The past few weeks have brought to light another glaring example of our polarization. Stimulated by the culture of cancellation, an extremely polarized American political system, and social media platforms that give everyone a microphone and a stage to voice their opinions, many feel like they have to choose sides on every important issue and publicize it.
Contentious issues like the explosion of Israeli-Palestinian violence in May 2021 have been reduced to a black and white choice between two opposing camps. One side is right and the other is wrong. One side is good and the other is bad. Despite the high value Americans claim to place on free speech and debate, those who publicly support the bad side in today’s world are threatened with public shame and ostracism. To take just one example, the response to Andrew Yang’s May 10 tweet expressing solidarity with Israel defending itself from terrorism was so negative that he felt compelled to apologize and revise his previous statement. .
Across the spectrum, celebrities like DJ Khaled, Viola Davis, Bella and Gigi Hadid, and Mark Ruffalo (who later apologized for his “inflammatory” tweets) were among those praised for their social media posts. unequivocally pro-Palestinian social issues. Many of them understood extreme and pointed language that accused Israel of things like “ethnic cleansing”, “apartheid” and “genocide”.
But it wasn’t just celebrities. Friends, acquaintances and colleagues of mine jumped on the bandwagon and engaged in similar online rhetoric. And I have to admit, that confused me: I knew the backgrounds of many of these people, what they had studied in school, the careers they had pursued. Like the opinionated celebrities, hardly any of these friends, acquaintances and colleagues received a formal education or worked in careers even tangentially linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So how did they know enough to form such strong opinions? How did they know enough to decide who was right and who was wrong, who was bad and who was good? How were they certain enough of their beliefs to disseminate them to the world in order to convince others of their own views?
The truth is, they didn’t know enough. And that’s what upset me the most.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extremely complex and nuanced. It’s as far from black and white as anything can be. Most people commenting on social media likely have little understanding of the many twists and turns contributing to this latest outbreak of violence, which in itself only scratches the surface of the underlying conflict.
There is a deep and troubling history between Israelis and Palestinians that dates back to even before Israel declared a state in 1948 and then waged its first formal war with its Arab neighbors a few hours later. Becoming an expert on this subject, or even sufficiently educated on it, is no easy task.
Yet hundreds of thousands of anti-Israel posts from non-experts have flooded our social media pages throughout the recent outburst of violence. And they did so without being challenged or blamed. Anyone who took a slightly more nuanced version, or even expressed equal sympathy for both sides, has been virtually canceled.
Gal Gadot, for example, was careful to express her sorrow for both her fellow Israelis and her Palestinian neighbors in a tweet calling for peace – and has been widely criticized for not sympathizing more with Palestinian suffering. Likewise, Rihanna’s horror expression that “innocent Israeli and Palestinian children are hiding in bomb shelters” has been strongly rebuffed and has even been compared to #AllLivesMatter, the disturbing hashtag that now conjures up racism. and total opposition to #BlackLivesMatter.
Why has disapproval of the war and the expression of sympathy for the Israeli and Palestinian victims of violence, especially the innocent victims of terrorism, become such a bad and unacceptable opinion?
It all depends on what is popular on social media.
What I aspire to much more than people capable of publicly expressing a defense for Israel defending themselves, without being nullified or blamed, is something much simpler: I aspire for people to be again curious, admit what they do not know, ask questions, engage in dialogue with people of opposing views and accept the complexity of very complex situations.
That’s why I was delighted to receive an SMS a few weeks ago from my friend Tyler: “I know about 0.0099% of the Israel Gaza conflict and I want to know more. Without a predetermined position or judgment, he asked thoughtful questions about the civil rights of Palestinians, the Hamas regime in the territories, the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Israeli police response to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Not being an expert myself, I told him what I knew and readily admitted what I did not know. I sent him materials that I had recently read or listened to, and I myself read more about issues that I realized I hadn’t fully understood.
Our goal in having this conversation was simply to understand better, not to be the final arbiter of good and evil. We didn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but it was the most powerful conversation I have had about the conflict in recent years. Sadly, that was the only conversation I had like this during this latest outbreak of violence.
I’ll conclude with a simple plea: be more like Tyler. To be curious. Ask questions, consume material representing a variety of positions, and try to understand the nuances of a very complex conflict.
Fight the urge to pass judgment too soon. Don’t make up your own mind immediately just so you can participate in the growing popularity contest in condemning Israel all around you.
Admit what you don’t know and ask others to help you fill in the gaps. Use your social media platform to promote dialogue and discussion rather than proliferate sharp, uninformed critiques.
Resist the temptation to black and white. Adopt shades of gray.
You don’t always have to choose a side.
Jennifer Shulkin is a Publishing Assistant at the MirYam Institute. She graduated from Harvard Law School and the University of Pennsylvania. She was a legal assistant in the Eastern District of New York and an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. She currently works as a white collar criminal defense attorney in Washington, DC.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.