Should there be religious limits to absolute media freedom of expression?

16 08 2015

Last week, I was invited to be part of a panel discussion hosted by the Victoria University Religious Studies Department on the topic of whether there should be limits to absolute media freedom of expression.

Prof Paul Morris provided an opening statement. Joining me on the panel were Tayyaba Khan, Jenny Chalmers, Tom Scott, Selva Ramasami, and John Shaver.

Here’s what I had to say.

You can download the audio, or play it below.

I would like to begin my talk with a quote from Leviticus 19:18, containing what is one of the simplest yet most important commandments in the Torah: Love your neighbour as yourself.

The question posed tonight is: “Should there be religious limits to absolute media freedom of expression?”

My short answer is “no”, other than the limits associated with existing legislation pertaining to defamation, incitement, and the like.

Why not?

We live in an increasingly diverse society. Religion is only one aspect of diversity. If you impose religious limits, you would have to consider imposing limits on other aspects, such as gender, nationality, ethnicity, disability, political philosophy, and so on.

We can’t expect the rest of society to embrace, or sometimes even understand the same standards as we do. Example: The Third Commandment forbids us for taking the name of The Lord in vain. As Jews, uttering the name of God is very offensive. And yet, there is a significant quasi-Christian religious group whose very name incorporates this ineffable name of God. How can we manage this conflict? We can’t – It wouldn’t be right for me to demand that they change their name to God’s Witnesses or something else – it’s an integral part of their identity.

Freedom of expression is essential for the function of democracy. Allowing any authority (other than Parliament as interpreted by the courts) to determine the limits of freedom of expression would potentially be chilling, and the temptation for the authority to cross the line into political suppression could be irresistible. On balance, limiting freedom of expression would likely do more harm than good.

We are free to ignore offensive material, and when we can’t ignore it, we can brush it off. We’re adults. Sometimes we need to endure this pain for the greater good of society, and pray that the offenders might become more aware of the consequences of their actions.

So my short answer is, no, there should not be religious limits to absolute media freedom of expression.

But.

There is a longer answer. And that answer is that we’re asking the wrong questions.

The questions we should be asking are:

What self-restraint should the media exhibit when discussing religion and other personal beliefs?

and

As a society, how do we educate and encourage people to empathise with each other, so that they feel no desire to offend or hurt each other?

When I say “the media”, that’s just about everyone nowadays. Blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, and other social media provide a virtual megaphone to anyone who can gather an audience.

It is emphatically wrong to deliberately seek to offend or hurt others.

It is emphatically wrong to ridicule people’s strongly held beliefs or practices.

It is emphatically wrong to drive a wedge between different religions and ethnic groups by saying or implying that they are unfit to live among the rest of society.

It is emphatically wrong to blame an entire religion or culture for the actions of a tiny minority of their members.

All of these things are terribly wrong, and completely unnecessary.

These things are wrong and unnecessary, but legislating against them would create more problems than it would solve for the reasons I discussed earlier.

Unfortunately, as a society, we have not evolved very far beyond the 17th Century European proclivity for burning cats for entertainment. Pain and humiliation gets people’s attention, and sells newspapers in an increasingly competitive market. Shocking people is a lot easier then providing intelligent analysis, easier to understand, and sells more.

I would like to close with two quotes from the Talmud:

From Baba Mezi’a 59a, R. Johanan said on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yohai: “Better had a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame.”

From Shabbat 31, quoting Hillel, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”

Thank you.




In the wake of Charlie Hebdo

12 01 2015

In the wake of the recent Paris killings, I helped organise an interfaith meeting of Jews, Christians, and Muslims at the Kilbirnie Islamic Centre.

All three faiths denounced the killings, as per our media release from the Wellington Council of Christians and Jews.

The meeting had reasonably good media coverage from Radio NZ, One News (from about 6 min 40 sec into the bulletin), 3 News, ZB, and Radio Live.

Here’s what I said to the 100 or so people gathered at the meeting:

Kia ora tatau.

We have come together today in the spirit of friendship, with a shared purpose.

We all are saddened by recent events in Paris, and the senseless deaths of people killed simply because of their occupation or religion.

