Webloggers gamble their reputation with every link they offer. 
-- Jorn Barger ([email protected]), January 13, 2000. 
ModemJunkie

Reflections of a ModemJunkie

January, 2000

Trust or Consequences

by Leonard Grossman

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Ah, a clean slate, a new page, a new year, a new start, a brave new world. . .. Well, already I know better.

After a relaxing Holiday weekend, I began writing my January essay in long hand. With my right hand. That would not be unusual except for two things: 1. I am left handed. 2. I haven't written anything by hand that could be written on a keyboard for the last ten years. My handwriting is illegible. That was the reason, and the only reason, I got a computer back in the dark ages. So, I had hoped to begin the new era with an exploration of the results of an experiment in attempting to write with my right hand for several days. The new millennium would begin with a new me. Clear thinking, competent, patient, thorough. But just as so often happened before we entered the '00s, something occurred that stole my time and interrupted my plans.

In late December, the editor of a respected Weblog quoted extensively, selectively, and, worst of all, from my perspective, approvingly, from a very troubling document. This event raised a number of significant issues. How do we discern troubling content? How can we validate what we find? And What can we do about it?

I am not the first nor will I be the last to explore these matters. Others have already joined the fray. I hope this essay will stimulate a further discussion and debate on the issues.

One of the interesting things about the Internet is the ability of anyone, even me, to create and publish authentic looking, authoritative appearing documents for virtually no cost and with little effort. A bogus report on a serious subject looks just as official as the real thing. Using search engines, we can be led to official authority, unofficial commentary, and misleading or fraudulent material in the click of a mouse. In the face of such possibility questions must also be raised about the responsibilities of web authors.

One of the joys of the Internet is discovering new sites about wholly new subjects - - things I never knew I was interested in. Search engines and portals are useful for finding something when you know what you are looking for, but where do you go to find the unknown.

I have written before in these pages in praise of Weblogs. Further, In the "Getting Started section of my home page, I wrote,

In the last two years Weblogs have become a phenomenon on the web. Although the sites are filtered through the sensibility of the editor or "blogger," you can quickly come to know the quirks and strengths of one or two, so you know who to trust and what to take with a grain of salt. Blogs vary from sites which are little more than lists of new links discovered and collected during the blogger's daily online journey , to detailed diaries and journals. Most are eclectic but focus on a few areas of interest.

Before the advent of Weblogs, the one of the best ways to find new sites was to follow newsgroups that specialized in announcements of new pages. I still like them because you can find sites that otherwise slip through the cracks - especially because they are unfiltered by a reviewer's tastes or interests. I have pointed to some in the Getting Started section. But, these sites rely on descriptions prepared by the page editors and authors themselves, or their publicists, not necessarily objective observers. In the welter of new sites, hot lists, and commercial portals, I felt that Weblogs provided a useful tool to assist the web surfer to find new and interesting sites in a more personal way.

So, How did I get absorbed in this topic?

In late December, Jorn Barger, editor of the Robot Wisdom WebLog pulled ten paragraphs from an article he called a "[l]ong, extremely lucid (and appalling) history of Jewish fundamentalism" and quoted them on his page. (The material to which I refer has since been moved to an archive.)

I have written before in praise of Mr. Barger. I turn to his Weblog at least once a day to stay current in many areas. So, as a Jew, it was with great interest that I looked at what he had quoted.

Mr. Barger's introduction was extremely provocative. I read his quoted material closely. Then I turned to the referenced article. The article was indeed long. A printout covered 59 pages. But it was more lurid than lucid, It was the article itself that was appalling. I questioned whether what I found there can truly be called a "history" of Jewish fundamentalism.

What I read on The Robot Wisdom Weblog page disturbed me. It contained strangely concatenated political and historical arguments with irrelevant but inflammatory quotations purportedly taken from the Talmud and other sources of Jewish law (Halacha). It presented questionable interpretations of current practices among Orthodox Jews in Israel. All of these were drawn from the text of the article, but in a way that heightened their inflammatory nature.

However, I am not an expert on Talmud. I am not an expert in Halacha, and certainly not in halachic practice among Orthodox Jews in Israel.

