More stories from Kathleen

Santa comes to Israel

By M.K. Guzda
Globe and Mail (Toronto)

JERUSALEM — They stand in the back of the aisle, giggling nervously and avoiding eye contact with other shoppers. Inbal Hoffman and Kobi Franco are examining the lights, the garlands, the balls and the tinsel. They choose their decorations carefully.

“My mother would flip if she saw me here,” says a sheepish Ms. Hoffman, a 23-year-old graphic-design student. “My mother would think I’m trying to be something I’m not.”

Specifically, Ms. Hoffman’s mother might think her daughter is an Israeli Jew celebrating Christmas. And she’d be right.

Last year, Ms. Hoffman and Mr. Franco went to a Christmas party at the home of Jewish friends, who had decorated their house. They had a tree with lights. They exchanged gifts.

“We thought that was really nice, and we might do it this year,” she says. “It’s not a religious celebration. Christmas is so much fun, it’s legendary. Why not take the good of the holiday and have your way with it?”

The two are not alone. Jews celebrating Christmas is a phenomenon and it’s growing so quickly that Israeli experts are baffled by it.

“I’ve never heard of Jews celebrating the birth of Christ,” says a chagrined Sasha Weitman, sociologist at Tel Aviv University.

At the Toy House, a cavernous store with an aisle of Christmas decorations, owner Alon Harpaz confirms that Israelis are buying holiday goods.

“There are Israelis pretending they are part of the West,” he says. “But they are celebrating a party, like New Year’s. It’s not religious.”

Jostling with the Israeli Jews in the Christmas aisle are the store’s usual seasonal customers: Christian Arabs from Israel and the West Bank to whom Mr. Harpaz has been selling for 26 years. But sales are up 20 percent from last year, and he attributes the increase to the peace process.

“Because the West Bank has gone back to the Palestinians, a lot of people feel the freedom and want to celebrate.”

At Gizmo’s bar in Jewish West Jerusalem, a popular Israeli watering hole with live jazz on Friday night, the manager is advertising what is becoming an annual “Christmas” celebration. Last year the bar had a Christmas tree with lights and plastic Santas.

“It’s not a matter of a religious celebration,” says Michel Abisdid. “It’s a reason to party.”

“It’s mind-boggling,” says sociologist Weitman. “Jews have had such a reticence to do anything like Gentiles, especially Christians. I think – inasmuch as a few of them do – it’s really out of an innocent desire to participate in an enjoyable pleasure. Gift-giving and partying and making your house look festive are pleasurable,” he says.

“Maybe it’s an effect of the peace process. Maybe we’re becoming a little relaxed. Maybe we’re becoming less uptight about other people’s religious beliefs.”

At Gizmo’s, the approach to Christmas is certainly relaxed and innocent. Bartender Sharon Marco says that last year people danced all night and counted down to midnight before the room erupted into kisses all around.

But wasn’t that a New Year’s party?

“What?” asks a startled Mr. Abisdid. “Isn’t Christmas on the 31st?”

##

At lowellsun.com, it’s about fair commentary — hold the vitriol

By M.K. Guzda
Lowell Sun

All Kristyn Demers, 10, of Pelham, NH, did was propose legislation to make purple the state color of New Hampshire. Like the state flower, the purple lilac. Or the state bird, the purple finch. It wasn’t really irrelevant or off topic.

“The fact is that most legislation comes in, and it dies,” said nine-term state Rep. Shawn Jasper of Hudson, who testified against the bill with colleague Janet Wall of Madbury. “Everybody refers to these (state-symbol bills) as ‘an educational lesson for the children.’

“Well, the children have to learn, too, that you don’t get everything you want.”

Kristyn didn’t ask for free iPads for every kid in New Hampshire. But her civic gesture seemed to rile Charles Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in New Hampshire, as well. Arlinghaus publicly wrote that the governor should “veto it in front of a roomful of students to teach them about frivolity.”

Actually, The Sun thought Kristyn’s effort was noble and laudable, which is why we reported the story. While many adults seemingly can’t take a night off from television to attend a town meeting or volunteer at a school, this 10-year-old was trying to unify 1.3 million state residents through royal color.

Several readers who posted comments on The Sun online comment board agreed with Jasper and Arlinghaus, but sunk into name-calling and other unkindness. So unkind, we killed them off rather than imagine sweet Kristyn reading them on her iPod as her expectations in adults, newspapers and government crumpled by age 10.

Online comments have the roll of the ocean to them. Rogue waves come out of nowhere. Fins break the surface. The first bite is drawn, and a school dives in to dismember the weak, the young, the old, the injured, the misfortunate, and those who have erred in public. In other words, humans.

Laura Renn was chopped to pieces after The Sun published a story about her court appearance in the oddly named Family Court. Renn, a stay-at-home mom who makes $20,000 a year in between caring for two boys, was ordered by a New Hampshire judge to pay her former husband, who makes $71,000, child support. It didn’t add up, and we tried to address how the courts could order a parent to follow what seemed an economically devastating judgment.

