Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper confronts Internet hate groups
“It’s there below the surface,” says Rabbi Richard Litvak, senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Aptos, “as a constant that pops up from time to time.” He’d like to believe that anti-Semitism is a dead issue in Santa Cruz, but recent events remind him otherwise. There were, for example, the Nazi flags a resident at the St. George Apartments in Downtown Santa Cruz hung in his window in late November.
“The father of one of the people in our community came to visit and was shopping downtown with his daughter,” Rabbi Litvak recalls. “He is a Holocaust survivor. He saw those flags, and it was just so offensive and so hurtful to him, and to other people in the community.”
Other, similarly disturbing stories have cropped up over the last few months as well. “There was a situation where someone from our community recently was assaulted by some teenagers. It may have been because the person was gay or because they were Jewish,” Rabbi Litvak says. “The kids in our temple school program, often in the junior high grades, speak of their experience of being teased by other children because they’re Jewish, or being the object of hurtful remarks.”
But Rabbi Litvak remains hopeful that with time and dialogue such incidents can become a thing of the past. That is why he has invited Rabbi Abraham Cooper to speak at Temple Beth El on Feb. 3. Cooper is the associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Tolerance, a Jewish human rights organization with campuses in Los Angeles, Jerusalem, and New York, comprising over 400,000 members in total. He’s been active in the fight against anti-Semitism and broader racial and religious intolerance since the 1970s, and has met with world leaders including Pope Benedict XVI, former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, Sudanese President Umar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, and former Grand Mufti of Egypt Sheik Tantawi. Rabbi Cooper serves as editor of Response Magazine, and his editorials appear in prominent U.S. news sources from The New York Times to The Washington Post. In 2007, Newsweek named him one of the most influential rabbis in the country.
“He’s an outstanding leader in trying to eliminate racism and hatred and prejudice in the world,” Rabbi Litvak says. “We’re hoping that people from the Jewish community, and from the community at large, will come and learn about ways to combat hate.”
Rabbi Cooper is also a leading expert on the ways in which hate groups use the Internet and other digital media to further their message. Good Times caught up with him by phone a few weeks before his Santa Cruz lecture to ask him about prejudice, progress, and tolerance online.
GOOD TIMES: In a recent Huffington Post article, you talk about the explosion of hate websites in the last 10 years or so—can this be attributed simply to the growth of the Internet as a whole, or is there something more at work here? What should be done about these sites?
RABBI COOPER: There are a number of elements. At the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, we had one hate site. Now with social networking and viral natural of communications, it’s off the charts… In general in the U.S., we don’t like to have governmental legislation against hate speech. Instead, we prefer to identify the bad guys, marginalize them, and put them back in the gutter where they belong. That’s easier said than done on the Internet, because it’s not like you write a letter to the editor or you take out a bigger ad. It’s not just a matter of putting up a bigger and better website, not if the groups involved may outnumber you 50 to one or have bigger bells and whistles. As we all know by now, the Internet is an unbelievable marketing engine, unparalleled in the history of our planet, for good and bad. We try our best to encourage companies to be good neighbors and throw the bums off. Even though they will likely find a way back, the idea of interrupting that subculture of hate is a worthwhile effort.
GT: You talk about the ways in which misinformation used to foment prejudice is easily spread online. How does false information and stories spread?
RC: The Internet is tailor-made for conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, you name it. They incubate online. In the case of a regime like Iran, for example, you take a small lie, and you’ve got your own TV, radio, websites, and news services. You push a button and then out it goes. From there, a small percentage [of the mainstream media] will pick it up from you.
I think that Internet has erased borders; there are no librarians online. But it doesn’t promote critical thinking. It doesn’t promote real community. It promotes isolation. One of the earliest wake-up calls for us was a website called mlking.org. It looked like a website a 12-year old would go to do an annual paper on Martin Luther King [Jr.]’s birthday. But it was actually put up by racists. This is a mainstreaming and empowerment of racists and bigots.
But there’s also positive news. In the United States, no hate group, not the Ku Klux Klan, not the neo -Nazis, not the World Church of the Creator, none of them has succeeded in creating a mass movement, despite the fact that they were able to get their websites online.
GT: You’ve worked with political leaders all over the world to fight anti-Semitism. Do you find that there are very different types of prejudice in, say, Europe versus Asia versus the Middle East, that call for different types of dialogue and education? Or are the underlying obstacles often the same?
RC: In Asia, one positive thing is that digital technologies are creating more context. The average person in Japan will never meet a Jew. Reaching out digitally has wonderful positive implications. But it’s also kind of a trap. The Internet erases borders, but it doesn’t change cultures. People have different values and priorities and needs. In Africa and Asia, in India, the idea of having your own website or email is just not there… We’re given many wonderful opportunities to help people reach out to create online relationships. But at the end of the day, I still get on a plane when I want to get something done. Ultimately, the Net is not the source of hate or terrorism. It’s also not the cure. Bullying in schools has always been a problem—now, the new problem is cyber-bullying. You name the social challenge: racism, prejudice, et-cetera, if it existed before the Internet, we’re going to have to confront it online. It’s going to demand some new strategies. Our main role at the Wiesenthal Center is to be on the front line, the cutting edge.
One other piece of advice—I’ve got a Samsung phone, a Blackberry, and a Macbook Pro. But 25 hours a week, I don’t use it, on my Sabbath. You have to ask yourself, does my technology run me or do I run it? Turn the damn thing off. Make sure your kids have human contact. This is a kind of technology that can create too much isolation, even though it’s given us the maximum kind of communication.
Rabbi Cooper will be speaking at Temple Beth El, 3055 Porter Gulch Rd., Aptos, on Wednesday, Feb. 3 at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Call (831) 479-3444 for more information.
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