The Stomach Test

So, how did I know something was wrong? I trusted my stomach. Something just did not seem right. This is not a scientific test, but it is one which we must develop and must exercise when looking at anything on the Internet.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography -- "I know it when I see it." I concede that isn't good enough for the complete analysis, but it is a starting place. I have learned that we must not accept anything we find at face value. When something doesn't seem right we must challenge it.

What does that mean?

It does not mean that all of us must become web police officers. We don't have the time or energy. But when something doesn't look or sound right we must at least challenge it in our own minds. We must develop critical thinking.

There are some tools we can use, some questions we can ask.

Is the material presented calmly or in a lurid or sensational manner? Does it take its materials out of context?

In the instant case, the very lurid nature of the selected quotations was sufficient to raise a flag. A quotation about Jewish law treating listening to the voice of a woman as being equal to adultery, should put the reader on guard. The use of quotations from religious texts out of context is always suspect.

Of cource, such a flag is not foolproof. Indeed, there is commentary which makes such a similar statement. However, as, Adin Steinsaltz, one of the great contemporary commentators noted in The Essential Talmud that, "[a]lthough its main objective is to interpret and comment on a book of law, it is, simultaneously, a work of art that goes beyond legislation and its practical application. And although the Talmud is, to this day, the primary source of Jewish law, it cannot be cited as an authority for ruling . . ." Later in the book, he states, "It is impossible to arrive at external knowledge of this work." While this statement may infuriate critics, it is essentially true of external critiques of many religious writings. It is especially true of the Talmud because of the nature of the composition and study of the Talmud.

The most provocative quotation might be technically accurate, in some way, but is it relevant? What is the context? How is it being used?

There are subjects that are lurid, deservedly so. But when a document purporting to be an historical analysis seems shocking, it is necessary to raise an eyebrow.

Is the material within the speciality or area of competence of the blogger?

One of the reasons I value Weblogs is precisely because, over time, we can develop a sense of the competencies and biases of the blogger (Weblog editor). I thought I had done so in this instance.

Does the blogger have strengths and weaknesses? Has the blogger's bias been demonstrated before? Is the questioned material consistent with that bias or not? Is it in the blogger's area of expertise? If you are reading a blog written by someone who is a specialist in pop music, or scripting languages, or mathematics, is the material within that subject range or does it go beyond?

In the instant case, the blogger is quite interested in James Joyce, contemporary literature, search engines, online discussion, scripting languages, popular culture. I am sure I do not do him justice. But, it is fair to ask oneself whether the subject of an article to which he points appears to be within his areas of competence?

What is the blogger's world view?

Some bloggers write on political areas enough to begin to ascertain their basic perspective on certain subjects. Should that give the reader a hint of how to read materials within those areas.

For example, this Weblog has led me to interesting, left of center, news sources and commentary. There have been other hints that he favored an approach to third world issues that is quite different from mine. This of course means that he will have a different set of heroes and models than I do.

Thus, it is not surprising that he will give more credence to certain materials than I do. Perhaps I should not have been surprised at what I found.

Indeed, I was not mislead by the quotations. I reacted immediately. I sent him a note commenting on the nature of his post.

My sensors were up. In writing this essay I realize that what I am concerned about in this instance, is not myself but other readers who may have less sensitive stomachs on this issue. Perhaps I should let them take care of themselves. Perhaps my approach is elitist. On the other hand, perhaps it is valuable to continue to explore this issue. What about areas where I have no sensitivity, no internal warning system?

What is the source of the material?

When something doesn't seem right, the first step one can take is to try to trace the source of the material. Searches on the Web can lead to anything. I have no idea how this blogger found the article in question.

But there were hints that should have raised flags right away, for Barger as well as for me.

The material which troubled me was drawn from a book entitled Jewish Fundamentalism In Israel by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky, Pluto Press (1999). However, the material quoted by Barger did not come directly from the book. It came from a web page set up by Matt Nuenke, who has excerpted a significant amount of material from the book in a page on his website.

