Can friendship survive Facebook?

Anti-Semitic graffiti on a wall in Italy. 2014.

Until the most recent flare-up in Gaza, I had been conducting a kind of friendship experiment. Through a mutual interest group I had become friends with a woman who holds extremely negative views on Israel – and, as I would discover on Facebook, Jews as well.

I like to think my own views on Israel are moderate, and I suppose I wouldn’t shrink from the label “liberal Zionist.” Politically, I’m a liberal secularist. I’m a big fan of religious-political-sexual freedom and things like that. I’m not remotely conservative on any issue I can think of. I think the existence of Israel is a good thing for both Jews and non-Jews and have argued for years with those who hold the view that Israel is, well, not a good thing. So I guess that makes me a Zionist, too, though I don’t support the more hawkish positions of the Israeli right or fall for the seductive idea that “Israel is always right.” I admire people like Amos Oz. I seek a coherent, balanced position that doesn’t sacrifice my core beliefs. You get the idea.

So back to my friend. Early on in our friendship we realized it was going to be rough.  She would always make a point of sporting her keffyah every time we got together. We knew there was an elephant in the room. We generally avoided the topic of Israel, but at times we would very politely discuss this or that, trying oh-so-hard not to step on each others’ toes. One evening at dinner I noticed she had displayed a thank-you-for-your-support card from the Italy-Palestine Friendship Association prominently on the mantle. Did she want me to comment? If she did, I didn’t. It might’ve given her too much satisfaction and provided the perfect setup for the anti-Israel rant I knew was waiting to happen. Seeing as we enjoyed each other’s company (and, more importantly, the kids were best friends), it would’ve spoiled the soup. And, as this was an experiment – I believe on both our parts – to see if a friendship could weather such polarizing differences, I thought it best to avoid the topic whenever possible.

Facebook was another story, though. I tend to discuss politics ever more sparingly on Facebook precisely because that’s where friendships tend to go sour. Her feed, in contrast, was  a weapon in the propaganda war against Israel. I had decided to write her posts off as “we agree to disagree”, but when Operation Protective Edge erupted her page exploded in an uninterrupted feed of anti-Israel hatred.

It was all there, every meme from the Israelis-as-Nazis to the Apartheid Meme, from the Blood Libel to the Zionist World Conspiracy. There were calls to boycott Israeli products and articles by (nearly always Jewish) anti-Zionist authors denouncing genocide and ethnic cleansing. Worse, there were backhanded jibes at me (“Look how the Zionists excuse genocide”, snarkily linking an article I had posted a few minutes before), presumably in order to garner favor among her like-minded “friends.” So this is what it’s come to, I thought. Ad hominem attacks.

At first I thought the whole thing would blow over, but as the conflict persisted  her vitriol only worsened. I stopped following her posts. Out of sight, out of mind. Then one day my wife said, “Come see what she’s posted now,” and there was some article by Gideon Levy saying that Israel is just about the shittiest society on Earth. The comment to her post read something like, “What a sickening people. Levy is the only Jew you can trust.” She had “liked” the comment. I unfriended her without another thought. No phone call, no email, no explanation.

I still wonder if what I did was rash. I still want to give her the benefit of the doubt. I search my mind for reasons to excuse her. But when I consider the lengths to which I had gone to accommodate her ranting, and to ignore it for the sake of our friendship (or at least that of our daughters), I realize I did the only thing possible. We haven’t spoken since.

A failed experiment is still a successful experiment, however. You can still learn something from it. I think I learned that Facebook can undo friendships as easily as it can do them. Even the kind where you see people in real life and go to their houses and cook together and your kids are close friends. And I can tolerate political differences, however unsavory. That hasn’t changed. But I cannot and will not tolerate prejudice, racism, homophobia, misogyny or – yes – anti-Semitism. That’s graffiti that just won’t wash.

How do you say “facepalm” in Hebrew?

h/t R.S.H.T.

Yaakov Swisa, founder of FaceGlat – an ultra-orthodox Jewish version of Facebook – has this to say:

“People who are God-fearing and care about their children’s education – cannot tolerate the ads and pictures one sees on the regular Facebook. I personally know people who have deteriorated spiritually because of all kinds of things they were introduced to there.”

You mean people who believe in a neurotic, psychopathic deity can’t deal with ads for, say, vacation houses in Croatia? (I just took a quick look to see what Facebook was offering me.) What’s wrong with them?

