In praise of the Jewish blogosphere
In the age before blogs, Jewish leaders were like political bosses. Anyone who questioned them was frozen out of communal discourse.
I began my blog, Tikun Olam, in February, 2003, one month before the Iraq war began. Even more than opposition to the imminent war, what motivated me was my passion to speak out on behalf of Israeli- Palestinian peace. Military force, I have always believed, though it might serve a legitimate defensive function, ultimately could never resolve the conflict. I have been dedicated to this cause all my adult life, but until blogging developed, I had no regular, public means of expressing my views.
It was lonely at first. The world of blogs, not to mention of progressive Jewish ones, was much smaller five years ago. But what drove me was seeing blogging as a personal expression of angst, passion, anger, identity - whatever are your deepest emotions.
In the beginning, I reached out with mixed success to other like-minded bloggers. In 2005, I created Israel-Palestine Forum, for progressive discussion, and in the hope that this would amplify our message in the greater blog world. But bloggers are fiercely independent creatures. They don't necessarily want to be organized or part of a community. So I've had to adjust my ambitions and set humbler goals.
After five years of blogging, 2,000 posts, and 6,000 comments, I have a modest but substantial readership with 200 subscribers and 200,000 unique visitors annually. I would like my impact both on the blog world and the broader debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be larger. But bloggers are often seen by "serious" journalists as shouters, dilettantes and dabblers rather than serious participants in the media discourse. While these generalizations sometimes are true, many of us break important stories and do serious independent research. Some of us have sources, life experience or expertise that few journalists have.
In the age before blogs, Jewish leaders were like political bosses. They ruled their roosts, and anyone who questioned them was easily frozen out of communal discourse. Their politics were conservative and generally supportive of the Israeli right. For its part, the Jewish media was a corporate entity that largely expressed the views of such leaders. The few dissenting individuals and organizations made barely a ripple in the communal pond.
Blogs have changed that. Now, Jewish "bosses" can be held up to immediate public scrutiny. When Abraham Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, refused to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, the Jewish press and bloggers took him to task and he backed down. When the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published a quote falsely attributed to Desmond Tutu equating Israel with Hitler, the MuzzleWatch blog brought this to the Jewish community's attention, and JTA corrected the record.
More importantly, when Israeli policy goes off the rails, as it did during the Second Lebanon War, peace bloggers published almost minute-by-minute coverage documenting the carnage and folly of the military-political decisions that informed the conflict, demonstrating the power of the Internet to circumvent the control of governments and centralized authority.
And if most Israelis who supported the war while it was happening concede today that it was a failure, I would argue that that is, in part, because of the dissenting voices in the Israeli and world media, including blogs like mine and others, which caused a reconsideration of both the cost of the war and the supposed benefits touted by Israel's politicians and generals.
Bloggers conducted a furious debate for and against the war. No one could pull the plug on us, and even if we weren't feared or noticed by the Olmerts and Halutzes of this world, we could have our say and people listened.
Not that all's always well in the Jewish blog world. The breaking down of communal consensus has caused a breakdown of civility, and some blogs are characterized by a barrage of hate, invective and verbal assault.
There has also been a steep rise in partisanship. More radical, violent and racist ideas get more attention than they ever did in the past. I have been unsuccessfully sued for libel for calling militant pro-Israel activist Rachel Neuwirth a "Kahanist." The owner of another far-right site, Masada2000, started a mock blog in my name, which included pornographic references and a stolen image of my son and me, with a caption saying we were making bombs (we were baking cookies). Masada2000's owner also threatened me with genital mutilation. Members of the Kahanist Jewish Task Force Web site wished that I would get cancer of the rectum. It would be wrong to see these merely as aberrant Jewish expressions or the actions of lone troubled individuals (though they might be that). For the Internet has given nuts a huge megaphone to amplify and spread their hate.
My aim is to improve the Jewish blogosphere by encouraging more liberal voices to join the debate. We need more prominent communal figures and even journalists to understand the power of blogs and begin writing their own. Some, like Leonard Fein, Bernard Avishai and Daniel Levy have already done so. But there is room for much more. And, as more newspaper readers migrate to the Web, I'm hoping that the mainstream media both in Israel and America will expand their interest in blogs and incorporate what we have to say into their reporting.
Richard Silverstein blogs at Tikun Olam about Israeli- Palestinian peace, world and Jewish music, and U.S. politics. He lives in Seattle with his family.