Mr. Nuenke prefaced his quotations with several revelatory paragraphs of introductory comments. He describes himself as "a promoter of eugenics, nationalism and futurism."

Had this sentence, and perhaps a few more from the introduction been included in the selections quoted in the Weblog, perhaps it would have provided greater warning to the unsuspecting reader.

A quick look at Nuenke's home page is telling. It is titled A Eugenics Perspective: Breeding an Improved Human Species Through Purposefully Directed Evolution. Mr. Nuenke states that his purpose in presenting the excerpts "is entice you to read the whole book and other related readings with regards to eugenics, race and nationalism."

He goes on,

[The Shahak] book provides a peak [sic] inside Israel that can give nationalists a justification for setting up nations based on racial purity and eugenics practices. . . . Judaism I believe is the best example of a successful breeding program that can provide an understanding of breeding for intelligence and developing group solidarity.

Thus, the reader who traces the quoted excerpts back to their source, will quickly find some background with which to evaluate the material. Of course, Shahak and Mezvinky are not responsible for Mr. Nuenke, but the fact that someone with Nuenke's expressed views finds the book to be useful for such purposes should be of at least some value as a tool in analysis.

Uncovering Sources

Interestingly, the page on which the article was posted did not have a back link to Mr. Nuenke's home page. I had to search to find it.

One technique used to discover the source of a web page is to work from the address of the page. Thus you can work back from the address. This article appears at www.mcs.net/~grossman/mjnk/mjnk0001.htm.

Even if there were no links to my archive or my home page you could discover them easily. By dropping the "mjnk0001.htm" you would discover my archive at www.mcs.net/~grossman/mjnk/ and from there you could discover my home page at www.mcs.net/~grossman/ If you really cared you could work back to the ISP where my pages are hosted. But in Nuenke's case working back didn't work. So I did a search for key words from the article together with "nuenke" on Google. That led me directly to the page I cited above. Both of these techniques are useful for many exploratory adventures online.

Discovery of who hosts an article or who provided links to it can often, as here, be a great hint as to the value of the material. But caution should be used. I have no indication that Shahak sought to have his material excerpted by someone who fosters eugenics as a program half century after Hitler.

Are there other indicators of the merits of the article?

Another tool is to look for reviews or articles on the material. In this instance, the search was frustrating. I found numerous articles about Professor Shahak and reviews of earlier books, but virtually no commentary on the one from which these quotations were drawn. Nevertheless, the search was somewhat useful because it led me to understand who found his books valuable and who did not. There was a consistency there which I need go into here. My purpose here is not to evaluate Shahak's book, but to discuss ways of evaluating it.

My searches also led me to other materials on the subject. I found, for example, an article with a similar title, "For the Land and the Lord: Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel" by Ian S. Lustick. Although it was written in 1988, it deals with many of the issues which one would expect to see discussed in the Shahak piece, although from a significantly different perspective. [I must note that a definition of Jewish Fundamentalism that is broad enough to include what Lustick refers to as "nonreligious fundamentalists" is somewhat problematic. I would have thought the term was an oxymoron.] Lustick, Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, is a specialist on Middle Eastern politics, with particular reference to Israel and Arab-Israeli relations. Given enough time, I could read Lustick's materials and I could learn more about his credentials.

On the other hand, Dr. Israel Shahak is a retired professor of organic chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His lack of formal background in the subjects on which he writes does not preclude knowledge and competence in the area. As Chairman of an organization called the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights he has been lionized in the Muslim press and in countless articles.

How can we judge?

Although, I concede that academic credentials alone are an insufficient basis to compare the work of one to the other, they do provide at least a starting place, in our ability to judge.

What else can we do?

Research

We can also do research on the subjects in question. In the instant case, I have vastly expanded my knowledge in the past couple of weeks by finding materials on Talmud, and Halakha as well as on the Middle East, and the peace process. Perhaps I should be grateful for this experience. Of course, because of this I now have a much greater sense of how little I know, as well.

Google reports 827 pages for the search "Israel Shahak." How many deal with Professor Shahak and how many with an Israeli general named Shahak, I cannot tell you. A similar search for "Ian Lustick" returns only 132 pages. But many of the Shahak references are repeated citations of identical or similar pages from the Muslim press.

