November 17, 2018

Lawfare Project Gets Facebook to Remove Anti-Semitic Content Following Zuckerberg Comments

Photo from Flickr.

The Lawfare Project was able to leverage Facebook into removing anti-Semitic content from their platform through legal action following Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent comments on Holocaust deniers.

According to a press release, The Lawfare Project issued several take-down notices of anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying Facebook posts over the past couple of days, and Facebook took those posts down. One example that was shared with the Journal was a post in Spanish that roughly translates to:

“I do not know more than three kinds of Jews and none is good. Orthodox or believers who are crazy fanatics who are governed by their invented law of God with which there are words for more that say they are against the illegitimate state of Israel are psychopaths. The Jewish assassins who are ruled by Zionism and the holocity. And the secular Jews or atheists who in their great majority are governed by Zionism or the Holocaust; among which a small minority will undoubtedly be good people, but these are so scarce that it is as if they would not even exist; and as when one speaks, one speaks in general, because the more I know about the Jews, the more they disgust me; and I am not anti-Semitic, but a bit anti-Jewish enough that it is always good to take off the guilt saying that not all Jews are bad; it will not be all, but if the great majority.”

On July 18, Zuckerberg told ReCode that Facebook wouldn’t take down Holocaust-denying content but would bury it on people’s feeds through its algorithm.

“I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong,” Zuckerberg said. “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”

Lawfare Project Spanish Counsel Ignacio Wenley Palacios said in the press release, “Whenever we find blatant Holocaust denial that Facebook refuses to remove, we will file legal proceedings to ensure that Facebook does not follow Mr. Zuckerberg’s stated approach.”

Lawfare Project Executive Director Brooke Goldstein stated that Zuckerberg’s comments “contradicts the findings of historians, sociologists and mainstream political figures, who categorize Holocaust denial as a form of anti-Semitism.”

“Facebook bans hate speech that attacks groups based on ethnicity or religious affiliation, so statements should be removed if they attack the Jewish people, an ethno-religious group,” Goldstein said. “In countries such as Spain, where Holocaust denial violates civil and criminal law, we will continue taking action to get it removed.”

On July 25, it was reported by CNBC that Facebook’s shares declined by 20% and they fell below this quarter’s revenue projection.

Report: Holocaust Denying Facebook Groups Highlight Facebook’s Search Algorithm

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been in hot water over his recent comments about Holocaust deniers on Facebook. Making matters worse for him is a new report showing that Holocaust denying groups are at the top of Facebook’s search algorithm.

Business Insider reports that if a user searches the word “Holocaust,” the first pages and groups that appear are Holocaust denying groups and pages, such as The Open Holocaust Debate and Holocaust Revisionism. The latter group claims that Adolf Hitler was “a Zionist puppet.”

A spokesperson for Facebook told Business Insider that such results were due to user preferences, however the Business Insider report notes that four different people had Holocaust denying groups and pages show up when they searched “Holocaust.”

In a July 18 interview with Recode, Zuckerberg said that while he finds Holocaust denying content on Facebook to be abhorrent, it shouldn’t be taken down from the platform because “at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”

Jewish Groups Slam Zuckerberg for Refusing to Take Down Holocaust Denial Content from Facebook

Photo from Wikipedia.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a recent interview that while he finds Holocaust denial content posted on Facebook to be disgusting, the social media platform will not remove such content, resulting in blowback from Jewish organizations.

Zuckerberg was asked by ReCode’s Kara Swisher in a July 18 interview if he would take down conspiracy-theory content such as what is promulgated by the Infowars website. Zuckerberg replied by saying that Facebook would take down content that results in violence. He then turned to Holocaust deniers to illustrate his reasoning.

“I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened,” Zuckerberg said. “I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”

Swisher interjected by stating that Holocaust may actually be intentionally getting it wrong, prompting Zuckerberg to respond by noting that it’s difficult to prove intent

“The reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly,” Zuckerberg said. “I’m sure you do. I’m sure a lot of leaders and public figures we respect do too, and I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, ‘We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.’”

Zuckerberg added that instead, such content just wouldn’t be widely promulgated by Facebook’s algorithms.

The Facebook CEO’s comments resulted in backlash from Jewish organizations. Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Abraham Cooper said in a statement that Facebook officials told the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 2009 that Holocaust denial content would be removed from the platform.

“Holocaust denial is the quintessential ‘fake news,’” Cooper said. “The Nazi Holocaust is the most documented atrocity in history, allowing the canard of Holocaust denial to be posted on Facebook, or any other social media platform cannot be justified in the name of  ‘free exchange of ideas’ when the idea itself is based on a falsehood.”