We all are fearful that the hatred that brews overseas will spread to Aotearoa / New Zealand. This hatred and fear are counterproductive. The killers and fearmongers score a victory whenever our hatred and fear grow.

We all understand that it is contrary to all of our religious teachings to kill someone for something they have said, written, or believe.

We all know that despite our strength of faith and pride in our religions, there are people who do ghastly things in the name of religion. They do not represent us, and we must not let them define us.

We all recognise that the freedom of expression that enables us to practice our religions is the same freedom of expression that enables others to parody and ridicule us. These rights are critical to maintaining a free society where we can peacefully coexist. It is unfortunate when this parody is offensive, but our response should always be one of dialogue and education.

As a result of these events, I believe we should ask ourselves what we can do, individually, as well as together in our religions and wider society:

  • To help improve relations between our religions
  • To learn more about each other, accepting our differences, and resolving disagreements through discussion. At times we’ll need to agree to disagree.
  • To speak out against religious violence, no matter who the perpetrator.
  • To prevent extremism from silencing the voice of diversity, even when we are offended by the voice.
  • To overcome hatred through positivity and understanding.

Thank you, shalom, salaam, peace.




My TEDx talk: The four superpowers of the Internet

10 09 2014

I gave a talk at the inaugural TEDxWellington this year, called “The four superpowers of the Internet”, which are being direct, open, accessible and free.  These superpowers are all underpinned by the golden rule, that we should treat all others as we would wish to be treated ourselves.  This modern force of good has driven the explosive growth of the Internet, and can turn all of us into leaders and heroes.  It includes an homage to entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs as the heroes of our generation leading the creative destruction that will bring about a better world, a hat-tip to TED Prize winner Karen Armstrong and her Charter for Compassion, as well as a brief history of the Internet and its governance and why humming is an effective tool in bringing about consensus.

Enjoy.  A transcript follows.

Kia ora koutou and warm greetings – I’m Dave Moskovitz.

Six years ago, theologian and former nun Karen Armstrong won the TED prize with her wish for a Charter for Compassion, which calls upon each of us to live the “golden rule”, and treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. I want to start my talk by saying “thank you” to Karen Armstrong and the TED community. The text was crowdsourced by religious leaders worldwide, and it’s been a strong force of religious cohesion here in New Zealand and around the world.

This talk isn’t about Karen Armstrong, but it is about the golden rule, and how it underpins the core values that have driven the explosive growth of the Internet. These core values are: Being direct, open, accessible, and free. They are so simple and so powerful that I call them the Internet’s superpowers.

This is a story about how good can arise from evil, how all of us are smarter than any of us, and of how these superpowers turn each of into leaders.

I arrived in Wellington on the first day of Summer in 1982 in a stiff southerly with pelting rain. I fell in love with early 1980’s New Zealand: it’s classlessness, giving everyone a fair go, respect for diversity, and how everyone has direct access to anyone. But most of all, people seemed to really care about each other. Looking back, the things I love about New Zealand resonate with these superpowers and the golden rule.

In contemporary times, many people feel that technology is an isolating force, a tool used by the state and corporations to trap us in a capitalist downward spiral, as we trudge through our lives staring at our smartphones hoping for fulfilment in the next dollar, gadget, or lolcat.

These are the birthing pains of a new era. We are currently experiencing a silent revolution where power hierarchies are being destroyed. We are refactoring society into a collaborative economy of networked value, where everyone has something to receive and to give, and we treat all others in the way we wish to be treated ourselves.

In order to understand how these superpowers came about, I’d like to give you a short whirlwind history of the Internet.

I was born in 1960, in the dark years of the pre-Internet age, when everything was disconnected. A year later in 1961, Leonard Kleinrock wrote the first paper on packet switching theory, which in modern times controls how data flows on the Internet. On my birthday in 1969, the Network Working Group issued the first “Request for Comment”– RFC 1 – defining the specifics of how computers could talk to each other on an open network, and later that year the first four computers were connected in the US Defence Department’s ARPAnet. Thus you could say the Internet is the bastard child of an unholy union between the war machine of the most powerful country in the world, and a group of geeky academics.

I wrote my first computer program in 1971. The 1970’s and 1980’s saw rapid developments in computing, but in the commercial world, for the most part, computers were islands; when they were connected at all, they were mostly restricted to proprietary networks linking the computers of one organisation.

