Jay Stoll: Listening to the Commentary On Gaza

When we were a month into Operation Protective Edge, it left me feeling like all bases that should be covered, had been covered. In fact, the experience had been familiar and predictable, with an information overload that is both dizzying and traumatising in equal measure.

The pattern usually happens as follows:

An article is written detailing an aspect of the conflict. An article condemning the initial article is then written in response. Next, articles ‘debunking the myths of articles about other articles’ are written. This process usually culminates with a face-to-face re-enactment on the six o’clock news. Throw in a live blog, interspersed with mass photo tweeting, and the process of conflict reporting in 2014 is complete. Just read the first line of this article if you think I’m exaggerating.

On the one hand, I am certain that people are entitled to whatever opinion they have on the issue. Politics should be accessible, particularly for those who are of voting age. There should be no elitist devaluing of independent voices, especially at a time when finding a common point of humanity is so desperately needed.

Alternatively, I consider many voices to be inauthentic and insincere when it comes to the pursuit of a lasting peace In Israel/Palestine. I find it so hard to repress my absolute disregard toward those who only ‘show up’ during a conflict, spewing baseless propaganda all over my newsfeed from either side of the argument.

The latter issue of authenticity and sincerity is my focus here.

Only a few weeks ago I found it impossible to articulate myself carefully on this very topic, as a small body of student officers debated an academic boycott of Israel. So unimpressed was I with the specifics of the motion, I tweeted that the “detail smacks of the kind of people who eat a shawarma and think they’re experts”.

Yet, my actual point was to satirise the behaviour of those who attach themselves to the Middle East debate in some conceited attempt to get noticed through ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’.

Have they actually experienced any degree of loss from the conflict? Do they realise the feelings of isolation and anger their actions engender amongst those with personal connections to the conflict?

My outlook on this, at least until the last few weeks, was guided by a famous piece of prose from Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. It can be found where the protagonist - a ‘self-hating’, Pro-Palestinian Jewish academic - breaks from his beliefs to tackle the matter of authenticity. He replies to a European audience member questioning him about the ‘racism of Israel’ with the following:

“How dare you, a non-Jew … how dare you even think you can tell Jews what sort of country they may live in, when it is you, a European gentile who made a separate country for Jews a necessity?”

So, as a result of the escalation in hostilities and the mass commentary that goes with it, I have spent hours dwelling upon whether such a tribal stance is still justified.

I have watched the polarisation engulfing our community and to a lesser extent the non-Jewish community, for whom criticising Israel’s behaviour tends to be a uniting cause célèbre. I have watched friends tearing each other apart and I’ve watched people who don’t even know each other, hurl insults that they would never dream of doing in person.

I can’t speak for non-Jews, but from within our community I think that those who adopt Finkler’s attitude do so due to a collective hurt of what has gone before us, and increasingly, a complete panic as to how to respond to events unfolding around us - particularly across the Channel.

Taking Finkler’s binary of who can and can’t comment when it comes to Israel is utterly self-defeating; if not only because of the challenges we have ahead of us in the diaspora. To flip the quote on its head, would we tell non-Jews that they shouldn’t speak out in defence of us as well? Similarly, if we don’t engage critically and appropriately on matters of Israel, do we ourselves have a right to speak on issues such as Syria, Ukraine? After all, according to Finkler they wouldn’t be our issues to speak for.

As a result, I am left with a depressingly simple conclusion in this reflection on what I’ve read over the last few weeks. Even if we absolutely detest what another stands for, listening to differences of opinion will ultimately be to our collective strength.

My grandpa regularly tells me, “G-d gave you two ears and one mouth, you should use them in that order”, I think he may just have a point.