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement, “Holocaust denial is a willful, deliberate and longstanding deception tactic by anti-Semites that is incontrovertibly hateful, hurtful, and threatening to Jews. Facebook has a moral and ethical obligation not to allow its dissemination. ADL will continue to challenge Facebook on this position and call on them to regard Holocaust denial as a violation of their community guidelines.”

In response to the blowback, Zuckerberg sent a statement to Swisher that read, “I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.”

Facebook has also issued a statement doubling down on their policy.

“Reducing the distribution of misinformation—rather than removing it outright—strikes the right balance between free expression and a safe and authentic community,” the company said. “There are certain forms of misinformation that have contributed to physical harm, and we are making a policy change which will enable us to take that type of content down.”

Our Better Angels

Let’s give Mark Zuckerberg the benefit of the doubt and assume that when he created Facebook, he intended to contribute to the progress of humankind.

In the years since its 2004 launch, the imperturbable Zuck stuck to Facebook’s raison d’etre like President Donald Trump to Twitter: Facebook’s mission is to “make the world more open and connected”; “give the most voice to the most people”; and confer “the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

I’d sing “Kumbaya,” but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to square Facebook’s ideal with Facebook’s reality.

Zuckerberg’s stubborn aversion to criticism is troubling enough. But his company’s total capitulation to capitalism has punished the very people he intended to elevate — compromising user privacy and turning attention spans into ad revenue, even if the advertiser is a Russian hacker selling fake news. Last week, things got even darker in Zuckerberg’s open, connected world when we learned that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica exploited user data to create “psychographic” profiles of Americans in order to manipulate them.

Facebook shares plummeted, sending the company’s valuation down by nearly $50 billion, proving how easy it is to plunge a utopian vision into a dystopian beast. And it’s a cautionary tale of how even the best intentions can be compromised by sinister forces. Pharaohs, we’re reminded, are still out there.

Even if trends suggest reduced violence, the human inclination toward evil — what the Torah calls yetzer harah— remains.

How ironic that Silicon Valley’s arbiter of human progress — who built a community of more than 2 billion “friends” — is so naïve about human nature. Because anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows: The more open and connected, the more vulnerable you are.

Still, by some measures, humankind is better off than it was a few hundred years ago. Harvard professor and psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in his 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” that the world today is demonstrably less violent and more peaceful than at any other time in human history. Science and medicine have eradicated diseases that once amounted to a death sentence; and extreme poverty has declined at unprecedented levels in recent decades, from afflicting 80 percent of the world population in 1820 to not more than 10 percent in 2013.

Today, we have great art, we can send Teslas beyond the stratosphere, and if you’re as wealthy and weird as Barbra Streisand, you can clone your dog.

But I’m not sure that we’re kinder, more tolerant of difference, or less selfish. Even if trends suggest reduced violence, the human inclination toward evil — what the Torah calls yetzer harah — remains.

Because here’s what I see:

Journalist Peter Maass fretting over “how to make people remember or care that 15 years ago the United States invaded Iraq, setting off a war that continues to this day, with several hundred thousand Iraqis dead, millions turned into refugees.”

And yet, onto the scene walks our new national security adviser, John Bolton, who has built his career on bellicosity. Bolton has made the case for military action against Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khamenei and, most recently, Kim Jong Un, asserting in a Wall Street Journal editorial that a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is “perfectly legitimate.” To agree with this position is to accept that hundreds of thousands or even millions of people could die, and that Pinker’s promising argument would be rendered obsolete with the touch of a button.

It’s enough to prove that although human progress has made us healthier, wealthier and smarter, it hasn’t made us less cruel. Just look to Syria or South Sudan for proof that some people can only solve problems with war.

And let us not discount the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which persists because too many people on both sides think intransigence and intolerance is preferable to flexibility and friendship.

Every year Pesach comes along to remind us that we do not live in an ideal world. God gave us Torah because even a chosen people need laws to keep their good nature in check; because even a slave people, once liberated, can repeat the destructive patterns of their Pharaoh.

In Facebook’s world, it’s called regulation.

Moderating forces are necessary because no person — and no technology — is immune to the corrosive nature of power.

This is the blessing and the curse of human agency: Power is necessary for survival and progress, but we must guard against wielding it as a triumph over others. From the Exodus to the State of Israel, the Torah’s lesson is this: Power, once vested, is something to wrestle with, but never rest or revel in.

Chag sameach.

How Mark Zuckerberg embraced his Judaism

Mark Zuckerberg delivering a commencement speech at Harvard University in which he quoted the Mi Shebeirach prayer on May 25. Photo Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg wrote last December on Facebook that for him, “religion is very important.” Looks like he meant it.

