The most highly anticipated recent work of fiction about Mark Zuckerberg is not the new biopic The Social Network but rather a criminal investigation launched this summer by Muhammad Azhar Sidiqque, Pakistan’s deputy attorney general. Zuckerberg, Sidiqque argued, is guilty of violating Section 295-C of Pakistan’s penal code, which asserts that “whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation … defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) shall be punished with death.” Zuckerberg’s website, Facebook, has more than 500 million active users, one of whom had decided to encourage her peers to draw and post pictures of the prophet. Pakistan sought to prosecute not the individual offender but several of Facebook’s executives, including Zuckerberg and his co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.
After a Pakistani court barred access to Facebook and 450 other sites suspected of anti-Muslim agitation, many cheered the decision as an effective counter-strike against nefarious Jewish designs. One Pakistani blogger captured the zeitgeist well when he claimed that the initiative to draw Muhammad was “a secret conspiracy of the Jewish lobbies to manipulate the world phenomena of terrorism,” and others took pleasure in pointing out the abundance of Jewish-sounding last names on the executive suites of companies like Google, Oracle, Wikipedia, and eBay. Put bluntly, it seems that many in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world believe the Internet to be a global Jewish conspiracy.
And here’s the beautiful thing: In some ways, they are right.
There is, of course, no Jewish cabal scheming behind the scenes to entice Muslims and others to join Facebook, use Google, or consult Wikipedia. But a case could be made that the Internet, in its current iteration, commonly referred to as Web 2.0—focused on applications that facilitate user interaction and collaboration—is governed by a logic that is inherently Jewish, a logic that has sustained the Jews as a community for millennia and that propelled a disproportionate number of them—Sergey Brin, Larry Ellison, Jimmy Wales, Mark Zuckerberg—to the helm of Web 2.0’s most important companies.
To understand this logic, we must take into consideration Judaism’s peculiar history. Having scurried off to exile after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Jews gradually realized that their old forms of religious life no longer applied. The Sanhedrin, the supreme court in all matters Jewish, was dissolved in 358 C.E., following Constantine’s convening of the Council of Nicaea three decades earlier, which consolidated the Holy Roman Church. The Sanhedrin carried on clandestinely for another half-century, but with the beheading of its last president by the emperor Theodosius II in 425 C.E. came the death of Judaism’s religious hierarchy. The completion of the Quran in 650 C.E. and the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate—which introduced Islam to North Africa, Spain, and Asia—further complicated the situation. Scattered in small communities across the world, and careful not to upset the religious majorities in whose midst they lived, the Jews had no choice but to invent a new way of organizing their world. That way was the Gemara.
Compiled between roughly 350 and 500 C.E., the Gemara contains rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnah, the oral law compiled in the second century C.E. by Rabbi Yehuda Ha’Nasi, one of the Sanhedrin’s most celebrated leaders. While Christianity gravitated towards pithy, concise statements of faith—the Nicene Creed is a masterful example of compact theology—Judaism took the opposite route, opening up the conversation to numerous participants and favoring discussion over dogma. It was, in many ways, a perfect method of keeping a dispersed nation connected. It was a system designed for the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
That last sentence isn’t mine. It was written by the novelist Lev Grossman to describe Time magazine’s Person of the Year issue for 2006. The person the magazine singled out for praise was You, by which they meant the millions of users who update their Facebook profiles, upload videos to YouTube, review books on Amazon, and partake in the myriad platforms that have come to comprise the web as we know it today.
That web, Grossman wrote, wasn’t “the Web that Tim Berners-Lee hacked together (15 years ago, according to Wikipedia) as a way for scientists to share research. It’s not even the overhyped dotcom Web of the late 1990s. The new Web is a very different thing. It’s a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter.”
Judaism, of course, has been doing just that for millennia, seeing the creation of commentary and content as the highest—sometimes only—form of religious and communal life. Jimmy Wales, the Jewish creator of Wikipedia, started out by trying to create a top-down, tightly controlled, online encyclopedia; it failed. As soon as he opened his creation to individual content contributions, it became, virtually overnight, one of the Internet’s top 10 most popular websites. Jonathan Rosen deftly made this comparison between the logics of Judaism and the web in his exceptional book-length essay The Talmud and the Internet. “The Internet,” Rosen writes, “which we are continually told binds us all together, nevertheless engenders in me a similar sense of Diaspora, a feeling of being everywhere and nowhere. Where else but in the middle of the Diaspora do you need a home page?”