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee proposed the WorldWideWeb project, and by 1993 Mosaic, the first web browser was released, and the Web as we know it was born. There were 623 web sites at the end of ‘93, 10,000 by the end of ‘94, and earlier this year we crossed the billion mark.

How do you manage such explosive growth, across billions of people, millions of organisations, in 249 country codes? You can’t manage it centrally – it’s too big for anyone or anything to control by themselves. The Internet is the world’s largest and most important collaborative project to date. Its design encourages cooperation, so that ordinary people can benefit from it, so that businesses can profit from it, academics can learn from it, and so on. In the lingo of Internet governance, this is called “multistakeholderism”.

Multistakeholderism means all affected parties can be part of the conversation and decision making process. In other words, “nothing about us without us”.

Why? Because people are a lot more important than the technology. As the Māori proverb says, “What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.” Technology is only an enabler – the people are the enabled.

We just heard about the first “Request for Comment” or RFC. The Internet isn’t built on laws, it’s built on these RFC’s agreed by multistakeholder processes. RFC’s cover broad topics like email and file transfer protocols, how domain names work, and so on. There are even RFC’s that address interplanetary communications and datagram delivery by avian carriers … that used to be homing pigeons, but now it’s quadcopters.

One of the most fundamental RFC’s, RFC 760 was issued in 1980, and formalised the Internet Protocol, or IP. Its editor, the late Jon Postel, said that “in general, an implementation should be conservative in its sending behavior, and liberal in its receiving behavior.” Fifteen years later, when Postel was referred to as “the god of the Internet”, he replied, “[T]here isn’t any ‘God of the Internet.’ The Internet works because a lot of people cooperate to do things together.”

The latest governance-related RFC is RFC 7282, just issued in June 2014. It codifies the decision making process in the Internet Engineering Task Force or IETF. It specifically says that “We reject: kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.” And how do they arrive at this rough consensus without voting? According to RFC7282, the when chair of the working group wants to get a ‘sense of the room’, instead of a show of hands, the chair might ask for each side to hum on a particular question, either ‘for’ or ‘against’.”

You know you have rough consensus when the hums on one side are a lot louder than the hums on the other.

Let’s practice this – I know you can all hum, so let’s try this now. If you like this decision making process, please hum now.

And if you think it’s stupid, please hum now.

The Internet is what it is today because a small number of people chose to get together, talk, reach consensus, and act. Those who chose to act made a real difference.

Multistakeholder processes were used to determine these four core values in 2009 at the Internet Governance Forum or IGF. These were: End-to-end, Open Standards, Universal Access, and Freedom of expression. These core values are the Internet’s superpowers.

Each of these four superpowers helps us become better as a society, levels the playing field between people, corporations, and nations, and unleashes huge latent economic and social value. In fact, each of us can use the Internet’s superpowers to become heroes. We can activate them through two simple but powerful tools we have – how we spend our time and how we spend our money.

Each superpower has a dark side though, that we must heed to ensure that they are used for good and not evil – that’s up to each of us individually and collectively, it’s not something we can fully delegate to network management algorithms, the IETF, or governments. The best defence against the dark arts, in the words of JK Rowling’s Mad-eye Moody is: CONSTANT VIGILANCE!

Let’s look at these superpowers more closely.

The first is End-to-end, or “being direct”. The edge-dominant end-to-end model of the Internet means that the network itself should be largely transparent. Any person or device should be able to freely and directly communicate with any other person or device on the network. Intermediaries are unnecessary, unless they add real value.

Being direct is important because it enables us to paint our own picture of the truth, based on data gleaned from the source. In a world without asymmetric knowledge, where everything is knowable, we no longer need external parties to interpret and re-interpret the truth for us.

Being direct results in massive economic value as we can work with smaller and smaller pieces of each other’s value chains, only the bits that are useful to us. We don’t need to buy the whole album when we only want one song. We don’t need to be part of a big company to contribute to society, we only need to do one small thing very well, and work directly with the people to whom that is useful.

But there is a dark side of being direct. Without legislation protecting employees, the environment, and other externalities, we run the risk of all becoming mechanical turks, working piecemeal, competing in an unregulated market for the lowest price.

