Thin God’s image


Scrolling down the Pinterest page, I see countless photos of bikini clad girls with emaciated bodies. Mirror selfies tagged as ‘thinspiration’ showcase razor-sharp hipbones, protruding ribs, and skeletal thighs set several inches apart.  The blogger’s comments? “Thigh gap and flat stomach…this is what I want,” and, “I will look like this by summer.”

While the Internet has seen many fads that aim to set the standard of beauty for girls and women, the “thigh gap” trend is one of the most destructive and disturbing to date. The goal is to have legs so thin that your thighs don’t touch, even when standing with your feet together.

In reality, this goal is nearly impossible to achieve without a certain body type. Unless a girl has naturally slender legs and wide-set hips, she would have to go to far and often dangerous lengths for a space between her thighs.

It has come to the point where if you type in “thigh gap” on Pinterest, the top of the screen reads  “Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause  serious health problems or could even be life-threatening,” followed by the number for the National  Eating Disorders Association Helpline.

Yet, bloggers from all over the world continue to use social media sites like Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram to post workout tips, phrases that promote eating less, and photos of girls with the coveted thigh gap as inspiration for their weight loss goals. Pictures of models, celebrities, and —  wait for it — Holocaust victims are among the images featured on the site for “motivational purposes.”

Although the thigh gap trend is horrifying and tragic in the eyes of any human being, as a Jewish teenager I feel that it strikes an even deeper chord. Throughout my life, I have been taught that everyone is created in God’s image. While this can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, at its core it means that we should embrace people’s differences and accept that we are all equally beautiful in our own right. This includes body shape, skin color, special needs and everything in between.

I remember reading a Mishnah passage in my ninth grade Jewish Studies class: “A person mints many coins from the same mold and they all resemble one another. But [God] forms each person in the image of Adam and not one of them resembles his fellow” (Sanhedrin 4:5).

It pains me to know that so many girls are striving to alter their bodies’ natural forms to resemble the runway models on the Pinterest page. So many girls are giving in to the pressure to eat less so the space between their thighs will be as wide as the photo reposted on the Tumblr blog tells them it needs to be. And so many are sitting back and watching as teenagers all over the world damage their physical and emotional health trying to match the coins minted from the Instagram mold.

One thing that can’t be stressed enough is that beauty is not something that can be defined — not by Tumblr, not by magazines, and not by the girl who complains about needing to lose five pounds. Many bloggers are taking this idea to heart and creating anti-thigh gap pages to combat negative body image. Blogs like The Beauty of Curve are becoming increasingly popular, and with them the phrase, “No Thigh Gap, No Problem.” The pages feature images of real, healthy women and celebrities with a wide range of body types, supporting the idea that there is beauty in diversity — beauty that God would want us to recognize.

Curvy, thin, tall, short or something in between, every body type is a reflection of God’s beauty and perfection — whatever your interpretation of that may be. There is one thing, however, that I think we can all agree on: up in heaven or wherever She may be, God is probably not trying for a thigh gap.

This article is reprinted from The Roar, a publication of the Milken Student Press

Letters to the Editor: Jews should get offended, Web Tsuris


More Than One Way to Deal With Obstacle to Peace Process
 
Feelings carry greater impact in communication than thought or logic (“Jews Should Get Offended,” June 21). As a mediator, I witness that routinely. When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denies any Jewish connection to Jerusalem, David Suissa suggests Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu respond by simply calling it insulting and offensive. That makes sense and, even more so, it feels right.
 
Daniel Ben-Zvi
Los Angeles
 
David Suissa’s article in a nutshell: Jews — good, reasonable, only want peace; Arabs — bad, unreasonable, obstacle to peace.
 
Ah, the same old, same old.
 
On the other hand, settlement building is a genius idea that will naturally lead to peace. A wonderful display of us Jews saying “no” to peace also.
 
David Avram Wright
via jewishjournal.com
 
I believe that Palestinians at heart are bullies. In my neighborhoods, the slums of St. Louis and East Los Angeles, you did not let bullies push you around. You kicked their ass and then they picked on someone else. Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt have all lost wars to Israel, but not the Palestinians. Arafat rejects a two-state solution and we give them the Oslo Accords, with guns, taxes, control over their territory. What does Israel get from these bullies? Nothing but heartache.
 
Ilbert Phillips
via jewishjournal.com
 
Tsuris for Sale on the World Wide Web
 
Dennis Pager should auction the gold tallit to pay for the silver one  (“The Israeli.com and Me,” June 21).
 
David M. Davis
via jewishjournal.com
 
So I’m waiting with bated breath to hear the continuation of this saga. Please keep us posted (pun intended).
 
Jules Stein 
Ambler, Penn.
via jewishjournal.com
 
Buy locally, my friend. You won’t have these problems.
 
