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‘Zoombombing’ takes on an anti-Semitic twist

  • HackedShiurim1
When internationally respected Rabbi Moshe Taragin delivered an online shiur on Monday evening, he was taken aback when it was beset by a torrent of swearing, vile comments, and anti-Semitic rhetoric.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Apr 02, 2020

The South African community is well acquainted with Taragin, a committed Torah educator who has learnt alongside dozens of South African students on programmes in Israel. Even outside of Israel, he maintains a connection with South African Torah students of all ages through his recorded shiurim [Talmudic study sessions] and inspirational voice notes which are circulated across the community.

On Monday, though, uninvited users swarmed the platform to spread vitriol and heckle other participants, forcing students to sign off and leaving Taragin no choice but to end the lesson abruptly.

“It was sudden,” Taragin, an educator at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, told the SA Jewish Report. “They took over, doodling on the screen, ranting anti-Semitic chants, putting up inappropriate pictures, and cursing. I tried to remove them one by one, [but] they seemed to regenerate immediately.”

Neither he nor the students who have thus far attended his daily shiur on the online conferencing platform, Zoom, saw it coming. According to one of the participants, Eliezer Ehrenkranz, nothing seemed untoward when the session began.

“I thought there were new people participating, so it didn’t seem odd that there were more people at first,” says Ehrenkranz, who lives in Boston, Massachusetts. “The shiur continued, and then a user called Asher Goodman started saying hello in the chat and on his microphone.”

Although Taragin muted Goodman, he continued to spam greetings in the chat, writing “Shalom” and saying that he was from Tel Aviv. Ehrenkranz says something felt off.

“We ignored him, and kept going. Another person suddenly joined in, then Goodman shared his screen, wrote “F-off Jews”, and drew a Magen David [Star of David]. The rabbi kicked him out, but then another guy shared an inappropriate picture and wrote the same message.”

At least ten other hecklers suddenly began disrupting the session at once, sharing hateful messages and yelling obscenities into their microphones using voice changers. Although Taragin attempted to remove them, their numbers swelled.

“I removed one, then three new ones joined in,” Taragin says. “They had all sorts of strange names. They seemed to use some sort of algorithm, because every time I kicked one off, more came in.”

Beyond spamming the session, hecklers also performed Nazi salutes and cried, “Heil Hitler!” Upset and angry, many students signed off, including Ehrenkranz. “It felt like a punch in the face,” he says. “People were shocked and upset.”

Left with few options, Taragin ended the session altogether.

The incident is far from isolated. Known as “Zoombombing”, the phenomenon is being reported around the Jewish and non-Jewish world as more people use the platform to conduct lessons and give lectures. Shuls, schools, and even restaurant chains are reporting that uninvited attendees are spamming sessions with hateful and graphic material, often using pornographic, racist, and anti-Semitic content.

The Jewish news website Forward reported earlier this week that an online board meeting convened by the Conejo Valley Unified School District of the Los Angeles region was disrupted by hackers. These individuals shared cartoon images of Hitler, photos of Nazi soldiers and swastikas, and threatened sexual violence against educators and parents.

Similarly, a webinar about anti-Semitism hosted by a Massachusetts Jewish student group was reportedly disrupted when a user pulled his shirt collar down to reveal a swastika tattoo on his chest. He is believed to be Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer, a known white supremacist and hacker.

According to Ehrenkranz, the problem also affected an online talk given by Dr Tova Lichtenstein, another educator from Har Etzion. She delivered her lecture a few hours after Taragin, and experienced the same bombardment by almost 20 hecklers.

The Anti-Defamation League has issued a list of suggested precautions Zoom users can take before and during an online session. These including disabling remote access by other users, disabling screen sharing, muting participants, and locking the session once all invited participants are online. If one is Zoombombed, they recommend removing problematic users and disabling their ability to re-join.

Taragin has implemented these measures and resumed his shiurim, limiting certain user privileges to himself only.

“I changed the link, and sent it out privately via WhatsApp,” he explains. “Access is now password protected. I think I’ve got past the worst of it.”

Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies finds it appalling that at a time of global crisis, bigots still continue to spew their venomous hatred. “It’s important when using online forums to be vigilant about safety, and service providers such as Zoom provide guidelines in this regard,” she said.

Milton Shain, an emeritus professor of history and an expert on anti-Semitism, says his inclination is to ignore such hecklers rather than take them on. “Rational debate hardly ever wins with conspiracists and fantasists,” he says. “Social media is an echo chamber for the lunatic right.

“Having said that, it comes as no surprise that anti-Semites are crawling out of the woodwork to lay blame for COVID-19. It’s no surprise that – at least for some – Jews provide an ideal explanation. It’s the usual argument.”

In the twisted mind of the anti-Semite, a convoluted case will be offered to explain why the virus is in the interest of Jews, Shain said. “Expect global politics to feature, money, and most importantly, banking,” he says. “This will fit in with age-old canards. Let's hope the audience is small.”

Rabbi Yossi Chaikin, the chairperson of the South African Rabbinic Association, says that Jews shouldn’t feel singled out by such disruptors, with non-Jewish groups also targeted by hecklers on Zoom.

“Based on what I’ve seen, it appears mostly opportunistic,” he says. “Other people and groups are also affected. Still, we all need to find ways to protect ourselves against such disruption.”

“Technology like Zoom has been amazing in helping us carry on virtually. Davening, learning, and communal leadership meetings can still happen. Almost every technology is open to disruption, and we need to handle this as we would any other.”

To help rabbis handle potential disruption, Chaikin says the association is in the process of organising training sessions to equip them to protect themselves online and continue teaching.

“We must find ways to make sure that shiurim continue if this is to become a reality,” he concludes. “It’s time to discuss online strategies to protect ourselves as best we can.”

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