My Own Private Gaza

I went to war this summer. As dutifully as the Israeli soldiers in their green fatigues and camouflage hats marching down the dusty roads to enter the Gaza Strip, I got up every day and approached the battlefield.  Some days the fighting was intense, creating a blur of quick decisions and rapid deployment. Other days presented long pauses. Did quiet signify success or conceal something possibly more sinister? A revanche or a movement of materiel?

Of course my job was a pale shadow of the soldiers’ duties.  Never was my life in danger nor was I required to make decisions that could lead to the loss of life. I was not a direct witness of death and grievous injury, though I was connected to real deaths by one degree of separation.

Nevertheless, I was enlisted to fight on Israel’s behalf on the plains of a another treacherous battleground – Facebook, where potshots, sniping and even misinformed barrages are all too common, especially in any social media-driven discourse about Israel’s right of defense from Hamas-launched missiles.  Some days were more productive than others. Firefights sometimes were easily won. Other days, the shooting went on far into the night, only to continue the next day without resolution. Because of a wide variety of FB friends from the left to the right, the rat a tat tat of salvoes—an almost constant bombardment–took up pages and pages of postings. I didn’t have an Iron Dome to disintegrate the incoming blows, and some of them were personal, ugly, and occasionally bordering on hate speech. But there was no question about continuing.

My fight began as a solitary action, but what remains with me is the surprising comaraderie–I was joined at every stage by willing, informed, and dedicated defenders. I would hear the noise and look up to see that he – and it usually was a he—had taken a firing position beside me and was squeezing off a few considered rounds of cover.  Everyone who helped had a different area of expertise, though they all knew the general territory. Bill from Canada was an Ivy-educated linguist who writes dictionaries of obscure Indian languages. Anas, a Pakistani now living in London, was angered by the lies he’d been taught by Islamists growing up. “They told us the Israelis were responsible for everything that went bad. I believed them. Then when an earthquake leveled our town and they blamed Israel, I thought, ‘What’?” Raphael was an Israeli tour guide who knew everything.

Sometimes I didn’t know my virtual comrades until later, when I had time to look them up online. Facebook offers only a vague background view so we judged each other by our writing and our points of view. Private messages served to fill in stories people didn’t want to commit to public scrutiny.  Sometimes we discovered uncanny personal and professional connections. Once I called out for help from Bill, who was driving across Western Canada. He stopped his car, offered up some crucial geopolitical history, and drove on.

The first hand-to-hand combat came as a complete surprise. I saw a message that was nastily anti-Israel. The poster, whom I’ll call Will, was a Navajo Indian, a friend of many years whom I met when he served as my interpreter for a story I reported for Newsweek magazine about a dispute over land and religion between his tribe and the neighbors, the Hopis. I had gone on to write two books on the issue, which substantially aided the Navajos by presenting their side fairly–without the usual prejudice of the historically accepted (New York Times) version. I was shocked to see that Will felt a visceral identification with the Palestinians. I responded to his posts at length, trying to explain that no, the Palestinians were not the “indigenous” people of the land now known as the State of Israel.  And no, Israelis were not “colonizers.” They were building a modern country on the land that had been part of their culture and their aspirations for 5,000 years and on which some remnant of the faith had maintained a continual presence, even after repeated, and well-documented, expulsions.

Will was always polite, but dogged. Every time I offered him an article to read, he would proffer back another. Still critical, but different. Slightly more nuanced. Because of our long friendship, we had an honest, respectful, discourse. I felt he was listening. And I was too. Then one day, Will’s posts led me into a small redoubt – a Facebook group called: “Stop the Attack on Gaza! End Navajo Partnerships with Israel.” The page had been created to support a planned demonstration in the Navajo capital, Window Rock, to try to stop an informal partnership that Navajo President Ben Shelley had created with Israeli farmers to help his people grow produce more productively in the high desert. The Navajos, always struggling to improve their economic base, were likely to profit from this collaboration. However, the demonstration was intended to force the tribe to sever its nascent tie with Israel.

BDS—“Boycott, Sanction, Divest”—an effort to strangle economically the state of Israel – had come to the reservation. I didn’t know the Navajos to be haters, and I was shocked. Moreover, the effort seemed to me to be completely self-destructive.

I argued with my usual zealotry. But unlike Will, the people in the BDS group didn’t want to read anything I posted. The fact that I’d written two books about Navajos, one of which helped provide the background to accomplish a change in the law that stopped the relocation of elderly members — was meaningless. In fact, it was more proof of my clueless arrogance that I should think I had standing to say anything to the assembled.  “As someone who claims to care about Diné (Navajo) people, you are showing utter contempt for them by interfering with attempts to build anticolonial alliances between Palestinians & Diné fighting for self-determination of their people and land,” I was told.

I was outraged because the reason my reporting for Newsweek had been effective was because it had changed the narrative from a concretized, biased view to one that opened the door for mutual understanding and compromise. Only once the old narrative had been retired was a change in the law possible. I was shocked because the same thing was happening with the Gaza reporting. The powers that be – and the BDS group–could not get the story right. Facts did not matter. Only ideology. They seemed like brainwashed zombies. Bill the linguist helped me in his usual dispassionate, well informed way. Even though he had painstakingly assembled beautiful online dictionaries – with pictures and sound – of native languages otherwise to be forgotten, some of the antagonists hurled at Bill the following slander: “You have no credibility here.”

After a day or so, I discovered that the two most caustic members of this group were not Navajos at all. They were whites—one with an Indian sounding name. And Jewish! Both with broken ties to their own people. At that point, and with the passing of the largely ineffective protest (which still garnered massive media coverage in sleepy northern Arizona/New Mexico) Raphael and I and the others packed up our ponies and prepared to ride out of town. I did not tell my Navajo friend, who is (secretly) gay, that Hamas would murder him without hesitation and wouldn’t give a second thought to any “anti-Colonialist alliances” he imagined he was forming.

Had we won? No. Had they? No. Just before we headed out, I got a frantic invitation from a former reporter for the Navajo Times to join another page: “Israel and Native American Friendship.” It was forcefully and vibrantly pro-Israel. This group, I was relieved to see, was four times larger than the BDS group.

The fight broadened and continued for the duration of the Gaza war – 50 days. A great deal was at stake, and we kept up with it—never allowing a false claim to pass without comment. My circle of correspondents grew. I was outraged by the passive and irresponsible reporting of the international media who allowed itself to be terrorized into not publishing anything critical of Hamas: not the street shootings of innocents to discourage revolt; not the reprehensible “curfew” instituted to prevent Gazans from evacuating buildings they knew the Israelis had targeted; or the criminal launching of missiles from schools, clinics, and housing areas. I had left Indian country and was now in the world. I had to point out, politely, to a respected member of my New York religious community that she had posted a discredited piece of chicanery. She was battered with commentary.

In the end, the 50 days of war changed the shape and geography of my imagination. I am now able to visualize a worldwide alliance of people linked by what they think and write—people who respond to world events in real time. The results of our online battle were mixed, unknowable. Does discussion on Facebook change any minds, or does it further Balkanize? Will we soon only speak with those who think like us? One could argue that the result of the real-life, blood-and-guts battle was not entirely dissimilar to the online version: it depended on your point of view. Maybe one day we might all agree to stop the heartbreak and just shoot it out online.



About the Author
New York-based journalist Emily Benedek has authored several books of fiction, extended reporting and personal history. Her articles have appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post and on NPR, among others.