In case you missed it, there was a shocking and depressingly sad segment on the national news last week. Keshet aired an exposé about a number of Israelis – most of them women – who have fallen victim to an elaborate scam on the Internet.
Most of my readers know by now that I often warn about the dangers of social media; how it can be a great tool for the advancement of humanity, disseminating wisdom and connecting far-flung friends and family, but can also be destructive in the extreme, spreading hate and groundless rumor, bringing slander and addictive gambling into every room of our houses.
In this particular crime, lonely ladies, many of them widows, meet seemingly attractive and caring men in chat rooms or on dating sites. They correspond over a long period of time, trading photos and intimate stories of their lives. Eventually, they develop an online love affair with their suitors, who promise to either come live with them here, or whisk them away to a new life of luxury in an exotic locale.
Then, of course, comes the inevitable sting. The voice at the other end of the computer begins to ask for money, small amounts at first, and then a much larger sum, either for some dire emergency, such as a sick child (fake hospital pictures provided) or for moving expenses to come to Israel to finally meet. The poor (or soon to be!) marks, having bought fully into the fanciful fairy tale, wire the funds.
We know what happens next. The relationship abruptly ends, and the truth quickly emerges. The loving, far-away friend, who fastidiously avoids ever appearing live on the screen, is actually a con man or woman who has stolen someone else’s identity and employed a slick script and voice simulator to weave his or her web of deception. As experts from the Israeli computer security firm Check Point confirm, there are hundreds of swindlers working night and day on these pernicious schemes. Many of them are in Nigeria, which is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, but also the central clearinghouse for elaborate attempts to separate unsuspecting victims from their money.
One woman, a house cleaner earning NIS 2,000 a month, who sent her “lover” her life’s savings of NIS 100,000, breaks down in hysterical tears when she is actually shown the Nigerian man who scammed her. An elderly man is shocked and speechless when he learns that his beautiful young female lover is actually a teenage boy.
Beyond providing further evidence that this world can be a cruel and callous place, there is an important lesson to learned here: Not everything you see or hear is always the reality.
It takes wisdom, street smarts and faith to distinguish truth from falsehood and facade.
We in Israel have experienced this phenomenon a hundred times. Our malevolent neighbors constantly try to scam us with all kinds of outrageous claims: that they have superior weapons, that our end is imminent, that the world stands behind them and will fight for them, blah, blah, blah. Grand mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini tried to scare us before the War of Independence, boasting that there would be no Jewish survivors of this war; the Egyptians broadcast false statements in the opening hours of the Six Day War claiming that Tel Aviv was in flames, even as their own air force lay in ruins and their army was in full retreat.
While we must always be on our guard and prepared for any eventuality, we must also not fall victim to the bogus braggadocio that we often hear from our enemies. In a perpetual effort to hoodwink their populace, they love to exaggerate their potential, while understating our own.
This is why I think, all things considered, it was a smart move to publicize the fact that Israeli F-35 stealth fighter jets, the world’s most advanced military aircraft, have flown missions in Syrian and Lebanese air space, and, most recently reported, over Iran. While we generally keep a low profile about our defense capabilities and we have not held a military parade since 1973, on our 25th birthday, from time to time it is important to reveal, to ourselves and to others, a sample of what our mighty (“Adir”) arsenal contains. Playing your cards close to the vest is generally a good strategy, but laying your winning hand on the table once in a while can bring some well-deserved respect from your opponents.
My all-time favorite show was The Twilight Zone, which ran from 1959 to 1964 (no, I am not dating myself; I watched the reruns). The last show written by its genius creator, Rod Serling, was an episode called The Fear. In it, a giant monster lands on Earth, threatening to wreak havoc. But a brave policeman steps forward in front of the towering figure and fires a shot at it. Suddenly, there is a loud Pop! and the monster quickly deflates, revealing two tiny alien figures, the size of a person’s thumb, inside a massive balloon. Terrified, they beg for mercy and retreat into their spaceship to flee back to their planet.
Serling’s postscript is memorable: Fear, he says, is extremely relative; it depends on who can look down, and who must look up. The worst thing there is to fear is fear itself.
May God continue to give us the strength and stamina to conquer our fears and allow us – and not the ersatz wizard behind the curtain – to be the one pulling the strings.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.
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