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Jewish leaders grapple with the rough-and-tumble Internet

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American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris: "To read some of the reactions to anything I write about Israel is sometimes to require a very strong stomach." (AJC)

American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris: “To read some of the reactions to anything I write about Israel is sometimes to require a very strong stomach.” (AJC)

(JTA Staff) ()

(JTA Staff) ()

WASHINGTON (JTA) — After the botched terror plot of the "Christmas underwear bomber," David Harris took to the Huffington Post to argue that the United States had something to learn from Israel’s stellar record in airport security.

The argument seemed fairly innocuous as far as Israel-related matters go. But the vitriol unleashed suggested that Harris, the executive director of The American Jewish Committee, might write about the pleasant Israeli weather and still get hammered.

"israel is not on the front line of fighting Islamic radicalism it on the front line of creating Islamic radicalism," said the second of hundreds of commenters, using the name "baffy." "These crazy guys are trying to blow up Americans primarily because of our government’s support of israel’s illegal occupation of palestinian land as well as invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq etc."

Off topic, like many of the comments, but not anti-Semitic.

Things became a little more questionable a few Web pages later in an entry by "jomamas": "Jews need to get something straight: because somebody says ‘we shouldn’t be like Israel’, doesn’t mean that we want to be like Arabs or Iranians, nor does it make them anti-semitic nor Israel haters. I can’t understand how the relatively progressive and educated jewish population is so utterly and completely biased when it comes to the issue of Israel. I don’t like Israel. I am not anti-semitic. I don’t really like Iran or Syria either."

As the response to Harris’ post demonstrates, defending Israel and Jewish interests in tweet time can be rough, anonymous and dirty — and organizational leaders are grappling for strategies on dealing with the phenomenon of personal and anonymous attacks in the comments section.

"To read some of the reactions to anything I write about Israel is sometimes to require a very strong stomach — it can be nasty, over the top, vitriolic and dripping," Harris said.

Still, the AJC leader added, he enjoys access to readers unfiltered by letters page editors.

"I welcome this new environment," he said. "Everything I write, I write myself."

And in the case of left-wing sites such as the Huffington Post, it is important to confront anti-Israel voices, Harris said, rejecting the view of a segment of the organized Jewish community that sees the fight for liberals as futile.

Harris, who also has a regular Jerusalem Post blog, raised some Jewish organizational eyebrows when he decided to reply with a second entry on the Huffington Post, this one commenting on his commenters.

"For some readers my last piece, posted December 31, provided a handy excuse to unleash their unbridled hostility toward Israel," Harris wrote, and outlined his counter-arguments.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was less sanguine in describing the comments responding to the material that he has posted on the Huffington Post.

"It’s a magnet for conspiracy theorists and for haters," Foxman said of the comments section. "I look at it and sometimes wonder why am I bothering."

The answer, he adds quickly, is the "silent majority" — those who don’t post replies but are searching the Internet to learn and acquire the tools to defend Israel in their own communities.

Nevertheless, Foxman has his doubts.

"It’s a vehicle for educating, but it’s a vehicle for all the kooks in the world who want a platform," he said. "I’m not sure we have the antidote."

A spokesman for the Huffington Post, Mario Ruiz, said the blog endeavored to screen offensive comments.

"All comments made on blog posts are currently monitored by paid moderators," Ruiz said. "While every effort is made to eliminate offensive comments, they do occasionally slip through the cracks of a process that handles nearly 2 million comments a month. But from its inception, HuffPost has taken comment moderation very seriously, and devotes a lot of energy and resources to maintaining a civil conversation, free of name calling, ad hominem attacks and offensive language."

Ruiz said it was "great" that Harris was taking on his commenters.

Faulting the Huffington Post for such comments would be unfair, considering their ubiquity on pro-Israel Web sites, including The Jerusalem Post, said Eric Rozenman, the Washington director of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

"Look at the talkbacks at any place to any article that stirs a little controversy — the Post, Haaretz — it can be appalling and disconcerting, the kind of stuff you used to see on bathroom walls," he said. "The technology has enabled the fringe to go mainstream, and no one knows what to do about it."

While it’s difficult enough keeping the anti-Semitic genie in the bottle in the mainstream media, CAMERA’s most recent struggle has been with C-SPAN, the cable broadcaster dedicated to making government transparent through live broadcasts of the U.S. Congress and the executive branch.

For the last year and a half, CAMERA has tracked a cadre of diehard anti-Semites who have been abusing C-SPAN’s open caller policy, injecting vitriol against Israel and Jews into just about any discussion, ranging from taxes to Middle East policy.

Until now, the reply from C-SPAN has been radio silence.

Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who has claimed he lost work because of his anti-Israel views, was a guest Jan. 4 on the network’s "Washington Journal" program. A caller identifying himself as "John from Franklin, N.Y." launched into an anti-Semitic tirade saying he was "sick and tired of all these Jews" who were "willing to spend the last drop of American blood and treasure to get their way in the world."

Jews, the caller said, have "way too much power" and "jewed us into Iraq."

In response, host Bill Scanlan turned to Scheuer and said, "Any comments?"

Scheuer appeared to approve of what John had to say.

"Yeah. I think that American foreign policy is ultimately up to the American people," he said. "One of the big things we have not been able to discuss for the past 30 years is the Israelis."

On Monday, in response to a JTA query, the broadcaster acknowledged that the host should have been more proactive in dealing with the caller.

"Program hosts, whose role is to facilitate the dialogue between callers and guests, are certainly permitted to step in when a caller makes ad hominem attacks or uses obscenity or obviously racist language," C-SPAN said in a statement to JTA. "Given that this involves quick judgment during a live television production, it’s an imperfect process that didn’t work as well as it should have that day."

Readers can judge whether the Huffington Post’s screening process worked in response to Harris’ piece on Israeli airport security.

One official at another Jewish organization who also blogs on Huffington Post wondered about Harris’ decision to engage with the commenting crowd.

"Jewish fascists and anti-Semites are the prominent animals" in the comments sections, said the official who spoke on background to avoid a contretemps with Harris. "It’s like watching pornography — who’s going to get the sickest thing in."

The official said he enjoys Huffington Post as a platform to reach liberal cognoscenti and the current political leadership — not the commenters "banging away in their footsie pajamas in their mothers’ basements."

"To go to the comments and take them seriously — they’re not representative, you should stay away from it," he said.

Harris says knocking those guys off the page is the point.

Ultimately, he adds, his target is the "sophisticated consumer" who can tell the difference between the vicious and the civil — and he noted that he also earned civil critiques from those who criticize Israel.

"I rely to a large degree on the sophistication of the consumer," Harris said, "and I think we underestimate that."

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