The Facebook co-founder has been invoking Judaism a lot lately. In May, he quoted a Jewish prayer at Harvard’s commencement. Two weeks ago he posted a picture of his daughter with a family kiddush cup. And on Saturday night, he posted a public apology at the end of Yom Kippur.

It’s quite a transformation for a public figure who once defined himself as an atheist.

Although he was a member of the Jewish fraternity AEPi before he dropped out of Harvard, Zuckerberg didn’t discuss his Judaism much before 2015. Replying to a comment last year, Zuckerberg wrote that he “went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.”

Zuckerberg’s recent string of Jewish affirmations began nearly two years ago following then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Being raised as a Jew, Zuckerberg wrote, made him sensitive to attacks on all minorities.

“After the Paris attacks and hate this week, I can only imagine the fear Muslims feel that they will be persecuted for the actions of others,” Zuckerberg wrote, referring to that year’s terror attack in the French capital. “As a Jew, my parents taught me that we must stand up against attacks on all communities. Even if an attack isn’t against you today, in time attacks on freedom for anyone will hurt everyone.”

Zuckerberg invoked his Judaism again after the August white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

“It’s a disgrace that we still need to say that neo-Nazis and white supremacists are wrong — as if this is somehow not obvious,” he wrote.

But judging from his Facebook profile (and in his case, shouldn’t we?), Zuckerberg has reconnected with his Judaism not just as a national figure but as a person and a father. His post featuring a collage of a kiddush cup, Shabbat candlesticks and homemade challah waxed about passing the cup from generation to generation.

“For shabbat tonight, we gave Max a kiddush cup that has been in our family for almost 100 years,” he wrote, referring to his eldest daughter. “Her great-great-grandfather Max got it after our family immigrated here and it has been passed down through our family ever since.”

For shabbat tonight, we gave Max a kiddush cup that has been in our family for almost 100 years. Her…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Friday, September 15, 2017

At the Harvard commencement, Zuckerberg told graduates that he sings an adaptation of the Mi Shebeirach — the traditional Jewish prayer for the sick — when he tucks her in at night.

“And it goes, ‘May the source of strength, who’s blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing,” he told the graduates in May, quoting a version of the prayer by the late Jewish songwriter Debbie Friedman and lyricist Rabbi Drorah Setel. “I hope you find the courage to make your life a blessing.”

While the mogul’s newfound piety may be attracting attention, he is doing what any young Jewish parent might, said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, director of CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Plenty of Jews lose interest in their religion, then reconnect to it after having kids.

“There are a million people in his age cohort who are deeply proud of being Jewish and are trying to figure out what it means,” Hirschfield said. “You marry and partner and have a family, and it’s not surprising that the questions of ‘How do I have a more meaningful life and build a better future’ become more important and powerful and imminent.”

InterfaithFamily.com was especially pleased that Zuckerberg, whose wife, Priscilla Chan, is not Jewish, has posted about his family’s Jewish rituals.

“The fact that such a super-influential couple clearly are making Jewish choices for their family is the best news with which to start the new year,” wrote Ed Case, founder of InterfaithFamily.com. “Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan could really change the course of Jewish history if they got involved in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.”

Zuckerberg got Jewishly personal again when he asked for forgiveness at the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of repentance. His critics might say he has a lot to atone for.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook was accused of allowing Russian hackers to post thousands of ads influencing the election. And users also were allowed to target ads based on phrases like “Jew hater” and “how to burn Jews.” (Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who also is Jewish, said the company would address the problem.)

“For those I hurt this year, I ask forgiveness and I will try to be better,” he wrote Saturday night. “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better.”

Tonight concludes Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews when we reflect on the past year and ask forgiveness…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Saturday, September 30, 2017

It isn’t the first time that Zuckerberg has encountered trouble because of the content published on his site. In 2015, some 20,000 Israelis filed a class-action lawsuit against Facebook for ignoring incitement to terrorism on the network and enabling terrorists to find sympathizers. The case was dismissed this year.

While Zuckerberg may not have always talked publicly about his Judaism, he has surrounded himself with people who do. His college roommate moved to Israel and became a Conservative rabbi. Sandberg has spoken frequently about how Jewish rituals helped her cope following her husband’s untimely death in 2015. And his sister, Randi, is open about her Jewish observances. She says her family unplugs for a “digital Shabbat” each weekend, and sang “Jerusalem of Gold,” a classic Israeli song, at the Davos World Economic Forum.

Davos also occasioned the first JTA clip about Zuckerberg, published in 2008. While he attended the forum that year, Israel’s delegation invited him to visit the country.

He has yet to accept. But after giving his daughter a kiddush cup and atoning on Yom Kippur, maybe this is the year.

