Several readers have asked to read this original, expanded version of the article Haaretz published yesterday under the title, In Praise of the Jewish Blogosphere:
I began my blog, Tikun Olam, in February, 2003 precisely one month before the
So when I began reading about weblogs, as they were called then, and the technology behind them, I decided to throw myself into it with as much passion as I devoted to learning Microsoft Word in 1986, shortly after it was first developed.
It was lonely at first. The world of blogs was much smaller then. The world of Jewish blogging even smaller and the world of progressive Jewish blogging even smaller still. At times, I wondered for whom I was writing. But I kept telling myself that even if I was only writing for myself that would be dayenu. First and foremost, a blog is a personal expression of angst, passion, anger, identity—whatever are your deepest emotions. Of course, everyone wants an audience. But if you don’t have something deeply felt to say, then there’s no reason to have one.
In the beginning, I reached out with mixed success to other bloggers with like-minded views. In 2005, I created a progressive discussion forum, Israel-Palestine Forum. I thought creating a Jewish blogging community was a worthwhile goal in itself; but that this also would amplify our message in the greater blog world. Bloggers though are fiercely independent creatures. They don’t want to be organized. They don’t necessarily want to be part of a community. And they surely don’t want to do what you think they should do. 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. The Guardian’s Comment is Free and American Conservative Magazine have published my work. I have guest blogged at the “alt-Jewish” website, Jewcy. Reporters have interviewed me for stories in the New York Times, Jewish Forward, Jewish Week and Seattle Post Intelligencer.
But my impact both on the blog world and the broader debate over the I-P conflict is still less than I would like. The mainstream media doesn’t beat a path to your door and even progressive sites like Huffington Post, Salon, Slate, and The Nation already have journalists covering this issue and aren’t looking for new voices. Al achat kama v’kama, the mainstream media, who are even less interested. Bloggers, except for the best known, are generally seen as second class citizens. Their writing is viewed as less trustworthy than “real” journalism. Bloggers are seen by “serious” journalists as shouters, dilettantes and dabblers rather than serious participants in the media discourse. This of course causes bloggers like me endless heartburn. I know that many of my posts deserve wider distribution, but since I’m not a major political blogger like Juan Cole, Markos Moulitsas or Eric Alterman, I have no traction.
Despite the difficulties I outlined above, blogs have played a critical role in the American Jewish community and their importance will only continue to grow. In the age before blogs, Jewish leaders were like political bosses. They ruled their roosts. Once installed, they were rock-like presences and stayed in their positions seemingly forever. Their word was halacha l’moshe mi’sinai. Anyone who doubted it was easily frozen out of communal discourse. The leaders’ politics were conservative and generally supportive of the Israeli right. The Jewish media was a corporate entity that largely expressed the views of such leaders.
Certainly, there were dissenters regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg and others. There were also progressive Jewish peace groups over the years like Breira and New Jewish Agenda. But with few financial resources, small memberships, and young, inexperienced staff, these groups formed barely a ripple in the communal pond. Their voice was heard mostly by those who already subscribed to their ideas. They were easily sidelined.
Even more importantly, when Israeli policy goes off the rails as it did during the
I am not the first to note that blogs have democratized communication and political debate. But this is especially true in the formerly top-down structure of the Jewish communal hierarchy. Malcolm Hoenlein doesn’t give me marching orders. Neither does AIPAC. I march to my own drummer. And that is the beauty of the blog.
Not that all’s always well in the Jewish blog world. Along with this democratization of the means of communication has come a maelstrom of conflicting opinions. The breaking down of communal consensus has caused a breakdown of civility and an accompanying barrage of hate, invective, and verbal assault. Just look at the Haaretz, Jerusalem Post or Ynet talkbacks if you want to see evidence of such chaos. And the talkbacks are moderated! Imagine if they weren’t.
There has also been a steep rise in partisanship. More radical, violent and racist ideas get attention than ever did in the past. Reasoned debate has almost become a thing of the past. Instead, people go for the jugular. 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 baking cookies to which a caption was added claiming we were making Palestinian suicide bombs. Masada2000’s owner also threatened me with genital mutilation. Members of the Kahanist Jewish Task Force website 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 wingnuts a huge megaphone with which to amplify such hate and bring it into the mainstream.
Over the past few months, an anonymous right-wing hoax e mail campaign flooded the inboxes of American Jews. It sought to portray Barack Obama as a stealth Muslim presidential candidate who would bring the views of Al Qaeda into the White House. In a close Democratic primary and general election, these types of smears don’t have to have much credibility nor do they have to. All they have to do is instill fear and doubt into the minds of a relatively small group of voters in order to have a critical effect on the elections. While Goebbels championed the “big lie” these slandermeisters work by planting small seeds of doubt in the minds of many.
Blogs can represent the highest values and ideals of Jewish tradition. And they can also represent the basest emotions lurking in the Jewish breast. Often they are somewhere in between. But there is no going back to the days of yesteryear.
I work 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 I’m hoping that the mainstream media both in