By Sam Seifman
MC Serch, born Michael Berrin, hails from Far Rockaway, in Queens, N.Y. Serch grew up surrounded by hip-hop but living in a conservative Jewish household. With a local cantor as a mentor, he had dreams of being one himself. He combined his two worlds, going to schul on Friday and Saturday while also playing basketball and listening to rap on Shabbat.
His rabbi saw him playing with friends, many of whom were African American. Serch was called into his office the next day.
“Michael, I had such high hopes for you,” his rabbi said.
The rabbi lamented Serch’s choice in friends, using a derogatory Yiddish word for African American.
“You’re supposed to teach? You’re supposed to educate?” Serch replied, frustrated.
Distraught, he turned down a scholarship from the St. Louis School of Music, where he planned to train to become a cantor. Instead, he became a professional rapper—something he had been doing as a hobby since he was a teenager. He converted to Islam—remaining in the religion for the next four years. He later converted back to Judaism after moving in with a Christian-agnostic girlfriend. One Christmas, she wanted to put up a tree and he felt the need for his background to be represented. So, they also lit menorah candles.
Serch’s story is emblematic of hip-hop’s roots—starting from rebelliousness and reaching success as a performer and promoter of rappers in the ’80s and ’90s.
Or as the Canadian Jewish black rap superstar Drake, puts it, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” Drake was born Aubrey Drake Graham. His father is African American, and he was raised by his Jewish mother and bar mitzvahed.
Drake and other rappers fall under the category of “Hip-hop,” a subculture that also encompasses disc jockeys, graffiti artists and break dancers. It is said to have originated in 1973, in the Bronx, at a party hosted by Jamaican-born Clive “DJ Kool Herc” Campbell.
As hip-hop grew, it diversified beyond African American artists and fans to include Jews as well. The breakout Jewish rap stars were the Beastie Boys, made up of Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz. The group achieved notoriety and toured with Madonna in 1985. In 1987, their album “License to Ill” went platinum, selling a million copies. In total, they have recorded seven platinum albums and have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2012, Adam Yauch died of salivary gland cancer, and he was so esteemed that a park was named for him in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.
When Serch was younger, some of his African American friends converted to Islam. This prompted him to ask them questions about it, to which they would reply, “Why are you always searching for answers?”
So they called him “Search.” It was changed to “Serch” when he was buying a customized belt buckle and found out that it cost $20 less leaving out the “a.”
When he decided to go professional, his mother, Roz Berrin, was supportive. She sang as Linda Paige in the Borscht Belt. However, Serch admits, she wasn’t too familiar with rap.
“She thought I was going to be a gift wrapper,” he said.
Serch achieved some success in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia, partially because he was very active in “battle rap” (two rappers verbally attacking each other) scene—a consistent theme among rap’s outsiders. After releasing two albums through independent labels, he was signed by Lyor Cohen (also Jewish) and Russell Simmons, working for Rush Productions. Later, these two became major producers in hip-hop and founders of Def Jam Records, one of the most successful rap labels. Producing artists like the Beastie Boys and Kanye West. They agreed to pay for his demo.
Serch teamed up with rapper Pete Nice and DJ Richie Rich to form 3rd Bass in 1987. Before breaking up in 1992, they released three albums, two of which went gold, selling at least 500,000 copies.
Serch went solo that year, releasing the album “Return of the Product,” which reached 103 on Billboard’s “Top 200 Albums.” He also started Serchlite Productions, producing the album “Illmatic” by Nas, which ranked 11th on Rolling Stone’s “100 Best Debut Albums of All Time.”
Serch and Cohen join a long line of Jewish producers. Rick Rubin, another Jewish Def Jam co-founder, worked with big names like Jay Z, Kanye West and Eminem. In 2007, Time Magazine ranked him number eight on its “Most Influential” list.
Richard Wolf was part of the production team for Serch’s album “Return of the Product.” “Serch was a very confident artist who had definite ideas of what he wanted,” Wolf said. Wolf’s mother was French and his father was Belgian, both of them refugees from the Holocaust and dedicated to music education. In the 1980s, he was drawn to hip-hop, listening to it as people performed on the streets of Manhattan.
“It had the rebelliousness and lyricism of early folk rock,” he said.