The last column

Rob Eshman stands in front of his favorite Jewish Journal cover, which never ran. Photo by Lynn Pelkey

So this is goodbye.

I walked into the offices of the Jewish Journal 23 years ago, and it’s time for me to walk out.

As I announced a month ago, I’ll be stepping down as editor-in-chief and publisher as of Sept. 29 and moving on to the next chapter of my life, focusing full time on writing and teaching, and being open to new possibilities as well. If the urge to return to a regular column proves irresistible, you’ll have to find me elsewhere. So this is my last column as editor. I’m truly touched by the numerous kind letters and Facebook posts from people who say they will miss me. For those of you who won’t miss me, I’m glad I could finally make you happy.

A while ago, I realized I had better move on before it was too late. The Journal has been my home since 1994, and it was time to leave home. Twenty-three years. The voice in my head kept nagging, “If not now, when?”

When I told my therapist maybe this was all just a midlife crisis, he raised an eyebrow. “Rob, you’re 57. Midlife?”

As my friends and family (and therapist) can attest, I’ve struggled with this decision. It didn’t come as an epiphany but as a gnawing sense that I had given this place my all, and it was time to stretch myself in new ways.

Each Yom Kippur, we come face to face with our mortality. The liturgy urges us to make good our vows and repair our wrongs before the closing of the gates. And each Yom Kippur for many years, I sat in services and struggled with the reality that the gates are closing, and I had to decide. I would recite the Al Chet prayer, which asks God to forgive us a litany a sins. I would get to the last one — “For the mistakes we committed before You through confusion of the heart” — and beat my breast extra hard. The rabbis understood how indecision could paralyze us, stifling our potential.

In her new book, Rabbi Naomi Levy (who also happens to be my wife) tells how the rabbis believed that an angel hovers over every living thing, every blade of grass, whispering, “Grow! Grow!” Since I first read that passage, the angel’s voice has only grown louder. By last year, that still small voice — kol d’mama daka — was screaming.

Still, I wavered. Letting go of this job turns out to be really hard. It has given me a public platform, a voice. It has taken me around the world: Poland, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Morocco, Germany, France, England, Mexico and, of course, Israel. It has brought me into the vice president’s mansion and the White House — twice — and enabled me to meet and speak with intellectuals, diplomats, artists, writers, actors, activists, rabbis, educators, politicians and world leaders. It has put me on stages from Encino to Oxford, to speak with people like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Tony Kushner, Ehud Barak, Amos Oz and the brave Muslim journalists whom the Journal has hosted as Daniel Pearl Fellows.

It has paid me to do what I would do for free: keep up with current events, learn all that I can about Judaism, Los Angeles, politics, food and Israel. It has put me into the heart of the Los Angeles Jewish community at a remarkable time, when we Jews are freer, more secure and more powerful than at any other time in our history. It also put me into journalism during a thrilling moment, when the future of media changes weekly, and when what began as a small community paper can now, with the click of a button, have an impact on people around the world.

Maybe I should stop with this litany before I change my mind, but ultimately, those are just the perks of a fascinating job. I am under no illusions about what really made my role so rewarding.

First, you.

When I say the Journal has been my home, I mean you readers have been like family. You are smart, caring, engaged and opinionated. Not for a second did I ever feel I was writing into a void — and, on occasion, I wished I were. “Eshman is a total moron when it comes to Israel,” a letter writer wrote last week. I’ve been doing this so long and have developed such a thick skin, I actually took it as a compliment. Hey, he didn’t say about everything, just Israel.

I’ve always been keenly aware the Journal serves one of the world’s largest and most diverse Jewish communities. As our online presence has grown, so has our community of readers, from L.A. to Tel Aviv to New York to Tehran. My goal has been to make the Journal the easiest and most interesting place for all these disparate voices to meet, to argue factually and honestly, to understand one another if not to agree. I’ve met or spoken with thousands of you over the years and I take comfort in knowing the Journal, 30 years after its founding, remains the one place where all of our many voices can gather and be heard, day after day, week after week. Even as online media catered more and more to ideological ghettos, the Journal remained committed to reflecting the broadest array of views.

My other deep sense of fulfillment comes from having been part of the Jewish Journal board and staff. I was fortunate to work under three chairs of TRIBE Media, the nonprofit that publishes the Journal: Stanley Hirsh, Irwin Field and Peter Lowy. All three fiercely respected the Journal’s editorial independence. Stanley tapped me to be editor and Irwin devoted himself selflessly to the Journal for years. Peter came in at a dire moment and has stuck by the Journal’s side ever since — he continues to be a selfless supporter and loyal defender. If anything, I often felt that if we weren’t raising a ruckus, we were letting Peter down. To me personally, he is a role model for fearlessness and generosity. If you have received any benefit from this enterprise, Peter Lowy deserves more credit than he will ever take.

