When I lived in Israel I tried to be involved in politics.
I have always thought that activism is not only a great way to affect public opinion, but also a way to meet passionate people. Handing out flyers, going to demonstrations, and taking part in political meet-ups were all a part of my day-to-day life in Tel Aviv.
From my experience, when you try to be an activist – one that plans events or even one that only attends (like I was) – it makes you feel less like some things are inevitable. Many times, if not most times in my case, the causes and policy that you are advocating for don’t go through the way you wanted, but as an activist you at least know that you tried. You are not only a passenger who goes to vote once every four years, you try to help navigate.
Since I moved to the States I miss having activism be part of my life. I miss the demonstrations, the people, and the sense of empowerment, but most importantly, I still care very deeply for the causes and for Israel. In Israel, almost every political conversation includes the word “occupation.” In my eyes, and in the eyes of many others, the occupation is the heart of the Israeli political discourse, and is one of the main challenges that Israel has to face.
For me, it is hard to watch the current escalation between Israel and Gaza from afar. I wanted to find a way to be more than a passenger, to do something about it rather than just watch the news and hope for the best.
When Dania Darwish, a Muslim classmate of mine at Hunter College, and I started talking about what we could do about the situation between Israel and Gaza, we originally wanted to plan a demonstration or meet up. After a few conversations we decided it would be difficult to maintain. The message that we envisioned was clear: Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies. This message is a translation of a slogan that peaceful groups in Israel have been using for years.
With tempers only rising both on the ground and in social media platforms, we thought it would be productive to remind people that they are allowed to refuse to join the hateful discourse. They are allowed to respect each other, and they are allowed to disagree and remain civil. Because we were afraid that a demonstration would become a shouting match between "pro this" and "pro that" groups, we thought that starting a social media campaign would be more productive.
You see it happen on Twitter all the time, I thought. You choose a cause, think of a hashtag, take a piece of paper and make a sign, you tweet it, and it becomes viral. We chose #JewsAndArabsRefuseToBeEnemies and we tweeted a photo of us together holding signs in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. Done, piece of cake.
Apparently, however, it is not so easy. In some cases, social media campaigns may not become viral because few people are passionate about the issue. In our case, I think it is fair to say that lack of passion is not something the Israeli–Palestinian conflict suffers from. I was surprised to learn that our campaign was not taking off because people were afraid to join.
The same people who told me they support our campaign also told me, very honestly, that they were scared of their community to the point that they wouldn’t share a photo online. These people aren’t in North Korea or in Eritrea, the countries who are in the bottom of the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, these people are in Israel, Palestine, and the United States.
When people in democratic countries are scared of stating publicly that they won’t be another person’s enemy, you know there is something extremely wrong. In the States, both Jewish and Muslim Americans expressed concern over the reaction of their communities. What if they seemed inconsiderate or insensitive? I got the same reactions from both Arab and Jewish friends in Israel. “I liked the page, but I am sorry, I don’t think I can do more than that. But thank you for doing this!” is a very common reaction.
When did it become okay to write and share offensive things on social media, but insensitive to promote peace? I would expect that more people would be reluctant to tweet “Death to Arabs” or to use the hashtag ‘HitlerWasRight” (which was trending on Twitter during the past week) than to label their accounts with a peaceful message.
Over the past week I have spent many hours trying to convince my friends to post a selfie for a cause that they have told me is close to their hearts. The vast majority refused. Since the IDF’s [Israel Defense Forces] ground invasion of Gaza, it has become even harder. I was amazed to see how hate can intensify so much in such a short period of time, and grateful for those who were brave enough to join the movement that has been picking up on Facebook and Twitter. But when it is so difficult for people to take such a small step towards a peaceful discourse, how can we expect our leaders to achieve real peace with real compromises?
In a Huffington Post article about #JewsAndArabsRefuseToBeEnemies, someone commented, “Lot of women gonna get stoned to death for this.” It saddened me to see a comment so culturally insensitive, but it also made me laugh. It is so much easier for us to blame the lack of peace in the world on dark regimes with backward beliefs, but what I learned in the past week or so is that even in our modern and liberal society, a lot of people are going to be metaphorically stoned for a peaceful gesture.
The stoning could be done through comments on Facebook, unpleasant tweets sent their way, or even losing friends or the respect of their community. To those who say that a hashtag and social media campaigns are not going to change the world I answer – probably not, but it could be an important first step toward peaceful discourse and mutual understanding.
• Abraham Gutman is an Israeli from Tel Aviv currently pursuing a duel BA/MA in economics at Hunter College in New York City.