Malcolm Hoenlein on viral e-mails and the Jewish world
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Malcolm Hoenlein on viral e-mails and the Jewish world

The e-mail came from a news source in Europe, who got it from a guy in New York, who got it from a couple in Los Angeles, who got it from a guy who “just received this from my friend in Israel, who moves in high circles, who heard it from a consultant to the United States who meets once a month with the president in the White House. He is in the know. This is what actually has happened with the relationship with Israel and the U.S.A. and it is not pretty.”

What followed was a litany of “crimes” by the U.S. administration against Israel. Some of them were based on kernels of truth that had been convoluted into “reports” designed to galvanize people into action by injecting them with the fear factor. One accusation was exaggerated truth. Others were patently ridiculous, some were oversimplifications of complicated diplomatic matters that are not controlled by anyone in the United States, and some were outright lies.

How to find out the truth behind these viral e-mails? One way is to check with Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He gets his news firsthand from newsmakers and reporters – and he gets many inquiries about politically charged e-mails from the left and the right.

“Jewish organizations,” he told this reporter in a telephone interview last Wednesday, “by and large have still not learned to use the new media effectively, but it’s changed how we do our work in many ways, because there is no longer a news cycle. Information is now transmitted instantly to huge numbers of people, and disinformation needs to be responded to immediately – because the more sensational the disinformation is, the faster it goes viral. Then, before you can correct it, in a matter of moments, people are on to the next issue. (Viral e-mails were reportedly a topic at last Monday’s closed Presidents Conference meeting.)

“When I started in organizational life,” Hoenlein continued, “there was a 24-hour news cycle for newspapers. Then cable TV changed that to a 12-hour and then an eight-hour cycle, and now, because of the ‘net, we are down to a matter of minutes. It also becomes increasingly difficult to discern what is true and what is not, and there’s no time to adequately check allegations and reports before they have been widely circulated.”

How do these viral e-mails affect the American Jewish community’s relationships with other communities, politicians, and administrations?

“I see lots of energy and time wasted when false allegations are made about Israel, about the U.S.. and the relationship between them, as well as myriad other subjects that affect what people think and do. Sometimes these reports are ludicrous. For example, before Passover, someone sent out a fake press release to say President Obama asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to ask the Jewish people not to say ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ at the Seder, but to say ‘Next year in Israel or elsewhere.’

“It was an attempt at humor, and when I got [the release], I told our chairman, ‘Wait a few days, and you will see this transformed into a news story that people believe.’ Three days later we started getting e-mails asking us how we could let this happen.

“There are other examples as well. Reports that new policies have been instituted that deny Israeli scientists access to the U.S. or that Israeli access to U.S. bases has been restricted, or that 20,000 people are coming from Gaza to the U.S., or that the Obama administration does not oppose Syria re-arming Hezbollah, are just not the case.

“The problem is compounded when the ‘authors’ ascribe these allegations to a legitimate source that is close to the situation and knows what’s going on. This gives pernicious people the ability to write whatever they want and make charges without any accountability, while they hide behind the anonymity of the Internet.

“For example,” Hoenlein said, “the accusation about arms transfers from Syria to Hezbollah detracts from our serious discussions about American policy toward Syria. The same is true of allegations leveled against Israel and its government for harvesting Palestinian organs or poisoning water provided to the Palestinians. Spending time responding to reactions to this disinformation interferes with our ability to respond to real challenges and concerns that we need to address.

“And as far as Iran and terrorism are concerned, Jews should be prepared for anything, whether or not Israel attacks Iran. Jews and Jewish institutions should always take precautions to protect our constituents and our communities. There have been numerous attacks on Jewish communities, including the shootings in Seattle and in Los Angeles. These and other attempted assaults should raise our awareness and keep us on constant alert. But you don’t need viral e-mails to tell you that.”

Will the spam problem get worse as time goes on?

“The closer we get to the mid-term elections this year, the hotter it will get,” he predicted, “and the more intense it will become. As we move toward 2012, it will get even worse. The community should not allow itself to be dragged into the excesses of the political silly seasons – which will be exceptionally tense this year, considering the charged atmosphere of fiercely contested races.”

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