Criticizing Israel and Ignoring Syria: Anti-Semitism or Slacktivism?

As the violence in Gaza escalates, Israel’s defenders are upping their accusations of anti-Semitism at the country’s detractors. Death chants and attacks on synagogues are good reasons to worry about anti-Semitism. Those in the ‘criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism camp’ will then eagerly redirect you to the atrocities occurring in Syria. The logic is this: If you only criticize Israel while civil war wages in Syria, you are a hypocrite and an anti-Semite. This thinking is deeply flawed, and not only because it begs people to look away from something bad by claiming there is something worse to look at.

Why might someone who isn’t an anti-Semite criticize only Israel and not Syria? Let’s not underestimate the undeniable fact—however distasteful it sounds—that certain political issues are trendy. Gaza is trending. And Hamas is doing a much better job managing their social media than they are at landing rockets in Israel.

Slate’s Joshua Keating makes the important distinction that while both Syria and Israel are a source of news, only Israel is novel. Syria’s civil war has been going for over three years—three more years than Operation Protective Edge. This is the nature of our news cycle; we’re only reminded about Syria when something changes dramatically. So why denounce Israel but not Syria? It’s not anti-Semitism, it’s slacktivism—latching on to a popular story, tweeting or updating Facebook, then cycling on along with the news.

Who remembers Kony 2012, the short documentary film TIME declared as “the most viral video ever”? It was a brilliantly produced online campaign to arrest LRA leader Joseph Kony, and it swept a generation of slacktivists off their feet. They tweeted and liked and re-shared even though they couldn’t find Uganda on a map, and thought LRA stood for Long Reading Assignment. This was slacktivism at its finest, engaging minimally because the film was compelling and, well, because everyone else was doing it.

Let’s not underestimate the power of “but all the cool kids are doing it.” Syria should certainly be receiving more media coverage. But the cool kids aren’t protesting Syria, probably because it doesn’t really make sense. What might these protestations look like? A call for the violence to end, or calls to bring ISIS leaders to the International Criminal Court? Perhaps a desire for U.S. military intervention? If there ever was a time for Syria slacktivism, it has long since passed.

The conflict in Syria is far more deadly than that in Gaza, and most likely presents a greater national security threat to the U.S. But it’s not an easy issue for slacktivists. Both Assad’s regime, and the Free Syrian army have, by all accounts, committed gross human rights violations. Now ISIS is involved, a group which stones and crucifies people. The issue is neither ‘new’ nor as easily packaged as Israel, where as Jeffrey Goldberg points out, people are drawn in because one distinct ethnic group is disproportionately killing the other.

Slacktivists work in binaries; they are more interested when Jews kill Arabs, than when Arabs kill Arabs. They can see the disproportionate casualty count, as of this writing, 53 Israelis and over 1,000 Palestinians. And the slacktivist, who doesn’t understand the larger scene, sees but one picture: dead children. In garnering the support of slacktivists, holes in houses can’t compare with children lying on the beach, their limbs gnarled and eyes swollen shut.

Israel also suffers from what Bill Maher correctly identifies as “the soft bigotry of high expectations.” While Syria makes only a trivial claim to being a part of the moral community of decent nations, Israel makes a robust and active one. Israel is judged differently—fairly or not—because they claim to abide by higher standards. When Israel fails to meet those standards—or when people believe it has—activists and slacktivists both are compelled to say something. To the slacktivist, the rationale goes like this: Israel is supposed to be a good guy, but they are acting like the bad guy [insert moral outrage].  In Syria, we don’t expect ‘good guys.’ The war in Syria only serves to confirm a pre-existing expectation—that everyone in Syria is a bad guy.

Are certain slacktivists also anti-semites? Possibly. Though that is hard to prove. At times, it certainly seems that way. But there is a very real difference between synagogues being attacked, and ill informed, semi-interested people posting on their Facebook pages.

The extreme cases of anti-semitism make it easy to lump all Israel criticism into a broader case of “everyone hates the Jews.” Not only does this thinking obscure very real criticisms of Israel, it adds to growing sense of Jewish anxiety. It deepens extremism, entrenches people further in their views, and leads us away from productive dialogue or rational thinking.

Those who think political activism is reading a few stories and tweeting are problematic for many reasons. But not because they’re anti-semitic, but rather they are mere political surfers, riding the viral wave then paddling out to catch the next one.

About the Author
Raffi Wineburg is a freelance journalist from Seattle, Washington.
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