As for their children’s education, does Swisa really think Facebook offers tutorials on the theory of evolution, the age of Earth or any of those frighteningly atheistic things normal people learn about in school? No worries!

If people can’t have fun on FaceGlat and meet some interesting folks – or even converse with their own spouses – then what the hell are they doing there? Aren’t there enough morality police in Mea Shearim already?

Kill the men, rape the women

It doesn’t look too good for Rabbi Shapira’s plan to beat the swords of modern combat into the ploughshares of Yahweh-inspired warfare. Yesterday I wrote about his proposal for Torah-based practical combat; today I want to follow it up with a short paragraph from a book I’ve been reading intermittently for over a year. The book is called War in Human Civilization (OUP, 2006) by Azar Gat, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. Gat writes:

Warfare regularly involved stealing of women, who were then subjected to multiple rape, or taken for marriage, or both. Indeed, the story of Moses’ command to the Children of Israel to kill all the Midianites except for the virgin women who could be taken (Numbers 31. 17-18) typifies victors’ conduct throughout history: kill the men, rape the women, and take most of the young and beautiful as war trophies. If women could not be taken because of the enemy’s opposition, or because of domestic opposition at home, they would often be killed like the men and children, in order to decrease the numbers of the enemy.

Here, for the record, is Numbers 31. 17-18 (that’s part of the Torah for those unfamiliar with the term):

17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. 

18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

According to BBC, the King’s Torah (Shapira’s controversial book) “suggests that babies can justifiably be killed if it is clear they will grow up to pose a threat.” This would be perfectly coherent with Torah-regulated combat, as we saw above.

The Torah may have been a slight improvement over earlier codes of law like that of Hammurabi – itself perhaps rather innovative for its time for actually codifying laws – where the punishment for nearly everything is death, but it has long been surpassed by modern secular ideas of justice in every way.

The Torah, like the Gospels and the Qur’an, is a document produced in a certain time and place by humans very much of their time (no human has ever been of any other). As such, it’s a fascinating thing to study. But any proposal that modern values be abolished or subverted out of allegiance to this ancient anthology of Near Eastern literature should be met with jeers. As a thought experiment, imagine what life in your country might be like right now if ancient Babylonian law was suddenly put into practice.

If fire break out in a house, and some one who comes to put it out cast his eye upon the property of the owner of the house, and take the property of the master of the house, he shall be thrown into that self-same fire.

Now does that sound reasonable to you?

Torah-based practical combat

Sound like a guide to warfare based on the laws promulgated in the Torah? Well, that’s what it is. Rabbi Shapira explains:

“I think that people who read the plan will realize that what the Torah says is much more sincere than ‘purity of arms’ (IDF’s official doctrine of ethics). I think that calling it ‘purity of arms’ is a disgrace – it’s putting human life in risk.

“The Jews are wise people; they will come to their senses. The conscious and behavioral revolution will take place easily and pleasantly, and I hope we won’t have to experience difficult things for it to happen. We can’t go on acting like we’re acting today, because then the situation of the Jews here will be worse.”

This is a disgrace. “Jews” are not “wise people.” Individuals may have some modicum of wisdom, but no ethnic, national or religious grouping can be “wise.” Rabbi Shapira is a prime example of a Jew who is dangerously unwise, for example.

He doesn’t seem to realize that a “conscious and behavioral revolution” has already taken place in much of the world – and right there in Israel, too. That Israel practices an imperfect form of combat (often the IDF is chided for its “brutality”), yet doesn’t resort to fire-bombing wide swaths of enemy territory in order to cause maximum damage – a practice which would be rather simple given their technology – is itself an improvement over less moral ways of doing war. And it is definitely an improvement on the Torah.

…the rabbi strongly criticized Israel’s legal system and former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak. According to Shapira, Barak decided to confront the Torah with all his might…

As well he fucking should have. A supreme court bound by allegiance to the Torah would fast turn Israel into the most backward nation in the Middle East. As a Jew and a liberal Zionist, all I can say is: to hell with the Torah. Fuck it. Throw it in the garbage. Don’t base your life on its teachings, and don’t let it rule your courts of law. If Israel has any advantage over its neighbors, it is to be found in its (rocky) adherence secular principles, not in the factoid that “Jews are wise.”

* h/t Ophelia Benson.

Israelis are not Nazis. Duh.