I’ve appreciated all of our board members over the years, but I owe four of them special thanks. Uri Herscher believed in this paper when the recession had all but finished it off. His commitment to local, independent Jewish press, his moral authority and his wisdom helped bring it back to life. Uri continues to be a mentor and inspiration to me, as he is to so many. Art Bilger was part of the original rescue squad and saw us through very hard times with insight and creativity. Michael Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, has always been an unflappable editorial sounding board for me. Jonathan Kirsch has acted as the Journal’s pro bono counsel for 30 years. His expertise has been an important part of the Journal’s success, and occasionally its salvation. Tough stories often make for tough enemies. Jonathan Kirsch is our shield.

As for the staff, what can I say? There’s a word for an editor without a staff — it’s called a blogger. An enormous amount of work goes into putting out a weekly paper and a constantly updated website. That work is unceasing, always under deadline with never enough time or money. Whether it’s Tom Tugend, who fled Nazi Berlin and fought in three wars — and still reports for us — or our newest interns, the people who do this work on the advertising, production, administrative and editorial sides are the paper. They are an extraordinary group of people, from all different faiths and backgrounds. I’ll take full blame for any criticism you may have of this paper, but any compliments must be shared with them.

Six years ago, when I asked David Suissa to join the paper, I knew that there were few people in L.A. who share his passion for Jewish life combined with his commitment to fine journalism and an intense creativity. Three years ago, when I first told David I was thinking of leaving, he said, “No!” David can be very persuasive, so no it was, and I’m grateful I stayed. These past few years have been the most exciting.

I know there are Suissa people out there and Eshman people, but as David takes the reins, I want you to know that I am a Suissa person. I am sure under David this enterprise will go from strength to strength.

There is a second “staff” that also has been a blessing: my family. Raising a family in the Jewish community while reporting on the Jewish community has been tricky at times, and often personally hard for them. To protect their privacy, I chose to write about my son, Adi, and daughter, Noa, very sparingly in this space, but know that is in inverse proportion to the amount of room they take up in my heart and soul. Adi and Noa have been my constant joy and inspiration.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in those decades, it’s that nothing is as important to individual success as community. Yes, the community can offer connections and a leg up. But it also will be there when you fall.

My wife Naomi approaches Jewish learning and practice with utter commitment and total joy. She doesn’t just inspire me, she revives my faith when the politics of communal life can sometimes sour it. Being married to a brilliant rabbi and writer has also helped me fool you into thinking I know far more than I do.   

My parents, Aaron and Sari Eshman, are my role models for community and caring. My dad was born in 1927 in Los Angeles, where his father, Louis, was on the original medical staff of what was then Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. I have vivid childhood memories of Mom and Dad heading off to charity events and volunteering for Cedars, Vista Del Mar and other organizations. Like so many of their contemporaries, they have left this city and its Jewish community far better than they found it. I hope I have been a worthy link in the chain.

That chain includes my predecessors at the paper. Founding editor Gene Lichtenstein set an example of journalistic excellence I have tried to emulate. The cover of the first issue on Feb. 28, 1986,  featured a story on Jews and the school busing controversy. Clearly this was never going to be a paper content to run puff pieces.

Gene accepted men-seeking-men ads long before mainstream papers did. After he left, we were the first Jewish paper to run cover stories on gay marriage and transgender Jews. Religion that doesn’t wrestle with contemporary issues belongs in a museum, not a newspaper.

In the pantheon of columnists I most admire — William Safire, Peggy Noonan, Tom Friedman, Steve Lopez, Bret Stephens, Nick Kristof, Jeffrey Goldberg — I put the late Marlene Adler Marks on the highest pedestal. She was a dear colleague who died too young, and could never be replaced.

When I started at the Journal, almost all Jewish papers were exactly what the late Rabbi Stephen S. Wise called them: “weaklies.” They were parochial community organs. The lead  story of one such paper that arrived in our offices back then was, “Jewish Community Center Gets New Deck.” And yes, the entire cover photo was of a wooden deck. This is some business I’m in, I thought.

Today, Jewish journalism is in a golden age: The Jewish Journal, The Forward, The New York Jewish Week, Moment, Tablet, JTA, not to mention The Times of Israel and Haaretz (let’s face it, they’re pretty Jewish) are attracting great talent, breaking stories, providing deep insights and playing a leading role in shaping communal and international conversation. I am indebted to and often in awe of my colleagues in this corner of the journalism world. Of course, Jewish journalism still is, compared with the big guys, a small endeavor. But Jews also are small in number — and that hasn’t stopped us from making a difference. So can our media. Please support it.

