This month, September 2016, I spoke with Leyla Katz, the author of Being the Infidel: Romance, Jihad and Twitter…. a very modern fairytale.
The blurb says:
Three little words – How did this happen? I was looking for politics, not sex or passion.
Three little words and a nice Israeli Jewish girl in the UK and a proud Palestinian Muslim from New York are battling to change each others’ hearts and minds. Perhaps we’re trying to make peace online, trying to understand our rewritten histories and our difficult, terror-fuelled realities. We crave a connection … and to make sense of this social media world and the real world conflict it supports.
This is a very modern Romeo & Juliet story, where vicious images of death and 140 character insults and insights whizz across the ether. This is a place of memes and avatars, where we try to settle lies and hopes whose roots are as old as the Bible.
“Out there” we fight. “In here,” in our private Direct Messaging space, this unknown man and I build something… unlooked for, unexpected, not exactly unwanted. Night after night… and we’re 3,500 miles apart!
What on earth is the future for people like us? What happens to our friendship, our frenemyship? We are each part of a tribe in the 21st century and our tribes demonise the dangerous Other…
Three little words.
I hate you.
You’re a liar.
Who are you?
Are you horny? WHAT?!?!
Welcome to our words, to faith and fury and to the Middle East “peace” process… on Twitter.
My interview with Leyla was conducted in person, and I am deeply honored to provide the following transcript of our discussion.
So how did this journey start?
The way I got onto Twitter was very odd. My daughter was on her gap year.
She went on a program to teach Palestinians English, which I paid for.
But when the actual programme started, it was just after the Gaza war in 2014.
And tensions were very high.
The program took armed guards with the students for the first time ever, which was against their ethos.
They were very peacenik.
And that change, I suppose, frightened me. (This is my baby!)
I started watching Twitter to get news at a very granular level… Real detail, blow-by-blow, who was attacking whom, who was kicking off. It was a very extraordinary and difficult time. Very painful to watch. And my daughter was out there!
And watching Twitter, I became aware of a degree of anger and vitriol and ultimately, lies, that I found very shocking. People who were supposedly pro-Palestinian were saying some of the most vile things about Jews. And let’s not mince our words: this was not about ‘Israelis’ or ‘Zionists.’ I’ve never seen anything like it.
And then I met Eddie.
At this time, I am on Twitter an Iranian Jewish woman, Israeli born, and living in the UK.
My ‘adversary,’ with whom I fought every single day, for hours at a time, is a Palestinian Arab Muslim in the Bronx. And I later learned, that he has almost certainly never visited Israel/Palestine. He had to learn Arabic, probably in Jordan, as far I can tell. He’s unemployed, divorced, angry, and he took it out on me! And it was personal…
And then in the DM space, which is a private way of communicating without everyone being able to see, he asked me if I wanted to have sex with him. And I was horrified!
And then he toned it down and started flirting with me.
And we fought and flirted for months.
And along the way I learned a great deal of my own history that I didn’t know; particularly about the violent and frankly, often miserable, history of Jews in the Middle East in the last 200 years. About the origins of Israel, the reality, and not the myths. And I hoped we would find a place where we would agree on something, however small. And we never did. And I ultimately lost hope. I worked so hard to befriend this man who hated me.
So we have talked a little already about how you came to write the book. Could you also tell us a little bit about the title and subtitle: Being the Infidel Romance, Jihad and Twitter: a very modern fairytale, by Leyla Katz.
The ‘Being the Infidel’ was naughty. It was provocative… and intentionally so.
One of the things I learned was that Muslims consider all the prophets of Judaism and Christianity to be Muslims who did not know they were Muslim. So Moses is known as ‘Musa.’
I was astonished. For me, this is cultural revisionism; stealing my history. And frankly, I was cross. For ‘Islamists,’ and I use the word carefully, I am the infidel. The unbeliever. Sod that! 3 and a half thousand years of Jewish history are not going to be wiped out 15 centuries of Islam.
So, by accident, I became more Zionist, more fervent. Eddie had the reverse effect on me, from that which he intended.
And I suspect I did the same to him. And then I wanted to go further.
At this point, the destruction of Palmyra appeared on the television news with ISIS parading their core sacrificial victims around the ancient sacrificial site.
And it struck me very powerfully that Judaism abolished human sacrifice. It’s one of the unrecognized great things that Jews did for humanity. And I am quite proud of that.
