Why Do U.S. Jews Avoid Debate on Technology Issues?

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When Jews and technology make headlines together it’s in one of two contexts: Israeli technological innovations and the ultra-Orthodox community’s warnings about the dangers of the Internet. But when it comes to engaging in topical issues concerning technology – like the Federal Communications Commission’s announcement that it is planning to liberalize its regulations on net neutrality, or the debate on government surveillance that arose in the wake of the Snowden files – the Jewish-American community goes silent.

It is odd that the leadership of the Jewish-American community abstains from publicly expressing its opinions on technological issues of this sort and from holding substantive debates on them, because the Jewish-American community cares a great deal about technology.

This is evident in the fact that the Haredim hold public debates on technological matters that are relevant to religious life. In 2012, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered in New York at a mass rally to raise awareness about what they described as the dangers of the Internet. The event was widely covered, even by the New York Times. A few weeks ago, a smaller rally in Brooklyn, aimed specifically at women, asserted the same theme. Secular American Jews may criticize the Haredi community’s aversion to the Internet, but their activism shows a clear willingness to engage in conversation about issues of technology.

It is also evident in the way American Jews take pride in Israel’s technological leadership, lavishing praise on innovations that emerge from the Jewish state. “Start Up Nation” is a household phrase, especially among members of the pro-Israel camp. Usage of the phrase even extends beyond the Jewish community, with Forbes describing Israel as such in its list of hot Israeli startups last week. Supposedly, we have an investment in and appreciation for the positive contributions Israeli technology (and perhaps thus technology more generally) can bring to the world. We claim to have a vested interest in its potential for good, and yet our community limits its collective discourse on technology to praising Israel’s achievements.

Were the Jewish-American community willing to engage in public debate on matters of technology, it could apply its socially conscious values (which are so deeply ingrained in up-and-coming Jewish groups) to the cutting edge of American policy debate. Many American Jewish groups champion the proposed minimum wage hike and comprehensive immigration reform because of their commitment to economic equality and human rights. Issues like net neutrality, the tech-induced changing face of the job market, patent reform and the clash between unions and startups speak to those same underlying ethical and economic values that compel action around our political work. Technology is another dimension to the advocacy in which we’re already enmeshed.

Many American Jewish organizations use Jewish values as a diving board to engage with other pressing problems. They recognize that organizationally, we needn’t confine our activism to issues that explicitly relate to Judaism or Israel. Why shouldn’t we organize around the challenges and opportunities technology creates?

Benjy Cannon studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland. He is deeply involved in collegiate Jewish life at Maryland Hillel, where he sits on the board of directors, and is a J Street U communications co-chair. Follow him on Twitter, or send him an email.

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