Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

A very dark day for Israel

February 27, 2008

Last night I had a conversation with a friend about some issues I have with organized religion. And here, today it is striking again and the victim of the day is the State of Israel.About half a year ago I blogged about the pending law for internet censorship in Israel and about emails I sent to members of the Knesset advocating against it. What happened today is extremely sad – the law was actually passed in the first round of hearings (HE1; HE2; HE3; HE4). Well, it looks like it was passed primarily as a result of political opportunism of Shas, the largest religious party in the Israeli Knesset, but more about it later.

The essence of the law (assuming it will pass the committees and another two rounds of hearings as it is) is that by default the internet in Israel will be screened for “inappropriate content”. The screening will be done by a committee in the ministry of communication that will set the standards for what “inappropriate” means. People will be given an option to opt out from the screening program, but the default will be a limited version of access to the Web with screening done at the level of the ISP. The articulated logic of the law is that of guarding the children from online predators, from explicit sexual conten, and violence. In order to opt-out from the screening program, one will have to prove their age.

The problem with the law is quite obvious for it in fact introduces government censorship to the internet. The idea that a committee of government officials will decide for the citizen what is appropriate and what is not for them to consume sounds as if taken from a really bad science fiction movie. In this day and age, there is no democratic society that in the world that practices such a rude and intervention in the private information-life of their citizens. Any decision on the appropriation of content will bear ideological flavor and more so, as the act of passing this law indicates, to political pressures. But beyond the expected “flexibility” of definition of “appropriateness” the mere act of intervention of the government into my personal information seeking practices is mind boiling! The places where it happens, it refers to explicitly unlawful content, such as child porn or Nazi propaganda, with solid definitions and free of political pressures.

What is particularly disturbing in this case is that the law is hypocritical on so many levels. The hypocrisy is at the very core of justification behind the law – the desire of guarding the young and gentle minds from all the horrors of the internet and especially from online predators. Here are a few points on that topic:

  • Following the debates surrounding this law proposal, the Israeli ISPs agreed to subsidize screening software for their clients, offering it practically for free. This way any concerned parent could simply ask for this service and gain piece of mind (HE).
  • Not only that, but apparently there was an alternative law proposal suggesting to make the previous point a legal responsibility. It asked to make it obligatory for the ISPs (1) warn their clients about the “dangers” of the internet and (2) offer them opt-in solutions to screen their internet access. This law proposal was rejected (HE).
  • On a related note, the “save the kids” logic still does not justify the “opt-out” nature of the program. Does the state has so little face in parents’ ability to make decisions about their kids information diet? Shouldn’t parents be responsible for making those decisions, particularly when options such as those in the previous bullet are offered? Because right now there is a strong sense that be apparently taking the responsibility from the parents, the state is encouraging sort of an intellectual laziness on behalf of the parents most of whom will not know about or bother to engage with issues of information consumption of their kids. Moreover, many of those who don’t have kids, will most probably not know or not bother to take care of this issue when they are those who have to initiate (you can take a look at some numbers of online behavior patterns in US, which shed light on the level/lack of engagement of people with the medium, and at Eszter’s thoughts on why people do not switch from Google).
  • On a slightly more sophisticated note, if the proponents of the law would actually study the issue before making a political/ideological decision that is going to affect lives of an entire country, they would see that content (porn) is not the primary threat. For example, they could read a recent study on the subject and see that in order to guard the children fro m online predators, they should be educated for appropriate online behavior. Moreover they would see that in fact the only way to block “inappropriate” content is shut down the entire internet because a lot of “inappropriate” content is generated in online interactions and not in static web pages. Maybe they would understand that there is no simple blocking solution in this case, but instead embracing the medium and learning/educating how to deal with it (also see HE).