Sofer Ronnie Sieger
via jewishjournal.com
 
I had a similar issue when I ordered a T-shirt from Israel. When I received the shirt it was the wrong color and two sizes smaller than I ordered. After a couple of e-mail exchanges, in which they asked what color and size I had ordered (don’t they keep records?), they graciously offered to credit me the price of the shirt on my next purchase. In my wildest dreams, I can’t imagine why they think I would ever buy from them again. Now that I read Mr. Prager’s experience, I don’t see myself ever buying from an Israeli company again. 
 
Ted Salmons
via jewishjournal.com
 
I so appreciate your situation. While in Israel, we shipped purchases home ahead. We were met with similar preposterous problems, which we never solved, and we never got our items. We gave up, totally flabbergasted. I commend you for your not giving up.
 
Mary Ann Griffin
via jewishjournal.com
 
They have had several opportunities to make amends. Please publish the name of this company so justice and fairness can triumph. 
 
Jeff Marder
via jewishjournal.com
 
Appreciation for a Remarkable Physician
 
I was delighted to see the article on Dr. Wayne Grody’s efforts in overturning the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office policy on DNA patents (“Patient Ruling Could Aid Women,” June 21). Dr. Grody is a remarkable person, always standing up for what’s right for the health-care consumer and doing something about it. I know that personally because he was able to diagnose my son with familial Mediterranean fever at the FMF Clinic at UCLA using DNA testing after multiple specialists were unable to do so. When the FDA proposed increasing the cost of my son’s medication tenfold, Dr. Grody went to Washington to lobby for all those who need to take the medication on a daily basis for the rest of their lives. Thank you for featuring Dr. Grody and all that he does. The world could use a few more committed people like him.
 
Leila Cohen
Los Angeles
 
Corrections
 
Due to an editing error, an article on local reaction to the Iranian presidential election (“L.A. Iranian Jews Pessimistic About New Iranian President,” June 21) omitted the full title of local Iranian-Jewish leader Sam Yebri. He is president of 30 Years After, an Iranian-Jewish organization based in Los Angeles. 
 
A.J. Kreimer’s title was listed incorrectly in an article about Boy Scout troops in synagogues (“Opposition Continues Despite New Scout Policy,” June 21). He is the Area 5 president of the Northeast Region.

New cybercrime law in the United Arab Emirates is rights issue


Trying to stop the Internet these days may feel like Sisyphus pushing a rock to the top of the mountain. But officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are certainly giving it a try.

A new cyber-crime law issued by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan protects credit card and bank account information published on the Internet, providing jail time for anyone convicted of using electronic means to forge credit cards or ID cards. It also makes it a crime to solicit prostitution or encourage someone to commit adultery.

The measure also “effectively closes-off the country’s only remaining forum for free speech,” says a new report by Human Rights Watch. It makes it illegal to “criticize senior officials, argue for political reform, or organize unlicensed demonstrations.” Anyone charged under the new law could pay penalties of up to $270,000 as well as imprisonment.

The statute comes amid growing discontent with the ruling monarchy despite massive salary increases for public sector employees and a $2.7 billion package to assist poor Emirates with outstanding loans.

“Over the last year the climate of repression in the UAE has worsened dramatically and over 60 members of the Al-Islah movement, a non-violent opposition movement, have been detained,” Nadim Khoury, the Deputy Director of the Middle East for Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. “Some have even had their citizenship revoked. That is a dangerous precedent.”

The European Parliament last week passed a resolution expressing concern about the changed atmosphere in the UAE.

Khoury says the President and other government officials have not been responsive to charges leveled by Human Rights Watch. “As the environment in the UAE has worsened, our access to the country and the willingness of the government to engage in substantive debate has declined dramatically,” he complained.

The UAE is a federation of seven ‘emiratis’ or principalities, each headed by an emir, but with one president for all seven. In the almost two years since the “Arab Spring” — protests that have swept the region — began, the unrest has bypassed these small states. Yet in recent months, opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Al-Islah have begun calling for regime change.

It is those calls that the new cyber-crime law is aimed against, says Dr. Theodore Karasik, the Director of Research for the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, the wealthiest of the seven emirates.

“From the UAE’s point of view, the tensions that are sweeping the region is another reason this new cyber law has been put into place,” he told The Media Line.

Karasik said that, perhaps surprisingly, most citizens seem to support the new legislation.

“It is seen as necessary because of the amount of hacking and other cyber-related crimes,” he says. “The Middle East faces cyber threats from both criminal networks and non-state actors. This law is seen as just part of doing business.”

But it also shows that the UAE’s rulers are growing increasingly nervous about the threat that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which won elections in Egypt and Tunisia, could pose to the current regimes. Other threats come from academics and human rights activists. In March, Muhammed Rashid Al-Kalbani, a young UAE national, was arrested for tweeting about the Arab Spring. He was accused of “damaging national security social peace.” Under the updated cybercrime law, he could be fined and imprisoned.

