Another big event in Israel and another wave of global discourse. But listening to conversations about Israel, or reading them on social media, can be demoralising. For example, ‘#IsraelElections has laid bare the budding racist, fascist, apartheid and immoral attitude of Israel’ from one Twitter user. Or ‘it’s non [sic] of you [sic] business. radical liberals pls shut up #IsraelElections’ from another.

Last summer, during the Israel-Gaza conflict/operation/war (please add/delete as appropriate!), Twitter and Facebook were awash with insulting posts from people from every point on every spectrum, including vicious slanging matches between Jews.

In preparation for a recent Limmud Conference session (and an upcoming session at the We Believe in Israel Conference on Sunday 22 March, UK), my UJIA colleague Robin Moss and I reviewed a variety of posts, threads and tweets to identify key issues which we feel hinder serious progress in the community’s Israel discourse.

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We observed some trends in the conversations:

Fractured – an enormous diversity of opinions were amplified via online forums
Self-righteous – little attempt to embrace the diversity of opinions or learn from others
Bad faith – assumed about those on the ‘other side’
Echo chambers – small closed circles who saw enemies everywhere outside of ‘their group’
Hyperbolic & toxic – and both sides thought ‘the other’ was threatening the social norm

In 1972 sociologist Stanley Cohen wrote ‘Moral Panics and Folk Devils,’ a book that describes how societies go through periods of moral panic, whereby:

“a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”.

Cohen believed that the source of the panic is not as big/threatening as it is being reported, but that media create a frenzy which focuses attention, and this disproportionally amplifies the issue – it’s worth noting that Cohen was writing in 1972 when there was no 24 hour news, no internet and no social media!

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For Cohen in the 1970s, the moral panic was youth culture (Mods and the Rockers). For UK Jewry in the 1990s, it was Rabbi Sacks’ “Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?” discourse, which was steeped in a crisis mentality whereby a lack of action would lead to the decline of the community. The response to the latter was led by media and opinion-formers, who came together to discuss potential solutions and take action (including the merging of two communal organisations to create UJIA, which engages UK Jewry with Israel).

There appear to be two ways to respond to a moral panic: 1) create change or 2) suffer community/institutional paralysis. In 2015, the decline narrative of the UK community is no longer prevalent therefore you could conclude is that it is possible for some level of panic to create positive change.

On the other hand, if the panic is characterised by polarised views, and reactions are irrational, rushed, knee-jerk, emotionally-driven, points-scoring and ultimately ineffective, then this will lead to institutional paralysis, coupled with individual alienation.

Twenty years on, I believe that the current moral panic in the community is around the topic of Israel/Israel education, which poses a very real challenge for UK Jewry. We need to work together to create new models of Israel discourse because if we fail to do so, polarisation within the community will get worse and people will simply get turned off by Israel.

Whilst I do not claim to have all the answers, I believe that there are three important steps which we can take as individuals (and as a collective) which will help to take the poisonous sting out of the current dialogue:

1. Take time before responding – In the age of instant communication it is all too easy to read something, get angry and respond instantly. I was once given the advice that if I was angry at someone/something then I should wait 24 hours before I responded. When I do delay responding (and I don’t always), I find that what I say is far more considered and not reactionary.

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2. Don’t assume bad faith – During debates/discussions it is often seen as a sign of weakness if someone backs down or changes their mind or position – I don’t agree. I believe that we have the capacity to learn from all interactions. Therefore when reading an article/thread/ tweet etc. take a step back and think: where is the other person coming from? Do they have a point? If so, how does this change my understanding of the situation? And where can I find out more? Discussion and different opinions are the foundations of how we communicate with each other as Jews. In the Talmud, minority opinions are recorded and it is through dialogue that the text is formed.

3. Push yourself out of your comfort zone – It is important to associate with people who have completely different opinions to you – it is with real challenge that there is true growth. At different points in my gap year in Israel I spent time with Australians from different youth movements who were on the Machon programme. Interestingly, I found myself gravitating towards people from a youth movement with a polar opposite ideology to myself and we spent time discussing our differences. I can honestly say I have never learnt so much about myself (and whatever it was we were discussing).

It is clear that the current discourse around Israel in the community is broken and that in time, we need to create new structures and have a new mentality that helps us escape this moral panic constructively, rather than sinking further into distrust and paralysis. Until then, consider how you enter the discourse next time you attend a conference, or post an article or link, or make a comment to someone you disagree with or engage in a debate – it is the little steps that will make a big difference.