In the late ’70s, Wolf started as a solo artist, recording a folk rock album his freshman year of college in Muscle Shoals, Ala. He then became a staff writer at Warner/Chappell Music. While there, he also wrote theme songs, including for the Rodney Dangerfield film “Back to School” and “Karate Kid II.”
In 1989, Wolf and Epic Mazur (his former intern) opened Wolf and Epic. They produced for the rap group Bell Biv Devoe, including its album “Poison,” which sold 3.5 million albums.
In 1998, Wolf started his own company called The Producer’s Lab. Since then, he has written and produced music for some of television’s biggest shows, including: “America’s Next Top Model,” “NCIS,” “The Good Wife,” “Static Shock” and “Fox Sports.”
He also teaches a course called “Music, Media and Culture” at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music; it covers how music related to different art forms and, of course, the evolution of hip-hop.
“Being Jewish has been a deeply engrained part of my life, my parents having escaped Nazi Germany,” Wolf said. “Jewish culture has an emphasis on the mystical music is how you connect with the divine. I didn’t choose music, music chose me.”
Modern Day Rappers
Drake is one of the biggest names in rap. But there are other well-known Jewish performers, such as Mac Miller, Asher Roth and Matisyahu, a former Hasidic Jew whose music often involves religious topics.
Much like Serch, Soul Khan (Noah Weston) gained notoriety through battle rap. His name became recognizable in Brooklyn and his YouTube videos have hundreds of thousands of hits—the lyrics are brutal.
In his battle with fellow rapper QP, he said, “I saw a video of your son. I thought something didn’t look right. You’re the only one under the sun who your son don’t look like.”
Khan started rapping as a hobby at 13 in the late ’90s. He was raised in a secular Jewish household in Los Angeles but was both bar mitzvahed and confirmed. “Judaism affects my outlook on the world—certainly my sense of humor,” Khan said.
When he was a child, his mother would play Paul Robeson records, including songs sung in Yiddish, introducing the idea of crossing cultural boundaries through music.
While he is an established member of the rap community, Khan seems to feel like a guest.
“Hopefully it’s not appropriation on my part because I always want to acknowledge the culture,” he said. “I recognize that rap is an African American art form …”
“Because the American Jewish experience started as much more marginalized, it connected them to other communities,” he added.
Today, Khan no longer battle raps, focusing on his studio work. Since 2010, he has recorded seven albums, including a few songs with Jewish references, like his track “Minyan” on his album “Soul Like Khan.”
“Rabbi Darkside,” born Samuel Sellers, got into rap through ’60s protest music, which he listened to at Jewish summer camp. Darkside transitioned to rap as a teenager, thanks to rap group Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It,” which used as its background the rock legend Lou Reed’s ’70s hit “Walk on the Wild Side.”
In Buffalo, he was one of the only Jews among his friends, who gave him his stage name. As a teen, Darkside spent his bar mitzvah money on a stereo record player. He would listen to it and transcribe lyrics.
“I’m sure in my heart and my subconscious, there is something in my writing influenced by my upbringing,” Darkside said.
Very few of his songs have Jewish themes. From time to time, his music comes with a political message, like his song “Malala,” inspired by 19-year-old female education activist Malala Yousafzai. The lyrics include: “And on Pakistani buses and in schools for every child, in the face of vitriol violence in place of spiteful alliance, there is spiritual highness that can transcend foes and faux.”
He also understands that his Judaism is, in a way, inescapable. He has faced anti-Semitic slurs while on tour in rural Czech Republic. He’s also seen it in his other gig, as a professor at the New School in New York. There he teaches “Hip-Hop Skills and Science,” where students rap at the beginning of every class. Recently, however, swastikas have been drawn on the walls of his students’ dormitories, to him a disturbing development unrelated to rap but still hitting home.
“It’s become an interesting moment for me in terms of my Jewish identity right now,” he says.
Doron Lev, or “Ugly Braine,” was born in Miami to Israeli parents. His mother was Hassidic and taught classes at Hillel before she passed away in 1998. His father lived on a secular kibbutz and currently owns his own auto shop.
“My name was very strange, and I remember feeling like an immigrant,” Lev recalls.
Lev was influenced by hip-hop in the fourth grade, listening to Beastie Boys, Run DMC and Will Smith’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” In sixth grade, he started writing lyrics.
