Many of us are obsessively reading the news, watching our social media feeds, and listening to policy analysts as the turmoil in Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank unfolds. Our children have questions and for many of us, we aren’t sure how to even begin navigating the minefield and emotional lightning rod of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Questions abound: What precipitated this recent bout of the conflict? How does one decipher between fact and misinformation? How can I express my concerns without being silenced? What happens when criticism of Israel hurtles into millennia-old antisemitic tropes? Do I respond to the hordes of memes, infographics, and superficial social media posts I’m seeing from friends, family, and influencers? How do I articulate a position that recognizes the humanity and dignity of all living peoples without feeling as if I must pick a ‘team’? Where are the voices of leaders speaking unequivocally about the need for compassion and empathy without succumbing to moral equivalency?
It is a lot to digest and many of us feel inadequate to even dip our toes into this space let alone offer guidance to our children who feel paralyzed, and to some degree intimidated, to speak up. This is amplified ten-fold when the current American progressive discourse is transposed and grafted incorrectly onto this conflict and complex context. It ultimately flattens the realities creating simplistic framings that are interested in promoting pre-determined moral positions.
So let’s begin: What were the events that catalyzed the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?
A confluence of moments brought the simmering tensions between Palestinians, Israeli Jews, and Arab citizens of Israel to the surface and could no longer be contained. These factors included:
– The inability of Israeli elections to formulate a sustainable coalition of governance after several years of inadequate political leadership. Politicking has been the primary focus as Israel has undergone four national elections in the past two years. Actual governance has not been the priority.
– The Palestinians decided to hold elections, which have not taken place in fifteen years. Fatah’s leader, Abu Mazan or Mahmoud Abbas, knows he is at risk of losing Fatah’s foothold as the Palestinian leadership and is concerned about this very real possibility.
– Hamas recognizes its ability to influence the Palestinian elections and wants to seize this opportunity. Hamas, a terrorist organization, leverages its influence and power by engaging in terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, irrespective of their ethnic, religious, or national identity. The ineptitude of Fatah has led to a sense of frustration among Palestinians who are seeking responsibility and action from their political leaders. Hamas preys on this reality and manipulates its own community through indoctrination and emotional duress. Read the Hamas charter to get a taste of the vitriol promoted in this political-theological framework.
– There are challenges in Sheikh Jarrah (a neighborhood in East Jerusalem) relating to a pending Supreme Court decision about homeownership. Sheikh Jarrah is a neighborhood that has had Jewish residents and Arab residents since the period of the 19th century. The issues that have been contested for decades are whose ownership the homes ultimately belong to, who will have to vacate these properties, and who will be compensated for these properties. This is a decades-old dispute between Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants in Sheikh Jarrah and one that the Israeli Supreme Court intends to settle.
– Within Israel, there are increased frustrations among Arab citizens of Israel who feel the Israeli government hasn’t provided them with robust infrastructure, sufficient education, employment, and a general feeling of not governing adequately against crime, drugs, and gambling within Arab villages and communities. As citizens of the State, Israel needs to take responsibility for these concerns and because of the lack of governance (see point one above, has abdicated the bulk of responsibility in this regard). These are matters that have been present in Israeli society and were highlighted in the Or Commission of Inquiry in October 2000. The Or Commission was one of the first official public acknowledgments of discrimination faced by the Arab citizens of Israel.
– Jewish extremism and fanatical nationalism is expanding among some sectors of the Israeli populace. This rightward shift has increased fervent positions by some religious-nationalists and some secular and xenophobic Jews who incite violence against Arabs, both within Israel proper and those living in the West Bank. The ideological positions among these extremists include: focusing on maximizing an Israeli Jewish presence in all of Biblical Israel and denying Palestinian statehood; desiring expulsion of the Arab citizens of Israel from the Jewish State; encouraging violence and creating discriminatory practices and advocating prejudiced policies against non-Jewish citizens. These voices are not representative of Israeli society but their influence is advancing and impacting mainstream discourse and political parties and platforms.
