Why debating the conflict requires moving away from blanket statements and personal attacks, by Will Cohen.
Jews are, rightly or wrongly, often seen as ‘the clever ones’. It’s partly a stereotype we have made for ourselves, partly a result of our traditions – we have a culture of literacy and encouraging education – and possibly related to our traditional lack of sporting prowess (1). There are stories of converts attracted to Judaism not for food, but for thought. We take leadership from teachers and scholars, and pride ourselves on Nobel prizewinning (2). So you’d hope that when it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the arguments we have (and there are plenty of them to go around) would be well thought out, reasonable, perhaps even constructive? And a discussion within the Jewish community about different approaches to supporting Israel – surely we could expect even better behaviour there?
Sadly not. The volume of bitterness and bile floating around the web would refill the Dead Sea, and as Jews and Zionists we share a part of it. It’s hard to say what’s more ridiculous: the endless debates on Facebook groups and the prepared ‘statement-questions’ read out at meetings, or the accusations levelled at those Jews and Zionists who stray away from the hasbarah (Israel advocacy) line. There are undertones reminiscent of McCarthyism, with writers and activists keen to condemn the slightest hint of ‘anti-Zionist activities (3)’. Okay that’s a little alarmist, and there are clearly bigger problems in the world. But the virtual shouting matches do smother the badly-needed internal debates we should be having about our connections to Israel. They also make us look bad as a community: would you want an outsider to judge Anglo-Jewry by the things they see us write about Israel?
We’re not alone. Disputes around the world are just as frequently turned into blanket statements and personal attacks (yes, even the phrase ‘self-hating Turk’!). From the mud-slinging of a US election race to the online threats issued by teenagers on opposing sides of ethnic conflicts, it’s just a fact of life. Equivalent to ‘sledging’ in cricket, used to build team morale and demoralise the opponents (4). But does that make it necessary or desirable within our community? I believe that political sledging cheapens an argument and stifles room for debate. That’s fine if you’re rallying your troops for an assault or playing for the Ashes, but do we have to bring it up in a lecture theatre? As for the internet: it’s a great tool for sharing knowledge, discussing, arguing, forming and reforming opinions and the like. It’s also a virtual minefield where anger and abuse can be well-hidden behind anonymity and distance – Godwin’s Law illustrates the problem quite well (5). In that environment, what good can sledging do, aside from letting off steam?
Living in the UK, many of us will never be directly affected by the conflict in a way that we would if living in Israel. Of course for those with friends or family there, living in Israel or serving in the IDF, there is a direct link between what shows on the news and in personal life. Patronising as this may sound, in the UK we don’t walk around in fear of our lives, or with the chance of coming face-to-face with ‘the enemy’. We’re lucky that if there’s a point to be made, there’s time to find a constructive way to say it. Yachad hopes for ‘broadening the current conversation about Israel in the Jewish diaspora’, which at the risk of sounding like a mouthpiece, seems like rather a good idea (6). The conversation should be inclusive; take into account voices from across the political and religious spectra; and anyone who wants to get involved will have to do some listening/reading as well as talking/writing. So step away from the rhetoric, and take a few deep breaths…
1http://www.jewishmag.com/115mag/smartjews/smartjews.htm (a little self-congratulatory, but demonstrates the point…)
6http://www.yachad.org.uk/about-us# (click through to read their full statement)