As a feature journalism teacher for 21 years, I’ve helped students of all backgrounds craft and publish powerful personal pieces that often rallied against racism, homophobia and Islamophobia. So during the month-long Israel/Gaza war, when an Egyptian-American guy who’d aced my class a few years ago tweeted the picture of a swastika next to the Israeli flag, I felt hurt, shocked - and betrayed.
Although I was a Jewish liberal who’d taught in Michigan, Manhattan and L.A., I’d lost family members to real Nazis in Eastern Europe. I had close relatives in Israel who’d been terrified by the continued missile attacks against civilians. My 18-year-old cousin was a soldier stationed in Gaza, fighting a battle we didn’t start or want. Late to social media, this was the first Israeli war I’d been wired for. I felt like instantly slamming my Egyptian pupil’s hateful propaganda. But I tried to calm down, unplug, avoid instant gratification. Everyone I knew wanted peace. I did not send an incendiary response to fuel the complex controversy. Travelling nationally for book events, I loved the internet’s wide reach. As an author and educator, I had so far intentionally kept my public personae neutral.
Then a Kashmiri poet from my old writing workshop posted on Facebook: “Stocks rise for Israeli drone maker as Gaza Slaughter Continues,” which started, “As Israel ruthlessly destroys the besieged Gaza Strip, its largest developer of military technologies, Elbit Systems, is benefitting from the bloodshed.” I took deep breaths as my newsfeed showed a Turkish protégée’s post calling Israel immoral. Next, a Facebook friend from the Balkans shared: “Israel was killing children long before Hamas was created. Stop the Gaza Genocide.”
Now my blood was boiling. This last post felt especially galling since I’d recently coauthored a memoir with Kenan, my Bosnian physical therapist, exposing the ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims in the 1992 Balkan War. When Kenan told me his neighbors had turned on him overnight, I thought: he’s the male Muslim Anne Frank who lived to tell the story. Since he fixed my damaged back while I helped him understand his childhood trauma, we’d called it “a Jewish/Muslim story of healing,” predicated on respecting each other’s pain. But we’d collaborated in America, in peacetime, 20 years post-war. Balkanites I’d connected with were suddenly sharing vociferously anti-Israel tirades on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook that hurt me. Anguished, I started to de-friend and un-follow those whose opinions I abhorred.
Then a Jewish girlfriend, mortified by public displays of anti-Semitism, deactivated her account altogether. That troubled me more. Someone giving voice to the disenfranchised shouldn’t be silenced by fear. I wasn’t a Middle Eastern department chair or a dean representing a public college. I taught writing in Greenwich Village at a place called The New School for Social Engagement –which had founded a University in Exile in 1933 as a haven for scholars who’d fled Nazi Germany. Indeed, the six-million Jews in Israel settled there as a response to 6 million Jews massacred by Hitler in World War II with one mantra: Never Again.
I was a humanist who’d opposed hard line Israeli policies on settlements and the occupation, praying for wise leaders to institute a two-state solution. Yet we needed a partner for peace. I vividly recalled mourning the 11 innocent Israeli Olympics athletes murdered by Palestinians in Munich in 1972, when I was 11, years of suicide bombings, P.L.O. and Hamas proclamations that “The liberation of Palestine can only be achieved through the annihilation of Israel,” and Palestinian celebrations of 9/11. After publishing a book condemning prejudice against Bosnian Muslims, I could not cower from defending my own people.
When a student of Syrian heritage posted “Free Gaza” pictures of slaughtered Arabs on Facebook, I couldn’t not engage. I private messaged: “180,000 Syrians were killed by Bashar al-Assad in the last two years with no provocation. Why didn’t you once post about that?” I called the Turkish protégée on his anti-Semitism, asking what he would do if 1000 missiles were fired on civilians in his country, sharing President Obama’s quote “Israel has a right to defend itself against what I consider inexcusable attacks from Hamas.”
“Disagreeing with Israel doesn’t make me anti-Semitic,” he messaged.
I shot back Jeffrey Goldberg’s Alantic.com analysis of how the so-called “powerful Jewish lobby” was dwarfed by 54 Muslim-majority states in the United Nations shaping a global anti-Israel narrative. They focused on Gaza, excluding conflicts where Muslims killed other Arabs in much greater numbers. He felt the internet was illuminating the “open, unabashed expression of vitriolic Jew-hatred,” pointing out that the reaction of the Gaza war – from the Turkish prime minister, who compared Israel’s behavior to Hitler’s, to the Lebanese journalist who demanded the nuclear eradication of Israel, to the anti-Jewish riots in France – is a reminder that much of the world “is not opposed to Israel because of its settlement policy, but because it is a Jewish country.”
My Turkish protégée returned fire with a Huffington Post piece by a Pakistani-Canadian, Ali Rizvi, “7 Things to Consider Before Choosing Sides in the Middle East Conflict.” Before raging and overreacting, I forced myself to read it. I was surprised that it wound up being an olive branch. Asking whether Hamas used its own civilians as human shields, the author shared Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhi admission on Gazan national television that the human shield strategy has been “very effective.” If you support democracy and a two-state solution, Rizvi concluded you could be anti-Hamas, Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine. That worked for me, and also my coauthor Kenan. With the truce, we prayed the rest of the Middle East could compromise too.
Ultimately, the battle of links with my Turkish protégée led to an agreement –on at least one article. I then posted and tweeted “Instead of spreading hate, let’s focus on our common hope for peace” attaching Buzzfeed’s photo essay of “Jewish and Arab People Posing Together In Inspiring Photos Saying We Refuse To Be Enemies.” Miraculously it garnered many likes, shares and retweets – from all sides. I decided I wouldn’t back down from verbal sparring. Words had always been my weapon and my shield. That’s why I taught the power of the press, encouraged first person stories, believing the personal is political. With more tact and less extreme rhetoric, social media could be a bridge, not a blockade.