The new law will also encourage self-censorship. Wary of being arrested, activists may choose not to post on Facebook or Twitter, aware that the government is watching them.

The regime is hitting back hard at any opposition.

“We hear today that there are some who are trying to tamper with the stability of the UAE,” Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al-Qasimi, the ruler of the small Ras Al-Khaimah said recently, according to an official government press release. “I would like to say to them: the people of the UAE don’t need lessons from anyone. They are confident in themselves and in the solidarity that they share. They don’t change.”

Al-Qasimi also defended the government’s policy of stripping citizenship from some opponents of the regime.

“He who does not like this should leave for another place,” he said. “Any treachery is a shame for him and for his country.”

With the new cyber-crime law, the monarchies of the UAE are trying to stop protests from spreading on the Internet. But, like Sisyphus, they are unlikely to succeed.

New internet censorship in Gaza


Many Gazans have long lamented that there’s not much to do in the Gaza Strip. There are no movie theaters, pool halls or bowling alleys — all of which are seen as “un-Islamic.” And it’s not getting any better. In fact, now, curbs are being extended further – to the Internet.

The Islamist Hamas movement that rules Gaza issued a new law this week that forces Gaza’s ten main internet providers to block all access to any websites with pornographic content.

“This move is aimed at preserving our morals,” Osama Al-Eisawi, Minister of Communication and Information Technology in the Hamas government said in a statement. “Our social fabric needs protection and we are actually protecting Internet users in Gaza.”
 

Al-Eisawi said that any Internet provider that does not obey the law will be closed down. He explained that the law is an extension of the one passed in 2008, when the filters to block pornography were put in place, but individual users could still choose to lift them. Now, that choice is no longer available.

Hamas officials say the law is being imposed in response to many requests from parents and what he called “other organizations.”

“We don’t aim at oppressing any freedom or censoring any political websites; we will just block the websites that have a pornographic nature,” Dr. Kamal Al-Masri, the Director General of Licensing at the Ministry of Communications said.

“We will stay in coordination with all the Internet providers in Gaza regarding this law. We have systems and technologies that will help us keep tracking those providers. If any provider breaks the law then they will be prosecuted or face a complete shut down,” Al- Masri concluded.

Some in Gaza worried that the ban on pornography is just a first step to total control, arguing that in the future, Hamas could choose to block political websites. But most say the ban will not be effective, in any case. Gazans are considered to be especially Internet-savvy, some believe because it is so difficult for them to leave Gaza to travel abroad (they need permits from either Israel or Egypt to leave Gaza).

“I would like to think of myself and others as grown-up adults who have the freedom of choice over whether to put filters on our Internet connection or not,” Adam Al-Agha, a student sitting in front of a computer screen at an Internet café told The Media Line. “Youth here are very advanced when it comes to technology –we can easily surpass this barrier using certain techniques.”

Other similar moves by the Islamist Hamas movement have failed to gain traction. Hamas first legislated against pornography with a law in 2008, but backed-off when Internet providers and the public protested. Hamas also tried to ban restaurants and coffee shops from selling hookah (water pipes with flavored tobacco that is popular throughout the Middle East), but the government amended the rule, saying men could smoke hookah in public but not women, for whom it is considered to be immodest. In each case, Hamas retracted the ban after protests. However, one rule that has been mostly enforced prohibits men from cutting women’s hair.

In response to the Internet law, though, some critics say Hamas is a strict Islamist movement that is trying to Islamize Gaza. Others consider the moralistic moves by Hamas to be a way of demonstrating its control over Gaza.

Officials from Pal-Tel (Palestinian Telecommunication Company), who preferred to remain anonymous, said the filters blocking pornography will slow down the Internet connection, frustrating many users.

A statement from the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology said there have been complaints that even non-pornographic websites were being censored.

“We are happy to receive any complaints,” the statement said. “Some non-pornographic websites were banned or could not open because of the Internet providers, not because of us.”

He said that some internet providers had technical issues after putting the filters on while others were differed over which websites should be blocked.

We are all working on fixing these little issues,” the statement said. “The filter is very new and it's normal to face mishaps at first.”

The statement ended with a warning: “We will soon issue the names of Internet providers who implemented this law and the names of those who broke it. Those who broke it will face legal charges.”

Online anti-Semitism in Spain doubled in 2011, report says


Online anti-Semitism in Spain doubled in volume last year, according to a Spanish Jewish community monitor.

In a report on anti-Semitism in Spain in 2011, the Observatory on Anti-Semitism in that country counted more than 1,000 anti-Semitic sites and web pages that it said were created in Spain. In 2010 the observatory counted 400 such sites. The observatory includes Spanish Facebook pages and groups in its reports.