Barger states that he compared page-frequencies for some relevant subjects, He found the following: 'Islamic fundamentalism' (7000), 'Christian fundamentalism' (1400), and 'Jewish fundamentalism' (300). He did not indicate the tool he used to reach these numbers.

Where does this lead us? Numbers certainly don't help. But there is clearly quite a bit of material to review.

Is it significant that although Shahak's earlier works were frequently reviewed, I have been unable to find a single review of "Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel"? Is that an indication that although once regarded as worthy of review, serious commentators no longer take Shahak's work as seriously as they once did?

The tools at our disposal are limited. Quite frankly, in the absence of red flags or our stomachs, there are no guarantees. We must learn to read critically and to question what we find. We, of course must make meaningful distinctions. The level of care we use need not be as high for some subjects as others. But when a people or a tradition or a religion is being excoriated, caution is warranted.

What is the obligation of the online writer?

What is the obligation of the online writer? I suggest that obligations vary with the nature of the writer's presentation.

I write a semi regular periodical piece. These essays appear sporadically at least a month apart. They also appear in both pdf and html versions.

When errors appear in my pieces, I usually correct the online version. That is the advantage of html publication. But I don't usually write on political subjects. The errors people find in my columns are usually typos. I can easily fix those without ego involvement. But what if someone contradicts my opinion? Or questions my judgment.

Is my obligation any different than that of a blogger whose work is updated and read daily by and by a much larger audience? If I am challenged do I have an obligation to note the objection? The answers are not easy.

What is the reader's obligation?

I have learned in the last two weeks that attempting to respond to such material can be overwhelming. But I suggest that readers have an obligation not to let these things pass unremarked. There would be no point trying to argue with Mr. Nuenke, but I felt it at least worthwhile make Mr. Barger aware of my response. So I did write him. My dismay may have overwhelmed the rational substance of my comments but I did suggest that Mr. Barger at least modify or qualify his introductory statement. I am aware that at least one other commentator wrote Barger directly with more knowledgeable comments than I was capable of. I suspect others may have as well.

Does Mr. Barger have an obligation to at least note my objection to his quotations and to the link he provided. He reaches a much larger audience than I do. I suspect many visitors frequently come to his pages for his views on the online world. To some extent his regular viewers also appreciate his comments on literature, pop culture, and other matters. His very astuteness in those fields creates heightened expectations with regard to the accuracy of his positions.

Perhaps I am taking this too personally. As I have said, I respect Mr. Barger's work. But, quite simply, I find the quotations he selected and the way in which he characterized Jewish fundamentalism to be offensive. Especially if that characterization is based solely on the article cited. I resent the fact that his response lowers my ability to trust his other comments.

In the end, perhaps he has no obligation. But I have countless links to his pages on mine. What am I to do?

This time there were outrageous quotes to tip my stomach off to the fallacious nature of Professor Shahak's arguments. But what of the reader whose stomach has not been sensitized? What of the high school student who comes across this article seeking to learn about the Middle East?

What are we all to do?

Mr. Barger, I invite your response.

Discussion and Debate

[01/14/00] Note: Jorn (the weblog editor in question) has responded, not to me but on Medley's discussion page. Go there and add to the debate.

Dear Reader, I invite your thoughts as well. Not only as to the specific issues raised by Mr. Barger's link, but regarding the broader issues of the responsibility of the web author and the question of validating and distinguishing sources.

You can reach me at gr[email protected]

A number of online writers have responded or have already begun to explore these issues. For example, Weblogger Dan Bricklin, has raised a number of questions stimulated by this essay on his Weblog. Lynet Millett poses additional food for thought on her Medley blog. Dan Hartung adds his point of view on Lake Effect. You will find a brief note on Pith and Vinegar, too.

I have discovered that weblogger, Dan Fitch, who edits the Apathy Weblog, has begun an extensive project, exploring related issues he calls Opinionation. There are many interesting and relevant links posted at that site.