Lastly, I think the way this law was passed adds to its own inappropriateness (here is a complete list in HE of who voted and how on this proposal). Apparently this proposal was not even part of the agenda for this particular session of Knesset. However, the shaky position of KadimaAvoda government, gives Shas a lot of power to manipulate what is being discussed these days by the lawmakers and how. Just today another Shas-driven law proposal was discussed, aimed at strengthening the limitations on abortion (HE) and at the same time 475 million shekels were granted to Shas religious institutions (for example, they maintain an independent education system, which is cheaper than the governmental one – oh the absurd) , which is apparently higher than government subsidies to the entire cultural sector in Israel (HE). The political discipline of the religious voter is paying off, while the secular and progressive voters spend their time expressing they outrage in talkbacks on major news websites (until those will get censored too – HE), but when it comes to voting or holding their elected representatives accountable, they find more important things to do (HE). Even the Israeli bloggers who used to advocate strongly against the law (for example HE1; He2) are silent and as up to this point there has been little or no reaction (last posts are dated back in summer last year).

As i said, today is a very, very dark day for Israel…

Go identify yourself!


There are numbers now

February 10, 2008

A while ago I blogged about my observations about the centrality or religion in US politics. Now, thanks to John Daly’s blog, I got to see this report actually showing that US is very different compared to other wealthy countries in terms of religiosity:

The Global Attitudes study correlated views on religion with annual per capita income and found that wealthier nations tend to place less importance on religion – with the exception of the United States.

and also:

Religion is much more important to Americans than to people living in other wealthy nations. Six-in-ten (59%) people in the U.S. say religion plays a very important role in their lives. This is roughly twice the percentage of self-avowed religious people in Canada (30%), and an even higher proportion when compared with Japan and Western Europe. Americans’ views are closer to people in developing nations than to the publics of developed nations.

Interestingly enough, just tonight we had a conversation on this subject with some of the prospective students visiting the department these days.

Giuliani’s “sin”

June 25, 2007

NY Times published an article today about the criticism of Catholic church on Giuliani’s stand towards abortion. His” sin” is that while personally opposing abortion, he does not believe in forcing his personal view on the entire nation.

During the New Hampshire debate he said: “My view on abortion is that it’s wrong, but that ultimately government should not be enforcing that decision on a woman. I consult my religion, I consult my reading of the Constitution, I consult my views of what I think are important in a pluralistic society, and the reality that we have to respect the fact that there are people that are equally as religious, equally as moral that make a different decision about this. And should government put them in jail?”

This stand caused great “frustration” in the circles of Catholic religious leaders. Although, following the rules that prohibit churches from endorsing or denouncing political candidates, they are reluctant to explicitly endorse any particular candidate, they are pretty clear in implicitly criticizing Giuliani. What are the arguments to prove him wrong? Well, there are plenty!!! He “was seen leaving Mass at a church in Washington before the Eucharist”. He “had married a third time without receiving a church annulment for his second marriage”. More important of course is Vatican’s statement that “politicians who voted for abortion rights should “exclude themselves from communion”.”

Sorry for the sarcastic tone of this post. As much as it scares me, the seemingly tightening relations between religion and politics are fascinating. It appears as a convoluted system of interdependent ideologies and interests. On the one hand, the democratic principles endorse religious tolerance and free choice at the same time. On the other hand, the religious conservatism simultaneously denies the same freedom of choice and in many (or shall i say most) cases tolerance towards the “other”. On the top of it of course are the political structures that enjoy and take advantage of religion as a mobilization mechanism (pursuing voters for example), and at the same time allow the religious apparatus taking advantage of the system by utilizing its mechanism for promotion of particular ideology (see for example the attempts of internet regulation in Israel).

What do you think?


Civil activism

June 21, 2007

Recently i blogged about the pending law for internet censorship in Israel. Gladly, I am not alone arguing against it. There is a lot of buzz in the blogosphere against this law proposal. You can the see many banners (like those i am using here) and numerous blog posts calling to reject it. I personally joined the protest and contact all the MKs who supported the law in preliminary reading.