The document on 2011 is the observatory’s third annual monitor report. The observatory was co-founded by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain.

In addition to the observatory’s research of anti-Semitic websites, the observatory received 57 reports of anti-Semitic incidents in 2011. Of those, the observatory deemed 42 to be anti-Semitic. In 2010, the center received half the number of reports.

“There is growing public awareness of the [observatory] initiative,” a Jewish federation spokesperson said. 

A few of the incidents reported involved the heckling of Jews in public. On Sept. 17, a group of youths confronted members of a Jewish cultural group at a mall in Saragossa. The youths allegedly told the group that Jews were “fascists, racist murderers” and that “there should be no Jews in the world.”

Spain, a nation of some 47 million people, has approximately 50,000 Jews. The similarly sized Dutch Jewish community registered 123 anti-Semitic incidents in 2011 throughout the Netherlands, with a population of 17 million.

During 2011, “there have been notable progresses in the legal field, as well as increased efforts in the fight against anti-Semitism,” the Observatory on Anti-Semitism in Spain’s report said.

The observatory nonetheless called on the political establishment to address “ambiguous wording” in the penal code. This, according to the observatory, leads to “contradictions” in the fight against hate crimes.

For haredi Orthodox, Internet threat harkens back to the Enlightenment


To the outside observer, the Charedi Orthodox anti-Internet rally at New York’s Citi Field may have looked uniform: a single mass of black hats, white shirts and brown beards.

But the crowd at the May 20 event was far from homogeneous.

Yiddish speakers sat next to Anglophones. Chasidim from Brooklyn mixed with “yeshivish” Charedim (non-Chasidic) from Lakewood, N.J. Bobov Chasidim cheered along with Satmars. These groups, while similar in many ways, usually stay within their own communities.

But it’s hardly the first time the Charedi community has faced a threat from the outside world.

As speaker after speaker at the rally made clear, the Internet is the latest in a series of threats dating back to the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, which first opened up a path for Jews to leave tradition for the secular world.

“Just as they fought tooth and nail against the Haskalah, they’re fighting again against this,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York who studies Charedi communities. “They live in a singular world. They’ve tried to keep all the doorways locked from the inside, but you can only lock something from the inside if the people are willing to keep it locked.”

Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman and others made clear at the rally that they view the Internet as a profound challenge to the Charedi way of life.

“This issue is the test of the generation that threatens all of us,” Wachsman, a Charedi lecturer, said. “Your strength at this gathering will determine what we look like a few years from now.”

At the same time, the Internet has become a necessity for many, if not most, Charedim: They use it to conduct business, communicate with each other and even to promote Jewish observance.

“In the sense that they have already used the Internet to spread their message far beyond the local community, the Internet has been good for them as well,” Heilman said. “They’re going to use it, going to say that the end justifies the means.”

The late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, famously embraced technology as a means of spreading the faith. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which did not officially participate in the rally, was an early adapter to the Internet age and has used online tools to spread its message.

“Everything God created in this world could be used for good or the opposite,” said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, director of Chabad.org. “It’s our responsibility to channel the enormous powers of technology in a positive manner.”

But the Internet’s dangers — not just pornography and the window it provides into the secular world, but even its potential for distraction — present the Charedi lifestyle with the challenge of how to use it for good while keeping out the bad.

The Charedi community is not alone in this struggle.

Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi who maintains an active Web presence, said the Internet challenges anyone who cares about ethics.

“To some extent, we all need to have the Internet moderated for us,” Miller said. “Beyond modesty, there’s content that I don’t think is healthy or beneficial for individuals to see or read.”

Adrianne Jeffries, a female blogger who sneaked into the rally disguised as a man, wrote that although not Charedi, she found herself agreeing with some of the speakers’ points at the rally.

“There wasn’t much I could quibble with in the speech,” wrote Jeffries, who blogs for BetaBeat, a technology blog associated with The New York Observer. “The Internet is about instant gratification? It’s ‘fleeting and empty’? It causes us to waste productive hours? It threatens the preservation of isolated communities with strong traditions, such as the ultra-Orthodox Jews? Well, yes, but …”

For a community whose survival depends in part on maintaining its isolation, the Internet can be particularly pernicious.

“Jews should separate themselves from the general community,” Rabbi Yechiel Meir Katz, the Dzibo rebbe, said at the rally. “The great rabbis have done so in order to safeguard future generations.”

Even as he delivered his speech — in Yiddish that ran with English subtitles on Citi Field’s JumboTron — many in the crowd could be seen thumbing their BlackBerrys or iPhones.

“The battle against the Haskalah they lost,” Heilman said. “It’s clear that they’ve lost this one already.”

Alan Mittleman, a professor of Jewish thought at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, said that on the contrary, the Charedim are winning the battle against the Internet just as they survived the Haskalah.

