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Israel's Iron Dome aerial defense system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip on May 11, 2021. (Jack Guez / AFP)

The Bad Optics of Fighting for Your Life

When it comes to Israel, memes have replaced morality.

I am writing to you from the waiting room of my fertility clinic. Getting pregnant when you are gay is not so romantic, so we try to do little things to make it nice. Last night I took a bath. We watched “Mare of Easttown.” Nellie opened a bottle of red. Then she grabbed my stomach and gave me a shot to trigger ovulation.

I planned to take the morning off. The doctor says that stress is not good for baby-making. But sitting here, scrolling through my phone, looking at the tsunami of lies — lies that have permeated every Instagram story and every viral meme and every TikTok video and every popular Twitter account  — I am weeping.

It appears that standing up for the right of innocent people to protect themselves from a genocidal terrorist organization has become extremely risky to one’s “brand.” And so lies have replaced truth. Memes have replaced morality. Hashtags have replaced history.

I’m speaking, of course, about Israel. 

In the past 48 hours, according to the Israel Defense Forces, more than 1,500 rockets have rained down on Israeli cities. Those rockets are being launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad and by Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since Israel unilaterally withdrew from it and forcibly evacuated every last Jewish resident from  the territory in 2005.

Israelis have gotten used to living life in a kind of perpetual war. On Tuesday, Nellie was on a call with a journalist in Tel Aviv who abruptly hung up because the sirens started wailing. A friend sent a photo of his mother crouched in a bomb shelter. All ok, he said. Friends across the country told me about huddling with their crying children in safe rooms. It’s fine, they insisted.

But living like this is not fine:

It will never be fine to have children killed by terrorists whose explicit aim is to kill them:

This is certainly not the first time this has happened. But this time is different: There are more rockets being fired from Gaza than at any time in memory. Some are landing, killing or maiming Israeli civilians. The Iron Dome is astonishing, but it is imperfect and it is the only thing standing between civilians and shrapnel.

The other thing that’s different: in mixed Jewish-Arab cities — at least 20% of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish — riots are breaking out. In Lod, a little more than 10 miles east of Tel Aviv, synagogues and schools were set on fire and Jewish families were evacuated by the police. Similar stories of riots are coming out of cities like Haifa and Ramla. Today, in the city of Bat Yam, Israeli television captured the apparent lynching of an Arab man by a mob of Israeli Jews.  

Such barbarism inside the borders of Israel is a far more disturbing development than the rockets from Gaza. As the journalist Anshel Pfeffer put it: “No matter how many rockets are launched from Gaza, it’s not an existential threat to Israel. Internecine violence is.”

Yair Lapid got it exactly right when he condemned the Jewish rioters as “a bunch of pathetic racists who don’t represent Israel’s Jews.” Other Israeli politicians warned of civil war.

Why is all this happening?

Let’s leave aside the terrifying Arab-Jewish violence roiling cities and towns inside Israel’s borders, a topic worthy of its own column, which I’m in the process of commissioning. 

The big-picture reason this is happening — and has been happening for decades — is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are genocidal terrorist organizations that want to wipe Israel, a country the size of New Jersey that contains the largest Jewish community on Earth, off the map. That is their reason for being. It has become quite tedious to have to point this out, but if you read about the “militants,” as they are described in The New York Times and elsewhere, you realize there is no other option.

Take five minutes and read Hamas’s charter. It insists that “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad” and that “there is no way out except by concentrating all powers and energies to face this Nazi, vicious Tatar invasion.” 

If you can’t stomach the whole thing —  there is a part about how the Jews were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and control the media — watch this clip from last week of a senior Hamas official asking Palestinians to go out and buy five-shekel knives to chop off Jewish heads:

The goal here is the eradication of the Jewish people. That is the bone-chilling truth. That is the core obstacle to peace. Anyone who insists that the ongoing rocket barrage is about a particular Israeli government policy must be made to answer for this.

The specific reasons that such violence is unfolding right now, and in the ways that it is, are more complicated, so bear with me: 

First: the Palestinians were supposed to have elections this month for the first time since 2006, and Hamas was expecting to do pretty well against its more moderate opponents, the Fatah party, which rules the West Bank. But those elections were canceled at the last minute by Palestinian President (and Fatah leader) Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas is still serving his original “four-year” term, which began in that 2006 election. Canceling elections angered not only Hamas, but Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza.

Second: the Jerusalem District Court was preparing to rule on a property rights dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem between a handful of Arab residents and Jewish Israelis who hold leases to those homes dating back to before 1948, when Jordanian forces captured most of Jerusalem, kicked out any Jewish residents, and occupied the territory until the 1967 Six-Day War. The District Court ruling was postponed as tensions rose, but Hamas and its allies seized on the possibility of evictions to stir up anger in the streets of Jerusalem. 

