Johann Levy on Being Jewish and App Development

For most developers, getting your app featured on publications like CBS News, the Huffington Post and The Spec sounds like a dream come true. For Johann Levy, Head of R&D at Masternaut, the opposite is probably more plausible.

Levy set out to create the iPhone app ‘Jew or Not Jew’ with the honourable intention of showcasing famous Jewish celebrities and high profile personalities. Unfortunately, despite all good intentions, the plans backfired when several anti-racial organisations threatened to sue Apple if the app was not taken down on the grounds that it was against French law.

Levy, who is of both English and French origin comes from a Jewish upbringing and has been quoted by the mainstream media as saying:

“I’m not a spokesman for all Jews, but as a Jew myself I know that in our community we often ask whether a such-and-such celebrity is Jewish or not,”…”For me, there’s nothing pejorative about saying that someone is Jewish”…On the contrary, it’s about being proud.”

I caught up with Levy to discuss the backlash this app has received and to chat about being Jewish, app development and how Apple are responding.

Let’s start off with being Jewish. There are a lot of famous Jews out there and you’ve obviously collated quite a few of them into your iPhone app – which of these do you admire the most?

My favourite category is without a doubt the Nobel Prize winners. It’s quite amazing that 22% of all individual Nobel Prize winners are Jewish when you know Jews only represent 0.2% of world population. Being from an IT background I was also quite happy to discover a lot of the most famous “geeks” (founders of FaceBook, Google, Oracle, Dell etc..)  are Jewish too!

Your experience raises important questions about creating an ‘internationally-friendly app’. When you submitted your app to the iTunes store did Apple give you any feedback or suggest that there might be any problems with the app?

No, Apple didn’t contact me. The app took about 3 weeks to be approved which is slightly longer than normal but I don’t know if it’s due to staff being on holiday or because it needed some higher-level validation.

Several anti-racial organisations have threatened to sue Apple if they didn’t take down the app. Had any of these been in contact with you to discuss their problems with the app before all of this became public?

No! I have never been contacted by anybody but the press. I suppose the threats were there for intimidation purposes. In a way I can’t blame them. If the app breached the French law they were right!

The real question is why we have such an archaic law in France? It made complete sense when it was created 60 years ago but today the geo-political situation isn’t the same. It made me realise most French Jews prefer to stay hidden, trying very hard to avoid any attention. Unfortunately the word “Juif” has still a negative connotation in France. People usually are a bit embarrassed to pronounce it. Yes, there is a lot of anti-Semitism which can explain some paranoia, but let’s be honest; haters don’t need my app as an excuse for spreading their hate.

I guess that brings us to an important question. What will you do now?

As you can imagine I’m quite grateful Apple only pulled out “Jew or not Jew?” from the French app store and let the rest of the world enjoy it (which does prove their open-mindedness).

So I will continue to improve the app. Yesterday Apple approved an update that let users search for the name of a movie and list all the Jews starring in it! And I have some other fun ideas, so watch out for updates!

Update: This app was pulled by app store.

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