“It’s a problem that they’ve already solved,” he said of the Internet. “It’s more powerful and invasive, a new kind of threat, but it’s the same kind of thing.”

Opinion: Teach children to be their own Internet filters


Tens of thousands of Jews filled Citi Field in Queens on Sunday and heard from haredi Orthodox leaders that the Internet should be avoided in the home at all costs and used sparingly at work, and then only with a filter blocking content that could be damaging spiritually.

Debate as you will what some may see as draconian edicts to protect the Jewish community from moral corruption. But at the heart of the matter is a question that should concern us all: How do we keep our children safe on the Internet?

We know that we cannot work around the Internet. Research from the Pew Foundation indicates that 54 percent of children say they go to Google first when they have a question, as opposed to only 26 percent who say they go to a parent and 3 percent to a teacher. Rather we must figure out how parents and teachers can make this important tool work safely and effectively for our kids.

The difficulty is that even the simple solutions are incredibly complicated. Powerful filters can block illicit images and material, but those filters often block out the good with the bad and limit far too much useful information. This solution has been discussed and debated on our own campus concerning Internet access in dormitories.

Some yeshivot have considered avoiding technology altogether and sticking with books and blackboards. But that would leave students without the digital competence required to succeed academically in college and beyond, not to mention that it would rob teachers of increasingly exciting and effective educational tools.

The only real answer is that as parents and teachers, we must instill in our children a strong value system based on Jewish morals and traditions that allows our children to become their own filters when exploring the Internet. That would be far more powerful than any protective software.

The onus is clearly on us because it seems that children will listen to our rules, at least when it comes to the Internet. Only three in 10 young people reported to a Kaiser Foundation survey that they are given clear rules about how much time they may spend using a computer, watching TV or playing video games. The average child with no rules spends more than three hours per day on such media. Those who are given rules spend considerably less time.

Yeshiva high school students said they would be receptive to rules. More than half of those surveyed by researcher Debbie Fox, director of the Aleinu Family Resource Center, a program of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, said that they would welcome more guidance from parents regarding Internet use.

These same students, in fact, said that they would be far stricter with their own future adolescent children regarding responsible Internet use than their parents, and would monitor their children much more closely.

The dangers of the Internet are not limited to challenging content. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study showed that about half of students in grades seven through 12 said they do their homework with media open that do not pertain to their task at hand. In other words, about 50 percent of middle and high school students are doing homework with divided attention. And while some kids may believe that they are being more efficient, multitasking has been proven in adults to cause higher levels of stress and lower levels of efficiency.

While some kids can multitask well, it’s up to parents to actively determine if their children work more efficiently while doing so or while focusing on their work without interruption. Parents should collaborate with their children to test whether they are more efficient when not being interrupted or distracted, and then meter their background activity accordingly.

The greatest challenge of all, however, may be making sure that our kids completely separate from the Internet at times.  According to the Pew Foundation, 75 percent of American teens prefer texting to in-person contact with friends. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this generation’s empathy levels among adolescents are significantly lower than those of previous generations.

It may seem that adolescents in every generation feel isolated and tuned out at some point or another. But it turns out that their computer habits may be compounding the problem. Parents need to teach children that some of their relationships must include direct face-to-face interaction without the distraction of text messages and cell phone calls.

While some of what occurred at Citi Field this past weekend might seem foreign, we must work to ensure that our students and our children can grow up as highly moral and successful Jewish digital citizens.

Dr. Eliezer Jones is the educational technology specialist at Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership. Dr. David Pelcovitz is the Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus chair in psychology and Jewish education at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. For more information about safe Internet rules and guidelines, visit www.yuschoolpartnership.org/parentguidedigitalage.

Google Street View in Israel to go online


Google’s Street View in Israel will go online next week.

The project, which will feature 3-D images of the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and other attractions in Israel such as the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth and the Ramon Crater, will be launched with a ceremony in Tel Aviv on April 22, Israel’s business daily Globes reported.

Israel’s Justice Ministry in approving the project set several conditions on Google Street View, including the right for Israelis to request further blurring of residences and license plates. Israeli officials reportedly had been concerned that terrorists would use the service to plan attacks in Israel.

The Google cars and tricycles, fitted with 360-degree cameras to take panoramic images, began collecting the images last September.

Google Street View, an online mapping tool that provides a 3-D view of buildings, landmarks and streets, is available in 30 countries.

Q&A with an expert on bullying


Ron Avi Astor, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development at USC, has been studying the epidemiology of school violence for nearly 30 years. In 1997, he moved his family to Jerusalem for one year to run the first-ever large-scale comprehensive school violence survey in Israel, with his partner, Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Rami Benbenishty. Together they co-authored the book “School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School, and Gender” (Oxford University Press, 2005). The study is still considered one of the most rigorous and ambitious ever conducted, and there are plans to replicate it in France, Chile and Taiwan. Here, Astor discusses its findings and what it has to teach Jewish schools in the United States.

