Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Hate Debate

Wow. I am blown away. Flabbergasted. Shaken and saddened at a very deep level.

On Friday, Israelinsider.com, an excellent online magazine which claims the third highest readership among web-based English-language Israel news sources, began running “This Normal Life.” The first column to be printed was “Bedtime for Gar-Bonzo.” I was particularly excited because they have a "talkback" button and I was looking forward to some feedback from their considerable audience.

I checked on Motzei Shabbat. There were 18 postings. I began to read. The first one set the tone, from “Jerusalem, Palestine.”

“Falafel is an Arabic food, just like most everything you people eat, and the land you live on, temporarily, of course.”

That wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I set out to write a light piece about the joys of placing pesto and goat cheese alongside the humble garbanzo bean. Something that would elicit a smile, a feel-good essay. And as readers of this column know well, I eschew politics and have no interest in getting engaged in this kind of debate.

But I kept reading. The next posting was a nasty counter-argument, purportedly from a reader in Italy:

“Falafel was Arabic. But as always, even when Arabs think of something, others come and make it better.”

Jerusalem, Palestine wrote back: “Israel has no right exist.”

And then from a Jew in reply: “You have no right to live, you filth.”

And from another Jew: “You filthy dog, burn in hell…”

And in response: “Zionism is racism. You are nothing but a land thief.”

There were many more, most of which are too profane to print here. Sandwiched in-between there were also some legitimate comments about the nature of falafel, and a few bemused bystanders, one who wrote:

“Until now the conflict between Israelis and Arabs was about territory, holy places, demography, etc. And now it's also about falafel?”

Indeed, the talkback posters had turned what I thought was an innocent falafel essay into a metaphor for who owns the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, an evil game of one-upmanship played out at my expense.

By Sunday morning, the worst offenders were gone. The editor of the site had wisely cleaned up the vitriol and hate spewing forth, leaving only the more reasoned replies, and even those are still quite upsetting (click here to see the posting and the replies).

The responses I received were not personal. They weren’t even really about falafel. Yet, if an article on falafel can serve as a jumping off point for such a “dialogue,” I wondered, what about the more overtly political articles?

I surfed over to an article by Yaffa Ganz, a very decidedly provocative piece entitled Manifesto – “a reminder of who the Jewish people are, why we’re in Israel, and how we intend to stay put.”

153 responses as of Sunday morning! The same cast of characters. The same hate mongering and inane back and forth. Even some of the same profanities (was someone using an automated spam-the-Jews program?) I suppose I should be glad I generated such a proportionally smaller talkback.

I have printed here some of the words of hate that Bedtime for Gar-Bonzo generated, as difficult as they are to read, because they thrust me, without my approval, curiosity or desire, into the broader world of hatred that exists in our world today.

I have heard about these kinds of exchanges online, but I’ve never experienced them myself. Coming from the Bay Area, I had heard about the intimidation during rallies on college campuses, like San Francisco State University, but I wasn’t there. This time I was.

I wish there were clear good guys and bad guys here. But at least on the pure level of this “debate” and the words that appeared on the website, both sides were calling names with equal ferocity. I have spared you the clever similes and references to animals in some of the postings, but suffice it to say that the Jews did not fare better than the Arabs.

I am not about to change what I write in “This Normal Life” or start pontificating on politics now. But I am deeply disturbed and profoundly saddened by the tone of what I saw. If this is how we conduct ourselves in the relatively “safe” environment of anonymous web posting, where hacking is done on the keyboard not with axes or guns, how can we ever expect there to be reconciliation and peace in the Middle East, or in the world at large? Bin Laden's audiotape messages come across as almost statesman-like by comparison.

Halacha prohibits “lashon hara,” evil talk, in part because it is understood that words have the power to cause great harm, equal to physical endangerment. And certainly this experience has taken my core conception of a world where the potential for healing is a shared ideal and set it back a notch.

I don’t have a pat answer or a feel good summary that will make sense of it all. I only hope that by raising this issue, all of us will be able to take our own small steps and actions to counteract the repugnant proliferation of hate wherever we encounter it, online or off. It is our responsibility in times like these.

Maybe this will help: the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles is planning to invest $200 million to construct the Center of Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in downtown Jerusalem. Read the story from Haaretz.

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