Losing Facebook Friends Over the War in Gaza
I tried to stay out of the fray, but I finally had to go public with my opinions about Israel, even if it meant my friends disagreed
I never intended to use Facebook to post about politics, let alone about religion and politics.
I reluctantly joined about a year-and-a-half ago to have some social media presence, and Facebook seemed the least objectionable option. Much to my surprise and delight, I quickly built up a community of artists, designers, and architects from all over the world who shared my interest in deeply beautiful art and design. It was a great joy every day to post the most glorious images I could find, to create a virtual gallery of magnificent work from every culture and time period—a democracy of beauty.
When the war broke out in Gaza, my immediate reaction was to stay on the sidelines—to support Israel in my heart and in my prayers, to remain a private Jew, as I have all my life. But there are no sidelines with social media, and this didn’t turn out to be just another Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My newsfeed, typically a medley of beautiful images interlaced with inspirational quotes, was soon dotted with vile, venom-filled remarks about Israel, Israelis, and Jews in general. Comments that went far beyond pure humanitarian issues about civilians—especially children—being maimed and killed, or comments about the horrors of war, which I would have agreed with.
No, that’s not what I was seeing. Posts were more along the lines of: “Israelis are terrorists/barbarians/Nazis.” “The Jews are living on stolen land, and now they are committing genocide/ethnic cleansing/extermination of the Palestinian people.” Videos emerged linking Jews to Sept. 11. Cartoons showed Jews murdering Disney characters.
I waited. Surely my lefty friends—those who jump on the slightest tic of the Tea Partiers; those who call out racism, sexism, and bigotry with the strongest of language—would be all over these posts within hours. While the images coming out of Gaza were indeed horrific, clearly these friends would see that Israel was dealing with a racist, sexist, homophobic, terrorist enemy and at the very least this needed to be added to the equation.
But that is not what many of them saw. Instead of blasting the vile anti-Semitic comments, they began to repeat them, and while most did not post the slanderous videos or cartoons, they didn’t delete them when someone else posted them on their timelines.
For a while this summer, Facebook truly seemed as though it had become an alternate reality, where everything true was considered false and all sorts of myths, distortions, and outright lies were believed to be true. Even Kafka would have been impressed.
I immediately unfriended a handful of people—why do I need to look at their hurtful, uneducated comments?—and began to post. I started with a quote from Golda Meir: “We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” A non-Jewish friend quickly demanded: “Don’t bring Golda Meir into this!” Had I touched a nerve?
As has been well noted, pro-Israel commentators were a little slow at the starting gate in the social media war, but within a matter of days, Israeli groups were sending out plenty of visually succinct PDFs and news stories that weren’t making it into traditional media, and a segment of my Facebook friends and I began to post and share them. Despite a residual discomfort in becoming a “public Jew,” I actually never felt as though my skills were being put to greater use.
I tried to post the basics, because the basics were precisely what many people either didn’t know or didn’t want to acknowledge. Hamas =bad, connected to ISIS. Israel =only true democracy in the region. Hamas’s short-term goal: to get Israel to kill as many Palestinian civilians as possible. Hamas’s long-term goal: the annihilation of Israel and Jews in general. Europe: Wake up, you’re next.
A Jewish friend immediately messaged me. “I’m concerned about you,” she began. “I’m concerned you will lose friends… I’m concerned that you don’t understand what Israel has become… I’m concerned that you sound like a right-winger.”
I wasn’t concerned. A torrent of unjust criticism was being hurled at Israel for defending itself from terrorists whose stated intention is to wipe Israel off the map and take down every Jew they can find as well, and I was supposed to worry about what I sound like? Riots were breaking out all over Europe with protesters chanting “Death to the Jews! Back to the gas chambers! Slit Jews’ throats!” and I was supposed to care whether I lost a few “friends”?
Sure, this and similar comments were a bit rattling. Who wants to sound like a right-winger?
Prior to this summer, the nuttiness on the far right struck me as dangerous, while the nuttiness on the far left was just annoying and tiresome. The ideological contortions that have put the far left in bed with Islamic extremists has changed all of that, but even so, “right-winger” implies a certain level of Palinesque vapidity that’s hard to embrace.
As far as Israel’s existence is concerned, I had never really thought about it in terms of being a right or left issue—and still don’t. But if standing up for Israel’s right to exist meant sounding like a right-winger, so be it. I guess my liberalism—my profound belief in truth, liberty, justice, and equality—is such a core part of my identity that I really don’t care if someone I might otherwise despise is saying the same thing.
