Friday, April 10, 2015

Racism and Hate in the Times of Israel: A Case of Stolen Identity

Earlier today, a blog posted in the online newspaper, Times of Israel (TOI) quickly began to spread like a wild fire. It was a racist rant, entitled “Understanding the Idea of Israeli Land Under Talmudic Law.” In fact, after reading a few paragraphs I was more irked that the so-called author was calling for religious law to be implemented in Israel that I frustratingly stopped reading it after the first paragraph. However, with all on twitter discussing the level of  hate and racism expressed in the article, I decided to go give one more try. On second look (and even third) it was clear that this text was downright genocidal; in fact, it was so vile that I will opt out on sharing the whole article, and will suffice with sharing the below (it even gets worse than this!):

By the end of the author's long rant it seemed almost certainly that this was the job of a hacker, or as suggested, satire gone really bad. Apparently, the TOI took the piece down almost immediately, but it was shared on an archive backup site in order to create as much damage as possible. Furthermore, due the time difference, with it still in the wee hours of the morning in the land Down Under, it would take some time for this incident to unravel, with the author completely unaware of this malicious hacking attack.

However, by early evening New York time, I received a tweet from the person who had supposedly authored the piece, a successful Australian lawyer, Mr. Josh Bornstein, who categorically denied writing it! What? Yes, you heard right, this case was much more complicated than it had seemed to all! 

So what happened? 

Well, if it was simply a case of someone hacking Josh Bornstein’s blogger account, this might have just ended as another major embarrassment for the TOI, which just last summer was caught up in a scandal when one of its bloggers actually did call for the genocide of Palestinians!

This case ended with the blog post being removed, an apology from the author, and most importantly, the TOI issuing a statement that the author "blatantly breached" the blog guidelines. It also reiterated that it would not countenance posts that incite violence or criminal acts, while clarifying the newspaper's policy towards its open blog platform.  In short, this was a case of a blogger's abuse of trust, where bloggers are allowed to post upon their own discretion. In other words, no editorial team goes over the posts before going online.  

What occurred in the current case is obviously much more damning. It was not that a blogger "abused the trust," or breached the guidelines; nor, was it a case of a blogger with good intentions who was maliciously hacked. It was that Josh Bornstein not only did not write this article, but had never written for the Times of Israel. Rather it was an impostor posing as Mr. Bornstein, a case of stolen identity, in which the impostor duped the Times of Israel’s editorial team, convincing them that he was indeed the well-known attorney. About 12 hours after the news hit the twitter headlines, an official statement was released by TOI: 

The statement ended with the following words:

A Breach of Trust

This incident marks a low point for the paper that went online three years ago and is a clear breach of trust between the newspaper and its readers. It is incumbent upon the founder and editor of the newspaper, Mr. David Horovitz, to provide a account of how this scandalous incident occurred, and to explain what steps can be implemented to ensure that this will not happen again.

For now, I will not ponder on why someone chose to steal the identity of this upstanding lawyer, who seems to be a true mensch. The real questions need to be directed to the Times of Israel itself. Clearly it has failed a major test of credibility.

In fact, this was not the only article that was submitted by the impostor. Almost 10 articles were submitted over the last 15 days, some apparently lifted from Mr. Bornstein's own writings found on the internet (why TOI's editorial team thought he would chose their paper to write about Australian labor laws and taxes beats me). 

I contacted Mr. Borstein, and he informed me that he first learned about the incident after receiving bizarre emails and tweets," adding that "some were threatening." TOI also contacted him early on, and disclosed that the impostor had "made a very convincing application to blog on their site."

Due to the severity of the issue, and possible motives of the impostor(s), Mr. Borstein kindly did not elaborate further (which makes perfect sense because of the obvious legal issues and possible criminal activity related to the case). 

If you would like to read some of Mr. Borstein's work, have a look at his blog and a list of writings (some of which have appeared in the Guardian). You will be happy to see a very different person than what many of us thought just 12 hours ago!

For now we can sigh a deep breath of relief at the fact that this has ended peacefully and that Josh Bornstein is safe since this malicious act could have ended really ugly; not to mention the amount of anguish he and his loved ones have suffered.

For now, we will need to wait and see if the Times of Israel is prepared to answer the real hard questions that remain, in a case that seems far from over.