Here are their names (in HE alphabetical order :) :

  • David Azoulay (Shas)
  • Itshac Galantee (Gil Pensioners Party)
  • Majalli Whbee (Kadima)
  • Sofa Landver (Israel Beitenu)
  • Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor-Meimad)
  • Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) – future pretended for the Prime Minister Office
  • Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas)
  • Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism)
  • Colette Avital (Labor-Meimad) – former candidate for Presidency
  • Uri Yehuda Ariel (Ichud Leumi – Mafdal)
  • Gideon Sa`ar (Likud)
  • Yuval Steinitz (Likud)
  • Yitzhak Levy (Ichud Leumi – Mafdal)
  • Moshe Kahlon (Likud)
  • Robert Ilatov (Israel Beitenu)
  • I sent an email to each one of them arguing against the absurd of this proposal. It is particularly disappointing to see names of people who can be potential Prime Minister and who ran for Presidency of the State, supporting this law. If people holding views that support total censorship of the internet and monitoring of the citizens are running for those high positions with actual chances to win, i am worried about the future of Israel.

    So far (it’s been over 2 weeks since i sent the emails), I got two responses. The first one was from MK Gidon Saar. He wrote that he does not intend to support the law in its current form in the future and that he continues studying the topic. I would like to hope that it is a positive sign, even though Saar’s reply leaves him all the room in the world to change his opinion and remain apparently consistent. We’ll see. The fact that Saar personally responded already speaks in my eyes in his favor.

    The other response was sad and funny at the same time. It came from an assistant of MK Galantee. She wrote that she is surprised to hear that the MK supported that law because he is actually against the censorship of internet. But it didn’t stop there. She tried to explain the inconsistency by suggesting that there might have been a technical malfunction in the Knesset, or (I hope you are sitting) the MK made a mistake while voting(!!!). Telling the truth, after a reply like that I am actually more worried for i was convinced that voting is a heavy enough responsibility for MKs actually to pay attention to what they are voting for.

    Ironically, it seems like the only thing left in this situation is to pray :) To pray for MKs being more responsible and to study the subject before they are making a decision. But on a bit more serious note, i would like to urge you to discuss the topic, blog about it, email the MKs, etc. I am worried that the web-monitoring law proposal and the recent law (EN1, EN2) proposals against gay parades are two sides of the same coin. I will probably continue blogging about it.

    Comments and reflections are more than welcome :)

    Go identify yourself!

    Originally from:

    The Big Brother syndrome

    June 20, 2007

    Here are some trivia questions:

    – What country has the world’s highest percentage of engineers?

    – What country has the highest number of medical doctors per capita in the world?

    – What country has high technology and technology-rich products accounting for some 70% of its exports?

    – What country invests 2.2% of its gross domestic product in R&D (the third highest level in the world, after Japan and Sweden and on a par with Germany)?

    – What country has about 100 companies trading in the U.S., mainly on the NASDAQ market, representing the second-largest number of foreign firms appearing on the U.S. stock markets (after Canada) with some 80% of these companies develop and manufacture advanced technological products?

    – Where do academics publish more scientific papers in international journals (110 for every 10,000 persons) than any other country in the world?

    – Where in the world about 21 percent of all undergraduate students and 50 percent of all Ph.D. candidates specializing in the sciences or medicine, and another 13 percent of all undergraduate students and 8 percent of all graduate students specialize in engineering and architecture?

    Apparently the answer to all of those is “Israel” (i am surprised myself about some of them) and there are more examples of economic and intellectual development of Israel as a country. However, there are few more question to add to the trivia:

    – What country has a pending law aimed at blocking websites with sexual and violent content requiring those who want to consume this content to have a biometric identification device?

    – What country has a pending law allowing municipalities to prohibit gay parades “just because”?