Third: on Monday, when the court ruling was expected, Israelis marked Jerusalem Day, the annual celebration of the reunification of Jerusalem — one result of the Six-Day War. Tensions between Arabs and Israelis had been rising for weeks, and the city was braced for the worst. Arab worshippers had stockpiled the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which sits atop the Temple Mount above the Western Wall, with rocks. Religious nationalist Jews typically march through the Old City to mark the occasion, but at the absolute last minute, the march, which likely would have turned very bloody, was rerouted and then canceled.

Finally: the past year has brought unprecedented ties between Israeli Jews and Arabs in Israel and across the region, not least with the Abraham Accords. This has frustrated Palestinian leaders. The success of Israel’s new diplomatic relations with Gulf Arab states is an embarrassment for Palestinian politicians who have promoted resistance as the only way forward. As of last week, Israel was on the verge of having its first governing coalition that includes Arab political parties. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and their funders in Turkey and Iran, want to stop all of this from happening. Why? Because if it works, it proves that there’s a more attractive model for Arab-Jewish relations than perpetual violence.

Israel’s government has made mistakes that allowed these tensions to escalate. It could have managed last week’s unrest in Jerusalem more tactfully, for starters. Netanyahu’s governing coalition, had he managed to form it, was likely going to include Israel’s own ethno-nationalists — people with vile, racist ideas that should remain beyond the pale. And although Israel’s ongoing policy regarding East Jerusalem is much more complicated than the media would have you believe, you won’t find a defense for it from me.

The results of this mess, as always, are especially bad for the Palestinians who live under Hamas rule. Casualty reports are hard to verify because Hamas controls the media (even the international press) inside the Gaza Strip, but it appears that more than 50 Palestinians have been killed. Some of these people are entirely innocent non-combatants, including children. This is an unspeakable tragedy. It is also one of the unavoidable burdens of political power, of Zionism’s dream turned into the reality of self-determination.

As you may have gathered, this complicated truth about a tiny country surrounded by enemies making hard decisions about how to protect its citizens doesn’t sell. Hamas, its paymasters in Iran, and their allies in the Western press know this well, and are skilled in exploiting every piece of bad news about Israel’s actions that they can to promote The Narrative (™). 

The Narrative (™) holds that all Hamas’s violence is the justified reaction to the original sin of Israel’s existence. That if Israel only withdrew to the 1967 borders, if only Israel abandoned settlements in the West Bank, if only Israel split Jerusalem in half, and so on and so forth, Hamas would cease launching rockets aimed at Israeli homes and schools.

The Narrative (™) insists that Israel is not just an oppressive force, but the last standing bastion of colonialism in the Middle East, white interlopers in a foreign land squatting on the rightful territory of brown people. Israelis are baby killers, they are racists, they are supremacists. And Zionists? What are we? We are the facilitators of all this evil.

Never mind the fact that most Israeli Jews are not of Eastern-European descent, but are from the Middle East and North Africa. (The history of Israel, despite what facile activists would have you believe, is not color-coded.) Never mind the fact that Zionism flourished in defiance of imperial British — and, in an earlier era, Ottoman — rulers.

Never mind the fact that Palestinian militants have regularly partnered with large, powerful nation-states in the region in an attempt to cripple Israel. Never mind that the Jewish people have an indigenous history in the land dating back thousands of years, and that most Israeli citizens came back to the Holy Land in the last century because nowhere else would have them.

None of that matters to The Narrative (™) — a story about good and evil that has taken thousands of years to perfect in which the Jewish people, and now the Jewish State, plays the role of villian. 

When you grasp the depth of The Narrative (™) it makes sense to watch the way certain kinds of lies spread like wildfire. Among them, this popular meme, in which we are told that Israel is not a country:

Or this viral video, which has been viewed 14 million times and is a total fraud:

Nevertheless, The Narrative (™) rockets around the world, with influencers like Bella Hadid and Dua Lipa and Halsey, and progressive darlings like Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush, Marc Lamont Hill, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, speaking in unison.

Even the smart celebrities are getting in on the action. Trevor Noah weighed in with this gem: “I just want to ask an honest question here. If you are in a fight where the other person cannot beat you, how much should you retaliate when they try to hurt you?”

Just so we have this straight: A country should accept a terrorist group launching deadly rockets at its civilian population because a comedian thinks that the terror group won’t win? If there was no Iron Dome, and more Israelis were killed by Hamas, would it be okay with the Noted Military Strategist Trevor Noah for Israel to . . . try to stop the rocket attacks? How many dead Israelis are necessary for a response to be OK? Did anyone have the temerity to tell America that we shouldn’t go after the Taliban or hunt Osama bin Laden after 9/11 because they had no realistic chance of destroying America?