But his primary interest was being a drummer, not only in hip-hop but jazz and salsa as well. He started as a rapper while drumming for funk bands, freestyling between songs. Today, he still drums and raps.
Lev recorded the song “Take a Walk in the Desert” with Rabbi Darkside and has performed at the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theatre in Tel Aviv. He is planning another trip this year to Israel, where he hopes to help achieve peace through music. He knows Palestinian rappers and hopes to collaborate with them.
“I know one man can’t fix [the conflict], but I just want to do my part,” Lev said.
His roommate is an Egyptian rapper. Their fathers fought on opposite sides of the 1967 Six-Day War—and adore their sons’ friendship.
In January, he released his album “Watching Shadows,” featuring Rabbi Darkside.
“No matter how strict or tough my dad was as an Israeli, he always had a sense of humor,” Lev said. “It’s part of who we are. Rap music has that element to it. It doesn’t always have to be funny, but, with Jews, there is always some kind of entertainment element.”
By Kenneth D. Ackerman
Leon Trotsky never considered himself Jewish in any religious sense. He never wrote Yiddish, didn’t keep kosher and never entered a synagogue. Neither of his two wives, and none of his four children were Jewish. He was raised on a farm, not in a shtetl (Yiddish for small town). He didn’t hide his Jewishness. He spoke out eloquently against pogroms and anti-Jewish oppression, often at great personal risk. But when asked, he normally gave his religion as “socialist” or “internationalist.”
Still, when he landed in New York City on Sunday morning, Jan. 14, 1917, both the New York Times and Tribune—two of six newspapers that covered his arrival—stressed Trotsky’s identity as a “Jewish” writer editing “Jewish” journals in Russia and France. Over a million Jews lived in New York at that point, more than any other city on Earth. In New York, his Jewishness would stand out, like it or not.
Trotsky spent 10 weeks in New York in early 1917, just before returning home to Russia to help lead the Bolshevik Revolution, an event that would catapult him to global fame. The Bolshevik/Communist state he helped launch would last 73 years, and Trotsky would serve as its foreign affairs commissar and leader of its Red Army in a bloody three-year civil war, making him second in stature to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. His shaggy black hair, sharp eyes, pointed beard and glasses would make him recognizable around the world.
But his time in power would be brief. Forced out in the mid-1920s, Trotsky would spend his last 12 years in exile before being murdered by an agent of dictator Joseph Stalin in Mexico. Today, 76 years after his death and 26 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, all his books remain in print and Trotskyist political candidates still compete in dozens of countries.
The New York Trotsky found in 1917 was a busy, freewheeling place unique in the world. World War I had engulfed Europe since 1914, a catastrophe that already had killed over 10 million soldiers and civilians. But America had stayed out, growing rich selling weapons to warring countries. Instead, New York was enjoying a golden age of music, theater, finance and politics, luxuries unthinkable in wartime Paris, London, Vienna or Berlin.
New York then was an international city in a way barely recognizable today. After six decades of record immigration, it had bulging neighborhoods with the aromas and sounds of foreign countries. Almost 2 million New Yorkers in 1917 came from across the ocean.
Jews made up the bulk of the Eastern Europeans, concentrated in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. They still mostly spoke Yiddish, read their own newspapers, ate their own kosher food and practiced their own religion.
Forward with the Forward
The Yiddish-language newspaper, Forward, sold more than 200,000 copies each day in 1917, a circulation rivaling that of the New York Times. Second Avenue below Tenth Street belonged to the Yiddish theaters and popular Yiddish cafes.
Trotsky had come to New York as a refugee, expelled from five countries for his rabblerousing politics. In Russia, his home, czarist police had arrested him twice, each time exiling him to Siberia. Each time, Trotsky escaped. Since the outbreak of World War I, Austria, Germany, France and Spain had expelled him too.
But America was different. Still neutral, it had not yet imposed wartime crackdowns on dissent and had barely started tracking potential subversives or spies. Trotsky, to American eyes, looked like any other hardship case, just like thousands of others who filled the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan.
Trotsky did not live on the Lower East Side. He settled his family into a three-bedroom apartment in the Bronx at 1522 Vyse Avenue, near Crotona Park. By day, he helped edit a small Russian-language tabloid called Novy Mir from its basement office at 77 Saint Marks Place, in lower Manhattan. He rode the subway, enjoyed the movies (Charlie Chaplin and Molly Pickford were the rage) and sent his sons to public school in the Bronx.
