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Grief calls for us to mourn; instead we wage war online

Joseph Friedman
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Grief calls for us to mourn; instead we wage war online

Published: 7 November 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

As he drowns in a deluge of social media skirmishes, JO FRIEDMAN says better to meet and discuss in person, console friends or give to charities.

To be a Jew right now is to be utterly consumed by one story.

To be a Jew who was raised Jewish, who went to a Jewish school, whose friends are mostly Jewish and who remains embedded in the Jewish community, is to be deeply shaken.

To be a Jew who has visited Israel several times, who lived there for his gap year, who feels its spiritual pull, and who dreams of showing his future children its land and its people, is to be overwhelmed, exhausted and sad.  

I often wondered whether I was more “pro-Israel” than my friends who are not Jewish (but with whom I share most other views) because I was biased – a product of 15 years of school-supported indoctrination – or whether it was simply because I knew more.

I know that Israel’s existence is not a consequence of colonialism. I know that using language like “decolonisation” to justify the unjustifiable erases the humanity of Israeli Jews, the majority of whom are people of colour.

I know that Israeli Jews did not appear from thin air in 1948. In fact, many had been there for thousands of years and others arrived in their hundreds of thousands after being exiled from nearby Arab nations or displaced after the Holocaust.

So many seem sure that we must debate and convince. But I wonder if we do. There will be no referendum on Israel Vs Hamas.

And I can point to scholarship and essays showing that despite Israeli failings, it was Yasser Arafat’s unwillingness to compromise that led to the stalemate at Camp David – the closest Israel and Palestinians ever came to peace.

When a friend reached out to check in while simultaneously posting several Instagram stories about Israel’s “genocide” in Gaza, I knew enough to explain the distinction between a reasonable critique of Israel’s actions and the intentional extermination of a population.

And when another asked me how my friends and I feel about the conflict, given that we are “not Zionists”, I could tell her that we absolutely are Zionists; that to most Jews Zionism is simply the belief that Jews have a right to self-determination in the land of Israel.

But is there any point? What am I achieving?

In the past two weeks, scores of Jewish friends and acquaintances have taken to Instagram, posting or re-posting paragraphs of text, infographics and snippets from news videos to their “non-Jewish followers”, imploring them to appreciate that Israel is the victim of this attack by Hamas, to see Hamas for what it is, to agree that the only morally acceptable outcome is its destruction.

Whatsapp groups are mobilising throughout the community to draft statements in defence of Israel’s actions and to protest those who are insufficiently empathetic or downright antagonistic. Others attack the AFL for staying quiet, as if an Australian sporting organisation has a moral obligation to get involved, or criticise Fed Square for raising the Palestinian flag, as if it is the flag of Hamas.

Pick a side. Pick a side. Pick a side.

In his New York Times column last week, Nikolas Kristof wrote: “If your moral compass is attuned to the suffering of only one side, your compass is broken, and so is your humanity.”

Social media is designed to elevate extremism, perpetuate the binary and keep people scrolling – when in fact the majority of people have no firm position on the conflict.

Loud social media efforts to influence people’s views are seldom effective.

Perhaps they shared a post in solidarity with Jews on October 7, possibly even reached out to a Jewish friend. And perhaps two weeks later they shared a video of Al Jazeera’s chief correspondent in Gaza, Wael Al-Dahdouh, howling as he grieved the loss of his wife, son, daughter and grandson killed by an Israeli air strike in a camp where they had sought refuge after heeding Israel’s call to move south. More likely still, they have shared nothing at all.

So many seem sure that we must debate and contend and convince and inform. But I wonder if we do. There will be no referendum on Israel Vs Hamas. Australians don’t get a vote, and most of them don’t want one. Clear instances of people misusing public platforms or public office to misinform or vilify can sometimes be effectively tackled through careful and subtle action, often behind the scenes. But loud social media efforts to influence people’s views are seldom effective.

In his podcast early last week, American journalist Ezra Klein said: “Grief moves slowly, but war moves quickly.”

Grief calls for us to slow down and mourn. To reflect on what happened on October 7. But we struggle with this. We’re scared of antisemitism and people who are anti-Israel, who now, it appears, overlap alarmingly. Relationships we enjoyed, organisations we affiliated with, publications we turned to are suddenly not the easy fit we thought they were.

It is a destabilising revelation.

And so in an effort to regain some control, we jump into action – any action. We berate people for not posting. We berate people for posting. We name and shame. We boycott. We silence. But never do we feel comforted. Not only is it not the balm we need, it carries risk of exacerbating risk and polarisation — of keeping the tension high.

When I asked Israeli friends how I can help, none suggested stepping into the battle of public diplomacy. Reach out to your friends who know someone affected, they said. Give to charity if you can. Congregate and talk about your feelings. And when this is all over, do what you can to fight for a better Israel; an Israel that yearns for peace.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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