I try to be very patient with people I disagree with. This hasn’t always been the case, but I’ve learned that there is much to be learned from trying to engage people who see things differently – sometimes very differently – than me.

Yesterday on Twitter a woman I follow tweeted:

To which I responded, saying that the tag #Nazis seemed far-fetched, whatever her quarrel with the Israeli government was. I was greeted with absolute certainty that the tag was descriptive of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, that they are doing what the Nazis did to them, so…

What did the Nazis do, and to whom? I asked.

No answer to that. I wonder if this person is aware that the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany are not the same people as sit in the Israeli Knesset today. If not, her knowledge of history is atrocious.

It’s tiring and disheartening to point out to people that the term “fascist” cannot be applied with impunity to everyone one disagrees with. “Nazi” should be used even more judiciously, and preferably when talking about actual Nazis. “The Israelis”, no matter how much disgust they may fill you with, are not Nazis or even fascists. To use such words is to abuse them and confuse others. You end up looking like the extremist, not Netanyahu.

Get your terminology straight, or people will stop listening.

Israel can has atheists?

Lately I’ve been reading a blog called the Atheist Rabbi. I’m not exactly sure what kind of rabbinical work there is to do among atheist Jews, but whatever: he has his degree and it makes a provocative name for his blog.

I like the way he sets the tone of a recent post:

It’s been a year or two since I last attended a meeting of the local rabbinical association, but the last time I did, I walked out with a sick feeling in my stomach.

When was the last time you read such a line? The post is about Christians United for Israel, a Christian Zionist group. Most Jews I know who support Israel (meaning, who do not wish for its destruction) are ambivalent about Christian Zionists. On one hand, they are a broad support group; on the other, they are convinced Jesus is returning and Israel represents the site of Armageddon. I’m not too comfortable with the Left Behind scenario, not because I think it might actually happen, but because I don’t want that to be the reason behind any sort of political activity. Messianism is an awful idea.

The post closes on a secular, democratic note you will never hear sounded either by Israel’s most maniacal religious supporters or its most heinous “We’re all Hezbollah” detractors:

I support Israel, too.  The version of Israel that I support is a secular, democratic state preserving Hebrew and Jewish culture while protecting the rights and dignity of the minorities in their midst.  I care not one whit for “holy” stories, sites or borders.  The only thing that is sacred to me is human life and well-being.

Accepting support from anyone who views Israel as the fulfillment of nonsensical supernatural legends is as irresponsible as it is ridiculous.

This is the view of a rabbi whose blogroll includes Richard Dawkins, Pharyngula and Greta Christina. I’ll be checking in regularly to find out what’s going on in his mind.

As a secular, atheist Jew I’m interested in more blogs like the Atheist Rabbi. What do Israeli atheists have on their minds? Are there any secular lobbies in Israel comparable to the Secular Coalition for America? I mean, if Turkey has all those atheists, what about a country in which a quarter of all its citizens claim to be nonbelievers?

Please send links.

Wading through the muck

Lee Smith is back this week with a response to the readers of his article last week in Tablet about Israel’s critics, their commenter hoardes and the “mainstreaming” of anti-Semitic invective by respectable purveyors of information. Wait, who wrote what again?

It’s complicated.

I don’t think anyone in the Sully-Walt-Greenwald camp is going to be canoodled into the Smith-Goldberg-Dershowitz camp, but you’ve got to give Lee Smith credit for actually wading through all the muck around Stephen Walt’s posts.

Highlight: One commenter on Smith’s article claims to have secret access to a Smith-inspired death-threat, but his hands are tied.

“Not only can I source the comment, I can quote it in full here and now. But Tablet Magazine has requested that I not do so.”

I guess that puts Tablet Magazine right up there with AIPAC and Jeffrey Goldberg on the “Jews Who Run the World” list.

Why are you so interested in Israel, anyway?

I’ve already extended an invitation to a couple of friends and readers of this blog – inspired by Norm’s post and long-standing curiosity – to answer the question, “Why are you so interested in Israel, anyway?” Assuming most of you have no direct link to Israel (or Gaza or the West Bank Palestinians), and observing that there are so many more awful places in the world in need of attention, this is a question I feel merits some good answers.

So anyone reading this who would like to send me a brief (keep it below 1000 words, please) essay on why Israel interests you – pro, con or anywhere in the middle – is encouraged to do so.