I had been in this territory before, when the stakes were much lower, so perhaps I was a little less rattled than others. In the ’90s I wrote essays for The New Republic and other publications about how the extremes of feminism—from uber-expanded definitions of date rape and sexual harassment to legislating gender equality through quotas—were actually undermining the true meaning of feminism. It was similar to what I experienced this summer in that back then, I had never intended to write about feminism—I was a private feminist—but ultimately I couldn’t watch the word “feminism” being distorted beyond recognition. By the time I published a book about it, arguing essentially that feminism meant freedom—nothing more nothing less—my liberal credentials were up for review by nearly every vocal feminist at the time, and in those days hard-left feminists were, pardon the stereotype, more than a bit angry and self-righteous.
Social media didn’t exist back then, so friends actually had to call me to voice their disapproval and their ambivalence over whether they should continue our friendship. I remember quietly listening, stunned less by the fact that they would put our friendships on the line because of non-life-threatening ideological differences than by the fact that they had allowed ideology to undermine their own intellectual honesty.
Those friends never ended our relationships, and I never held their comments against them. Perfection can’t be a goal in rhetorical wars.
Recalling that lesson in the 2014 Summer of Hate, I decided to keep a handful of Israel-bashers as Facebook friends in part because I was curious about what they were saying, and because in some cases they simply were ignorant of the larger historical context. I never posted on their pages, but I would try to respond to their comments on mine with calm and facts. If they couldn’t do the same, out they went.
Meanwhile, I found new friends in Egypt, Japan, Thailand, Spain, and Lebanon—people who, even if they didn’t see the conflict exactly as I did, were open to constructive dialogue, truly hoping for peace rather than trying to score political points.
But as anti-Semitism spun out of control in so many countries and the horrors in Iraq grew and these same Israel-bashers said nothing—literally not one word on Iraq—I began to, well, spin a little out of control myself. “THIS is genocide,” I posted over and over again, showing horrific images from Iraq and Syria. “Where is the outrage? The protests? The self-righteous indignation?” At the top of every story describing Hamas’ executions or bullying of Palestinians, I posted, “Your people, Penelope…”
“Sorry, my dear girl,” a friend in India messaged me. ”But at times, I feel you are merely purging your mind. I wonder if anyone is really listening.”
Indeed. Sure, a mix of violent anti-Semitism and blatant hypocrisy is going to rile me up. But did I really want to rant? Become a one-issue poster?
I pulled back. I posted some pretty pictures. I even posted a bunch of images of Islamic art and architecture, an aesthetic I deeply respond to.
But each time I pulled back, I would receive a barrage of messages—from both Jews and non-Jews—about how important my Israel posts were. A lot of people wrote that, for a variety of reasons, they couldn’t post on Israel, but they very much hoped I would continue. An ex-Navy Roman Catholic knight offered to sponsor me to become a Dame. A WWII veteran called me a “patriot.” This gave me pause. I was just getting used to calling myself a Zionist—something I had never done despite my staunch support of Israel—but a patriot? What has happened to our own self-identification that “patriot” initially sounded even worse than “right-winger”?
Each time I thought I couldn’t do this anymore, I thought about what Israelis were going through on a daily basis, and what Jews in Europe were beginning to go through on a daily basis. And I’d go back in the ring.
And then the rabbi in Miami was murdered. I went on a bit of a rampage. My posts were, to say the least, inflammatory. In one, I shared an Instagram photo of a Muslim man getting into his car. A friend that I trusted posted that he had tried to abduct a 9-year-old girl outside of her synagogue in Great Neck, N.Y. “In Europe they may let this happen,” I wrote. “But it’s not going to happen here. You want to see racial profiling? Here it comes.” Within a half hour, I began to feel really bad about posting this. Sure, I was angry. But was this sort of thing the answer? I thought about the Muslim family here in New York City that I have become very close with. If anything ever happened to them because of all of this, I would be devastated. By that evening a line from Frozen (I have a 5-year-old) nagged at me: “Don’t be the monster they fear you are.”
The next morning, I wrote a note to my Facebook friends: The haters want us to hate each other; they want to change the world through hate. If we allow that, they win. There was an outpouring of comments—from people I didn’t even know were reading my posts: Don’t give in to hate; start a “We love Israel because … campaign”; let the haters destroy each other, etc. I was initially swept up by it, but then someone commented: “Apathy is the real threat here.”
Yes, it is. I look forward to going back to being a private Jew, to just posting beautiful images again. But right now, I can’t remain silent. Too much is at stake. On my online gallery page I have a quote from Portuguese poet-philosopher Fernando Pessoa: “God wants, man dreams, the work is born.” I honestly do not feel as though I have a choice in the matter.
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