You can become a hero by using the direct superpower – this is within everyone’s ability. You are a direct hero when you purchase content rather than pirating it, when you upgrade free apps on your phone to paid versions, when you donate to a crowdfunding campaign, when you join a civic cause or help a neighbour you met on the ‘net.

Can you think of a time when you’ve used the direct superpower?

The second superpower is Open Standards, or just Open for short. We’ve seen how the RFC process allows everyone to know the rules, and to help make or revise them. These open standards enable full interoperability on the ‘net – this is what lets your iPad talk to my Android.

Open standards turn proprietary Towers of Babel into a cooperative world, where we understand each other, and collaborate in an economy of networked value. If you don’t like one implementation of those standards, use another or write your own. Hate Internet Explorer? Use Firefox. The economic value of these open standards is huge, as well as the value of business ecosystems built around open source, open data, and open content.

One dark side to Open is that security vulnerabilities can hide in broad daylight, as happened recently with the heartbleed exploit, by which millions of web site passwords were stolen. It’s rumoured that the NSA knew about heartbleed for two years before it was discovered, but found it a useful tool for gathering intelligence. Frankly, I’d rather have my vulnerabilities available to everyone to look at and fix, implementing what Eric Raymond called “Linus’s Law”: given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.

You are an open hero when you use this superpower to join the conversation at a multistakeholder forum like NetHui or an IGF; when you contribute to an Open Source project, when you license one of your works under a Creative Commons or other open license.

Can you think of a time when you’ve used the open superpower?

The third superpower is Universal access, or accessible for short. Everyone can play, everyone has equal access, and there is no distinction between producers and consumers – everyone is a participant. You may have heard about this in discussions about the “digital divide” and “net neutrality”. On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, and it doesn’t matter. Or that you’re Bill Gates, or living below the poverty line, or Deaf, or in New Zealand, or sitting on the throne. Commercially, this extends our potential market as buyers, sellers, contributors or collaborators to everyone, globally. Or any specific niche. Anywhere.

One dark side of universal access is that the bad guys all have access too, and also have have direct, no-cost access to everyone else. That’s why according to Symantec, 68% of all email traffic is SPAM – but the good news is that this is down from nearly 80% a few years ago.

You are an accessible hero whenever you help someone who isn’t as computer literate as you, whenever you donate your old computer for educational use , or give your time or money to organisations who are working to bridge the digital divide; whenever you install security software on your computer to prevent it from becoming infected and infectious.

Can you think of a time when you’ve used the accessible superpower?

The fourth superpower is Freedom of expression, or just free. Everyone has the right to participate, securely, privately and anonymously if necessary. Information wants to be free, especially in the sense of “free speech”, but often also in the sense of “free beer”. In the words of John Gilmore, “The Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.

It’s a cliché, but with freedom comes responsibility, and we should be empathetic to those around us and avoid hurting people through exercising our own freedoms.

Of the four superpowers, “free” has the blurriest edges. And the dark side is very dark indeed. How objectionable does content need to be before it should be banned? Should we allow images of child abuse, hate speech, sedition? I believe that these aren’t network issues at all, but rather legal issues for society to decide – your rights are your rights, offline or online.

You are a free hero whenever you add your considered opinion constructively to the debate, when you call out governments and other organisations who are infringing your right to free expression or your right to privacy; when you call out other people who are abusing their freedoms to be hurtful to others. When you donate your time or money to organisations that protect our freedom.

Can you think of a time when you’ve used the free superpower?

If you’ve ever used any of these superpowers, I’d like you to hum now.

If you haven’t used any of these superpowers, I’d like you to hum now.

Thanks – we have consensus, we’re all heroes! Wow!! The whole time, you’ve been a hero and didn’t even know it!

These superpowers have a big economic impact. According to McKinsey is that the Internet accounted for 21 percent of GDP growth in mature economies during the period 2006-2011.

They also have a long-lasting social impact. Although I am religious, I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I believe that when our lives are finished, we leave behind a legacy defined by the transaction trail of how we’ve chosen to act, how we’ve spent our time and money. Judgement Day doesn’t come at the end of your life or the end of time, Judgement Day is every day as we and those around us continually re-evaluate the value of our actions.

