Why I ...believe action should be taken against web stalkers

October 4, 2002

American and Israeli computer hackers have opened a new front in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the US and the UK. Action on this front has taken the form of identity theft, harassment, incitement to harassment, defamation of character and malicious misrepresentation via the misuse and misappropriation of computer email facilities and lists. In the process, the reliability of the web has been undercut, the integrity of some prestigious universities undermined and the judgement of law enforcement authorities made to look biased.

In early July, Marc Dworkin, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, used a university email account to send a message to recipients of his email lists directing them to harass Mona Baker at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology for her support of an academic boycott of Israel. His exact words, after giving Baker's email address and telephone number, were "harass the mother****er". Soon, Baker was receiving hundreds of obscene and threatening communications.

The University of Pennsylvania said it conducted a "careful assessment based on what we currently know" and concluded that neither university policy nor the law had been violated. It was pointed out that Dworkin's actions violated university policies on "acceptable use of electronic resources" and "guidelines on open expression" - and possibly state law on "harassment and stalking by communication or address" - but the University of Pennsylvania still refused to take action.

In late August, Shahid Alam at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, wrote a piece in Al-Ahram Weekly On Line in which he made a case for the boycott of Israeli academia as an example of a nonviolent alternative to the increasingly desperate violent resistance of the Palestinians, including suicide bombings. The piece was reconstructed and misrepresented in the Jerusalem Post to make it appear that Professor Alam "justified terror attacks against Israelis". On September 4 the Boston Herald , apparently not checking the accuracy of the Jerusalem Post report, announced: "Professor shocks Northeastern with defense of suicide bombers".

Almost immediately, Professor Alam began getting harassing emails. Also, in an act of identity theft, emails misrepresenting his position were forged and sent out under his name. Northeastern "distanced" itself from Professor Alam, reinforcing the impression that the Boston Herald piece was accurate.

Ultimately, it was not law enforcement agencies or universities that investigated these hackers. It was private individuals such as Bassam Shehadeh of Iowa State University, who tracked down some of the sources of abuse to sites in Israel and its West Bank colonies. The Israelis had committed their acts of harassment by accessing Palnet.com, an internet service provider on the West Bank. When the Israeli army went about destroying electronic communications facilities on the West Bank, it spared Palnet.

Harassment via electronic communications is being used to intimidate and punish US and UK academics and many others who are critical of Israel and its policies. Yet nothing of significance is being done about it by those capable of curbing such behaviour. Would the same be true if the acts had been perpetrated against pro-Israelis?

This lack of response sets a precedent for the future. It seems that we have found a new way of assaulting each other and spreading hate. Those who can stop this behaviour now but have chosen not to ought to think again before the future of communications becomes "extinct of values".

Lawrence Davidson
Professor of history
West Chester University

Should academics boycott Israel? Join the debate at www.thes.co.uk/commonroom

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