AP Photo/Hatem Ali
Two years ago, as conflict flared up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Jews across America logged onto Instagram to watch as everyone they knew posted a “Free Palestine” graphic. Within days, Dua Lipa, Bella Hadid, classmates, professors, and friends all became geopolitical experts with axes to grind against Israel, Zionism, and their Jewish peers.
Fast forward to this weekend, when Hamas terrorists launched a monstrous attack against Israel, murdering over 900 people, injuring nearly 3,000, taking 150 hostages, committing rapes and attacking innocents in violation of every international humanitarian standard. Surely, in the face of terrorism and war crimes, you’d expect the people who had so much to say in 2021 to denounce these evils. But you’d be wrong, because these noble defenders of human rights are now radio silent.
In the face of this weekend’s barbaric tragedy, the internet response has been very helpful for working out who is who—and what they stand for. Social media has divided into three groups: Jews, “activists,” and people observing in silence. Let’s break these cohorts down:
Group One: The Jews
In the past two days, Jews in the diaspora have experienced the horrors of a 1940s-style pogrom through our phones. We have been frantically refreshing Twitter and Israeli news, worrying that the next victim will be our sister or friend or grandmother or nephew—because it could be. We all know someone in Israel.
In the wake of the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust, many of us have taken to Instagram stories to mourn, to inform each other, to help people find their missing friends. Even Jews who usually avoid discussing Israel have spoken up. Younger American Jews have now joined the ranks of prior Jewish generations who knew what they didn’t: that Jews are not safe anywhere, not in Israel, where our people are being massacred, and not in New York City, where proud antisemites are marching in the streets in support of rape and torture.
Yet the graphic images of murdered women and emotional pleas from beloved celebrities still haven’t moved non-Jews to say a word. Wipe the Jews from Instagram and you can pretend the slaughter simply didn’t happen.
Group Two: The ‘Activists,’ or, the Insensitive People You Should Remove From Your World
These are the people who already hated Israel and took this attack as an excuse to double down, posting about decolonization as Hamas terrorists assaulted innocent girls. These are the people who watched the videos of elderly women being carted away by gun-toting barbarians and thought to themselves, “Hm, this seems like a good time to post about how Israel incites violence.” These are the Harvard students who released a statement while entire families were being executed in their homes reading, “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” These are the people who laughed and cheered when a speaker at a Democratic Socialists of America rally in Manhattan described how some “hipsters” were partying in the desert until Hamas showed up and murdered them.
These people inhabit an entirely different realm animated by an entirely different set of facts, morals, and convictions. Their antisemitism is either overt or so ingrained in their consciousness they don’t even see how it affects the world around them. They have a marked inability to acknowledge the suffering of others. Or maybe just of Jews.
Be prepared to lose them as this war continues. In truth, they’re already lost.
Group Three: The Silent Lurkers
This crowd constitutes the overwhelming majority of the internet. This crowd is also where there is true potential for a regular person to help make a meaningful change.
Some of these people have something to say about every political cause. They insist that “silence is violence” and that, in the oft-quoted words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” But apparently those maxims don’t apply when Jews are being murdered.
If anything, it speaks to the sheer inhumanity of Hamas’ attack that there are so many people staying quiet—normally when Israel appears in the headlines, every woman who took “Intro to Human Rights” in sophomore year posts at least three infographics about Palestinian borders on her story. It’s a shame it only took babies being beheaded and women being violently assaulted for people to stop treating a tragic conflict in a deeply complicated place they’ve never visited as a convenient opportunity to broadcast their political virtues.
Some of these people are quiet because they agree with the “activists” in Group Two. In private, they’re certainly spewing the same insensitive garbage about “resistance” and “freedom fighting”—they just have the good sense not to telegraph it all over Instagram when grandmas are being abducted.
But there are other people who are reading the news and watching the videos in horror, appalled by the hatred and violence, which they correctly understand to be crimes against humanity. They’re rabidly consuming the headlines, they’re liking people’s “Stand With Israel” stories, they’re privately texting their Jewish friends to ask how they’re doing. Yet they’re staying silent because, as horrible as the videos of blood-soaked rape victims make them feel, in the spaces they inhabit, Israel is bad, and they’d rather avoid the annoyance of speaking up.
If you are this person, we want to speak directly to you. Some of you are our acquaintances. Some of you are our friends.
The world’s total Jewish population is 16 million. That is 0.2% of the globe. Israel, the world’s only Jewish country, is home to 9.3 million people, more than 900 of whom are dead (for context, this is the equivalent of a terror attack in America in which 32,000 people are brutally murdered). And now, the Jewish state where our ancestors and friends and family members fled after millions of their ancestors and friends and family members were murdered, faces a brutal war that has wreaked unspeakable destruction on places and people we love. And none of you will say anything in public, even if you comprehend the magnitude of the horrors, because you’re too afraid to “wade in” and “take a side.”
We know it can feel daunting to speak up about anything relating to Israel—the country has been so thoroughly demonized that it’s (tragically) understandable to fear the interpersonal consequences of mentioning its name in anything short of an intensely critical light. But we need you, because social media has now become a field of war, not just metaphorically but literally, as Hamas prepares to flood the internet with videos of hostages begging for their lives.
War crimes and murdered toddlers are not a “complex political situation” with “arguments on both sides.” You can support Palestinian statehood—in fact, you can have any opinion you want about the regional politics of the Middle East—and still believe that jihadist terrorists abducting 85-year-old Holocaust survivors should be condemned. Conflating those two things only gives credence to the idea that violence against Jews is political; violence against anyone else is unquestionably evil. Insisting on that distinction, in the public arena where narratives are created, is the only way to break the cycle of demonization and intimidation-into-silence.
You should not need to fear for your social standing or your livelihood for saying, with no throat clearing or caveats about Netanyahu, that slaughtering Jews is bad. We promise you, nobody will defensibly think you endorse every piece of Israeli legislation because you believe that women shouldn’t be violently abused and their lifeless bodies paraded through the streets. And if there’s someone in your life who you fear might, maybe you should join us in considering why you’re surrounding yourself with people whose opinions you legitimately fear.
In case those population statistics weren’t clear, we are a tiny minority waging an uphill battle, and we’ve been fighting it for centuries. Ask your Jewish friends how they’ve felt over the past few days, and we bet they’ll tell you that they feel isolated, hopeless, and alone. And you should understand that you are part of why they feel this way. We notice when you reach out in private but go radio silent when, and where, you need to put your own skin in the game, leaving us to defend our basic humanity alone.
Be decent: Stand alongside the Jewish people in your life who spent the past two days glued to their phones hoping their friends or family weren’t raped or found dead. Mourn with us and share our pain. Push back against the politicization of Jewish murder by standing up against something you know to be wrong. Find the courage to take a side at a moment when history is watching, because we’ve already seen what happens when they come for the Jews and people say nothing.
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Ani Wilcenski is Tablet’s audience editor.
Isaac de Castro is Tablet’s Assistant Audience Editor.