The trilogy early on the book of three historical, biblical references, came out of that insight. And the fantasy section is a kind of writing I’ve never done before. I’m a BBC national journalist by training. I write in facts. And this was an emotional flight of fancy that seemed to me to resonate powerfully with the times…. my reaction to both who I am and the extreme events going around.
And I was writing this at 3 o’clock in the morning, in bed; and it poured out of me, completely unexpectedly. And then I started to reflect on something I’ve never much thought about, which is what it means to be a Jew, in Europe, living in a country which is essentially nurturing, or at least not hostile, in any way, to who I am.
Apart from a very few moments in my life, I am as British as the Union Jack. And my Judaism is the ‘vanity case’ I carry with me on an aeroplane, in case the suitcase gets nicked. Does that make sense? My passport is in my hand, and it’s a British passport. There’s no conflict for me, in terms of which team I bat for. I am British and Jewish.
And yet, there are people, in its country, and that is what I found most shocking, who deny me both those labels: and call them ‘Khazar.’ I’d never heard the word… in 50 years, I’d never heard the word. All of a sudden, to these haters, my documented history meant nothing. I am denied my heritage.
No! That’s not OK! I don’t deny them (and actually, to take it further), I wish for nothing more than for the Palestinians to have a state; and most Jews like feel like that. After seventeen peace offers, and three rejected offers of statehood, we are losing hope. The leaders say Israel has no right to exist; Jews of three and a half thousand years in the Middle East are Khazars!
Crazy! I don’t want to feel angry. I want to feel able to build bridges.
On a lighter note, when I get off Twitter, I talk to many Muslims and Arabs in the real world; many of whom are a lot less extreme, and with whom I can build relationships.
But Twitter is poisoning that pond.
So what about these Twitter haters?
There are three groups. The pro Palestinians, some of whom are genuine concerned human rights activists, but sadly many of them on Twitter (I can’t speak for the real world), use their activism as a stick to beat Israel and Jews.
There is little humanity, little pro-Palestinianism, and a great deal of old-fashioned Jew hatred.
I joke in the book “What is worse than a dead baby tweet? Half a dead baby tweet?” And I have had pictures of mutilated pictures from any war tweeted at me, pretending they are from Gaza.
The irony of Arabs killing Arabs and other Arabs pretending Israel is to blame is not lost on me. 250 000 dead Syrians, including thousands of dead Palestinians.
No Israel involved! No-one cares.
And that makes me sick, because it’s using Israel as a focus to avoid dealing with massive strife and bloodshed all over the Middle East.
The other two groups are the Nazis and the naïve left wing. Without going to detail, the Nazis are unconscionable. My favorite line is:
‘Holocaust denial in the age of Google? LOL!’
References to ovens, gas, soap, lampshades…
Eurgh! There’s really nothing else to say.
The left wing is different. It’s naïve. The view that Israel is ‘colonialist’ and ‘oppressive’ is a fiction based on ignorance. There’s a set of ‘memes’ involved, words they trot out: ‘genocide’ of the Palestinians, who have experienced 600% growth since 1948.
And another one is ‘apartheid.’ The only state in the Middle East where Jews, Christians and Muslims worship together in peace and where Muslims join Israel’s army to protect ‘the Zionist state.’
My welcome to all three groups of people is: ‘Come and visit!’
However, typically, they block me instead.
How do you see the Twitter landscape evolving over the next while?
Twitter has been a free speech forum to the point of hate speech without any limits. Interestingly, a legal challenge has recently been made another social media platform, Facebook; which has resulted in Facebook moderating a great deal of the calls to jihad and other violent material that has had free reign.
To put it simply, Facebook is frightened of being sued for race hate and has come to an agreement with various bodies to monitor the sewer more closely.
The impact on Twitter has also been noticeable. And lately, some of the most disgusting tweets have been blocked, and some of the accounts that are only there to spread hate have been suspended.
Literally in the past few weeks; this is very new.
And I am relieved: allowing propaganda, lies, hate, murderous intent to flow freely across international boundaries where people are vulnerable to radicalization is utterly irresponsible.
And these vast organisations are supranational; but they are not above the law. And there is no ‘human right’ to hate speech.
So I guess I’m optimistic, actually, that things will improve; and we will go on fighting these bastards.
Thank you, Leyla, for this great discussion of your book and its general context. Perhaps one day, we can talk a little more about some key themes in the book.
Lovely. Thank you.