As hate finds home on Internet, Jews ponder action

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NEW YORK — Log on to your computer, cruise around the World Wide Web, that free-market network of sites on topics ranging from astronomy to zoology, and there's a chance you'll hook up with hate.

There are more than 200 Web sites, or pages, devoted to Holocaust denial and Aryan racial supremacy, anti-Semitism and racism in some form, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which has been tracking the growth of hate groups using the Internet for the past two years.

The Web is one segment of the global hookup of computers known as the Internet, where access to one Web page can link you to many more.

So once you locate a single hate site, the Aryan Nation's home page, for example, with its black-and-red logo of a swastika and cross topped with a crown, you can click on to numerous links — from a David Duke essay to a skinhead music page to the home site of the Pat Buchanan for president campaign.

The good news is that even this number of hate sites is tiny when viewed in the context of the overall number of sites on the Web.

The bad news is that haters, along with everyone else, are increasingly exploiting the benefits of the World Wide Web, and their presence challenges the Jewish community to aggressively counter them, sometimes more directly than hate groups have been addressed before.

An effort to find Web sites with the word "Aryan" in their title or description, using the popular indexing program called Yahoo, turned up eight references. Six of them were to Web sites authored by a woman identified as Maryann. Only two of the references were really related to Aryan interests.

"Given the large number of sites and people out on the Web, it's relatively speaking a limited" group, said David Hoffman, a research analyst at the Anti-Defamation League and author of a new report titled "The Web of Hate: Extremists Exploit the Internet."

No one knows exactly how many pages have been put up on the World Wide Web, but the number of individual sites is estimated to be in the tens of thousands, said Yori Yanover, an editor of the Jewish Communication Network, a Jewish Web site developer.

There are more than 1,600 sites of Jewish interest alone, he said.

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the medium is its accessibility. Today the expertise re-quired to program a Web site can be easily learned.

The "traditional" hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, White Aryan Resistance (or WAR), the neo-Nazi National Alliance and the anti-Semitic Christian Identity movement have all put up Web pages.

So have Holocaust deniers Bradley Smith, Ernst Zundel and the Institute for Historical Review.

And new types of haters — young, computer-literate and previously unknown individuals and groups — have also been popping up to promote themselves and their anti-Semitic and racist propaganda, according to ADL's report.

The access is two-sided: to Web site creators and to the people who sign on to them (each sign-on is called a "hit").

"Stormfront," one of the few hate-filled Web sites that automatically counts the number of hits, has totaled about 200,000 visitors, and two others have counted about 20,000 hits, said the ADL's Hoffman.

Those numbers include every time someone goes to check out the sites, as well as anyone who may accidentally come across them or may oppose them, so it does not reflect how many sympathizers the sites may have.

The central danger of the haters using this new technology is that the medium makes the message seem more personal than, say a book or magazine where the same information is also available, according to those monitoring the new phenomenon.

"There's something about this that's very immediate. An ordinary person would not normally see a lot of Ernst Zundel's stuff, which ordinarily has very narrow, very limited distribution," said the ADL's Hoffman, referring to the German Canadian Hitler fan and Holocaust denier.

The difference is also in the access, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL.

"Previously you had to peddle hate, and today the hate stuff is just out there to be plucked by innocent people," he said.

"Let's say you're a kid doing a paper on Jews, and you find pro-Jews and anti-Jews. In the past, if you went to the library, I doubt whether you'd come across those who hate Jews.

"Today by sheer curiosity you can find yourself exposed, almost seduced by its availability," he said.

"It has the potential of reaching unlimited people, of seducing people into hate who never dreamed of reaching out to it. And that we have to take a lot more seriously."

On bulletin board discussions — areas where people exchange messages — the court of popular opinion seems to work best. When anti-Semites or Christian missionaries wander into a Jewish-oriented discussion group on America Online, for example, they are almost immediately repudiated by other participants, castigated so soundly that they would have to enjoy punishment to return.

On moderated private "lists," built around a particular interest, they are quickly booted off.

The burgeoning of anti-Semitic hate on Web sites raises difficult philosophical questions about what approach the Jewish community should take to counter this phenomenon.

The mainstream organized Jewish community's traditional response to hate in other media has been to monitor and expose it without responding directly to the haters in the same venue.

That, however, may not be enough to address hate in cyberspace, according to those involved with the issue.

The ADL and Wiesenthal Center have established their own Web sites (the addresses are www.adl.org and www.wiesenthal.com) where they make available articles and summaries of their own research.

But tackling the issue directly in cyberspace raises its own set of problems.

"It leads us into an uncomfortable area to almost be giving legitimacy and debate to these hatemongers," said the ADL's Foxman.

To address the hate sites head-on "means that we are, to a certain level, giving them a lot more credence than they deserve."

Foxman said he would like to find a way to ensure that anyone accessing a neo-Nazi Web page would also be linked to the ADL's counterinformation.

A group named Nizkor (Remember!), composed of individuals, primarily non-Jews, has been working to counter Holocaust deniers on the Web for the last year or so.

The Wiesenthal Center has also been working with universities, where thousands of people often have free access to the Internet and the World Wide Web. A number of the hate sites have been created through university access.

A survey of university policies guiding extremist use of their systems has garnered more than 300 responses from schools ranging from Harvard to community colleges, said Mark Weitzman, director of the Wiesenthal Center's Task Force Against Hate.

About 30 percent of the responding universities have developed some sort of policy about improper use of the Internet access they provide, and most of the respondents want guidance on the issue, said Weitzman.

The big commercial Internet services, such as America Online and CompuServe, have established their own policies.

A group of Internet service providers, working through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has recently established its own set of standards.

The Wiesenthal Center is also working with commercial Internet service providers, some of which have terminated service to those who were using their services to spew hate."I don't want government censorship, but universities, especially private schools, have the right to control what's on their systems. Internet service providers are also going to find things that they will and will not allow, like newspapers do," said Weitzman.