I can’t tell you I’m not a little scared. I will miss being in regular contact with the remarkable people who make up this community, many of whom have become dear friends. I have this recurring, chilling thought that nothing will work out and I’ll be the guy at home in my pajamas writing those cranky letters to the editor, instead of the guy at the office who selects which ones to print.

But there’s some comfort, excitement and strength in being open to the uncertainty. That’s the lesson of Yom Kippur:  We know our days are numbered, that life is a passing shadow, and so we resolve to make changes today — haYom! the liturgy repeats — because the future is beyond our control. 

Last week, I was talking all this over with an older and far wiser attorney friend over lunch. I said I’d heard a life transition can be like a trapeze — sometimes you have to let go of one bar before the next appears. “Well,” he said, “as long as there’s a net.”

At first, I gulped. Oh, damn, I thought, he’s right. What was I thinking?

But then I remembered, I have a net, and so do you. It’s called community. It’s the reason this paper exists and thrives, it’s the reason I’ve been doing this job for 23 years.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in those decades, it’s that nothing is as important to individual success as community. Yes, the community can offer connections and a leg up. But it also will be there when you fall. It’s there for you when you get sick or a loved one dies, and it’s there for you to celebrate your successes and your joys. They say journalism is the first draft of history. But journalism’s true purpose isn’t to record history; it’s to strengthen community. No matter what comes next — trapeze bar or net — I am proud to have helped the Journal fulfill that role.

Over the years, many letter writers have accused me of being overly optimistic. Guilty. This was never the column to turn to if you wanted to read the same old dire warnings about how the Jews are disappearing, anti-Semites are everywhere, the younger generation is lost, Israel and the Palestinians are doomed, and every other gloomy prediction that passes as realism.

But it is impossible to do what I’ve done for the past two decades and not be optimistic. I leave this job with a deep sense of the abiding power of community and tradition and the ability of Judaism to meet the challenges of an unpredictable and often cruel world. To be a Jewish journalist is to see an ancient faith renewed in real time in the real world, in all its variety, abundance — and endurance.

Just this week, I was planning an upcoming trip to Berlin for a conference. When I told my wife I was thinking of finally visiting Auschwitz, a place neither of us has ever been, she became  upset.

“Please don’t go to Auschwitz without me,” she said.

The instant she said it, we had to laugh. Seventy-five years ago, who would have thought?

To this day, that somewhat over-the-top 2003 video of Israeli jets flying over Auschwitz still moves me. The weak can become powerful. Refugees can find a home. In a matter of years, enemies can become allies. Things change, often for the good.

But among all that change, the need for spirituality and tradition abides. Just last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a photo of him and his wife celebrating Shabbat with their baby daughter, Max. They gave Max a 100-year-old Kiddush Cup that belonged to her great-great-grandfather.

No amount of money or power, no new technology and no social upheaval can erase our deeply human need for meaning, connection and purpose. Judaism has helped people meet those needs for millennia. After 5,778 years, the burden of proof is on the pessimists. Judaism will evolve, of course, but as long as it changes to meet these eternal human needs, it will endure.

So, now comes the time for my personal evolution. I do hope we can keep in touch. After all, I plan on staying in L.A. and, more than likely, remaining Jewish.  This Yom Kippur, you definitely will find me in shul, thankful for having made my decision, grateful for the past 23 years, and eager to open new gates as the old ones close.

In the meantime, I wish you a sweet and healthy New Year. Serving you has been my deepest honor. May you come to know all the blessings that being part of your life has brought me.


If you’d like to keep in touch with Rob Eshman, send an email to robeshman@gmail.com. You also can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism, and on his public Facebook page. Rob will still blog at foodaism.com — without a staff.

Facebook listed ‘Jew-hater’ as category for advertisers

The Facebook logo at an innovation hub in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A news site was able to target ads at Facebook users who expressed interest in “Jew hater” and “how to burn Jews.”

ProPublica, an investigative site, reported Thursday that Facebook’s advertisement algorithms generated categories including “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” and “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’”

Facebook removed the categories after being alerted to their existence and said it would seek to prevent such categories from popping up for potential advertisers.

The categories on their own were too small to justify an ad buy, according to the Facebook system, so ProPublica added as targets the SS and the Nazi Party, available on Facebook’s generated list as “employers,” and the National Democratic Party of Germany, a current far right political party in Germany.

ProPublica paid $30 for three targeted posts, which reached 5,897 people.

