Not too often do I find myself watching an angry sea of red, white, green and black yell “child-killer” to Jewish pedestrians in between chants for a third intifada. But this was the scene just a few weeks ago in Chicago at a pro-Palestinian rally and it has surfaced throughout the world nearly every time the Israeli government has lifted a finger in self-defense.
I don’t deny that people have the right to whichever beliefs, affiliations and opinions they choose. But events over the past month have demonstrated a profound moral obligation to choose both wisely and with care. The reason is simple: anti-Israel sentiment, unlike any other political opinion, has the absurd and worrisome tendency to ripple into violence, incitement and hatred.
Since the outbreak of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, we have seen this more potently than ever before. Pro-Palestinian rallies throughout Europe have quickly morphed into firebombed synagogues, looted Jewish storefronts and vitriolic rhetoric demanding that Jews return to gas chambers. Twitter feeds that began with “#freeGaza” were soon overtaken by the horrific slogan, “#Hitlerwasright”. Jews in Toronto, Chicago, Miami and elsewhere have all woken up to threats of violence against their communities in the form of painted swastikas and hate-mongering pamphlets. These events, so shockingly rampant, have caused French police to ban Pro-Palestinian rallies in certain major cities and German officials to place limitations on Pro-Palestinian rhetoric (such as banning the now popular chant, “Jew, Jew cowardly pig, come out and fight alone”). According to CNN’s Jake Tapper, more than 100 anti-Semitic incidents have been reported in the UK alone since the current conflict began.
I am not yet ready to adopt the tempting claim that anti-Israel sentiment is somehow equal to anti-Semitism. As befits any western democracy, Jews freely critique the Israeli government on a myriad of issues, domestic and otherwise. However, it has become astonishingly clear that anti-Israel views fuel the fire of anti-Semitism and, in far too many cases, serve to ignite the flame.
In between Arabic chants through a megaphone, I turned to a bystander at the rally – a non-Jewish, non-Muslim operations manager for a local political branch – and simply asked him for his thoughts. He staunchly, unequivocally asserted that Israel’s operation was morally unjustified and that, alternatively, Israel should give land for peace. In the next few minutes, I discovered that he was painfully unaware of the 2005 disengagement in which Israel withdrew all troops and settlements from the Gaza strip. He did not know that Hamas had been raining rockets on Israel for years before the current escalation. He had never read Hamas’ charter (which denounces diplomacy and glorifies armed attempts at Israel’s destruction) and had never heard about Hamas’ tunnel network that extends terror into the heart of Israeli communities. On that same day, I spoke with another avid supporter of the Palestinian cause who had been actively involved in the rally. At the time, she was not yet aware that Hamas was situated within the Gaza strip and was oblivious to the security threat that their presence posed to Israel.
I cannot blame those who are partial to this conflict for passionately standing along their party lines. I have lost both friends and family in Israel’s fight for survival and I know many innocent Palestinians who have suffered horribly as well. Instead, I’d like to turn to bystanders – the passive consumers of rapid-fire media – who, consciously or subconsciously, have formed opinions on this issue. My plea is simple: be educated, be sophisticated and be nuanced in your thinking. Recognize that this conflict bears a complex, 66-year history with innumerable different players and parts. Accept that no sound bite, headline or photograph can possibly provide enough context. Consider learning about the Arab-Israeli conflict from a multitude of sources, including Israeli media. Investigate Israel’s history – from its inception with full UN support to its threats of annihilation from the surrounding Arab world. Speak to people on both sides of the conflict and refrain from the media’s shameful tendency to simplify the matter to a body count.
When political views merely supplement small talk, they are free to be as thoughtless and poorly researched as their beholder finds acceptable. But opinions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict act as fodder for the most vitriolic forms of anti-Semitism and have a proven potential to spiral into hate speech, bombed synagogues and violence against innocents. Scrutiny and scrupulous research are critically important before such views are unleashed into the public domain.
So before your next flippant remark about that far-away conflict in the distant Middle East, remember its bizarre, yet very real power, to awaken a monster of anti-Semitism that we all hoped was put to rest. Education and nuance has always been a good thing. Today, it is a moral necessity.