Moment by moment, we each make choices that turn each one of us into leaders as we create our own heavens or hells around us through our actions and transactions, drawing others into our either virtuous or vicious cycles.

So I salute you all – you’re the heroes and leaders that will leave us the legacy of the Internet we all deserve – and the world that we all deserve.

But there’s one special group of leaders that I’d like to single out for being our not-so-secret weapon in destroying power hierarchies and creating a collaborative economy of networked value – entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs. They’re the people risking everything they have, staring failure in the face every day, leading the creative destruction necessary to bring about a better world, inspiring everyone to be more than they thought possible. They’re the true leaders of the future.

But here’s the most powerful thing of all: We get the best leverage on our superpowers when we help others use their superpowers. In the words of Tom Peters, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders”. Building the future we want to live in, treating all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Please use your newly discovered superpowers wisely.

Be a hero.

Be a leader.

And don’t forget the Golden Rule.

Thank you.

[Please note the following corrigenda from the video: (1) we crossed the billion web sites mark earlier this year, not the ten billion mark.  My mouth was ahead of my brain.  (2) The late Mr Postel’s first name was spelled “Jon”, not “John”, as it appears on the slide.]




How to score angel investment for startups in New Zealand

12 06 2014

I was in Christchurch last night presenting to a group of investors and entrepreneurs hoping to get an angel club off the ground in Canterbury, organised by Ben Reid.  I had been asked to present on the angel investment process from a startup entrepreneur’s point of view.  Here are my slides:

I’m very excited by the possibilities for Christchurch, and dearly hope that they can get an angel club together to boost their local startup scene, support Cantabrian entrepreneurs, and lay a piece of new, critical infrastructure that will support the post-quake rebuild.




Wellington, New Zealand’s Startup Capital

8 05 2014

I was invited to Auckland last week to The Project: Digital Disruption to discuss what’s happening in the Wellington startup scene.

Here are my slides:

Key points:

  • Wellington’s key advantage is its scale.  Everything is accessible within a 20 minute walk – but you need to plan for 30 minutes because you will bump into so many people on your way that are doing cool stuff.
  • We have a high density of tech startups, and a great culture to back it up
  • The weather is conducive to getting sh!t done
  • We have a rich startup ecosystem, which is becoming increasingly antifragile
  • Accelerators, incubators, investors, tertiary education providers, “big” tech, events, and support organisations all play their part
  • Promising trends:
    • Government “gets” it
    • Talent, capital, ideas and expertise are being continually recycled and refined to help us level-up
    • We’re attracting amazing people, and achieving critical mass
    • Things just keep getting better in a cambrian explosion of startups
  • The future is awesome, thanks to the hard work put in by many over a long time – we’re really starting to reap the rewards, and this seems certain to continue.
  • It’s all about the people



Brothers – Judaism and Islam

26 08 2013

Speech to Islam Awareness Week Launch, 26 August 2013 at Whare Waka, Wellington

Shalom aleikhem, Salaam aleikum, Kia ora tatau.

On the tenth anniversary of Islam Awareness Week, we can say that we have spent significant time together.  Not only are we more aware of each other, we are friends that know, like, trust, and respect each other.  This is the perfect time to roll up are sleeves and start doing some hard work together.

Judaism and Islam are like brothers, as embodied in the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael.  Our common father Abraham is a towering figure in our sacred texts, and his teachings and ethical guidance are central to both our religions.

Isaac and Ishmael never knew each other properly as brothers, as according to the Torah, Ishmael and his mother Hagar were banished shortly after Isaac was weaned (Genesis 21:14); they did not see each other again until Abraham was buried (Genesis 25:9).

Not only are we brothers in the spiritual sense, we are actually brothers in the biological sense.  I recently subscribed to a service called 23andme, where you spit into a small vial, send it off to the lab, they sequence your genome and tell you all sorts of interesting things about yourself.  In my case, they correctly predicted that I have type O+ blood (which has a significantly lower prevalence in Ashkenazim than in the general population), and blue eyes.  They also said that I am likely to have straight hair, so they’re not perfect.  They say I’m 93.9% Ashekenazi Jewish.  But if you look more closely at my maternal haplotype, T, the top listed example population is: Palestinans.