But our story was flawed. Details were neglected, reporting was shallow, and facts were incorrectly reported. Renn ended up inadvertently misrepresented by us, and we’re still trying to sort out what is happening in Family Court.

Readers on our comments board publicly flogged her as if she had plucked the eyelashes off of puppies. They called her unfit and a deadbeat. They made disparaging comments about her extended family, who were not part of the story. Her family, in turn, was so furious with Renn about the public comments that some have refused to speak with her.

Embarrassed and crushed, Renn showed up in our lobby. Calm and respectful, she laid out documents to show where we’d made mistakes. Diminished to tears, she asked how we let it happen.

And we didn’t have any good answers.

Newspapers have fumbled with the reins on comments and blog postings since the wonderful thing called the Internet let communication and connection loose at lightspeed. Freedom of speech gets jumbled up with the public’s right to know with the desire to exploit the Internet socially and profitably. Before we knew it, anonymous posting had become like a public toilet: Lots of people passing through and leaving a mess.

Like all news organizations, we cherish freedom of speech. But anonymous commenting on stories has run amok, scattering expletives, insults, incorrect observations and vitriol through our community like trash thrown anonymously from the window of a speeding car. Casual racism, sexism, ageism and hate speech have become the norm.

Today, we disconnect our previous comments board for a new approach called Disqus, pronounced “discuss,” that requires posters to register first, or post their comments through Facebook. (We’re hoping public discourse will be more civil via Facebook because posters are identified by name, photo and/or other personal details.) Readers who try to post as anonymous “Guest” will have to wait until their comments are approved individually by our editors.

Comments will appear at the bottom of stories.

While we meant no harm, we send apologies to Kristyn Demer, Laura Renn and others who were unfairly or rudely criticized via readers’ comments. Readers are always welcome to send letters to the editor on paper or online. We invite everyone to engage, explore and debate our news, especially when it involves criticism. As long as it’s criticism that engages others to think and discuss, rather than disgust.

Reporter John Collins contributed to this article.

# #

The Lowell Sun switches off anonymous, unmoderated comments

posted by Ralph Ranalli of Beat the Press

In a strongly but thoughtfully worded editorial, the Lowell Sun newspaper said yesterday it was turning off its unmoderated online comment system and installing something better.

Today, Lowellsun.com went live with a new system, called Disqus (“discuss”). Disqus requires people who want to comment on a story to first create a verifiable user account – or they can comment through social-networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. Comments from anonymous – now called “guest”  – users get shunted to a holding queue to await individual moderation by an editor.

Neither the concept or the system are new. After all, Disqus is already used by other news organizations, including CNN. But the Sun’s passionate defense of its decision – particularly in the context of the current debate over civility in media and politics – is worth a read.

[M.K. note: Editorial follows this article below. The original is behind a paywall.]

The editorial by Sun Managing Editor M.K. Guzda begins with the story of Kristyn Demers, a 10-year-old from Pelham, N.H. who proposed legislation to make purple the state color.

Kristyn didn’t ask for free iPads for every kid in New Hampshire. But her civic gesture seemed to rile Charles Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in New Hampshire, as well. Arlinghaus publicly wrote that the governor should “veto it in front of a roomful of students to teach them about frivolity.”

Meanwhile, a Republican state representative, Shawn Jasper, testified against Demers, decrying “meaningless” symbolic bills like last year’s vote to make apple cider the Granite State’s state drink. The online trolls weren’t far behind.

While many adults seemingly can’t take a night off from television to attend a town meeting or volunteer at a school, this 10-year-old was trying to unify 1.3 million state residents through royal color. Several readers who posted comments on The Sun online comment board agreed with Jasper and Arlinghaus, but sunk into name-calling and other unkindness. So unkind, we killed them off rather than imagine sweet Kristyn reading them on her iPod as her expectations in adults, newspapers and government crumpled by age 10.

You can read the rest of the editorial here.

For too long, news organizations passed on playing the grown-up while childish trolls lobbed racist and personal attacks from the safety of anonymity. By coming to the defense of a 10 year old and demanding some maturity from its commenting audience, The Sun has laudably shown its own.

[Ralph Ranalli’s commentary about M.K. Guzda’s editorial appeared on the website for WGBH’s Beat The Press. BTP “takes a sharp look at how the media, new and old, covers and analyzes the big issues of the week. Created in 1998 by award winning television news producer and host Emily Rooney, Beat the Press is a lively and sometimes sassy look at both the business of media and its journalistic purpose. A four time winner of the National Press Club’s prestigious Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism, BTP has become one of the most popular programs on local public television, bringing viewers behind the scenes and into the process of news gathering from television, radio and newspapers, to the vast world of new media including websites, blogs, twitters and more,” states its website.]

(Webpage background photo by M.K. Guzda Struck of Palestinians deported to Southern Lebanon.)

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