Today, Richie Torres, a Democratic member of Congress from New York, had an excellent response to this line of thinking:

With sovereignty and security comes the inherent right of self-defense, a right that every state including our own takes for granted. Why should Israel be an exception to the rule? Why should Israel be held to a deadly double standard in a moment of terror? It is unreasonable to expect a nation state to be the passive target of hundreds of rockets, and then forfeit the right to defend itself amid a constant stream of terror. No right-minded person would impose that kind of self-destructive burden on any other country. What is under siege is not only Israel, what is under siege is truth itself. Circulating on social media in particular is a vicious lie, a lie that deceptively reframes the terrorism of Hamas as self defense and deceptively reframes the self defense of Israel as terrorism.

Torres is exactly right. And his last sentence there is key. 

Israel’s supporters like to tell ourselves that nothing that happens online matters. That Israel’s existence isn’t determined by a celebrity’s post, or a viral TikTok video, or by tweets by woke congressmen. We tell ourselves that Israel is a thriving, multi-ethnic democracy beset by challenges that many democracies face — and a few that no others face. That it is stronger than ever, that it is finally being accepted by its Middle Eastern neighbors, and so we should treat the hate and untruths banging around social media as irrelevant.

I used to buy this. 

But anyone who has glanced at Jewish history can tell you that lies can spread like a virus. That such lies can infect entire populations. And that when the minds of masses of people become contaminated, it does not end well for the Jewish people.

Lies about Israel inspired this group in New York to urge its followers to find “Zionist fools” at their homes:

That was Tuesday. What will come next?

America used to have Father Charles Coughlin, the antisemitic radio host so popular that his town in Michigan had to build another post office just to handle the number of letters he received. Now we have tens of thousands of antisemitic preachers, and anyone, from anywhere on Earth, can call into the worldwide station and broadcast their vitriol, 24 hours a day seven days a week.

As my friend Matti Friedman — to my mind the best Israeli writer of his generation — just wrote in a brilliant column in Tablet: 

In the spirit of 2021, exciting video clips are ripped from their context here and injected into ideological circulatory systems to prove whatever needs to be proved. Explosions in the Al-Aqsa Mosque could mean that Israeli police are firing tear gas inside, desecrating the holy site, or that Muslim rioters are shooting off the stores of fireworks they hoarded inside to use against the police, desecrating the holy site. An Israeli driver hitting a Palestinian man near Lions’ Gate on Monday might be attempted murder, or a driver losing control of his car while escaping Palestinians who were trying to kill him. A video of Israelis dancing at the Western Wall as a fire burns on the Temple Mount is evidence of satanic intent, or of the coincidence that the annual Jerusalem Day celebrations at the wall were going on at the same time that one of the firecrackers set off by Palestinian rioters ignited a tree in the mosque compound above.

The subtleties seem beside the point when the villains and the heroes are so clear. The condemnations of Israel are pouring in from the strange coalition that gathers with increasing frequency for this purpose: the Turkish authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, both of whom used the word “abhorrent” in their tweets, the dictator of Chechnya, the Saudis, the Iranians, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s hard to follow whether Israel is supposedly attacking Islam or attacking liberalism; in Israel’s case, the two seem to be oddly interchangeable. When some Westerners see dozens of green Hamas flags in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they seem to perceive a civil rights protest, and when a Hamas leader calls on his people to buy “five-shekel knives” to cut off Jewish heads, demonstrating with his finger exactly how this should be done, some hear a call for social justice that Israelis should try to accommodate.

It helps that plenty of Western activists, including many who identify as journalists, have spent the past decade or so rebranding this conflict to suit the ideological fantasy world in which they operate. That fantasy world has only expanded in detail and reach with the triumph of social media, which marries elite prejudices with activist fervor and the passion of the mob. Hamas rockets are no longer being fired at Israeli civilians, as they were 20 years ago. Now they’re being fired at “Israeli apartheid.”

For the past few years, leaders within the American Jewish community have been deeply worried about whether the Democratic Party, with the wind now in the sails of the Squad, would go the way of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. That question now seems tragically parochial. 

The world has gone Corbyn. Look online. When Andrew Yang, the frontrunner in the New York mayoral race, tweeted on Monday “I’m standing with the people of Israel,” AOC rallied the online hordes. The anodyne statement was, she said, “utterly shameful,” and the pile-on ensued. By Wednesday, Yang had all but apologized. The ratio is the new veto. How pathetic.

It turns out America didn’t need a Corbyn. We just needed a Twitter and a few reckless demagogues in Congress. And now supporters of Israel, including many Jews, are so scared of getting bullied online that they’ve just decided to sit in silence, hoping the lies will dissipate on their own. 

They won’t. 

The truth needs people who are willing to stand up for it. It needs people willing to publicly resist moral perversion and nihilism. People willing to fight for a sane future.

That’s why I’m writing this. And it’s why we’re trying to start a family. 

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