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Israeli Tech Fighting a Different Kind of Terror
A photo of Michal Sela, who was found stabbed to death at her home outside Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

Israeli Tech Fighting a Different Kind of Terror

The Israeli and US missions to the UN team up to bring technology to battle against domestic violence

Utilizing technology to fight terrorism is nothing new for Gilad Erdan. Israel’s ambassador to the US and United Nations served as his country’s public security minister for five years, overseeing the deployment of technological innovations to detect potential terrorist activity before acts of violence could be committed.

He’s now helping to front an international effort to battle a different type of terror – domestic violence. On Wednesday, the Israeli and US missions to the UN, together with the Michal Sela Forum and the UJA-Federation of New York, sponsored a forum as part of the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women. The focus of the event was battling domestic violence through innovation and technology.

“Let me emphasize that this kind of terror is not less severe than the terror I used to fight against, and that is why I’m so proud to host this event together with the new American ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and with many other dignitaries,” Erdan told The Media Line.

“When I served as minister of public security, I used our Israeli advanced technologies, together with many intelligence agencies and the police, to develop algorithms and other technologies that helped us to predict who is going to be the next lone-wolf terrorists, and the same can be applied to this phenomenon, to try to track and to try to predict who is going to be the next abuser – the next violent man that will attack his partner. If we can prevent it instead of only sending women to shelters … we can keep you sending them, but it’s not enough to prevent those murders from happening,” Erdan said.

The Michal Sela Forum was created in memory of its namesake, who was allegedly murdered by her husband a year and a half ago. Sela’s husband is alleged to have stabbed her repeatedly in their home outside Jerusalem with their infant daughter in the house. While the incident shocked the Israeli public, fatal domestic violence is not a rarity in Israel. Experts say the social isolation and financial strains brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a sharp rise in domestic violence globally.

“Imagine if we focused only on cleaning up the rubble after a terrorist attack, but not on stopping terrorists from committing their atrocious acts in the first place,” Thomas-Greenfield said at Wednesday’s event.

“And imagine if we only tried to help people with COVID-19 after they’ve gotten sick and they’ve been hospitalized, instead of wearing masks, staying socially distant, and inventing a preventative vaccine. It would be sheer madness. We need to take on gender-based violence by preventing gender-based violence,” she said.

Last summer, several notable tech giants backed a hackathon put together by Sela’s sister, as 1,800 Israel tech workers raced to develop new tech weapons to fight domestic violence. Erdan helped to pick the winners.

“I participated as a judge in the hackathon that President Reuven Rivlin hosted a few months ago. They developed very sophisticated algorithms and applications. There’s a digital bracelet and many other devices that we can plant at home that can track changes in behavior and then alert the police or one someone from her family if it recognizes a real change in her behavior. Just immense innovations,” Erdan said.

He cited the development of hidden apps that can be downloaded into phones and will alert the phone’s owner or trusted contacts if it notices suspicious behavior on the phone, indicating a partner may be spying on the owner’s activities. Another app can send a signal to police through the voice detection of a predetermined code word in order to provide a quick response to potential violence. Another project developed an automated system to analyze medical records to look for signs of repeated abuse among hospital and clinic patients, tapping into nationwide databases.

Of course, only those with the financial resources, language skills and technological literacy to put the bulk of this technology into play can do so. Just installing the smartphones apps can be challenging in places like Israel, with significant minority populations of Arabic and Russian speakers, plus Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, who mostly avoid smartphone usage at all.

New York City faces similar challenges. The home to the UN and site of Wednesday’s event has seen its battered women’s shelters operating at capacity during the pandemic.

“I think even before you get to the innovation and technology, you need to understand and engage with cultural sensitivity around the issue of domestic violence,” Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York and a speaker at the Terror at Home forum, told The Media Line.

“In certain parts of our Jewish community, there is a deep stigma that is attached to even reporting domestic violence, so you need to work with local grassroots organizations that have the trust and confidence of local communities, so that women victims of domestic violence are empowered and know they don’t simply have to endure it. And once you’re in the realm of technology, you can more easily take the technological tools. Some of the apps built here locally can immediately translate into Yiddish, for instance. The idea is to develop the tech in Israel and then to make it more broadly available to bring greater awareness and to scale the technology across the world,” said Goldstein.

Wednesday’s event also drew the participation of Israeli movie star Gal Gadot, along with the European Union’s Ambassador to the UN Olof Skoog and Jacquelline Fuller, vice president of Google and president of the company’s philanthropic arm, Google.org.

Fuller announced that Google.org would provide a $300,000 grant to the Michal Sela Forum, part of which will be used for another Israeli hackathon aimed at preventing domestic violence.

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