The war in Gaza is now in its fourth week of operation. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on July 16 that four children were killed by Israeli missiles near the Gaza Harbour, two boys aged nine and 11 and two others aged 10. On the same day, the BBC reported that at “22:26: Israeli tank fire has killed two Palestinians, including a five-month-old baby, in the southern city of Gaza, medical sources tell AFP.” I posted both reports on my newsfeed on Facebook with a comment in Hebrew saying “Shame on you”. In response, verbal abuses, vile invectives and expressions of hatred were hurled at me by some of my Jewish friends. I was stunned. How could my comment have provoked more outrage than the incidents I had posted on my feed?
I was stunned too because most of my friends are liberal or centre-left (these are generally the default positions of the Jewish community on many social issues in most parts of the globe) and would ordinarily condemn this atrocity rather than exonerate it by describing it as “a casualty of war” in the name of a greater cause such as the preservation of the existence of the cultural or religious identity of a group. Yet the reverse was the case.
Indeed, this became evident when on July 20 the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) reported that Hamas had killed 13 Israeli soldiers. The sentiment of the Jewish community in Great Britain, France and Belgium seemed to be the same as that of the Israeli public. The loss of these soldiers was in the most literal sense experienced as a national loss and resulted in what could only be described as a day of national mourning (more than 20 000 people attended the funeral of Sergeant Sean Carmeli, dubbed “the lone soldier”), whereas the loss of that one five-month-old baby did not nearly evoke as much of an outcry. Yet most of them would in other circumstances find the killing of a child by a soldier more morally repugnant than the killing of a soldier by another soldier. This contradiction struck me as bizarre. It was suggestive of a myopia affecting the general public in Israel and the Jewish community more generally.
Following the war on Gaza, a virulent propaganda war has been taking place on many social media platforms, particularly on Twitter and Facebook, between pro-Israelis and anti-Israelis, with pro-Israelis using standard propaganda techniques.
There are videos and articles representing the cruelty and barbarity of Hamas and the Palestinians, which is meant to justify Israel’s continued war against them and the uselessness of engaging them in any form of dialogue; ad hominem arguments such as the use of videos of Arab-Muslims condemning Islam as a religion of hatred and most Arabs as terrorists; pictures and videos of the undeniable rise of anti-Semitism in Europe among migrant Muslim populations at anti-Israeli rallies and marches, as we witnessed over the weekend of July 19 in Paris, Berlin, Antwerp and in parts of Sweden, which, however, present the war between Israel and Hamas as a war between Jews and Muslims; pictures of Israel with a population of eight million Jews being surrounded by 400-million Arabs in the Middle East waiting for and preying on their destruction, which is meant to create a bond between all Jews against an amorphous Arab population, etcetera.
As a result of this propaganda, it has become difficult for a Jewish person to recognise that what is at stake in the war between Israel and Hamas is the illegal occupation of parts of the West Bank and Gaza, the control of their water supply and energy, and the Palestinians’ rightful claim to a sovereign state and homeland. This is because what is now at stake for a Jewish person is one’s cultural identity as a member of the Jewish people, yet an identity that is being used and manipulated by pro-Israeli propaganda in such a way as to make it seem that the maintenance of Jewish culture is inconsistent with the demands of Palestinians as Muslims.
In response to my comment in Hebrew appended to the article of Haaretz posted on my Facebook wall, “Shame on you”, a friend of mine in Israel wrote: “For all that the Jews have sacrificed over the centuries just to survive … It is truly gutting to see how one of ‘our own’ has turned against his people.”
I asked her what her Jewish heritage had taught her, and told her that it has taught me what it’s like to be in exile, what’s it like to be persecuted and what it’s like to have your family killed just because of their religion, and that this past and memory that I carry obliges me to stand with any group or individual who find themselves in similar circumstances. She did not directly respond to my statement. Instead, she continued talking to me about the rise of anti-Semitism.
This has in fact been one of the most effective strategies used by this and by past Israeli governments and is likely to deepen the divide within the Jewish community between right- and left-wing Jews and, correlatively, between second and third generation Holocaust survivors: the presentation of the war against Hamas and the Palestinians as a Jewish, a cultural or religious issue, instead of as a political one.
This image continues to mobilise in its support Jewish people from around the world, as well as desensitise them to the atrocities committed by the Israeli government and blind them to the legitimate demands of the Palestinians for a homeland and a Palestinian state.
However, if the Israeli government is making the Jewish people responsible for its deeds by waging war in its name then it lies first and foremost with the Jewish people to protest against the Israeli government, as the crimes the government commits will inevitably weigh on the conscience and on the memory and history of the Jewish people.
Rafael Winkler is associate professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Johannesburg.