By Joel Leyden
Israel News Agency
Tel Aviv, Israel — November 5, 2015 … Twenty years ago I was given the task to remember.
To make sure the world remembered.
While producing Israel’s first commercial Website – NetKing – our work was diverted to create the first interactive, social networking, humanitarian Website.
A Website for an Israel Prime Minister who was just murdered a few hours earlier.
Former Prime Minister of Israel
Yitzhak Rabin was an Israeli politician, statesman and general.
He was the fifth Prime Minister of Israel,
serving two terms in office, 1974–77 and 1992 until his assassination in 1995.
On a warm November evening in 1995 I was sitting at a Cafe in Tel Aviv enjoying drinks with a friend. A nearby TV in a kiosk across the street blurted out the news. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been shot.
Rabin had just finished addressing a Peace Rally about a mile away, when an assassin crept up behind the war hero and fired shots at point blank range.
Silence fell all around us, people were in tears – shocked with frozen stares. As I was on the bus heading home, the bus’s radio announced that Rabin was dead. The old women sitting in front of me and the young soldier standing alongside began to sob. The last time I encountered a dreadful situation as this was when President John Kennedy was assassinated. I fell asleep listening to the TV.
I was awoken at about 2 a.m. by Arnon Katz. Arnon was the general manager of NetKing – the first Internet advertising and marketing portal established in Israel. NetKing was a division of one Israel’s top five advertising agencies – Tamir, Cohen (Jacobson) Advertising.
“We have to do something”, Arnon announced. I suggested a condolence page. As deputy manager of NetKing, I knew that we had all of the tools in place.
We had a programmer, a CGI specialist, a graphic artist and I would do the copy. Having degrees in psychology and marketing also helped. I knew that at a time like this, people have a need to “do something” – to find a means to express their collective sorrow. And their was no better vehicle than the Net.
Within four hours we had a page up and I called CNN and Yahoo. Back in 1995, if any sites were truly busy – these were the first. They immediately took our page and placed it in the center of the news. The Associated Press and Reuters were also quick to pick up the story and passed it onto thousands of newspapers, TV and radio stations worldwide. By the end of the day on November 5, we had a CGI illustrating flickering candles, a CGI with thousands of condolence messages and another CGI with a photographic history of the late Prime Minister.
On the morning of November 6th, a CNN crew came to our studio in Tel Aviv and interviewed Katz.
The Internet was coming alive with something warm, humane and very touching. Never before had people combined the computer and telephone lines to demonstrate their feelings.
The Net for the most part was a passive toy. You could read the news on CNN, send e-mail – if someone had the Net and maybe find something of academic interest on Yahoo. Agency.Com was using stickers on plain white folders as brochures.
These were the pioneering days. Not knowing if the Net was to become obsolete within a few weeks like the “pet rock” or the Spice Girls! The Net was a novelty. And this site very well suited the Net, a culture which had maintained a non-commercial existence.
The owners of NetKing wanted to cash in on the commercial side. They were and are among the most professional advertising executives in the world, but knew nothing of Internet culture. And what made it even more difficult was that this was a Condolence site. As I look back, I can understand that they had invested a lot of money to set up this Internet unit and wanted to show that it was at least paying for itself. Roni Cohen and David Tamir deserve credit beyond articulation for their Internet foresight. But this was not the time or place for neon lights – not yet.
As news of the Rabin Condolence site spread quickly from New York to Japan, we had problems maintaining the server. We were strangers in a strange land. We never anticipated so many hits per minute, per hour. We worked 18 hour days to improve and maintain the site. Proofing the messages took hours.
From over a half million messages, only two had to be removed for hate content. A mirror site was set up in the States – just in case…
The team at NetKing, was only few weeks away from officially launching a site which offered everything under the sun. None of us ever imagined that Israel’s first commercial portal would rise out from obscurity on the heels of tragedy. Messages of sympathy poured in from every continent for the Rabin family and the people of Israel.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry, which had just launched their own site, quickly made the NetKing Condolence page – the official Condolence site for the State of Israel. This was history. For the first time on the Net, hundreds of thousands of monitors had moved away from CNN and Yahoo to participate actively for a public, social cause.
Before Facebook, before Twitter – rather than reading news stories, the Internet community was now writing condolences and lighting animated candles.