2013-08-26 17_31_11-My Ancestors - Maternal Line - 23andMe

Through the millennia and centuries our ancestors have lived as brothers; much of the time the relationship has been good, but at other times, and particularly modern times, there has been lots of room for improvement.

The story of our difficult times owes more to politics than to our religious differences – but there is a definite religious angle to these political issues which is ignored or denied at our own peril.

Right now, today, these differences centre on events in Israel and Palestine.  At its core, the central problem is that both Jews and Palestinians believe that the land is theirs.  In Māori terms, both iwi believe that they have tangatawhenuatanga over the holy land.  Problem is, both are right.  When my Māori friends start talking about the Jews as colonisers and Palestinians as colonised, it’s time for a history lesson, as things are not quite so simple.

Here’s a concrete example from my own family.  My niece grew up in Los Angeles and “made aliyah” (ie immigrated) to Israel about ten years ago, and married a lovely young man, a statistician from the Gilo neighbourhood in Jerusalem.  I attended the wedding will never forget her soon-to-be Father-in-law Yossi asking me about New Zealand.  “Who does it border?” he asked.  “It’s a series of islands surrounded by thousands of kilometres of water,” I answered, “the nearest neighbour is Australia, 3-1/2 hours away by plane”.  “Is there much water there?”  “It generally rains every week.  Where I live, we get about 1300mm of rain every year.  It’s very green”.  He paused, and looked at me and said, “it sounds like Paradise”.

Gilo sits in that part of the West Bank that was annexed by the Israeli government after it was recaptured in the 1967 war, and is now part of the Jerusalem Municipality.  The land on which Gilo was built was legally purchased by Jews before the second world war, before the land was captured by the Egyptian army in the 1948 war and became part of Jordan.  In biblical times Gilo was an important town.  The land was largely vacant until modern Gilo was built in 1971.

My point is that it’s very messy.  Occupied territory, or Jerusalem neighbourhood?  There is some truth to both statements, and the contradictory truths seem blindingly obvious to people on both sides.  And it is exactly these perplexing problems involving the lives of real people and contradictory narratives which we must navigate in order to make progress.

I will tell you this though – a sustainable peace will not be black and white, involving the complete victory of one side over the other.  Neither side is about to quit the land, and we had better do what we can to encourage the feuding brothers to reconcile lest the situation result in mutual annihilation.

Here, in Yossi’s Paradise, we have an opportunity to overcome our differences far away from the source of the problems.  Perhaps we can exhibit more generous and mature brotherly behaviour when we’re removed from the fighting and conflict over resources.

I have close personal experience of reconciling brothers.  I am the father of three sons, currently age 21, 17 and 10.  When they were younger, the eldest and middle boys used to squabble and fight continually. When the eldest went away to university, they both realised what they had been missing.  Ever since, they’ve been best mates and whenever the eldest is in town they spend a lot of time together.

We can make progress by exploring the relationship with our brothers with an open heart.  But we must look at things warts and all, and not seek a kumbaya moment by ignoring the bad stuff from the past.  It won’t last, and we need to build a sustainable future.

Part of this process of reconciliation relies on good faith, and liberal application of the Golden Rule.  In the Talmud, this is stated as “what is hateful to you, do not to to another person”, and derives directly from the biblical commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself”.

This rule also appears in many places in the Hadith, for example Sahih Muslim, Book 1, 72:

Anas ibn Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said: “None of you has faith until he loves for his brother or his neighbor what he loves for himself.” 

These same principles form the foundation of Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion, an excellent blueprint for how we can get along with each other.

This week, in the leadup to our Days of Awe and the Jewish New Year (similar in many ways to Ramadan) we are reading the Torah portion Nitzavim, in which Moses (pbuh) is delivering his final lecture to the Jewish people.  He tells us that we have the choice between a blessing and a curse; the blessing should we act according to God’s will, and the curse if we do not.

It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?: Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it. [Deuteronomy 30:12-14]

Ultimately we are commanded to “choose life”.

It is in our capacity to learn about each other and treat each other with the compassion that is in both of our religious traditions, and work to respect even the things within each other that we do not like.  For that is at the heart of love – the ability to empathise, and to work together even though you may not like everything about each other.  We’ll never like everything about each other, but we shouldn’t let that get in the way of working together for a better New Zealand, and a better world.