But Trotsky too was, indeed, different. He jumped on the freedoms he found in New York to immerse himself in politics. Here, his extremism quickly separated him from most Jews in this new country, even those who shared his socialism.
The great issue dominating early 1917 was whether America should drop its neutrality and enter the World War. Just two weeks after Trotsky’s arrival, on January 31, 1917, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping, prompting President Woodrow Wilson to sever diplomatic relations. Most Americans now supported mobilization, but New York remained a hotbed of dissent, particularly among immigrant Jews.
Trotsky jumped right in, writing dozens of articles and giving over 30 speeches at venues including Cooper Union and Beethoven Hall. For socialists like him, the issue was easy. Why, they argued, should workers in France, Germany or anyplace else fight each other when their common enemy was the capitalists? Loyalty to country meant nothing to an “internationalist” like Trotsky.
Most Russian Jews had come fleeing oppression: pogroms, murders, harassment, bans against attending universities, owning land or even living in most cities. Now, with Russia (which still included Poland and Ukraine) allied with Britain and France, they saw American entry into the War as helping the czar.
But most Jews had a different reason to oppose the War: They had grown to admire their new home. Life here was harsh, but they appreciated the country as a place with real freedoms and opportunities where immigrants could enjoy respect and build a future. This split over patriotism would reach a breaking point on March 1, 1917, with an event decisive in America’s decision finally to enter the war: the disclosure of the Zimmermann Telegram.
The Zimmermann Telegram was a cable from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann offering Mexico a reward if it joined the fight on Germany’s side: the return of Texas, California and other lands seized by the United States after the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War. The idea posed a direct threat to the American heartland and sparked outrage across the country.
At the Forward, still staunchly socialist, the managing editor that day was B. Charney Vladeck, a Russian who had served two prison terms under the czar before fleeing to America in 1908. Unlike Trotsky, Vladeck had become enamored of his new country. He described how, visiting Philadelphia, he “prayed silently and without a hat in front of Independence Hall.” In America, he wrote, “for the first time I felt free to explore the world as I want to see it … I don’t love it only as an artist for its colors, but as a citizen feeling that it is mine.”
When Vladeck saw the Zimmermann Telegram cross his desk, he was appalled. He took pen to paper and wrote a headline in Yiddish: “Can this be so that Germany is actually performing such an idiotic diplomatic schtick?” He continued: “Every inhabitant of the country would fight to the last drop of blood to protect the great American republic against the monarchies of Europe and Asia and their allies.”
Trotsky, seeing Vladeck’s article, erupted. Here was the Forward, the most widely read socialist daily voice in America, suddenly endorsing war, even encouraging young men to enlist. Trotsky decided to demand an explanation from the man who held ultimate control over the Forward, its founder and chief editor, Abraham Cahan.
He stormed out of his office on Saint Marks Place, traversed the crowded lower East Side to the Forward building on East Broadway, found Cahan’s office, and barged in. By all accounts, the exchange quickly degenerated, voices shrill, faces red and tempers lost. Abraham Cahan, 20 years older than Trotsky, took considerable pride, not just as editor of the Forward but as a founder of American socialism and an accomplished member of the literati in his own right, author of the acclaimed English-language novel “The Rise of David Levinsky.” And who was this Leon Trotsky, a newcomer editor of a puny Russian tabloid, to tell him, Abraham Cahan, how to run his newspaper? To question his managing editor? To question his socialism?
Trotsky asked Cahan about the Vladeck story, and Cahan told him that, yes, he had seen it, he had approved it and it was now the official policy of the Forward. At that, Trotsky told Cahan that he would never again write for the Forward and demanded that Cahan return a draft article he had submitted a few days earlier.
The confrontation lasted just long enough to burn bridges. Trotsky marched back to his desk at Novy Mir and, over the next three weeks, wrote five articles for Novy Mir blasting Abraham Cahan and his newspaper. He accused Cahan of being an autocrat, out of touch, encamped in his 10-story building, and insisted he be expelled from the party.
But for Cahan too, the exchange marked a turning point. Cahan would be one of the first major American socialists to denounce the Bolsheviks after they seized power in Russia. When Moscow sympathizers tried to pressure him to soften his criticisms, he declared, “I would rather see the Forward go under than weaken the struggle against the communists.”
