Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Op-Ed in the Jerusalem Post

Jewish blogs make up the ultimate shtetl square

There is probably no more powerful and understated tool in democracy's toolkit than the ability and freedom to stand on one's soapbox in the middle of the town square and speak one's mind. The issue is not whether anyone is listening to what you have to say, but that you have the right, the freedom and the ability to try to convince those around you that your ideas are correct.
Illustrative photo.

This free and open exchange of ideas is what makes democracies so healthy and vibrant.

In our Web 2.0 world, the town square is the Internet and the modern day soapbox is the blog.

Anyone can set up a blog, promote his ideas and beliefs and rally fellow advocates around them. There is certainly no better way to refine your arguments and positions than by tempering them in the fire of opposing views. Simultaneously, there is no harsher way to find out that your opinions and theories are wrong and indefensible than to have them unmercifully torn apart one by one.

It is this freedom of speech that scares countries like China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, compelling them to block access to blogs and arrest bloggers who dare speak their minds. What greater threat is there to an autocratic regime than people challenging its authority?

MY COMPANY, WebAds, recently organized the first International Jewish Bloggers Convention, hosted by Nefesh B'Nefesh. Some 1,600 Jewish bloggers from around the world participated on-line and in person in Jerusalem.

"Two Jews, three opinions." After reading the comments on the blogs, and being in a room full of some of the most diverse and stridently opinionated people in the Jewish world, I will never doubt that statement again - from blogs such as IsraelMatzav (on the political right) to DovBear (on the left).

The question arose: Do Jewish bloggers represent a community? Beside being Jewish, what do they really have in common? At the convention we saw Jews of all stripes and persuasions - liberals, conservatives, haredim, ultra-secular and all the colors of the rainbow. The strongly worded outbursts made clear that not everyone agreed with everyone else.

IS JEWISH blogging just a shared hobby or do Jewish bloggers actually form a community?

Unlike the bloggers, I don't have an answer, but former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who spoke at the convention, certainly gave us a big hint. Netanyahu asked to speak, not necessarily because he wanted to address a community of bloggers, but rather because he wanted to reach the on-line communities these bloggers created and to the real-world communities their readers are members.

On the simplest level, every blogger creates his or her own community of followers, but these communities and their ideas then ripple out and trickle down into the real world. It is the ultimate shtetl square for the Jewish nation.

Whether Jews as bloggers are a community or not is unclear, but they certainly are the gateway into Jewish society at large, since bloggers have the ability to influence the communities of which they are a part.

Nefesh B'Nefesh's participation in the convention was to engage the bloggers with the idea of aliya. The organization wasn't specifically interested in bloggers themselves making aliya, but rather that aliya become part of the common dialogue and conversation of the Jewish people.

Blogging isn't about beating someone over the head with your soapbox to win an argument. Blogging is about dialogues that engage interest and introduce ideas to create changes over time.

Simply put, Jewish blogging is about creating dialogue to help lead Judaism into a healthy and vibrant future.

The writer is the founder of WebAds, a company that delivers niche- and community-targeted Internet advertising, blog trend analysis and consultation.