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Copyright 2000 Leonard Grossman

Send your comments or questions to [email protected]

My essays regularly appear in slightly different form in WindoWatch Magazine which contains a wealth of fascinating information.

Back to my home page The ModemJunkie's Portal

Back to Reflections of a ModemJunkie The complete archive of Reflections going back to 1992.

Revised 01/15/2000

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Notes and additional sources:

Sources on Talmud:

A very helpful introductory definition of the Talmud can be found in a brief passage from the first chapter of The Essential Talmud, Adin Steinsaltz, Basic Books, Inc., New York, 1976, which I have included on a special page of Talmud resources I have put together at www.mcs.net/~grossman/mjnk/talmudsources.htm.

Introduction to Talmud A Project of the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary
www.jtsa.edu/melton/courses/talmuddemo/

Gates to the Talmud Photo of a page of Talmud with descriptions of the sections (various sources and commentary).
www.talmudworld.com/proj/projf.html

A Page from the Babylonian Talmud (Interactive) www.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/TalmudPage.html

A detailed and useful FAQ on Talmud and Halacha can be found at http://www.shamash.org/listarchives/scj-faq/FAQ/03-Torah-Halacha.

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Materials on Halakha

Halakha is defined in the online Encyclopedia Britannica as "the totality of laws and ordinances that have evolved since biblical times to regulate religious observances and the daily life and conduct of the Jewish people."
www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/3/0,5716,39643+1,00.html.

Examining Halacha, Jewish Issues and Secular law
www.jlaw.com/

FAQ: Torah and Halachic Authority
www.landfield.com/faqs/judaism/FAQ/03-Torah-Halacha/preamble.html

Role that Halacha plays in Masorti (Liberal) Judaism
www.masorti.org.uk/whatsmas.htm

Halacha Online www.mcs.net/~kollel/www/halacha/halacha.html

Doctrine -- Article by Howard Wettstein
University of California, Riverside
Faith and Philosophy 14 no. 4
www.ucr.edu/philosophy/doctrine.html

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Materials on Israel Shahak

A list of representative titles of articles by Israel Shahak found the Radio Islam page
www.abbc.com/islam/english/jracism/shahak.htm

A critical review by Werner Cohn, of one of Professor Shahak's earlier books on similar topics, Jewish History, Jewish Religion. The Weight of Three Thousand Years, can be found at http://www.wernercohn.com/Shahak.html.

A favorable biography of Professor Shahak is found in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
www.washington-report.org/backissues/0689/8906019.htm

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Ian Lustick

Ian Lustick is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, is a specialist on Middle Eastern politics, with particular reference to Israel and Arab-Israeli relations. In 1979 and 1980 he worked at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research as a Council on Foreign Relations Fellow responsible for analysis of Israel-West Bank affairs. He also served as President of the Association for Israel Studies. Additional credentials can be found at www.sas.upenn.edu/penncip/lustick/auth.html.

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Israel and its neighbors

For the Land and the Lord: Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel by Ian S. Lustick.
www.sas.upenn.edu/penncip/lustick/index.html.

There are a number of additional sources for information on Middle East peace and relations between Israel and its neighbors and the people and communities involved. Some of which I regard highly. Among them are: Peace Links www.ariga.com/peace.htm

Also worthy of consideration is Ariga at www.ariga.com/gentoc.htm, an eclectic online magazine carrying current events, arts and letters, and various materials suggesting that the peace process is bigger than any politician. Another source of information is Mideast Web at www.mideastweb.org. The editor of Mideast Web, Ami Isseroff, responded directly to Mr. Barger's selected quotations. With his permission, I have made those comments available online http://www.mcs.net/~grossman/mjnk/jewishfundamentalism.htm

Peace Now at www.peacenow.org/, is a national grassroots organization of American Zionists committed to peace and security for Israel.

I have not yet read The Multiple Identities of the Middle East By Bernard Lewis (Schocken). However, an interesting review can be found at www.nytimes.com/books/00/01/02/reviews/000102.02wheatct.html. The First Chapter can be found at www.nytimes.com/books/first/l/lewis-identities.html.
(Password registration may be required at the New York Times site.)

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