In Plain Language: Bytes and pieces — Confessions of a dinosaur

"Every once in a while, something happens that reaffirms my belief that sometimes, less is more."

Facebook (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: REUTERS)
Yes, I confess: I am (with apologies to my haredi friends) a dinosaur. At least that’s what my tech-savvy kids call me. I have an old, outdated computer with a non-plasma screen, a half-faded keyboard and an ancient word-processing program. I don’t do Twitter, or Snapchat, or Instagram. And – hold on to your iPhones, folks – I am not on Facebook.
Yes, you heard me right, you are not experiencing a power surge or the Stuxnet virus, I am not on Facebook.
I know that means that I have several thousand fewer “friends,” and that I don’t see every picture of every event the second it happens, and that I don’t know the most intimate details of a third cousin twice removed whom I once got a message from seven years ago. But, then again, my whole life isn’t out there on display for everyone else to see, either.
I take an awful lot of ribbing for this, as you can well imagine.
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Especially since I am a news junkie and spend a lot of time researching and writing for various publications, including this newspaper.
But I guess that, heck and golly gee, I’m just an old-fashioned kind of guy who believes – crazy as it may sound – that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And I keep in my head for support and inspiration the image of Aharon Appelfeld, the Israel Prize-winning novelist I once interviewed, who proudly showed me his ancient typewriter (you can look that gizmo up in the dictionary, kids, right next to “tape recorder” and “rotary phone”), upon which he has faithfully produced more than 20 brilliant works of literature.
I’m not against progress, of course.
I drive a car, rather than a horse and wagon, and I appreciate the miracle of air travel (though I confess I like ships a whole lot more). And I do recognize that technology has changed our world – often for the better – and that Israel is on the cutting edge of virtually every modern innovation on the planet. But every once in a while, something happens that reaffirms my belief that sometimes, less is more, and that just as every curse can be a blessing, every blessing can also turn into a curse.
THAT REALITY was brought sadly and dramatically home a short time ago when Ariel Ronis, a respected, highly decorated former agent of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) who was a manager at the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, took his own life after a Facebook post accusing him of racism went viral. It seems that an Ethiopian woman had been shuffled back and forth at the ministry’s offices for several hours and finally complained to Ronis about her treatment, which she attributed to discrimination on account of the color of her skin. When Ronis allegedly told her to “stop complaining and get out of my face,” she posted the whole incident on social media.
The post generated close to 10,000 responses, including one from Ronis himself, who said, “All my life’s work has suddenly vanished, disappeared, with the thrust of a word. For years I worked to create a good name for myself, a name that is now synonymous with the vilest of terms – racism. This will now be my fate; I am trying to come to terms with it, but I cannot.”
He then shot himself dead.
Now, there is no doubt that a significant strain of racism toward Ethiopian Jews does indeed run through large segments of Israeli society, despite our valiant rescue of that community and the concerted efforts of many to integrate them into the mainstream. And certainly every person, including Mr. Ronis, is responsible for his own actions and self-preservation. But we cannot ignore the central role that social media played in this terrible tragedy. And it begs us to stop periodically and take a long, hard look at the Internet Generation.
The Internet, of course, is a treasure trove of information, and it can enhance – and even save – lives. It allows us to study while in our rooms – still in our pajamas! – without traveling to a classroom; it opens our minds to an expansive, exciting world filled with new and stimulating ideas; it may even help to detect illnesses among ourselves or our children before they reach a critical stage. On a religious level, it facilitates the spread of Torah like nothing since the Children of Israel stood en masse at Mount Sinai and were addressed by Moses. And no doubt it will be put to good use by the Messiah when he finally shows up. (Not to compare the two, but visitors to rural China will note that even the poorest peasant, living alongside his animals in his primitive mud hut, was given a television set, so that the late Chairman Mao could reach him at any time.) But social media can also prove to be a deadly and destructive device if misused.
Not only can it spread disinformation exponentially – especially where the State of Israel is concerned – it can also be a fount of pornography and the ultimate purveyor of lashon hara. The slightest slur or slander can almost instantly invade and infect our homes, and there is little or no chance of ever calling it back. The marvel of “connecting” – the central mantra of the Internet – can bring the world’s peoples closer to one another, but it can also destroy the most sacred of our personal freedoms: privacy.
WHAT TO do? One school of thought shrugs its collective shoulders and goes blithely on its merry way, increasing computers’ “byte” and reaching out ever further for more “likes” and more “friends,” updating statuses every few minutes (I simply must know what you had for lunch today!). At the same time, at the other end of the spectrum, selected spiritual leaders preach the evil of the email, wail “Aye-yay-aye!” to the iPhone, and forbid any interface whatsoever with the Internet, hoping to shut off all possible contact with the demonic world “out there.”
The answer, of course, is somewhere in between. Judaism has always been about self-control, not self-denial. Taking the best the world has to offer, while being careful to separate the wheat from the chaff. Pursuing and putting to good use the amazing opportunities that technology lays at our feet, without falling prey to the dangers that lurk just behind the screen. That is the message we should be teaching to our kids – or, I should say, writing on their walls. #EmbraceTheExcellent; #DeleteTheDestructive. It is no simple task, I grant you, but it just may be the challenge of our generation.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.