turkey is at an extremely vulnerable stage. With elections just a little over two months away, there seems to be no reconciliation insight; and, for anyone who loves this country, Turkish or non-Turkish, pro-government or anti-government, it seems we are all on edge, polarized, frustrated and all very desperate for answers explaining what exactly are all of these events that are occurring in front of our computers screens, and our real lives

Within all this confusion, a major headline of 236 military officers being acquitted after years of serving prison terms for planning a coup against the government, almost seemed mundane. After a day like this who remembers the historic Sledgehammer (Balyoz) case? So much has changed in the last few years. Or, is it that nothing has changed? What Turkey's president, Erdogan, terms as the "New Turkey," seems exactly what we knew as the "Old Turkey." One where justice is a matter of relevance and injustices are great. And, so the story goes on...    

Thursday, March 19, 2015

An Evening With the Joint List and a Breakdown of the Israeli Elections

During the election night, in place of being affixed on my television at home, I made my way up to the Joint List headquarters in Nazareth. Arriving just minutes before the closing of the ballot boxes and the live broadcast of the Exit Polls, the room was packed with activists and members, together with the Israeli and international media, covering one of the big stories of this election. For the first time in Israeli history, the Arab parties joined forces together with the Jewish-Arab Hadash party, in order to ensure that no Arab party would fall under the recently raised parliamentary threshold (see the pre-election guide and my article on the Joint List).  

Celebrating the Joint List Victory
As all eyes were affixed on the three screens (one for each of the main Israeli channels), the countdown began: Five, four, three, two, one. The Likud 27, the Zionist Union 27, the Joint List 13; the crowds cheered. History had been made. The List had secured the third place. And, just as they changed the dynamics of the election campaign season, with the head of its party, Ayman Odeh, becoming somewhat of a star, their voice in the Knesset will be stronger than ever. 

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh being interviewed 

Of course, this is despite the many challenges it faces such as keeping the List intact, which is made up of four different parties with contradicting ideologies; not to mention, the challenge of meeting the high expectations it has raised among its supporters. One reporter asked MP Haneen Zoabi, who is known for her controversial outbursts in the Knesset, about the future of the List and she seemed upbeat that they had found a formula that allowed all the parties to act in unison while continuing to retain their own agenda.  

MP Haneen Zoabi mixing with supporters and media
It was an exhilarating evening, which marked an important step in the direction of reassessing the essence of citizenship in Israel, and the small vibrant Jewish supporters present (who were the minority in the room) cheered together, showing their solidarity with the Palestinian minority in Israel (who were the majority in the room), with a strong sense of unity among all. However, the evening was dampened by what would become the big story of the evening, the Exit Poll had predicted that Netanyahu had succeeded in maintaining his support base, despite the numerous polls that just days before had predicted a decline in support.

The disdain for Netanyhu at the headquarters cannot be underestimated; just that day the Israeli Prime Minister had called on Jews to come out to vote to counter the large participation of Arabs voting, who were “flowing to the ballot boxes in droves.” Yes, the leader of the Jewish state revealed his racist ways in a desperate call to get more votes; inciting citizen against citizen. In fact, the new found power of Palestinians in Israel, ignited one of the most racist campaigns I remember, with Israel Foreign Minister even calling to chop off the heads of Arabs disloyal to the state (yes, you heard right). In the future, I will dedicate a blog to this topic.      

Breaking Down the Elections Results

Now to the elections, what happened? All credible polls in Israel had placed Netanyahu’s Likud trailing behind the Herzog’s Zionist Union. This was not only the consensus of the Israeli Center-Left but also among Likud supporters as well. In fact a look at the final results will show how far the polls were actually off (keep in mind that most polls had placed the Zionist Union at 24 seats with the Likud at 20), with the Likud receiving six seats more than the Zionist Union. Just this morning the final results were declared, after the soldiers votes were counted.

The Final Results:  

Likud 30, Zionist Union 24, Joint List 13, Yesh Aitd 11, Kulanu 10, Bayit Yehudi 8, Shas 7, Y. Torah 6, Yisrael B. 6, Meretz 5.

So what happened? Did the pollsters err?

