On the war of images and words

I promised myself I wasn’t going to write anything about Israel’s assault on Gaza. And I’m not going to–there is no shortage of articles, polemics, and analysis. But I am going to write a little bit about what others are writing and tweeting and posting, if only because I need to process what I’ve read and seen.

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, Israel has lost the war of images for good. No amount of hasbara (explanation) can cover up the injustice of the situation. And every attempt to compare, portray Israel as a victim, or draw any kind of equivalence can only backfire. The images coming out of Gaza are so horrific, so stomach churning that when held up next to pictures of Israel there is no question of which side is the aggressor and which side the victim. Israelis and Israeli media do not help their case, either. With every bomb-shelter selfie, racist tweet, and public call for violence, the little sympathy that existed for the people living under rocket fire has vanished. On the digital battlefield, Israelis defeated themselves.

I have never seen the American Jewish community this bitterly divided. The right accuses the left of treachery and idiocy with such acrimony and the spittle-spewing vitriol that the rift between the two sides may be irreparable. For so long, the Jewish community refused to confront reality in Israel. It refused to acknowledge that Israeli society had become deeply racist and militaristic. It refused to recognize Palestinian pain and suffering. But the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir changed that. This was the first time, at least that I can recall, that American Jews knew the name of Palestinian who had been killed. And it was the first time that American Jews took responsibility, as Jews, for the death of a Palestinian. Since Mohammed’s death, part of the American Jewish community has been going through a paroxysm of guilt and introspection, coming to terms with the ramifications of its stubborn blindness to the violence and oppression inherent to the occupation. There are more op-eds and newsletter than one can possibly count circulating around the community, innumerable attempts to grapple with our role in what has happened.

However, there is a part of the American Jewish community, a part that I suspect is small but that is loud and influential, that has only become more withdrawn, paranoid, and defensive than before. For them, every mention of Palestinian suffering is an attempt to delegitimize Israel, every criticism of Israel’s policies a sign of latent anti-Zionism or worse–anti-Semitism. They retreat into what I once called Fortress Judaism, where Israel can do no wrong and anyone who thinks otherwise wants to wipe the country off the map. This part of the community, already more religious and conservative, will only grow more insular and oppositional, suspicious of liberal ideas and hostile to Arabs.

I am not a media theorist, nor do I know very much about technology. But I think its safe to say that communities of different kinds of discourse exist on social media, and in particular on Twitter. There’s Jewish Twitter, loosely connected to but different from Hebrew Twitter. There’s social justice twitter, Arabic Twitter, etc. What’s been fascinating about the responses on social media to the escalating conflict is the spillover between different communities of discourse. All it takes is a few dedicated tweeters to break the barriers between communities–a strategic retweet and and a tweeter gains a whole new audience. These interactions between otherwise separate communities is a good thing, it broadens a horizons and exposes people to views and voices they would not ordinarily encounter. And while it can also be frightening and overwhelming, say, for a member of Jewish Twitter to suddenly confront social justice Twitter or vice-versa, it is an important lesson on how knowledge is culturally and societally conditioned. This kind of exposure, I think, has also changed how the American Jewish community relates to Israel.

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