To make this happen at a personal and organisational level, speaking as the Jewish Co-Chair of the Wellington Council of Christians and Jews, in the next year it is our stated intention to extend our hands to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and transform that organisation into an Abrahamic Council.  In that way we will be able to continue our dialogue, or rather trialogue as mature equals.

So let us get to know each other, and transform our childhood squabbles into mature, adult brotherly love.  We can only do that with a complete, unreserved understanding of each other and our historical narratives.

Thank you.




Religion and science need not be at loggerheads

11 03 2013

Today is Commonwealth Day, which celebrates the establishment of the Commonwealth of Nations whose values as expressed by the Commonwealth Charter include the promotion of democracy, human rights, international peace and security, tolerance respect and understanding, freedom of expression, the rule of law, good governance, sustainable development, protecting the environment, access to health eduction food and shelter, gender equality, recognition of the importance of young people, recognition of the needs of small states, recognition of the needs of vulnerable states, and the role of civil society.

Commonwealth Day is marked across the Commonwealth with multifaith services.  In the UK, these take place at Westminster Abbey and are attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In New Zealand these services take place at the Anglican Cathedral in Wellington, and are attended by the Governor General, His Excellency Lieutenant General The Right Honourable Sir Jerry Mateparae and commonwealth high commissioners, ambassadors as well as other dignitaries.

This year’s theme is Opportunity through Enterprise: unlocking potential with innovation and excellence. I was invited to speak representing New Zealand’s Jewish Community, and was allocated two minutes to do so. Here is what I said:


These days, in our high-tech world, it is unfashionable to be a religious person. The cool kids compare God to the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or mockingly proclaim their religion as “Jedi” on the census form. They prefer to worship science.

The scientific method is arguably the most important development in human civilisation in the last 500 years. The cycle of hypothesis – experiment – analysis – conclusion has enabled ever accelerating expansion of the limits of knowledge and capabilities of the human species. But while science is the perfect descriptive tool and has strong application in predictive modelling, it is limited by our ability to perceive, measure, and imagine. Ignoring these limitations, unquestioning adherence to science amounts to worship.

Sam Arbesman in his recent book “The Half Life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date” describes how this ever accelerating knowledge leads us to discard yesterday’s scientific facts as today’s historical curiosity. Knowledge, as such, is inherently uncertain.

Science can tell us within its limits, to great precision, of the way things are, but is silent on the way things should be. Enter religion. The religious values of “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”, “love thy neighbour as thyself”, “welcome the stranger” and “we are each created in the likeness of the Divine” provide a moral compass for how we should lead our lives. And as with science, we should continually and progressively question these values and the institutions that gave rise to them to ensure their validity and continued relevance.

Science and religion need not be at loggerheads. In fact, it is at the intersection of increasing knowledge and moral imperative where we find the most interesting opportunities for enterprise, particularly in the world of high-tech startups.

Collaborative consumption, democratisation through increased direct communication, reputation metrics, crowdsourced information repositories, and open education are all important Internet startup trends for this coming year, and all of them are creating value driven by bringing people together to do good together, as well as holding individuals and institutions accountable for their positive and negative contributions to society. And the further development of social enterprise holds promise for us to transcend the profit motive for the greater good of society and the planet.

We can be optimistic about our future. With average intelligence rising by 3.5% per decade, the global death rates due to violence and malnutrition at historical lows and falling, global life expectancy at an all time high and rising, we seem to be increasingly capable as a species of doing the right thing, improving ourselves and those around us.

So let’s work together to encourage, empower, and lend our moral compass to the next wave of entrepreneurs who will continue to make our world a better place.




My message to the Israeli ambassador: Put down your weapons, and negotiate in good faith

13 12 2012

Last night, the Klezmer Rebs performed for the Hanukah party in Wellington’s Civic Square.  I felt particularly elated to be playing Klezmer music in the main square of my home town, a thriving multicultural city that has gone from strength to strength in the thirty years that I’ve called it home.  Props to our Mayor Celia Wade-Brown for inviting the Jewish Community to celebrate in the square.

The main organiser of the event was the Israeli Embassy.  I have never been happy with an embassy organising what is essentially a religious event, for complex reasons which will be articulated in a future blog post.

