Using our words, about Israel and always

There are two things that I heard on the playground growing up that I’ve since learned not to be true.

The first – “it’s a free country!” I can think of a few bullies who used this gem to defend their inconsiderate and negligent behavior, not realizing that if it is indeed a free country, it’s everyone’s free country.

The second is the ancient comeback, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

If only. If only hateful speech didn’t hurt anyone. If only we could all look someone who said something malicious straight in the eye, say those 13 words and walk away unchanged. Maybe that works on the playground, but not in the adult world, and especially not today’s adult world.

That world would be Facebook, Twitter, and the comments section of online articles – any corner of the Internet where you are permitted access to a little text box with license to type-type-type away and ultimately publish whatever you want. As someone with a journalism degree, I will defend free speech until some future dystopian autocracy takes it away from me, but lately I’ve begun to feel as though maybe the online world would be more pleasant if there weren’t so many digital soap boxes and megaphones readily accessible.

I spend the larger portion of my work day looking at Facebook, (ahem, I manage JUF’s primary social media accounts …) so I’ve seen a lot of the good social media can do to bring together and forge community, but I’ve also seen the ways it can be used to peddle inflammatory speech and hateful misinformation. Watching JUF’s Facebook page since mid-June, when Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were first reported kidnapped, I’ve been blown away by the sudden intensification of both sides of this coin.

Not since the advent of Facebook has the Jewish community turned so urgently to social media to learn about, discuss and show support for Israel. Our page has gained 345 new fans since June 16 – about 100 more new fans than we average in an entire six-month period. If that’s not enough proof, just perform the eye test on your personal Facebook feed. The amount of articles shared and personal status updates about Israel have simply taken over the online part of Jews’ lives.

On the other side of that coin, more chatter about Israel means more negative chatter about Israel. Allies of the Palestinians and Gaza have been equally if not more prolific in voicing their condemnation of Israel; arguments have erupted between Facebook friends be they Jews debating non-Jews or Jews debating Jews; comment sections of articles have turned into verbal war zones. My job as JUF page administrator has turned into a 24/7 gig, constantly deleting hurtful/inciting comments from our posts.

As I click “hide” on pictures of bloodied children and ban users who write “Israelis are terrorists” beneath photos from JUF’s solidarity rally, I feel justified in my actions, though the First Amendment crusader in me squeals in anguish. On one hand, maybe everyone should see these attitudes exist, sad as they are. On the other hand, why should JUF’s peace-aspiring, community-rallying posts turn into battlegrounds filled with crude remarks and generalizations? The ability to hide behind a smartphone, tablet or computer screen leads far more often to poor exercises of free speech than paragons for civil dialogue.

Last summer I remember realizing the horrific extent to which people were willing to say hateful things on the Internet. The sheer racism, for example, of Twitter users slamming Major League Baseball for selecting a “non-American” in Marc Anthony to sing “God Bless America” at last year’s All-Star Game (Anthony, by the way, was born in Queens) was utterly appalling, and though I was disappointed to learn Jewish baseball slugger Ryan Braun had used steroids, it felt personal when Twitter users responded in anti-Semitic tirades.

It’s difficult to believe social media is a good thing when it can be used to spread such hateful and misinformed world views. If you believe these attitudes will exist no matter what, wouldn’t it make sense to limit how easily people can share them with the masses? And would doing so violate free speech, or protect people from the cancer of hate and prejudice?

It’s a catch-22 of sorts: social media has the power to bring attention to causes and rally people around ideas that would otherwise be overlooked, yet it can also galvanize groups of people whose evil, radical ideas would otherwise remain isolated and marginalized.

And we see that so clearly with all that has gone on in Israel and Gaza. For every article or status shared by a rational, empathetic peace-loving person, some frustrated, shortsighted person reaches for that readily accessible digital megaphone and voices a knee-jerk reaction full of sweeping generalizations. And what happens? The empathetic peace-lover feels threatened, their ire provoked, and they often cave into using the same ferocious style of language as the shortsighted soap-boxer.

Why? Because hateful language is powerful language. Its rhetoric is sharp and barbarous. The moment we read it on Facebook or Twitter we picture it sowing the seeds of hatred in the minds of those less-informed and nonopinionated and we feel a responsibility to strike it down before it’s allowed to fester. But we must combat that hate without stooping to the level of harshness and recklessness that ultimately perpetuates it.

Words do hurt us. Their blows are hard and their wounds deep. Multiply this by at least 10 when it comes to Israel and the Jewish people. Of course attacks on Zionism and Israel are attacks on Jews everywhere. The connection runs deep in a way so many others don’t understand, and as such we are predisposed to respond swiftly when Israel is under fire –whether by rockets or by words.

What we all must realize in our social media world, however, is the responsibility that comes implicit with uninhibited access to a text box and the freedom to hit “post,” “Tweet” or “publish.” Free speech is a right, and with all rights come responsibilities. What you have to say on social media is your prerogative; how you say it – that affects everyone. That’s what spreads. Not your thoughts, your ideas or your opinions, but the language you use to convey them. Even if what you say is a pile of misinformed lies, if you say it the right way, the facts can be easily and civilly corrected.

Imagine a social media world in which every time you hit “post,” “Tweet” or “publish,” a window popped up prompting you to review your comment for any hateful speech or language that might incite unnecessary conflict. Or what if your message had to be approved by pre-determined close friend before being published? It’s like when you work up the nerve to write that angry email to someone only to delete it 30 minutes later and never send it. Sometimes, thinking twice can make all the difference.

With all that said, the comment section is below. How will you use it?

Reflections from your editor, Cindy Sher, on people living their Jewish lives each day. ... Read More

Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.