In advising ProPublica on whom to add in order to reach enough users to justify an ad, Facebook’s automated system recommended “Second Amendment,” apparently correlating gun rights advocates with anti-Semites.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan welcome second daughter

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan with their two daughters, baby August and Max. Photo from Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have announced the birth of their second daughter, named August.

The Facebook founder and his wife made the announcement through a post on Zuckerberg’s Facebook pageMonday in which they sounded optimistic about the world’s future.

“When your sister was born, we wrote a letter about the world we hoped she and now you will grow up in — a world with better education, fewer diseases, stronger communities, and greater equality,” Zuckerberg and Chan wrote. “We wrote that with all the advances in science and technology, your generation should live dramatically better lives than ours, and we have a responsibility to do our part to make that happen. Even though headlines often focus on what’s wrong, we still believe these positive trends will win out. We’re optimists about your generation and the future.”

They also pointed out the importance of childhood.

“Childhood is magical. You only get to be a child once, so don’t spend it worrying too much about the future,” they wrote.

The couple had their first child, Max, in November 2015. Before her birth, Zuckerberg wrote about Chan’s struggles with pregnancy, including her three miscarriages.

Zuckerberg recently spoke at Harvard’s commencement ceremony and cited the Mi Shebeirach prayer.

Searching for truth in an age of lies

Donald Trump speaks at a press conference. Photo by Reuters

Let’s give it up for truth. C’mon, a nice hand. It gave us a lot of good years.

Back in the day, Truth began with a capital T, and it came straight from God. Then science had a long run with it. The Enlightenment. Good times. But modernity was no piece of cake for truth. All that everything-is-relative business was shattering. As for post-modernity, let’s just say that everything-is-politics hasn’t been pretty, either. In a few thousand years, we’ve gone from Truth, to truth, to your truth and my truth, and now to the so-called truth, when everything is entertainment and the capital T goes on Twitter. No wonder truth is taking the buyout.  Let’s wish it all the best.

Last week, old school truth had its last hurrah — three hurrahs, actually: one in the East Room, one at Fox and one on Facebook. Each was prompted by an existential threat to truth, and all were ultimately about attention.

At the White House, the event was President Donald Trump’s 77-minute news conference. It was irresistible theater with the press providing the conflict, the technology feeding the spectacle to our screens and the infotainment industry monetizing our eyeballs.

At 20th Century Fox, the event was the viral marketing campaign for “A Cure for Wellness,” a movie about a fake cure that the studio promoted by faking a fake news controversy, which became a real controversy when real news hammered the campaign as an assault on journalism.

On Facebook, the event was the release of “Building Global Community,” a 5,800-word open letter from Mark Zuckerberg about the responsibility of one of the planet’s largest publishers for distributing and profiting from sensational, delicious, dangerously polarizing and totally fabricated stories.

At his news conference, Trump stated yet again that his 304-vote Electoral College tally was the biggest since Ronald Reagan. The reporters, many of whom had had it up to here with Trump’s factual negligence, were determined to answer his attack on the media by challenging his credibility. That’s what NBC’s Peter Alexander did when he respectfully ripped the president a new one. He reeled off the 365 electoral votes that Barack Obama got in 2008, and the 332 in 2012, and he mentioned the 426 that George H.W. Bush got in 1988.

“Why should Americans trust you when you have accused the information they receive of being fake,” Alexander asked, “when you’re providing information that’s fake?”

I would have loved it if Alexander had triggered a “Perry Mason” turn from Trump: “I admit it! I killed the truth! It had it coming!” If Alexander wasn’t expecting that, perhaps he anticipated that the notoriously thin-skinned president would lash out, which he did — but not until the next day, when he tweeted that the “FAKE NEWS media” — he identified them as The New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS and CNN — “is the enemy of the American People!”

What Alexander got from Trump in the East Room was this: “Well, I don’t know. I was given that information. I was given — actually, I’ve seen that information around.”

Throwing his staff under the bus, Trump brushed off his credibility problem by taking his own accountability off the table. You can’t call him a liar for trusting those “best people” he’s surrounded himself with. Worse, with five words, Trump put the journalistic norms of verification and attribution in play. “I’ve seen that information around” amounts to, “It must be true — I saw it on the internet.” It also means, “Believe me.” Forget the assessment of evidence; forget weighing the independence and the track record of sources. For Trump, extreme vetting of information consists of watching Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, reading Breitbart and Infowars and basking in the buzz in the Mar-a-Lago dining room.

In that world, the old sorting categories are toast. Instead of true and false, there’s true and alt-true; there’s facts and (in Kellyanne Conway’s creepy coinage) alternate facts. Fox News is good news; bad news is fake news. Trump knows the currency of news isn’t accuracy — it’s attention. The more he tweets, the more the echo chamber uncritically amplifies him, and the more unearned gravitas his falsehoods acquire. Virality is the new veracity.

