As terrorists use social media to fuel their deadly missions, Rachel May Weiser is trying to shut off access to that source of information, networking and crowdsourcing.
“Terrorism has gone viral,” said the senior attorney and educational director of Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center. “Hate has gone viral. Anti-Semitism, now, has gone viral – and it’s terrifying.”
Weiser, who lived in Beachwood prior to relocating to Israel with her family in 2010, returned to her old neighborhood in the home of Arlene Holz Smith and Michael Smith to talk to members of Oheb Zedek Cedar Sinai Synagogue about Shurat HaDin’s latest work on Aug. 14.
Using courts and other legal instruments, Shurat HaDin works to cut off funding to terrorists and win compensation for victims. Its motto is “Bankrupting Terrorism – One Lawsuit at a Time.”
Over 15 years, Shurat HaDin has won about $2 billion in judgments, has frozen more than $600 million in terror assets and collected about $300 million. Operating solely on donations, it provides services to victims for free and is reimbursed only for expenses in cases it wins.
Founded by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner in 2003, Shurat HaDin was modeled after the Southern Poverty Law Center. The NGO works with intelligence and law enforcement agencies to pursue its aims.
Shurat HaDin’s work
Weiser spoke of the many ways Shurat HaDin has worked to use legal channels to stop the flow of money to terrorists and terror groups. These include taking on the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Arabank and American Express, as well as the governments of Iran and Syria, attaching a lien to an oil tanker, getting Airbnb to dial back its policy of not listing Jewish-owned properties in the West Bank and filing lawsuits in the United States and Europe.
Most recently, it sought to block U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., from entering Israel.
In addition, Shurat HaDin works to fight war crimes cases lodged against Israeli soldiers.
While Shurat HaDin has both won and lost cases, exposure has had a chilling effect in some cases, she said.
Taking on social media
“We all love the internet,” Weiser said. “It’s amazing, except it’s also the fastest, easiest, most effective way for terror organizations to spread their hate.”
On Aug. 17, three days after Weiser spoke, a New Middletown man was arrested for telecommunications harassment and aggravated menacing after posting an image of himself shooting a gun on Instagram and tagging the Youngstown Jewish Community Center.
“They use it to train. They use it to recruit. They use it to incentivize. They use it to fundraise. When this knife intifada started in 2014, 2015, (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu actually called it the ‘Facebook Intifada’ because all we were seeing everywhere on social media were videos and pictures depicting and showing how to kill a Jew, where to stab a knife, what kind of knife to use, how to differentiate between a Jew and an Arab on the street. And I know you all remember the videos and the ISIS videos, the beheadings. It was everywhere.”
She said members of Shurat HaDin had a thought about how to get at the source of spreading hate through the internet.
“Isn’t providing a terror organization a Facebook account or a Twitter account or a Google account on YouTube, (and) providing material support and resources, just like it would be to give them a bank account? How can it be any different? If they’re using it to really spread and create their terror, then obviously it’s material, obviously it’s useful to them.”
She said Shurat HaDin brought lawsuits against Facebook, Google and Twitter in both California and New York “on behalf of victims of Hamas terror because Hamas is very, very heavily using Facebook.
“And they don’t hide it,” she said. “There is an official Hamas page. It’s called Hamas Facebook. Or the leaders of those organizations have pages in their own names. It’s not a secret.”
In addition, she said, the organization initiated lawsuits in Istanbul and Paris against Twitter.
“Those cases were primarily brought against Twitter because ISIS is heavily, heavily using Twitter.”
Challenging the law
The domestic lawsuits challenged the validity of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which extends immunity to operators of internet services from liability for the words of third parties that use those services. The law went into effect in the infancy of the internet, when social media companies were little more than bulletin boards, she said.
“These companies are not bulletin boards anymore,” she said. “They know what kind of coffee we drink. They know what kind of vacations we’re searching for.”
Using algorithms, social media companies suggest ads and people that will appeal to their members.
“What if you’re somebody who searches for how to build a bomb or ‘I hate Jews’?” she said.
“So, we filed these lawsuits against social media companies and we said this communication decency act no longer applies to you,” she said. “If you want to be interactive and you want to create this environment where you’re helping criminals to build alliances, to build their businesses, you have to take responsibility for that. And more importantly, it actually makes no difference what the terror organization or the terrorist on the terror watch list is hosting. Content is irrelevant. They could be posting butterflies. They’re not allowed to give them the account in the first place. If they are a designated terror organization or a terrorist on the terror watch list, you shouldn’t be allowed to give them the account at all.”
Weiser said Shurat HaDin lost the initial U.S. lawsuit and its first appeal.
Seeing the win
“However, the chief justice in the New York Board of Appeals wrote an 87-page dissenting opinion saying we’re right,” she said. “And I’m telling you, it’s the first step – and a big step – in a change we’re all gonna see.”
She vowed to take the suit to the Supreme Court and to go to Congress.
“There will be a carve-out exception for the anti-terrorism act,” she said. “Or there will be a change to the (Communications Decency Act), which says this doesn’t apply to things like terrorism. It’s going to change. This is also what Shurat HaDin is about: seeing the flaws in the current state of the law based on what’s happening today in our world on our battlefield and moving the world in the right direction in terms of how we’re going to interpret these things.”
Weiser, 44, was born in Pittsburgh, married a Clevelander, graduated from Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland and lived in Beachwood. She belonged to Young Israel of Greater Cleveland in Beachwood. With an eye toward litigation, she first practiced criminal defense, then turned toward civil practice, specializing in business litigation, personal injury and malpractice, “which I didn’t realize but actually ended up preparing me for the job I was going to get when I moved to Israel.” Altogether, she spent 12 years practicing law at Milano Attorneys & Counselors at Law in Cleveland.
Her husband, Jeff, first proposed relocating to Israel.
“I said I would try it for one year, which I did, and I really did give it my all, but I wanted to come back,” she said. “After the first year, I went to my oldest child, who at the time had just turned 14. He’s now 22 and just finished the Israeli army. We said, ‘Jacob, you’re the oldest, I want to tell you that we’re seriously thinking about going back to Cleveland.’ He said, ‘Well I don’t think you really gave it long enough. A year is not really enough time to know the country. If you’re really serious and you really feel strongly, then I appreciate that, but I don’t want to go with you.’ So, I turned to my husband. I said, ‘I guess we’re staying.’”
Weiser said in her second year in Israel she got the job at Shurat HaDin.
“My future was sealed because I fell in love with my new job and everything it taught me about my country – and then I fell in love with my new country,” she said.
Stopping the flow
In addition to its legal advocacy work, Shurat HaDin writes reports about human rights violations among Palestinians and holds educational programs.
“We also, behind the scenes, helped to push forward a law that was passed just two or three months ago that said if the Palestinian Authority accepts aid from the United States at all, they also have to accept jurisdiction of our courts,” she said. “About two or three months ago, the Palestinian Authority said, ‘We’re not accepting aid from the United States.’ That’s why. And that’s OK, because anything we can do to stop the flow of money, it’s been proven time and time again, it slows down the flow of terror.”