Jewish Journal: The term “bullying” means many things. What exactly are we talking about when we’re talking about bullying?
Ron Astor: Bullying covers a wide range of behaviors that are qualitatively really different from each other: name calling, social exclusion, teasing, kicking, hitting, fistfights, weapon use, ganging up on somebody, writing things about people or posting it. It used to be in the bathroom, now it’s using the Internet to upset, humiliate or threaten somebody. Generally, the person who does the bullying needs to be stronger socially and psychologically, and it needs to happen more than once.

JJ: Who are the prime targets?
RA: In general, kids who tend to be more isolated, kids who are weaker in terms of social connection, who the bullies feel [are isolated enough that] they can get away with it.

JJ: Bullying has suddenly become a very hot topic. But, haven’t people always been mean?
RA: Until 2001, we didn’t run studies on bullying in the United States, but after the shootings at Columbine, a theory came out in the media saying that the reason why these kids became shooters is that they were bullied at school. But there is no evidence to show that bullying leads to shooting; if that were true, it would be Armageddon in Los Angeles. 

JJ: Is being part of a minority group an advantage in deflecting bullying, as opposed to those who suffer in isolation? 
RA: It’s too general to say, “I’m part of the Jewish people; I’m not alone.” I could be Jewish, and be on a Jewish campus, and not have any friends and be very isolated. But, if a group becomes cohesive and organized, I think that actually protects people from being harmed. We’ve seen that with civil rights.

JJ: Some adults excuse bullying behavior as a “kids will be kids” developmental milestone. How do you deal with bullying that is really dangerous and bullying that is just part of growing up? 
RA: On the one hand, you don’t want people to go meshuggah about this stuff, where everything a little kid does has to have serious consequences. On the other hand, there have to be consequences that are appropriate. Society tends to speak only in terms of how adults respond, but that’s reactionary. What’s better is a wider belief and philosophy about what a human being should be like. 

JJ: Why did you choose school violence as the focus of your career research?
RA: It has to do, in part, with growing up Jewish. If you look at all our holidays, it’s all about being a victim and how we respond as a society to victimization. Also, growing up in L.A. at the height of Bloods and Crips, gangs in schools … living at a time when there was a lot of racial tension. We lived in a much more violent society than we have right now. So it was the combination of the Jewish questions and what I saw around me growing up.

JJ: In an essay about Jews and school violence, you wrote that American Jews don’t perceive school violence as an American Jewish problem. Why is that?
RA: At the time, Jews were following what the rest of society was saying, and society had branded youth violence as a minority problem and a poverty problem. But what this whole focus on bullying has done has told all of America that this is a problem that cuts across all categories. No group or segment of our society is immune to bullying.

JJ: You also wrote that when you began your research, almost no scientific literature existed about Jews and darker issues, such as child abuse, family violence, drug addiction, mental illness or as suffering from problems such as bullying or school violence. Was this a way of keeping a low profile on ugly issues?
RA: The Jewish community in the United States understands that even though we love to see ourselves as a model community, and I think we are, we have problems like everybody else. We’re al’ kol am [a nation like other nations], and that’s a process partially influenced by Israel.

JJ: After you conducted the study in Israel, you reported that the country saw a 20 to 25 percent reduction in school violence rates, which you believe is related to the fact that the entire educational system made combatting school violence a top priority. Why hasn’t that happened in the United States?
RA: If you looked at the average high school pre-World War II, it had 500 students. After that, when people started moving toward factory models, schools followed. Instead of teachers patrolling hallways and saying hello, they became a math teacher, a history teacher, a science teacher, and the classroom became the domain of their work. But if you look at where bullying takes place, it happens in the hallway, the playground, the bathroom — all the places where a teacher’s professional role doesn’t exist. One idea is to move back to the old view, where a teacher sees the entire child and the entire school as their domain. That’s what the whole mission of education is supposed to be about.

JJ: You’ve complained that it’s been difficult to get exposure for your findings in the U.S. Jewish community. Since this interview is happening because of the release of a movie, would you say you owe a debt to Hollywood?
RA: [laughs] I owe a debt to Hollywood and to you. This is one of most in-depth interviews I’ve done — in 20 years. My stuff has been in Newsweek, Time, NPR, CNN —  the only place I couldn’t crack was the Jewish news.

The battle to get ‘Bully’ seen by those who need it most


At Sioux City Middle School in Iowa, 12-year-old Alex Libby is the odd-man-out. Seen by his peers as different, he has golden hair, gentle eyes, a wide, flat nose and permanently puckered lips. Together, they might seem to express something both pouty and vulnerable, sweet and sad. Kids are not so kind. “People call me fish face,” he blankly tells the camera in the new documentary “Bully” by filmmaker Lee Hirsch. “I don’t mind.”