Which takes us to the Fox lot. The studio that marketed “A Cure for Wellness” by manufacturing fake fake news — you read that right — is part of the same corporation responsible for Fox News’ “fair and balanced” fakery. (If this kinship is a coincidence, randomness has a droll sense of humor.) The movie’s social media strategy was to disguise ads for the film as editorial content and post them on fabricated websites with names like the New York Morning Post and the Houston Leader.

This scam was inspired by other scammers like the Macedonian teenagers who created NewYorkTimesPolitics.com and USAPolitics.co to propagate fake stories like “Clinton Indicted” as aggregation bait for alt-right sites, as link bait for the Facebook pages of Hillary haters and as a cash cow courtesy of Google’s AdSense. Talk about meta: The movie’s fake news sites carried fake stories like “Trump Orders CDC to Remove all Vaccination Related Information from Website,” which included real Trump tweets drawing a fake connection between vaccinations and autism.

The New York Times — “enemy of the American People” — ran two big negative stories within two days about the Fox campaign, which was yanked. But the idea that Facebook is a breeding ground for untruths was a motive for Zuckerberg, leapfrogging over Twitter’s dithering on the issue, to address a problem increasingly faced by its users: With universal access to unlimited content, how can you tell what’s true?

Most of us inhabit filter bubbles. Generally, we consume news whose framing and viewpoints we believe to be fair. At the same time, we’re suckers for sensationalism; stories arousing emotions like fear and disgust are great at grabbing our attention. But democracy is strongest and community is most robust when we’re exposed to quality information from a variety of different perspectives. To protect its users, should Facebook more aggressively screen out fake news? If “Pope Endorses Trump” gets banned, why shouldn’t “Trump’s Margin Biggest Since Reagan”?  Even when a story is accurate, showing someone an article whose perspective is opposite their own only makes them dig their heels in deeper. Should Facebook push back against polarization?

Zuckerberg answers these questions not by calling for new codes of conduct, but by promising new software code. In a world of inconceivable diversity, algorithms are more practical than ethics. Let the platform’s news feed show you a range of perspectives, not just the poles, so you can see where you fit on the spectrum. When stories spread, couple them with what fact-checking sites say about them, so text carries a context along with content. Let the analytics discover which stories are most shared without being read, most driven by attention-hijacking headlines; see if the data point to publishers who are gaming the system; and nail them.

None of this affects Facebook’s raid on the struggling news business’ bottom line. But what appeals to me about this approach is its reliance on intelligence more than on morality. Ever since Truth became truths, people have been searching for common values that don’t depend on divine authority. “The best life is not the moral life, but the life based on the use of reason” — that’s Israel Drazin’s gloss on Moses Maimonides.

Give truth a gold watch for its long service to civilization, but don’t leave the adjudicator position vacant. Education, media literacy, critical thinking, breadth of sources, caliber of intelligence, quality of craft — there’s no shortcut to information you can rely on.

Thinking is hard. Truth is complicated. Focus is fragile. No question: Tweets are superb at stealing our attention, but it’s no accident that birdbrain is not a compliment.


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com

Shimon Peres: Israel’s first social media president

If you’re like most people, you probably found out about the death of former President Shimon Peres on Facebook, through news articles, status updates from friends, and more photos of your friends with Peres than you might have expected. But what you may not realize is that mourning Shimon Peres on social media is especially appropriate given the late President’s evolving relationship with social media and his courtship of younger minds as partners in his quest for peace.

Peres wasn’t always hip to the social media scene. Several years ago, at a public speech, he referred to an up-and-coming social media platform, somewhat sadly and yet somewhat hilariously, as “Bookface.” (Jokes centered on the idea of his having read the name of the site from right to left instead of left to right.) 

While this initially seemed like proof that the then-octogenarian was hopelessly out of touch with the younger generation, it became a pivotal moment: Peres and his team fixed social media visibility in their sights, with a series of strange but memorable initiatives that kept the man’s demeanor and tone, but mixed it with contemporary sounds and styles that made an impression.

For instance, in 2012, a new video hit YouTube: as the “oontz oontz” of dance music played, the sharply dressed man stepped out of his fancy car and approached the podium. It’s Peres: he intoned the words “be my friend, for peace; I want to hear your voice” against the backdrop of the intensifying, club-ready music, remixed by Israeli journalist, musician and DJ Noy Alooshe. Also in the video was the proclamation that “we used to be the people of the Book, but now we became the people of the Facebook,” a welcome to his Facebook page, and a request that viewers add him as a friend on Facebook. As of press time, the video has had over 450,000 views on YouTube.