    Unfortunately the answer to these questions is also “Israel”. Indeed the country proud of its high-tech industry, technological progressiveness, innovation, non-standard thinking, etc. finds itself in a process of being fed by exactly an opposite sentiment. Leaving the gay parade topic for a different post (actually i wrote about it once before), i would like to spend a few lines here addressing the internet censorship topic (thus the emphasis on technology in the trivia section).

    I assume that many may not know that in the beginning of the year the Knesset passed, in a preliminary hearing, a law proposal aimed at regulating the internet content. The proposal was generated by MK Amnon Kohen from Shas who proposed requiring all ISPs to block websites with sex and violent content in order to, supposedly, protect the youth. If a person would like to gain access to this type of content they will have to register and identify themselves each time they log on using a biometric device.

    Seemingly, it looks like a noble goal – protecting the youth from the dangers of virtual world, but is this the way to do that? To start with the current proposal does not define what sexual or violent contents are. Is a website discussing sexual identity considered to carry sexual content? Is a website about Capoeira considered to be violent? Who will decide what gets filtered? Based on what criteria? Are we facing another instute for kashrut AHIFA, but this time for online content?

    But going beyond that is the question if this is the role of the state to regulate its citizens online behavior, especially when it includes monitoring the browsing patterns of the entire country. What about privacy? What about the fundamental differences between the uses and utilization of the internet compared to the mainstream media? What kind of future acts this law would prepare the soil for? Will the next step be preventing people from surfing to sites that question the religious principles of Judaism or trying to convert them into other religions? Or maybe blocking websites that tolerate inter-religious marriage? I would assume that from the point of view of Shas these things are as dangerous as sex and violence. Will I, as a citizen, have to maintain a list of websites that i am allowed to visit? And what is next? Monitoring everybody’s email in order to prevent distribution of sex and violence by alternative methods? I can understand the need to fight the crime, but does it justify jailing and monitoring the entire normative population of a country? What about educational efforts for example? What is feasibility of this monitoring/blocking initiative? Today, the ISPs offer software that allow parents monitoring their children access, so why should it be centralized ad can it be effectively done that way?

    This last point actually bring me to the last point i will try to make here. It seems to me that this attempt goes beyond pure care to the mental health of youth. It appears more as a social group (minority) trying to impose its world view and its values to another social group (mind you majority). And doing that they are entering a domain that they know very little about and hardly understand the cultural dynamics of it.

    In general, it seems like the religious community has problems with the new technology. Another law proposal, that failed, was about forbidding busineses providing youngsters with Internet access. In other words, as you have to show your ID when you buy alcohol, you would have to show one in order to use services of an internet cafe. According to that proposal any business owner breaking this law, i.e. allowing people younger than 18 using internet in their business, is subject to 6 months in prison. The funny/sad part of it that MK Avraham Ravitz, who proposed the law, has never been into an internet cafe! Not only that, but the modern communication technology and the entire coffee shops culture, where people are coming to study and work in this public areas, is foreign to the world that Ravitz and the religious community have created for themselves. So, what puts him (and others) in position to regulate cultural routines he has little or no knowledge about?

    I haven’t read the actual study mentioned here, but according to the article the youths are savvy and critical about the new media, to a degree that they are aware of the dangers of the Internet. This is to say that internet does not presents more danger that the physical world, but instead offers outlets blocked in other domains. I would argue that education, which is a slower, more expansive and demanding process, is more likely to protect the youths. And i am not alone. Karin Barzilai-Nahon wrote about it in Ynet and also just a few days ago Washington Post had an article with a similar point. At the same time constant monitoring and state censorship may quickly prove themselves as counter productive, also spilling over and widening the divide between the secular and religious communities in Israel.

    I tihnk I should stop here for this post is alrady too long and i am afraid nobody will even reach this point. But there is more to say on the subject and i will do that in the next few days. In the meantime, you are welcome to leave your comments and let me know what you think about this issue.

    Give them a finger

    The text on the icon says something like: “Give them a finger, they will require the entire hand: Opposingthe law of biometry-based blocking of websites” (very bad translation of mine).