Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Ha’aretz”

Gaza and Facebook Pt. 2

This post follows on from Monday’s post regarding the progression of the Internet in Gaza,  a politically ravaged and poor country which has a huge proportion of its population under the age of thirty.

Dr. Saidam - the Palestinian Mr. IT.

The image that Gaza is a technologically backward country is wrong according to Dr. Sabri Saidam. Gaza has the largest number of Facebook users in the world per capita and (also per capita) the largest number of video conferencing in the world is also in the Palestinian territories. “The legislative council used to meet through video conferencing in the West Bank and Gaza,” says Saidam.

“There were medical exams conducted over the Internet. My mother, who lives in Gaza, has a heart problem. She comes to Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem for treatment. And in so many cases, she was refused permission to go back to Gaza after treatment. That’s one of the reasons I was trying to promote Internet treatment so people wouldn’t have to travel. People take it for granted because the culture of IT is so embedded in society, but there are economic hardships that prevent people from acquiring technology, even though 94 percent use cell phones.”

Saidam has worked hard to teach about social media and the Internet. He launched an initiative to encourage those who use the Internet to teach their parents, as well as stay-at-home mothers, to use the computer and to surf the Internet. He also hosts a radio program in which he advises listeners about what should not be publicized on Facebook. If they surf in other countries, he tells them, they need to bear in mind that their boss has the ability to surf their page. He also warns that the Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, can monitor them as well.

This is no idol scaremongering as Saidam is keenly aware that it is Israeli companies who provide Palestinian telecommunication services. “This is a prime source of intelligence for the Shabak [Shin Bet], Mossad and whatever,” he says. “Everybody here publishes his or her beliefs and opinions and pictures and family news – everything. I tell them: You are the owner of the information. Whatever you are hesitant about – don’t release it.”

Saidam is frustrated that Palestinian politicians seem apprehensive about utilizing the Internet because they have no control over those who surf it. “But then they came to realize that it’s something that is totally out of the censorship scissors, nobody can gag anybody else, it’s a free world.”

The now infamous Third Intifada Facebook page that was closed by Facebook because it was inciting violence, Saidam points out, was created in Lebanon – not in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. However, once the page was closed this served only to excite young Palestinians who opened several more such pages and websites.

Internet communication has led to a number of peace initiatives that are coordinated between activists from all countries in the region. Whether this leads to more peaceful initiatives or a third Intifada remains to be seen.

Whichever way it turns, the potential for information to flow strengthens the hope that people on both sides of the conflict will have the ability to make more informed choices and possibly form low-barrier connections with those on the other side.

The Internet may yet hold the key to peace. But first, we need to ensure that as many people as possible are using it.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Gaza and Facebook Part 1

When you think of Gaza, many images come to mind: poverty, Muslim fundamentalism, frustration, unemployment, Facebook. Facebook? Yes, the Palestinians in Gaza, for all their challenges, are online and connecting.

Dr. Sabri Saidam, a former member of the Palestinian Authority government began getting involved in politics at the not so young age of 34. He was immediately appointed minister of communications and information technology and became known as “Mr. Technology.”

“Coming from the IT field, I can tell you honestly that I’ve always felt as if I were carving in stone – getting computers or talking about e-government in Palestine was mission impossible,” he says in an interview with Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. “Now all the politicians are meeting bloggers and talking to them. There was no party interested in these people until the events in Tunisia and Egypt. They were considered to be time-wasters, kids.”

Saidam now works in Washington for the Aspen Institute where he continues to promote entrepreneurship among young Palestinians. “All of a sudden, everybody wants to know and have a private session to talk about Facebook and how they can open an account,” he says.

Saidam estimates that half of Palestinian households in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have computers and about 30% are connected to the Internet. As we saw in Egypt and Tunisia, however, this does not include cell phone connectivity.

“When the demonstrations started in Tunisia, there were 600,000 Palestinian Facebook users, and 200,000 of them were posting about politics. Each one of these 200,000 Facebook users is influencing five people around him. We’re talking about over a million Palestinians over the age of 18. In terms of population size, that’s 33 percent. In Egypt, that would be 28 million Egyptians, but there it took only 2,890 bloggers and computer activists to do what was done. The moral of the story is that there is a critical mass of Palestinians waiting to see how things are going to swing.”

Saidam believes that access to a wider discussion group and opinions will broaden the political debate within Gaza and include the younger generation, who make up the majority of the population in Gaza. “But there is no Palestinian Wael Ghonim [the young Google marketing executive who became a symbol of the revolution] . . . It’s the issue of getting bored of the fact that they see leaders who existed for dozens of years. They don’t want any leaders.”

It was the younger generation of Palestinians who marched on March 15 demanding an end to the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. This prompted President Abbas to decide he would go to Gaza and flesh out the subsequent agreement.

“The young people felt they had some influence on the decision,” says Saidam. “And I am telling my peers that they should not only passively listen but allow young blood to flow into the decision making of the parties.”

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Circumcision Debate – an anti-Semetic attack?

When the whole circumcision debate and ballot issue surfaced, I was one of the first to dismiss those who claimed it as an anti-Semitic attack. There is something, a survival gene some might say, in the Jewish mind that has us immediately wondering if there is a threat to the Jewish people whenever something like this come up.

A number of Jewish community leaders came out and said that a fair debate leading to a ballot proposal was part of democracy. The American Defamation League (ADL) President did, however suggest that it could “provide fodder for anti-Semites,” Abraham H. Foxman said. “Not all opponents to circumcision are anti-Semitic, but most anti-Semites oppose circumcision,” which is a cornerstone of the Jewish (and Muslim belief).

But this has all changed when ‘Monster Mohel,’ a comic book which is one of two titles in the ‘Foreskin Man’ comic book series created by the Male Genital Mutilation Bill group pushing to make male circumcision illegal in San Francisco, was released.A Mohel is a the title for the person who conducts the ritual.

The comic books feature clearly “identifiably Orthodox Jewish characters as evil villains, [who are] ‘disrespectful and deeply offensive … This is an advocacy campaign taken to a new low,” according to the ADL statement. “No matter what one’s personal opinions of male circumcision, it is irresponsible to use stereotypical caricatures of religious Jews to promote the anti-circumcision agenda.”

Nancy J. Appel, ADL Associate Regional Director for the Bay Area said the book, which features identifiably Orthodox Jewish characters as evil villains, was “disrespectful and deeply offensive.” In an interview with Ha’aretz, the left-wing Israeli newspaper, she said:

“This is a sensitive, serious issue where good people can disagree and which the Jewish community feels is an assault on its values and traditions going back thousands of years and centered in the Hebrew Bible,”

“It is one thing to debate it, is another thing to degrade it. ‘Foreskin Man,’ with its grotesque anti-Semitic imagery and themes, reaches a new low and is disrespectful and deeply offensive,” she said, adding that ” Some of the imagery calls to mind age-old anti-Semitic canards such as the blood libel, the accusation that Jews ritually murder Christian children.”

Where have we seen such images before?

What is ironic is that by going to such low extremes, the Male Genital Mutilation Bill group has just moved the focus of the debate from the act itself to racism and bigotry. You blew it, guys. Seriously.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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