Bronx Man Makes His Mark
Amid all this turmoil, it came as a shock when news reached New York on Thursday, March 15, that food riots in Petrograd, Russia, had escalated into full-scale rebellion, forcing the hated czar, Nicholas II, to abdicate. Ceremonies erupted worldwide, none more intense than on the Jewish Lower East Side. Trotsky had not seen his homeland for over a decade; it was time to return. In dozens of speeches all over the city, he made his intentions clear: to reach Petrograd, join the resistance, help topple the provisional government, take Russia out of the War and create socialism.
That November, when news reached New York of the Bolshevik revolution with Trotsky’s name in the headlines, locals all agreed on one thing: “TROTSKY, NOW IN KERENSKY’S PLACE, ONCE LIVED HERE,” headlined the New York World. “TROTSKY IN EXILE LIVED IN THE BRONX,” echoed the New York Times. Most direct was the Bronx Home News, which announced simply: “BRONX MAN LEADS RUSSIAN REVOLUTION.” The implication: Only a New Yorker could have pulled off this job.
Trotsky returned the compliment. For 10 weeks in 1917, the city offered him and his family freedom, comfort, security, friends and celebrity, a taste of what they later would call “the American dream.” Trotsky carried American ideas back to Russia for his new Soviet state: the movies, science and culture.
“To have Bolshevism shod in the American way” with technology, math, efficient factories, stated Trotsky. “There is our task!” Writing in later years that, in the future, “all the problems of our planet will be decided upon American soil.”
By Michelle Chabon
On Oct. 13, 2015, Micah Lakin Avni was in an important business meeting in Tel Aviv when his mother called his cellphone.
Avni’s mother relayed how terrorists had committed an attack in Armon Hanatziv, her Jerusalem neighborhood, and that she hadn’t yet heard from Avni’s father, Richard Lakin. (Avni, his son’s last name, is the Hebrew version of Lakin.)
Avni rushed to Jerusalem, calling area hospitals along the way. Finally, a nurse at Hadassah Medical Center told him his 76-year-old father was critically wounded and in surgery. Two weeks later, he succumbed to his injuries.
Lakin, a former elementary school principal in Connecticut who moved to Israel in 1984, had been repeatedly shot and stabbed on a public bus by two Hamas-affiliated men from adjoining Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. It was one of the first of dozens of terror attacks perpetrated by Palestinians as young as 13 from the eastern part of Jerusalem and the West Bank starting in September 2015 through well into 2016.
Many of these attacks were allegedly fueled by lies—spread on social media and in the mosques—that Israel was planning to deny Muslims access to the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. The allegation that social media companies aren’t doing nearly enough to stop the spread of cyberterrorism and anti-Semitism—and may in fact be abetting them—has spurred Avni and others, including victims of Islamic terror attacks in Paris and Orlando, to file lawsuits against Facebook. They hope that the threat of potentially huge financial payouts will pressure Facebook and other companies to block hate messages and content.
While watching his father’s condition deteriorate, Avni said, “I sat there thinking, ‘How did this happen? What makes two 20-year-old Palestinians from middle-class families do something so horrific? What’s causing the pace and growth of terrorism so quickly around the world and in Israel?’”
During one of his marathon internet searches on various social media platforms, Avni came across a “horrific” reenactment of the attack in which his father was murdered. “That video went completely viral, and its purpose was to encourage others to carry out similar attacks,” he said. Determined to act, Avni contacted Shurat HaDin, an Israeli law center that represents terror victims and their families. Since 2000, the center has collected more than $200 million of the $2 billion various courts have awarded its clients.
Avni became one of the 20,000 petitioners who sued Facebook in a landmark Oct. 26, 2015, lawsuit filed by Shurat HaDin. That suit, known as Cohen v. Facebook, sought an injunction against the company that would require it to monitor and prevent terrorist incitement against Jews and Israelis.
As the wave of terror intensified, reaction to false rumors about access to the Al Aqsa mosque increased. Shurat HaDin sensed it would have an even stronger case against Facebook if American citizens sued the company. In July 2016, it filed a $1 billion lawsuit, Force v. Facebook, on behalf of Taylor Force, an American Christian murdered by a Palestinian terrorist in Israel, and on behalf of Lakin and four other families of terror victims.