While it is clear that both the pre-election polls and the Exit polls also were way off, a scientific study would need to be completed to understand the full extent of vote. Regardless, it is apparent that there was a last minute switch among many voters, which went to the Likud. Most likely caused by Netanyahu’s continued hammering in that a vote for Yesh Atid or Kulanu was a vote for a Herzog. Netanyahu also secured votes from the far-right, by convincing people to switch from the mostly settler based Bayit HaYahudi, in order to strengthen his “mandate” against the Left.

Also, as one commentator mentioned on twitter, in the last three days of the campaign Netanyahu provided more interviews than he had in the last two years. In other words, it seems he saw his boat was quickly sinking and he successfully was able to lead it out of rough waters; unfortunately, as mentioned above, also using racist scare tactics. There is no doubt that he pulled through, proving that he is one ace of a politician.   
Does a Victory for the Likud equal a defeat for the Zionist Union?

Not necessarily. The Zionist Union (essentially the Labor party) seriously improved its standing and had it received the extra six mandates in place of the Likud, it is safe to say that Herzog would have had the ability to form a government. Thus, perhaps, the real winner of these elections were the two major parties, the Likud and Labor, returning as the main choice of most Israelis. Together they got 54 seats (up from about 37 in the last elections). This trend is a positive one that will hopefully break the immense amount of political maneuvering of the last two decades.

Is the Labor doomed to remain always second to Likud?

Let’s face it. Since Rabin’s election in 1992, and the major shift to Likud in 1977, the Labor has been trailing the Likud, or the Right block. Further, the crisis in the Israeli left should be seen within the context of the decline of leftist movements in neo-liberal capitalist societies. There is no doubt however that the continued occupation of Palestine (a United Nations non-member state), and how the conflict plays out for the average Israeli, also influences greatly the Israeli political scene. On both fronts, the Labor has failed to convince the Israeli electorate that it offers a better alternative. And, within this failure, parties such as Yesh Atid are able to sweep up 11 seats (down from 19). This party, the neo-liberal capitalist dream, is one defunct of any real ideology other than serving the middle and upper classes needs, who are key swing voters between the two parties. 

So what happened with Meretz?

The leftist liberal party has failed on both fronts as well, this time barely crossing the newly raised parliamentary threshold. Meretz's historical contribution to legislation promoting equality and economic justice is undeniable. However, the party remains a “closed club” for many in the Israeli society, unable to attract societies their legislation aims to protect. Yes, they have feminists, but so does the Labor party. Yes, they promote a LGBT agenda; twenty years ago this was pioneering, today it isn’t. Yes, they have an Arab MP, but its Zionist agenda cuts them off from most of Israel’s twenty percent Palestinian minority. Meretz has become status-quo and it seems that is actually is blocking new Jewish left voices from emerging rather than promoting a dynamic leftist agenda.      

And, the peace process?

What peace process? The only hope on this front now seems to be on the international front where European countries, and recently the United States, are becoming increasingly impatient with Netanyahu; i.e., the only way Israel will enter serious negotiations is via international pressure. The United States will have to take a stand and adopt a clear change in policy. The fact that the Obama and Netanyahu are locked into a round of butting heads makes this switch a bit easier. However, I am not really hopeful Obama has the will or the ability to make real changes. So, for now, most likely it will be more of the same. No doubt that a center-left government would have produced a glimmer of hope. However, we have learned long ago that all past glimmers of hope have only produced more settlements and continued colonization.

 So, the final verdict.....

The sky has not fallen, and the Right wing in Israel is not much stronger than it was before the elections. The Zionist Union with 24 seats has a golden opportunity to strengthen their weaknesses, and unite behind Herzog. However, they need to offer the Israeli people an alternative and not dish out a campaign only based on anti-Netanyahu rhetoric.

Most likely, within the next few weeks, Netanyahu will be able to form a narrow-right government, together with Bayit HaYahudi, Kulanu, and the religious parties. During the upcoming term, however, it will be come clear that they are living on borrowed time. Without, a peace process they will not be able to offer the country's youth a real future. Rather, continued conflict, which will weigh hard on Palestinians living under occupation, and Gaza, which is years under blockade.  

The parties in the opposition, the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, Meretz, and the Joint List need to unite on common struggles, challenging the government on the Knesset floor and in its committees. A real opposition can only work however if it is a united one, which looks beyond on short-term gains. Starting a joint campaign against the racism and delegitimization of the state's Arab citizens could be a place to start. Let us hope that all parties involved will show the responsibility needed for this to work. For now, I remain skeptical. Let's see.