The Klezmer Rebs collectively, and I personally have been very uncomfortable with the recent actions of the Israeli government, and we feel that there has been no measurable progress toward a sustainable peace, due in significant part to a lack of leadership by the Israeli government.  So we took the opportunity to make a political statement directly to the Ambassador, Shemi Tzur, in our introduction to our medley of peace songs.  I wrote the statement, and the band helped me revise it.  Here’s what I said:

Mr Ambassador, I’m glad you implored people earlier today to pray for peace, but we need more than prayer – we need action.  Praying, singing and dancing for peace aren’t enough; bringing about peace, and overcoming decades of counterproductive attitudes and actions is very hard work and requires individual and collective leadership and commitment from everyone including the Israeli government.  The time has come to tell your Government to show that leadership, put down your weapons, and seriously negotiate in good faith to bring about peace.  Bombing civilians and building settlements on land whose ownership is in question is not good faith.  Fulfil the words of Isaiah, and show that Israel is called into righteousness as a light unto the nations.  The time is now.

Prior to making that statement, I called to Shemi by name from the stage to make sure he was paying attention.  He was standing directly in front of the PA, and I looked him in the eye as I made the statement.  Today’s DomPost ran an article on page 2 (print version only) entitled “Peace plea made to Israeli envoy at Hanukkah Concert”, which said that “… Mr Tzur said via a spokesman he had not heard the message and had no further comment”.  All I can say is that this is an indication that the Israeli government is either disingenuous, pathologically deaf, or both.

We feel it is important that the Ambassador and his government hear this message from Jews.  Many of us abhor the actions of the Israeli government, and feel that successive governments since 1967 have let down their citizens, the Jewish People, and the world through their inaction and lack of leadership to address the fundamental issues that need to be resolved to create a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Several people came up to me after the concert and congratulated me for the courage to make such a statement publicly.  Only one person approached me, my cousin, and admonished me for making political statements on behalf of the Jewish community at a public event. Nowhere had I purported to be making statements on behalf of anyone, other than myself and the band, but I do know that there a large segment of the local Jewish community agrees with the statement that I made.

We are at a turning point.  Some would say that we are beyond the point of no return, but I am a perennial optimist and know that with enough good will and political pressure, we can make real progress toward peace.  And if they can’t hear us, perhaps we need to turn the volume up.




Bright Ideas Need Scintillating Teams

22 06 2011

I was invited to speak for five minutes at the Bright Ideas networking event last night. Here’s what I said:

You’ve heard of them before –

Orville and Wilbur
Hewlett and Packard
Jobs and Wozniak
Page and Brin
Mitchell and Youens

Even Zuckerberg had a team behind him, even if he screwed most of them along the way.

So you have a bright idea. I’m told there are some really interesting ones here tonight, ranging from geeky Internet plays to innovative service offerings through to novel contraceptive devices.

BUT

Ideas on their own are nearly worthless.

It’s your ability to execute that will determine your ultimate success.

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to do it all on your own.

Are you an inventor, engineer, sales person, strategist, customer support, company director, financier, and janitor all rolled into one? It’s not impossible, but it’s pretty unlikely.

If you don’t have the vision, passion, drive and charisma to get a team around you, you’re unlikely to have the charm to sell your first unit. So get a team around you.

Investors are far less likely to invest in an individual than in a great team.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Matt Ridley’s TED talk entitled “When Ideas have Sex”, but he posits that the engine of human progress has been the meeting and mating of ideas to make new ideas. It’s not important how clever individuals are, he says; what really matters is how smart the collective brain is. Bottom line: you can’t do it on your own. Sharing ideas is fun, and results in better and stronger ideas that naturally select and adapt to the environment.

So that’s why you’re here tonight – to meet other people and – well – share your ideas with them in the hope that you can improve your ideas and more importantly get together and put some real capability to execute behind those improved ideas. And when you can do that – you start looking a lot less like a pipe dream, and a lot more like a business.




Summer of Tech: Building great businesses from Wellington, New Zealand

16 03 2011

In January 2011, I spoke to a Summer of Tech event about why Wellington and New Zealand are great places to start an online venture, and the importance of keeping your exit in mind.

Tech Entrepreneurship with Dave Moskovitz from SummerOfTech on Vimeo.







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