The suit, which the court has joined to Cohen v. Facebook, alleges that Facebook has violated the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act by “knowingly” providing material support and resources to Hamas. This support has boosted the terror group’s ability to “recruit, radicalize, instruct terrorists, raise funds, create fear and carry out attacks,” the suit alleges.
Facebook has denied the allegations and sought dismissal of the lawsuits. As this issue went to press, a hearing has been scheduled for March 1.
Facebook did not respond to repeated inquiries from B’nai B’rith Magazine related to Shurat HaDin’s two lawsuits and this article. However, in January, the company took down more than 100 pages linked to Hamas, the governing authority in the Gaza Strip that the United States government has termed a terrorist organization.
The Anti-Terrorism Act has made it possible for U.S. citizens who were victims of terror attacks, or their bereaved families, to sue governments like Libya and Iran that fund, arm and give refuge to terror groups. Four of the five victims in this instance were dual American-Israeli citizens.
But anti-terrorism suits aimed at social media are new, and it remains to be seen whether courts will hold Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube or Instagram responsible for content they disseminate but do not generate. “Facebook has zero tolerance for terrorism,” its attorney said in court filings.
In what may have been an important precedent, in August 2016, U.S. District Judge William Orrick dismissed a suit filed against Twitter by families of contractors murdered in an ISIS terror attack in Jordan.
The judge said the company could not be held responsible for aiding terrorism under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” He also cited lack of evidence that the attackers were radicalized by images they saw on Twitter.
Internet providers and social media companies insist the act absolves them, the “messengers,” of any responsibility for the content they disseminate.
Digital Hate Happens
But cyberterrorism is just one example of the many types of hate spread via social media platforms against Jews and others.
“The level of online anti-Semitism over the past few years has been more than we’ve ever seen before,” said Oren Segal, who directs the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Center on Extremism. “Extremists are specifically targeting various communities, including the Jewish community and Jewish journalists.”
An October 2016 report by the ADL’s Task Force on Harassment and Journalism detected a “disturbing upswing” in online anti-Semitic abuse driven in large part by “rhetoric in the 2016 presidential campaign.”
From August 2015 and July 2016, the watchdog identified 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets overall, more than 19,000 of them directed at Jewish journalists.
Sixty-eight percent of these tweets were sent from 1,600 Twitter accounts, out of 313 million existing Twitter accounts. Those 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets had 10 billion views, so they “contributed to reinforcing and normalizing anti-Semitic language—particularly racial slurs and anti-Israel statements—on a massive scale,” according to the task force.
Gabriel Weimann, a Haifa University expert in cyber-terrorism, believes it is important to distinguish between cyberterror and other forms of cyber-hate.
While cyber-shaming and cyberbullying can have extreme consequences, including suicide, he said, “very often the intent isn’t to cause physical harm.” The aim of cyberterrorism, in contrast, is 100 percent violent.
Weimann said young Palestinians who participated in the most recent wave of attacks tended to be “very active” on social media platforms and became “very radicalized” by what they saw. The videos showed who should be targeted with a knife: Israeli police, soldiers, settlers and other identifiably Jewish targets. Viewers were also instructed on the best time of day to kill and which body part is most vulnerable to attack. “There were even videos showing what kind of knife or machete to use,” Weimann said.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, Shurat HaDin’s founder and the driving force behind the Facebook suits, says Facebook and other social media platforms are a terror cell’s favorite tool.
For the past few years, she alleged, “Facebook has connected those who incite to kill Jews with those who want to do so.” Terror groups, she said, “are using it to raise funds, to connect and to reach out to potential members. Facebook is letting them freely, openly, knowingly use its platform to aid and abet terrorism.”
The fact that users, not the social media companies, are funding terrorists or inciting violence “does not eliminate their responsibility,” Darshan-Leitner said.
Asked whether her plaintiffs would drop their $1 billion suit if Facebook agreed to take steps to police itself, she said, “No. Facebook must pay damages. The only thing these megacompanies know is business. If they get hit in their pocketbook, they will reconsider their actions and change them, much like the banks did,” referring to successful lawsuits filed against banks that allegedly aided and abetted terror groups.
“The only thing that moved banks to make sure the money in their possession was terror free and not transfer money to terrorists were the billion-dollar lawsuits filed against them. Money is the oxygen of terrorism,” Darshan-Leitner said.