Hirsch’s camera follows Alex to the bus stop. He breathes heavily and loiters sort of aimlessly until another boy his age begins to taunt him, “I’ll break your Adam’s apple, which will kill you!” the boy shouts. On the bus, yet another boy tells Alex he plans to bring a knife to school. “I’m gonna f—- you up,” he taunts. “You’re gonna die in pain.”

The documentary, which hits theaters on March 30, comes at a time when the prevalence and perils of bullying are thick in national consciousness. Last week, former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was found guilty of a hate crime, convicted of 15 criminal charges including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and tampering with evidence for using a Webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man. Engaging in a practice commonly known as cyberbullying, Ravi used his Twitter and Facebook accounts to invite others to join him. “Roommate asked for the room till midnight,” Ravi Tweeted on Sept. 19, 2010. “I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” A few days later, Ravi Tweeted a second time, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”

Three days after the initial incident, Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi leaped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.

Although Ravi was not charged in relation to Clementi’s death, the case has widely been seen as a watershed moment because, for the first time, an act of cyberbullying has been successfully prosecuted. But the phenomenon of bullying is nothing new. The word is simply a modern catchall to describe an ancient behavior; even before “Lord of the Flies,” there were Joseph and his brothers. Yet bullying covers such a broad range of behaviors — from teasing and name-calling, to threats and even physical violence — and affects an even wider swath of ages, starting as early as preschool and continuing through adulthood, when, in the workplace it’s called harassment, it could probably hold rank as one of the most challenging social problems in human history.

[Q&A with an expert on bullying]

Before bullying became a buzzword and a subject of serious scientific study, it was widely but erroneously believed to be an affliction of race or poverty. For Jews, victimization that comes from being different from the dominant culture is a familiar theme. But while a minority status determined by race, religion, gender, social status or sexual orientation often becomes a factor in discrimination, bullying is not restricted to minority groups. Nor is it believed to be more or less prevalent within one group over another.

Today, sociologists generally agree that the phenomenon is universal and that it happens on a global scale. In 2010 in the United States, 828,000 nonfatal victimizations at schools were reported among students ages 12-18, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics on behalf of the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. The same study found that nearly half of those were considered “violent victimizations,” and more than 91,000 incidents qualified as “serious violent victimizations.” It was also reported that the majority of all childhood victimizations occurred at school, including 17 homicides and seven suicides.

All this makes it likely that you, your child or someone you know has experienced some type of bullying at some point during adolescence. And more than any sociocultural identification — black, Jewish, gay, wealthy — the single most powerful determinant in whether an individual is susceptible to bullying behavior is social isolation. How strange, then, to perceive minority status as a happy accident of fate; sometimes it is precisely affiliation with a group that can be lifesaving.

“The thing I think about a lot is, ‘What are the activators of pain?’ ” Lee Hirsch, the 40-year-old filmmaker of “Bully,” said during a phone interview from New York. “I love movements and politics and platforms, but the thing that interests me the most is, what can compel people to move off the sidelines?”

All photos from “Bully,” courtesy of the Weinstein Co.

Whether there are genetic incentives for altruistic behavior is a perennial query of evolutionary biology. A recent article in The New Yorker magazine by Jonah Lehrer illuminated a scientific debate about the genetics of altruism. Is it actually biologically good to do good? “Charles Darwin regarded the problem of altruism — the act of helping someone else, even if it comes at a steep personal cost — as a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection,” Lehrer writes. “And yet, as Darwin knew, altruism is everywhere, a stubborn anomaly of nature. Bats feed hungry brethren; honeybees commit suicide with a sting to defend the hive; birds raise offspring that aren’t their own; humans leap onto subway tracks to save strangers. The ubiquity of such behavior suggests that kindness is not a losing life strategy.”

As more students report having witnessed bullying than experiencing it, converting bystanders into altruistic defenders could prove transformative. It is the message conveyed by Hirsch’s film, and it is his hope that the film will seed a social revolution — a battle against bullying, so to speak, that would make prevention and containment a permanent part of America’s educational culture.

“Tackling this idea of bullying as a nation, in a really deep way,” Hirsch wondered, “does that get at a bigger truth or bigger transformation than bullying itself? Does confronting [this issue] help us see more about life and the choices that we make?”

Hirsch urgently believes that now is the time to seize upon the spotlight and influence public discourse. “There’s something so universal and collective in the experience of bullying. There is a conversation to be had that hasn’t yet been had, and I think that’s why I’m so committed to classrooms seeing this film; what could come out of that is thrilling to think about.”