– There were also several national and religious markers this past month. This includes the holiday of Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar; it was Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) which is a national holiday recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over both East and West Jerusalem after the events of the 1967 War; this Saturday is al-Naqba Day (Day of the Catastrophe) which marks the Palestinian day of Israel’s independence; and earlier this month Israelis honored Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day to remember fallen soldiers and the loss of lives from terrorist attacks; and Yom Ha’atzmaut was celebrated, Israel’s Independence Day.
– And we must not forget the ever-important increased influence of Iran in the region which directly supports Hamas and is continuing to advance its nuclear capabilities and threaten Israel. Iran leverages Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon as outposts.
Now that you have some background it should help contextualize the current events. Obviously, each of these factors could be expounded upon, but this is a starting point.
Now you won’t see much of what I articulated above in your social media feeds as this doesn’t help promote the existing tropes we see shared by individuals and influencers who know next to nothing about the complexity of these matters. They are not invested in the long-term need for peace between two peoples and they have not committed themselves to engage with the nuance of this region. Rather they are playing into the simplistic and superficial positions that contort to their existing narratives about power and powerlessness.
In terms of social media, unfortunately, the narrow simplicity of it all will cause frustration. The trope is oversimplified and goes like this: “Israelis hold power and they are deemed to be white. Palestinians are weak and an oppressed people whose skin color is black and brown. Israel is harming the Palestinians using state-sanctioned violence and is acting as colonizers and oppressors. Therefore, Israel is a white supremacist state that has no right to exist; Zionism is akin to racism.”
This trope has been exacerbated by a variety of cultural factors and cannot be undone easily. Young people (and the majority of us) care about social justice issues and want to be on the ‘right’ side of history- fighting racism; ending oppression; combating hatred toward the LGBTQ+ community; standing against Islamophobia; and the list goes on. Part of the litmus test determining how progressive one is and who is allowed to advocate on behalf of these concerns and identities is the demand placed upon individuals to be ‘anti-Zionist’ and distance themselves from Zionism and Israel. If one doesn’t accept this position then often you will be labeled a racist who supports a racist entity, i.e. Israel. This is the worst ‘sin’ in our society and only through exculpation can an individual rid oneself of this demarcation. It is a problematic and simplistic equation that needs to be deconstructed. But this won’t happen overnight and requires each of us to understand the sophistry at play.
The key for young people (and all of us) is to be in relationships with individuals and have real conversations. You don’t have to know all the facts but you have to engage in meaningful dialogue that is substantive; actively listen; hear uncomfortable positions with which you may disagree while also sharing your perspective and thinking. This can’t happen on social media. We need to encourage critical thinking skills so when we encounter memes, shared stories, or infographics we ask ourselves important questions: who is writing this?; who is the intended audience?; for what purpose is this being written?; what facts are included and what facts are marginalized?; what narrative is being put forth?; is there a call to action? These are examples of the questions we can ask ourselves and ask our peers when they post materials to encourage a moment’s pause, and ability to reflect, and engage in a more thoughtful discussion. Our critical thinking skills shouldn’t be dismissed merely because we are scrolling through our feeds.
We have to ask ourselves- what is the purpose of engaging on social: 1) to counter misinformation; 2) to share thoughts with the “don’t know” or “undecided” audience in your feed; 3) to challenge every distortion and lie you hear? You have to determine what your objectives are for engaging on social media. And you have to know when to walk away because social media is not real life. The influencers (who don’t actually deserve to have real influence), the musicians, the Hollywood stars- these aren’t the people who are living in Israeli and Palestinian societies. Most of them probably could not locate Israel and the Palestinian territories on a map, let alone peel back the multi-layered complexities that exist within these rich histories, challenging relationships, and multiplicities of identities. Why do they get to determine the discourse? Why are we reacting to their inane ideas, absurd flattening of sophisticated realities, and misinformation (at best ignorant and at worst malicious)?
Start today by engaging with individuals with whom you can: create brave spaces which are needed to foster and cultivate communities of people who desire to engage with differences; engage with people who believe and value the dignity of all human life irrespective of ethnic, religious, and national identities; and invest time with individuals who are willing to engage with complexity without seeking the demise of any particular community.