A Call to Action
Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president and chief executive officer of B’nai B’rith, said, “There needs to be a Manhattan Project to confront the many threats that have grown out of the internet, which has provided a new way to convey hatred, terrorism and incitement.”
Mariaschin envisions a joint effort between B’nai B’rith, which has status at both the United Nations and the Organization of American States, and others committed to the fight against cyberterror and cyberhate, including anti-Semitism.
“The challenges are great, the opportunities are there, and the next step is for us to either initiate or join existing efforts,” he said.
Richard Heideman, who served as international president of B’nai B’rith from 1998 to 2002 and is a partner in the law firm Heideman, Nudelman & Kalik, believes, “Holding supporters of terror accountable in U.S. courts is an essential tool in seeking justice.” Heideman’s firm has filed several successful lawsuits on behalf of Israeli and other terror victims.
One of those suits, which sought compensation from the Libyan government for its supportive role in the 1985 hijacking of an Egypt Air flight and the targeted killings of American and Israeli passengers, “helped bring Muammar Gaddafi and Libya to reach an agreement with the U.S. in 2008 that resulted in Libya coming off the State Department’s terror list,” Heideman said. That agreement included a $1.5 billion payment to victims of Libyan state-sponsored terrorism.
The Free Speech Dilemma
Some free speech advocates believe litigating against Facebook, Twitter and others to force them into policing themselves would ultimately lead to censorship.
“If Facebook were responsible for the legality of everything you or I or others say on Facebook, it would be tremendously expensive and a great disincentive to provide an open platform,” Daphne Keller, director of Intermediary Liability at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, told Bloomberg News. “And it would give them every reason to take down too much speech, to take down perfectly legal speech to avoid risk to themselves.
Yair Rosenberg, a writer for the Jewish magazine Tablet, is one of the 10 Jewish journalists most targeted by anti-Semites on Twitter, according to the ADL. Though he believes social media companies “have an obligation to try to weed out abusive behavior and harassment on their platforms,” he does not think they should be censoring non-abusive content, no matter how repugnant.
“Besides this being impractical when it comes to millions of tweets or posts, it also seems troubling to empower giant corporations to police what constitutes an acceptable opinion on the internet,” Rosenberg said. “The best answer to hateful speech online is better counter-speech from the majority of non-hateful users—a bottom-up response, rather than top-down.”
Rosenberg said those who identify or experience online cyber-hate can report abusive accounts and work to draw attention to them in publicity campaigns, to ensure the companies are taking them seriously. “But again, I’d distinguish between abusive behavior on a social media platform and non-abusive but hateful content.”
The journalist is skeptical that lawsuits like Avni’s will succeed, “at least in America, given our First Amendment, and I don’t think they’re the best way to fight this sort of problem, either. Censoring bigotry doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it easier to ignore, until it has unignorable consequences. I’d rather that society face up to this material head-on,” Rosenberg said.
However, in a clear bid to preempt these and future lawsuits and potentially huge payouts if they lose what promise to be several court cases, on Dec. 5, 2016, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube announced they are “coming together” to curb the spread of terrorist content online.
“There is no place for content that promotes terrorism on our hosted consumer services,” they said in a joint statement. “When alerted, we take swift action against this kind of content in accordance with our respective policies.”
The companies vowed to create a shared industry database of “hashes”—unique digital “fingerprints”—“for violent terrorist imagery or terrorist recruitment videos or images that we have removed from our services.”
By sharing this information with one another, they said that they hope to identify and remove “the most extreme and egregious terrorist images and videos”—content most likely to violate their respective companies’ content policies.
Following the huge backlash against Facebook for sharing fake news stories during the presidential campaign, in mid-December the company said it will try to identify such stories with the assistance of five fact-checking organizations and through reader feedback.
Lakin’s son Avni insists that if Facebook can create a system to flag fake news, it can identify and block terror-related content.
“Its algorithms advertise to you and they monitor everything going on. They target you based on that information. They block child pornography and they can do the same with terror. For years, they chose to ignore that Hamas was operating an entire campaign on Facebook,” Avni asserted. “And they make money in the process.”
The December 2016 lawsuit against Facebook, Twitter and Google by the victims of the terrorist attack in Orlando also accuses the providers of “profiting from postings through advertising revenue.”