It’s too bad, and just a tad ironic, then, that Hirsch is also having to battle for his movie to be seen. When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) scarlet-lettered the film with an “R” rating for explicit language, it complicated the filmmaker’s plans to screen the movie in schools for students. Because, while the film is reliably entertaining, it’s not exactly a choice pick for a Saturday afternoon. It was designed to be consciousness-raising and educational.

“Bully” tells the story of five students and their families as they confront the real-life consequences of school-day torment. For a year, Hirsch and his camera traveled to five cities to observe the effects: To follow Alex, the documentary’s default star, Hirsch was given unprecedented access to three schools in Sioux City, Iowa — an elementary, middle and high school — where his cameras were allowed full access in hallways, classrooms and on the playgrounds. Given the many discomfiting scenes that emerge in the film — Alex is shoved, stabbed, ridiculed and threatened — it seems either miraculous or insane that the school agreed to participate. Hirsch attributes this to their desire for change. “They want to be part of the solution,” he said.

Web list accuses Israelis of ‘war crimes’


A list of more than 200 Israelis is circulating on the Internet accusing them of war crimes and listing many of their purported home addresses.

The list reportedly originates in Britian, but is otherwise of unknown provenance.

It has appeared under multiple URLs; a number of web hosts have removed it.

It calls itself “an act of retribution and affront” and says the listed held positions of command and were “direct perpetrators” during the 2009 Gaza war.

A few of the people appearing on the list are senior Israel Defense Forces commanders and appear in uniform; many are lower ranked—some as low as sergeant—and appear in civilian clothing, photos apparently lifted from social network sites.

In an analysis Friday, Ha’aretz said there are many inaccuracies on the list and that some of the listed never took part in the fighting.

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In the J-blogosphere, everybody knows your screen name


JERUSALEM — They use names like Urban Kvetch, My Shrapnel, What War Zone? and Cannibis Chasidis — monikers under which they write on the internet.

In a crowded hall in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood on Aug. 20, they were tossing around terms like “cross platforms,” “H.D.L.” “revenue streams” “microblogger” and “Twitter.”

Welcome to the Jewish world of blogging: the J-Blogosphere.

While some bloggers know each other by name — having actually met in the “real” world — many only know each other by their handles or their opinions. This may have been the biggest draw of Jerusalem’s First International Jewish Blogging Conference, hosted by N’efesh B’nefesh, the organization that helps North American and British Jews make aliyah, or move to Israel.

The five-hour conference allowed some 250 Jewish bloggers to finally meet, as another 1200 watched via live webcast. Panel discussions included topics such as “Taking J-blogging to the Next Level” and “Building Israel One Post at a Time.”

“I didn’t know there were non-Jewish bloggers,” joked Likud leader and blogger Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, who made a last-minute appearance to speak to the bloggers. As leader of Israel’s opposition party, he encouraged the bloggers to use their words to encourage others to make aliyah and to support Israel.

“All of you who are listening — come to Israel. This is your land, and this is your city, and it’s going to remain our city,” he said.

Zavi Apfelbaum, foreign ministry director of brand management, delivered the keynote address, “Branding Israel — From Vision to Reality,” explaining how brand management differs from “hasbara” — pro-Israel advocacy.

“Branding is not a replacement for advocacy, it is not campaign and spin, it is a long-term, never-ending process about encapsulating the good and the bad,” she said. “But what should we do about it?” one blogger called out from the audience, to widespread applause.

While many bloggers start out just to keep in touch with family and friends, others clearly want to promote the Israel experience, among them The Aliyah Survival Blog, Kumah, Life in Israel and In the Land of Milk and Honey. Some do it through diary-like postings, sometimes about a specific subject, such as life in Samaria (muquata.blogspot.com) or guns and self-defense in Israel (doubletapping.com).

Others use humor, such as WhatWarZone? (“Tackling only the most important issues in the Middle East, for example, why Israelis say ‘ehhhhhh’ so much. Oh, yes, and to discuss why Israel is hilarious. ‘So, ehhhh, buckle your belt seats, nu?!'”)

But Israel is not the only topic of the J-blogosphere. Dating, humor, feminism, hiking and nature are subjects of Jewish blogs. By far the most popular is religion, with Torah sites such as Hirhurim.com (Thoughts and Torah and Other Musings, “Consult your rabbi before following any practices here”) and politics, which often crosses from the J-Blogosphere into the non-J-Blogosphere.

So what was accomplished here?

“For me, it’s served as an opportunity to connect with other people who are as passionate (and sometimes confused) about Jewish life as I am,” said Esther Kustanowitz, creator of MyUrbanKvetch.com and an occasional contributor to The Jewish Journal. “We serve as a virtual talmudic academy, although admittedly, sometimes a bit less reverential than the classic model, as we discuss Jewish life’s resonance and share innovative and creative ideas for the Jewish future.”

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