A few rules:

1. They will be published with the author’s real name, so you must be prepared to stand by your words. Transparency is of the essence.

2. Snark is fine, but I do not tolerate hate speech against anyone. So steer clear of it.

Send this along to anyone you think might wish to contribute a piece. Here’s your chance to give a shape to your innermost thoughts about the Jewish State. And somebody will actually read them! So what are you waiting for?

Pax Ben-Gurioni

Last week I had my beef with Susan Jacoby on her reading of the Gaza flotilla raid as a kind of capsule version of Israel-Arab tribal rivalries. This week she hits the mark in a wonderful, highly critical column about Israel’s Haredim – or ultra-ultra-orthodox Jews – proving that it is possible to criticize Israel without falling into the myopic, anti-Semitic tropes of people like Jose Saramago.

For the record, I share Jacoby’s worry about the Haredim. They are religious extremists dedicated to a Torah-only vision of life on this planet. As an atheist, a secularist and a half-Jew (like Jacoby herself) who cares deeply about the present and future of Israel, I can only applaud her claim that these fanatics imperil Israeli democracy from within.

The sight of thousands of Jews taking to the streets of Israeli cities to fight for the right to wall themselves off in their own ghetto within a Jewish state–and at the expense of that state–is utterly dispiriting. These are people who want to write Baruch Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn out of Jewish history. They want to shackle their own minds and let other Jews–the Jews who who played such a vital role in creating the modern world—do their fighting for them. And they want the rest of us to shut our mouths out of fear that we will be charged with anti-Semitism for saying that their form of religion is rigid, retrograde, and contemptuous of the beliefs of others. That the State of Israel, founded by men and women of far-reaching vision, should tremble in awe of these fearful people is a shame and a disgrace. And it breaks the hearts of those of us who can never forget the hope and pride we once invested in Israel’s future. Even more, it breaks the hearts of the sabra grandchildren of the tough, proud, secular Jews–men and women of reason who hated the very idea of spiritual or physical ghettos–who devoted their lives to the creation of Israel.

So these are the same problems dogging countries like the United States and Italy. The US has its evangelical nutjobs, and Italy its criminal Catholic Church which intimidates Italian politicians in a way strikingly similar to that of the Haredim in Israel. Of course, the Church is a multi-national institution representing the world’s largest religious denomination, and the Haredim are a small percentage of one of the world’s smallest peoples. But they both want theocracy in the end.

So why can’t the Israelis stand up to them? The history of the Jewish people is so rich, so ennobling, so varied and engrossing that the Haredi version palls in comparison. To think that Torah, or the Gospels, or the Qur’an is unequivocally the best guide to life in the twenty-first century is beyond laughable. It’s dangerous. I’m with Susan on this one.

So you mean my mother’s not a Khazar?

The genetic evidence is in and we Jews are basically what we’ve been saying we are all along – a people. No, not a “race.” But a people with a long history which goes back to, you guessed it, the Middle East. So say the results of two recent genome studies as reported a few weeks ago in the NY Post.

This already raises spectres. Who wants to have their identity confirmed by genetics? Suppose the results were negative. Then would Jews not be a people? Jewish history is absorbing and complex, brimming with migrations and intermarriage (shhhh!), conversions and just about anything else that can happen to people over a period of thousands of years, and then some. Somehow, we are still here, which is the really interesting part. How did we get to where we are?

The Khazar theory has apparently bitten the dust, and with it will go The Invention of the Jewish People, last year’s shock-schlock bestseller (well, if you count France and Britain). Shlomo Sand’s thesis was essentially that what we call “Jewish history” is little more than a Zionist construct. Cui bono, you ask? Clearly to appropriate Palestine from its rightful occupiers, then swindle the world with tall tales of expulsion and diaspora.

Martin Goodman reviewed it for the TLS, concluding that:

In a self-glorifying preface to this book, Sand describes his role as that of a revealer of inconvenient facts suppressed by a malicious political and academic establishment. Some of those who have expressed approval of his book may believe that, like the Israeli New Historians whose discovery of genuinely new data on the events of 1948 has indeed caused much discomfort to that establishment, Shlomo Sand, too, has faced opposition because he has unearthed something new. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Shall Shlomo Sand now eat humble pie?

* If any of you are seriously interested in critiques of Sand’s book, Anita Shapira reviewed it here; Hillel Halkin’s review is here.