Social media fights my Gaza war

As a feature journalism teacher for 21 years, I’ve helped students of all backgrounds craft and publish powerful personal pieces that often rallied against racism, homophobia and Islamophobia. So during the month-long Israel/Gaza war, when an Egyptian-American guy who’d aced my class a few years ago tweeted the picture of a swastika next to the Israeli flag, I felt hurt, shocked –  and betrayed.

Although I was a Jewish  liberal who’d taught in  Michigan, Manhattan and L.A., I’d  lost family members to real Nazis in Eastern Europe.  I had close relatives in Israel who’d been terrified by the continued  missile attacks against civilians.   My 18-year-old cousin was a soldier stationed in Gaza, fighting  a battle we didn’t start or want.   Late to social media,  this was the first Israeli war  I’d been wired  for.   I felt like instantly  slamming  my Egyptian pupil’s hateful propaganda. But  I tried to calm down, unplug, avoid instant gratification.  Everyone I knew wanted peace.    I did not send  an  incendiary response to fuel the complex  controversy.  Travelling  nationally for book events, I loved the internet’s wide  reach.  As an author and educator,  I had so far intentionally kept  my public personae neutral. 

Then a Kashmiri poet from my old  writing workshop posted on Facebook:   “Stocks rise for Israeli drone maker as Gaza Slaughter Continues,”  which started,  “As Israel ruthlessly destroys the besieged Gaza Strip, its largest developer of military technologies, Elbit Systems, is benefitting from the bloodshed.”   I took deep breaths as  my  newsfeed  showed a Turkish protégée’s post calling Israel immoral.   Next,  a  Facebook friend from the Balkans shared:  “Israel was killing children long before Hamas was created.  Stop the Gaza Genocide.”  

Now my blood was boiling.   This last post felt especially  galling since  I’d recently coauthored a memoir with Kenan, my Bosnian physical therapist, exposing  the ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims in the 1992 Balkan War.  When Kenan told me  his neighbors  had  turned on him overnight,  I thought: he’s the male Muslim Anne Frank who lived to tell the story.    Since he fixed my damaged  back while I helped him understand his childhood trauma, we’d called it “a Jewish/Muslim story of healing,” predicated on respecting each other’s pain.   But  we’d collaborated in America, in peacetime, 20 years post-war.  Balkanites I’d connected with were suddenly sharing vociferously anti-Israel tirades on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook that hurt me.  Anguished,  I started to de-friend and un-follow those whose opinions I abhorred.

Then a Jewish  girlfriend,  mortified by public displays of  anti-Semitism,   deactivated her  account altogether. That troubled me  more.  Someone  giving  voice to the disenfranchised shouldn’t be  silenced by fear.   I  wasn’t a Middle Eastern department chair  or a dean representing a public college.  I taught writing  in Greenwich Village  at a place  called The New School for Social Engagement –which had  founded a University in Exile in 1933 as a haven for scholars who’d fled Nazi  Germany.  Indeed, the six-million Jews  in Israel settled there as a response to  6 million Jews massacred by Hitler  in World War II with one mantra: Never Again.

I was a humanist who’d opposed  hard line  Israeli policies on  settlements and the occupation, praying for wise leaders to institute a  two-state solution.  Yet we needed a partner for peace.   I  vividly recalled mourning  the  11 innocent Israeli Olympics  athletes  murdered by Palestinians in Munich in 1972,  when I was 11, years of suicide bombings,  P.L.O. and Hamas proclamations that  “The liberation of Palestine can only be achieved through the annihilation  of Israel,”  and Palestinian celebrations of  9/11.   After publishing a book condemning  prejudice against  Bosnian Muslims,   I could not  cower from defending my own people.

When a  student of Syrian heritage posted “Free Gaza”  pictures of slaughtered  Arabs on Facebook, I couldn’t not engage.  I  private messaged:  “180,000 Syrians were killed by Bashar al-Assad in the last two years with no provocation.  Why  didn’t you once post  about that?” I called the Turkish protégée  on his anti-Semitism, asking what he would do if 1000 missiles were fired on civilians in his country, sharing  President Obama’s quote “Israel has a right to defend itself against what I consider inexcusable attacks from Hamas.”

“Disagreeing with Israel doesn’t make me anti-Semitic,” he messaged.

I shot back  Jeffrey Goldberg’s analysis of how the so-called “powerful Jewish lobby” was  dwarfed by  54 Muslim-majority states in the United Nations  shaping a global anti-Israel narrative. They  focused on Gaza, excluding conflicts where Muslims  killed other Arabs in much greater numbers.  He felt the internet  was illuminating  the “open, unabashed  expression of vitriolic Jew-hatred,”  pointing out that the reaction of the Gaza  war – from the Turkish prime minister, who compared Israel’s behavior to Hitler’s, to the Lebanese journalist who demanded the nuclear eradication of Israel, to the anti-Jewish riots in  France – is a reminder that much of the world “is not opposed to Israel because of its settlement  policy, but because it is a Jewish country.”

My Turkish  protégée returned fire with a Huffington Post piece by a Pakistani-Canadian, Ali Rizvi,  “7 Things to Consider  Before Choosing Sides in the Middle East  Conflict.” Before raging and overreacting,  I  forced myself to read it.  I was surprised that it wound up being  an olive branch. Asking whether Hamas  used its own civilians as human shields, the author shared Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhi admission  on Gazan national television that the human shield  strategy has been “very effective.” If you support  democracy and a two-state solution,  Rizvi concluded you could be anti-Hamas,  Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine.  That worked for me,  and also  my coauthor Kenan. With the truce, we prayed the rest of the Middle East could compromise too.

Ultimately,  the  battle of links  with my  Turkish  protégée   led to an agreement –on at least one article.  I then  posted and tweeted  “Instead of spreading hate, let’s focus on our common hope for peace” attaching Buzzfeed’s photo essay of  “Jewish and Arab People Posing Together In Inspiring Photos Saying We Refuse To Be Enemies.” Miraculously it garnered  many likes, shares and retweets – from all sides.  I decided I wouldn’t  back down from verbal sparring.  Words  had always been my weapon  and my shield.  That’s why I taught the power of the press, encouraged first person stories,  believing the personal is political.  With more tact and less extreme rhetoric,  social media could be a bridge, not a blockade.