Within days of the April incursion of the Israel Defense Forces into Jenin, pro-Palestine activist Thomas Olson received first a trickle, then thousands, of e-mails with menacing subject lines such as: “Mecca is for Muslims, Jerusalem is for Jews,” “Die Hitler Scum” and “I take it in the ass from Arafat.” What then became daily e-mail bombardments of pro-Israel diatribes, racist cartoons and pornography soon progressed into a much more sinister form of cyber-harassment: Olson became a victim of a type of identity-theft dubbed a “joe job” by experts, wherein someone using Olson’s name and e-mail address sends out thousands of messages that grossly misrepresent his position with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One such “job” had Olson declaring “I love Hitler” to hundreds of his fellow activists. Welcome to the concerted (and ongoing) cyber-campaign to frustrate and intimidate US-based pro-Palestine activists who attempt to organize on the Internet.
While spammings continue to crash servers and shut down inboxes, these joe jobs in particular have been smearing identities and wasting countless hours valuable to the activist community. University of Illinois law professor and pro-Palestine organizer Francis Boyle, for example, returned from a summer vacation to find 55,000 e-mails waiting in his inbox–most of them return-to-senders from a mass e-mail he supposedly wrote saying, “When I see in the newspapers that civilians in Afghanistan or the West Bank were killed by American or Israeli troops, I don’t really care.” Boyle–a former board member of Amnesty International USA and outspoken critic of the war in Afghanistan–spent four days sorting through the e-mails, deleting failed deliveries and apologizing to angry colleagues.
Similarly, Monica Tarazi, director of the New York chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), discovered that her e-mail account had shut down after someone using her address spammed some eighty Yahoo! groups. And Yale medical school professor Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh has on three separate occasions learned that e-mails he wrote to various activist lists were altered and forwarded to 1,500 members of the Yale community. Qumsiyeh has also been the victim of outright forgeries, many of which attempt to slander him by alleging that he is a Muslim advocating terrorist acts. A recent e-mail even had Qumsiyeh rallying for revolution: “Comrades and friends, the only solution to the miseries of the world we live in today is with revolutionary change that overthrows the US capitalist system and its bourgeois supporters once and for all.” Reading this aloud, Qumsiyeh chuckled, “They discovered that I’m not a Muslim, so they decided to make me a Communist.”
All accounts of this cyber-harassment point to the targeting of activists who subscribe to pro-Palestine e-mail lists or belong to Palestine-related e-groups, as well as various academics, news groups and human rights organizations that either support Palestinian statehood or are simply critical of Israeli policy. Even celebrated MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, outspoken critic of Israeli policies toward Palestine, has been hit. “There is an awful lot of stuff going out in my name that’s totally insane and that I haven’t written,” the professor complained. For the last month or so, Chomsky’s personal inbox has been regularly inundated with return-to-senders, which obviously constitute only a small fraction of the e-mails being sent from his address. When asked to characterize the campaign, Chomsky sighed, calling it “somewhere between infantile and Stalinist.”
So who’s responsible? Interestingly, the bulk of the e-mails appear to be coming from within the United States, specifically from a Kinko’s or Internet cafe where the sender can remain anonymous. They are then routed through various servers around the world. Olson traced messages back through servers in Brazil, China and Mexico, only to find they were sent from a Kinko’s in Colorado; likewise, some of the spam Boyle receives is sent from a Kinko’s in the St. Louis area and routed through open relays in Brazil, China, Taiwan and Dubai. Though the campaign is no doubt elaborately sustained, and its architects determined, it is not necessarily the work of sophisticated hackers. What many of the victims are learning is that it is easy to change the “from” line of an e-mail. As Nigel Parry, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website, told me, “This could have been done by 16-year-olds.”