Jews fooled by phony chain e-mail

LONDON, May 4 (JTA) — Heard the one about the father who told his children he was leaving their mother in order to get them to come home for Passover? What about the man who taught his parrot to daven? Read any good Jewish haiku lately?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” there’s probably e-mail involved. Jewish jokes have been circulating on the Internet since e-mail became widely available, and most forwarded e-mail is amusing or harmless.

But there is a breed of not-so-harmless forwarded e-mail infiltrating the online Jewish community — petitions that ask the recipient to take action against some perceived injustice.

One of the most widely circulated petitions concerns the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, which was allegedly under threat from developers who wanted to turn it into residential property.

That e-mail was full of errors and inaccuracies, but it did have an effect on the Czech government, according to a representative of the Czech Ministry of Culture.

An official in the ministry’s Department of Monument Preservation said her office has been getting an average of 20 to 30 cemetery-related e-mails a day since January. Most of them were from Great Britain or the United States, she said, but responses have come from as far away as Venezuela, South Africa and Israel.

A Prague site, but not the Old Jewish Cemetery, had been the subject of controversy since 1998, when an insurance company excavating to build an underground parking lot at its headquarters uncovered the remains of what is probably the Czech Republic’s oldest Jewish cemetery.

The e-mail chain letter alleges that “Pressure is being put on the Jewish Community of Prague by the Czech Government to allow [an] insurance company to build residential properties on the site currently occupied by the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Jewish Quarter of Prague.”

The e-mail claims that the cemetery in question is the one where Rabbi Judah Loew, the legendary creator of the Golem, is buried. It urges readers to e- mail the Czech Minister of Culture, “Mr. Pavel Dorstal,” to protest.

For starters, the Culture Minister’s name is “Dostal,” with no “R.”

And the Ceska Pojistovna insurance company plans to build an underground parking garage, not residences. Perhaps most important, the graveyard that was discovered is not the famous Old Jewish Cemetery — that cemetery is in Josefov, the historic Jewish Quarter.

The graveyard on Vladislavova Street is an even older Jewish cemetery uncovered during excavation two years ago. Likely the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Czech lands, it had been abandoned and all but forgotten centuries ago, said Tomas Kraus, executive secretary of the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities.

The Czech government, the insurance company and the local Jewish community have reached a compromise under which construction will continue above the cemetery without further disturbing the graves.

But the inaccuracies in the e-mail have not stopped hundreds of people from writing to Dostal — the chain letter does have the correct e-mail address for the Minister of Culture.

New Yorker Helen Bird was one who took action.

“I am not a person who forwards this kind of thing usually,” she told JTA via e-mail. “I did this because I was profoundly touched by the cemetery when I was in Prague. I proceeded to write an impassioned letter of my own, which I forwarded along with the original letter to every Jew or concerned person on my e-mail list. I was therefore incredibly embarrassed to find out that what I had forwarded was misinformation.”

And Bird is not alone. Eyal Dulin, who also lives in the United States, did the same. “I am ashamed to say that I reacted in a knee-jerk fashion when I received the mentioned e-mail. I did send an e-mail to the e-mail address provided in the text of the message and forwarded the e-mail on as well.

“It was only after hitting the send button that my common sense suddenly kicked in and I did what I should have done in the first place, question the authenticity of the message,” Dulin concluded.

Residents of the Czech Republic were less likely to be fooled.

Graduate student Denisa Kera was amused by the chain letter at first, but then became angry.

“The petition I got was organized by someone who does not have any idea of what is happening in Prague,” she said. “I was actually amused by the stupidity of someone who wants to save something that is not in danger. But now I acknowledge that it is a dangerous petition because many people believed it.”

There’s no way to know how many people have received the e-mail, but if each person who got it forwarded it to only five people, by the fifth generation there would be 3,125 copies of the message. If those 3,125 people each forwarded it to five people, there would be 15,625 copies.

Some copies have included lists of more than 60 recipients, and Michal Pober, who lives near Prague, said he got the e-mail when it was sent to all the participants in last year’s conference of child survivors of the Holocaust. That conference had literally hundreds of people on its mailing list, so in all probability, hundreds of thousands of people have gotten the chain letter.

Nobody seems to know who is responsible for the original letter, but the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities would like to find out, said Kraus, its executive secretary.

“As to the chain letter, I don’t know [where it came from] and that would be of an interest to us as well as you can imagine,” he said. The Czech Jewish community has been frustrated by what it sees as outside interference in the cemetery issue, with rabbis from Great Britain organizing protests in London and Prague.

The e-mail cites as its source a letter written by Czech Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon to the London Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.

Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg, of the committee, said his organization was behind the international campaign to find a solution to the cemetery controversy, but denied sending the erroneous e-mail.

“We don’t publish articles through e-mail,” he said, noting that he doesn’t even have a computer.

The Czech Ministry of Culture has posted correct information about the cemetery on its Web site, and Ceska Pojistovna, the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress have all attempted to correct the errors in the e-mail.

But the original copy with its mistakes is still circulating.

Experts on e-mail chain letters have simple advice on what people should do when they receive electronic petitions.

Don’t Spread That Hoax!, a Web site devoted to fighting the phenomenon, advises, “Don’t send it unless you either know the message is true, you can authenticate [the sender's identity], or you know the sender personally and know they would have written this message.

“If the message tells you to do something, check with someone knowledgeable that you can trust,” advises the site, at www.nonprofit.net/hoax/hoax.html.

Andrew Barrett, of the Forum for Responsible and Ethical E-mail, at www.ybecker.net, said, “I distrust unsolicited information no matter which medium is used to propagate it. When it comes to e-mail, it’s particularly helpful to remember that, since it is so inexpensive to send, and can be sent with relative anonymity, the sender risks little or nothing at all by propagating their dubious message.”

Barrett recommends asking a reliable authority before taking any action on e-mail petitions. “Forward them a copy of the message and ask if they’ve seen it before and if they can provide any guidance,” he said.

Don’t Spread That Hoax! also recommends keeping the date in mind when e-mail comes your way. “When April 1 comes up, the Net will be awash in phony messages, forged return addresses, pranks and general amusing nonsense. The best thing to do is read them and have a good laugh.”

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