The same logic still applies. Sergey Brin, Google’s Moscow-born co-founder, told a Jewish magazine recently that as a young boy, “I’ve known for a long time that my father wasn’t able to pursue the career he wanted.” Forced to flee Russia, the Brins lived a nomadic life in Vienna and Paris before settling down in Maryland, where young Sergey felt foreign and misunderstood. By some acquaintances’ accounts, he was still feeling this way two decades later when he quit his Stanford doctoral program to start his company with fellow graduate student Larry Page, another nice Jewish boy.
But persecution needn’t be a part of the equation for the Jewish logic to take hold. Zuckerberg’s childhood home in Westchester, New York, is a long way away from Brin’s repressive Moscow, but, growing up, Facebook’s founder displayed much of the same unease with rigid social hierarchies. Despite often veering away from the facts, the new Zuckerberg biopic, written by Aaron Sorkin, captures the emotional core of Zuckerberg neatly when it pits the lanky geek against two chiseled twins with the unimprovable name of Winklevoss. They were the wealthy, easy-going socialites, he the frustrated outsider, and he took his revenge by upsetting the existing order.
In and of itself, this is not much of an innovation. Bill Gates, after all, did the same thing when he founded Microsoft and reshaped the way we do everything from work to play. But Gates, like so many of the computer industry’s earliest titans, isn’t Jewish, and neither are his ideas—like many of Silicon Valley’s founding fathers, he was interested in structured power and intent simply on replacing one hierarchy with another. Zuckerberg, Brin, and others in the Web 2.0 space are far more radical, doing away with the center altogether and replacing it with countless, smaller nodes of community and influence (Microsoft’s CEO, the longtime Bill Gates lieutenant Steve Ballmer, is also Jewish).
“I never wanted to have information that other people didn’t have,” Zuckerberg told Wired magazine recently. “I just thought it should all be more available.” Of course, Facebook, Google, and other leviathans of technology are far from altruistic enterprises; they seek profit and market share and often act in monopolistic ways to obtain it. And of course, the largest media oligopolies still produce by far the most popular content on the Internet. But consider this tidbit: According to most available data, each one of the millions of songs on Apple’s iTunes music store is downloaded at least once per quarter. Combined, these minor artists overshadow the sales of the Top 40 acts. This is a tremendous economic and cultural shift: Once we are all able to create, upload, and comment on content online, once the popularity of a website is determined by the number of people who seek it out, once we can choose the stuff we like and ignore the rest—once all that happens, we are living in a profoundly Jewish world.
A good way to understand just how radical this shift is would be to look at Forbes magazine’s recently released list of America’s 400 wealthiest individuals: Zuckerberg, who invented a piece of code that allows us all to stay connected and share our thoughts with our friends, is worth nearly a billion dollars more than Steve Jobs, the man who revolutionized the personal computer, the digital media player, and the telephone. Valuated at $15 billion each, Brin and Page are worth twice as much as Zuckerberg. In 10 years, these three young Jewish men have generated a fortune akin, according to some estimates, to the gross domestic product of Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria combined.
Which brings us to Israel. While the Jewish state is home to a robust high-tech industry—at $30 billion a year, the industry accounts for 15 percent of Israel’s GDP but more than 40 percent of the country’s exports—the nation itself has been painfully slow to adapt to the logic of Web 2.0. While Sergey Brin, Larry Ellison, and Mark Zuckerberg all flew to Jerusalem to take part in Israel’s 60th anniversary jubilee in 2008, the Israeli government seems to have learned little from either distinguished guests or its own homegrown talents. Nothing illustrates this fact better than the Israeli foreign ministry’s decision, reached last summer, to spend about $170,000 and hire professional bloggers to post pro-Israeli messages on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Such a top-down, centralized approach is anathema to the very logic of Web 2.0, as well as the very logic of Judaism; like the Israeli chief rabbinate’s attempt to consolidate power and become the singular adjudicator of all matters spiritual, Israel’s failure to understand the mechanics of new media suggests that the Jewish state is slouching away from inherent Jewish values, enamored, like so many of its neighbors in the region, with more streamlined, more rigid hierarchical structures.
Which brings us back to Pakistan. Under the influence of Wahabism, the new zealots find in Web 2.0 a terrifying threat to an intolerant and hierarchical stream of Islam that spends as much energy crushing intrafaith competition as it does opposing foreign influence. Unlike China, which objects to social media platforms and search engines only when they are used to disseminate anti-government messages (and which has developed home-grown alternative sites and services), men like Pakistan’s Sidiqque have neatly internalized Marshall McLuhan’s famous quip that the medium is the message. They know that the most radical thing about Brin, Zuckerberg, and the technologies they created is that they encourage constant commentary, ongoing debate, endless involvement. It’s a way of thinking that is very bad for oppressive corporations, zealous theocracies, and anyone else wishing to exert complete control over information. But it is very good for the Jews.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.