Academics who criticise Israeli actions against the Palestinians are being targeted by computer hackers. Lawrence Davidson looks at a web war now raging in the UK and the US
Tuesday October 1, 2002
A new front in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been opened in the US and the UK. It has not been opened by Islamic fundamentalists, or radical Palestinians, but by American and Israeli computer hackers. Action on this new front has taken the form of identity theft, harassment, incitement to harassment, defamation of character and malicious misrepresentation through the misuse and misappropriation of computer email facilities and lists.
In the process, the reliability of the web-based system of communication has been undercut, the integrity of some very prestigious universities have been called into question, and the judgment of law enforcement authorities made to look tainted with bias. Let me give a number of examples.
In early July, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Marc Dworkin, using a university email account, sent a message to recipients of his email lists directing them to harass Professor Mona Baker at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. His exact words, after giving Professor Baker's email address and telephone number, were "harrass (sic) the motherfucker."
This was his way of expressing his disagreement with Professor Baker over her support of the boycott of Israel. Soon Professor Baker was receiving hundreds of obscene and threatening communications.
When the University of Pennsylvania's vice-president for information systems and computing, Robin Beck, was informed of this incident, her reply to Professor Baker was that a "careful assessment based on what we currently know, does not reveal either a violation of university policy, nor a violation of law". When it was pointed out to the university's officials that Mr Dworkin's actions had indeed violated Penn's policies on acceptable use of electronic resources and guidelines on open expression (in fact his behaviour is also a possible violation of the Pennsylvania law on harassment and stalking by communication or address) they still refused to take any action. Why would the university refuse to move against someone using its email accounts in a fashion that undermines its educational purpose, violates its own policies, and possibly constitutes criminal behaviour?
In late August, Professor Shahid Alam, at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, wrote a piece in Al-Ahram Weekly Online in which he made a case for the boycott of Israeli academia as one example of a non-violent alternative to the increasingly desperate violent resistance of the Palestinians. In the process he explained the conditions of Israeli occupation that had resulted in the various forms of violent Palestinian struggle, including suicide bombings. The piece was reconstructed and misrepresented in the Jerusalem Post to make it appear that Professor Alam "justified terror attacks against Israelis." On September 4, the Boston Herald, apparently not checking the accuracy of the Jerusalem Post report, announced "Professor shocks Northeastern with defense of suicide bombers". Almost immediately Professor Alam began receiving a large number of harassing emails. In addition, in an act of identity theft, emails misrepresenting his position were forged and sent out under his name.
Northeastern University's response to the Boston Herald report was to "distance" itself from Professor Alam. The professor's remarks were his alone and the university did not "condone or officially recognise them". The impression was left that Northeastern assumed the Herald piece accurate. Why should Northeastern University react in such a timid fashion to an incorrect report that threatened the reputation of one of its own faculty members?
Throughout July and August, numerous organisations and individuals who support the Palestinian cause, oppose war in the Middle East, support human rights and are just generally critical of Israel, were harassed and interfered with. Among the victims was Monica Terazi, director of the New York office of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). She was harassed and her identity stolen by hackers, which resulted in, for a time, Yahoo groups taken her account off line. When she reported this assault to the FBI, she was told no law had been broken - no money had been stolen, no computers physically damaged, public safety had not been endangered. The entire hacker operation, according to the FBI, was simply an exercise protected by the First Amendment. Why should the FBI take such a dismissive position on activities that, in many states of the Union, are now recognised as a form of, to quote the Pennsylvania statute, "harassment and stalking by communication"?
Ultimately, it was not the law enforcement agencies or university administrators who investigated the hackers, who had harassed, abused, and misrepresented so many people over the summer months. It was private individuals such as Professor Bassam Shehadeh, of Iowa State University. He managed to track down some of the sources of abuse to sites in Israel and its West Bank colonies. The Israelis had committed their acts of harassment by accessing an ISP called Palnet.com on the West Bank. When the Israeli army went about systematically destroying electronic communication facilities on the West Bank they spared Palnet.com.
Harassment via electronic communications is continuing. It is being used to intimidate and emotionally punish American and British academics, as well as many others, who are critical of Israel and its policies. Yet nothing of significance is being done about it by authorities capable of curbing such behaviour. For all intents and purposes, the inaction of academic and law enforcement authorities has created legal space for what are ordinarily illegal acts - harassment, incitement to harassment, identity theft, and malicious misrepresentation. At least this seems to be so when these assaults are directed against those critical of positions favoured by influential and powerful interest groups. One can ask the question: would the FBI or the administrators at the University of Pennsylvania or Northeastern University have taken the positions they now do if such organised and extensive harassment and identity theft had been directed against American Zionists by supporters of the Palestinians?
The hands-off position taken by the FBI and university authorities sets a precedent for the future. While critics of Israel are now the main targets of web-based harassment and misrepresentation, there is no reason why the circle of victims cannot become much larger. After all it is a "virtual world" now and it is impossible to keep such behaviour "local." It seems we have found a new technological way of assaulting each other on a worldwide basis. It was Ortega Y Gasset who once observed that "hatred is a feeling which leads to the extinction of values." The present campaign of intimidation is certainly hate-filled and it is likely that others who hate will learn of these techniques and use them. Those who can stop this behaviour now, but have chosen not to, ought to think again before the future of communications becomes "extinct of values."
· Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University, Pennsylvania
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