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Israelis turn blind eye to locally generated e-mail messages

By Devona Walker, Daily Planet Staff
Monday April 08, 2002

Israeli government officials have blocked approximately half of the messages originating from the Berkeley-based Web site, but founder Steve Freedkin is still looking for alternative avenues to get them through. 

During wartime, free speech is quite often deeply debated; its limitations are at times questioned; some would even argue that its spirit is trampled upon. But the question remains, when does the right of one to speak freely violate the civil liberties of another or, as it is often argued in Washington, D.C., threaten national security? 

For Steve Freedkin, this argument is a moot point. His Web site is a medium to send messages to Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. government officials — and communication with public officials is not the same as with private citizens. 

But even still, as the reporting of anti-Semitism increases in light of the intensified conflict in the Middle East, some may wonder if free speech is being misused.  



Though Freedkin says he does not feel the responsibility to read through the hundreds of thousands of messages that move through his portal, would he be more willing to act if hatred and not peace were the dominant theme? 

Freedkin has received one message from a member of the Israeli legislature in response to the many thousand e-mail messages he has received thanks to Progressive Portal and it was quite civil in tone, according to Freedkin. 

“He says I appreciate your messages but we are fighting for our lives,” Freedkin said paraphrasing the message. 

At present, Freedkin is exploring various technological avenues to get the messages through, and says that he believes he has found a way to deliver the majority of them. But he says that after he delivers them, he will not launch a similar campaign. 

He also concedes that his portal has occasionally been used to spout hateful messages. 

“It’s part of the democratic process, it’s speech,” Freedkin said. “Sure, there’s a certain amount of responsibility but not enough to where I have to sift through hundreds of thousands of messages to ensure that one or two of them are not violent in tone. Progressive Portal provides a sample text but users are allowed to edit the message and replace it with their own. The sample text for the letters to officials of Israel, the Palestinian National Authority, and the United States calls for all sides to de-escalate the violence. Users may edit the text as they wish before sending. 

“I’m perfectly willing to allow an occasional person to use Progressive Portal whose ideas are different from mine.” 

But more than 100,000 messages have already gotten through to members of the Israeli legislature as well as Palestinian diplomats, U.S. President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell. At present, it appears that only the Israeli government officials have blocked the messages; Progressive Portal operators discovered this on Friday. Freedkin said that a number of Israeli officials are continuing to receive the messages. 

“Some of them have been locked out but we are looking for a way to get them in,” Freedkin said. “They have only locked out certain avenues of getting our messages to them.” 

In fewer than nine days, more than 200,000 messages were sent by users from around the world, according to Freedkin.  

Freedkin stated he has not received any complaints about hateful messages coming across his portal this time around but did receive complaints when it was used last year to help dismantle the board of the Pacifica Radio Network. 

And he said he has not read anything that is derogatory to the Israelis as a people or the Palestinians as a people. 

“It appears the Israeli government began blocking messages from our system to many of its addresses at approximately 9:53 a.m. Pacific time on Friday,” said Brent Emerson, System Administrator of, the Oakland-based Internet service that hosts Progressive Portal and several other non-profit Web sites. 

“Approximately 52,765 messages have been blocked,” Emerson added. “However, quite a few Israeli government addresses have not been blocked, and those messages continue to be delivered.”