The gut punches hit me quickly and severely. Phone call after phone call, text message after text message. “Israel is an apartheid state” the messages said, “Israel is committing genocide” they claimed. The calls were from people I had worked with. They were from other faith and community leaders, people I consider friends and professional colleagues. During the pandemic we had spent hours talking on the phones, trying to keep our places of worship open and safe for our congregants. And yet now, I was being told that Israel was committing genocide.
The people calling me spanned all faith groups. Most did not make mention of the thousands of rockets being indiscriminately fired into Israeli civilian centres. But somehow, they felt that calling to berate me as a community rabbi, I had some shared responsibility for the Israeli government’s actions.
Like most Jewish people around the world, I prayed for the speedy resolution of this latest round of conflict, but I also was more acutely aware of the shifting tides that social media has brought to this age-old conflict. As a millennial, I have grown up through the advent of social media and joined Facebook in its infancy, back in 2007, when the world did not yet understand what social media would turn into.
However, social media in the last month was terrifying. Influenced by the mass social media hysteria, people I know and respect, felt validated to express positions that don’t acknowledge the long and complex history of the Middle East.
My own social media accounts were shocking. Almost everyone I follow-from innocuous food brands to influencers or meme accounts – felt that they had the right to weigh in on the conflict. And more often than not, the comments were not specifically about Israel, rather, they were addressed to all Jews.
Influenced by the mass social media hysteria, Australian faith and community leaders felt validated to express positions that don’t acknowledge the long and complex history of the Middle East.
My own social media accounts were shocking. Almost everyone I follow-from innocuous food brands to influencers or meme accounts- felt that they had the right to weigh in on the conflict. And more often than not, the comments were not specifically about Israel, rather, they were addressed to all Jews.
The hate on my feed was endless for the duration of the fighting. It simply didn’t cease, and it seemed to come from all directions, not just from the fringes of society where you may expect to see such hate, but rather, many of these comments were made by everyday people, who, enlightened by social media, felt that they had the authority to weigh in on a complex conflict that has raged for close to 100 years.
We must combat this intolerable incessant rhetoric. Do not get me wrong, this is pure and unfiltered antisemitism. So how to combat such intolerable hate spewing from all corners which have infiltrated into day-to-day interpersonal relationships and almost all social media channels?
I can offer a commitment to dialogue. A commitment to engaging with “the other.” As Jewish people, we are often considered to be the canary in the coal mine. Something that is going to spread and cause mass problems will often hit Jewish people first before the rest of society.
Social media is an echo chamber with algorithms that allow for people to only hear from others who agree with them. Thus, we must redouble our efforts and commit ourselves to dialogue, multiculturalism and discussion in order to just get into the arena of the social media fight.
By creating an environment where leaders get to “know” people of different faiths and an intersectional model for sharing belief and community we can work towards a cohesive world.
I’m not pretending that the road ahead is not difficult, sometimes the hate and prejudice can feel insurmountable. However, we all need to start somewhere. If you have never met a Jewish person, it somehow feels easier to denigrate an entire people. In my case, once I was able to explain how Jewish people globally were feeling under attack due to hostilities in Israel and the Palestinian territories, many of my fellow faith and community leaders apologised. They still had their concerns, but they had a new understanding of what it meant to be a Jewish person living in the Diaspora during a fraught period in Israel.
The future feels bleak now, with rising antisemitism in communities around the world and here in Australia. However, as Jews, we know that the way forward is through dialogue and redoubling our commitment to open up channels of communication.
As I write this, I am now in the middle of producing policies around interfaith dialogue working with faith and community leaders on how they can address the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories without veering into antisemitic rhetoric. However, it is not just from the top, it is a bottom-up approach, where each person must take initiative to be open to hearing from the other side and working toward peace.
The answers are not simple nor easy, but I refuse to let this experience dampen my commitment to intercultural and multifaith work. There is so much good that can be done, and I wholeheartedly believe that as long as we are committed to education and dialogue, hearts and minds can be shaped.