July 23, 2024
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How to Talk to Neighbors About the Israel-Hamas War

The Israel-Hamas War, with its horrifying atrocities committed against innocent Israelis on Oct. 7 and gut-wrenching images of destruction in Gaza, has resulted in spiraling antisemitism and left many in the Jewish community unsure of how to talk to neighbors and friends about the crisis. High school and college campuses have become hotbeds of antisemitic and anti-Israel incidents and left many in the general community confused.

“Most of us need guidance not only in finding the proper language to shut this down, but also when we should engage and when to disengage,” said Linda Scherzer, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, in confronting reactions to “that terrible, awful Shabbat morning.”

Scherzer made her remarks during a virtual federation-sponsored program on Nov. 21, “Israel at War: Conversations With Our Neighbors,” which also featured Adam Teitelbaum, executive director of the Israel Action Network and associate director of public affairs at the Jewish Federations of North America, and Jody Hurwitz Caplan, MetroWest JCRC vice president and chair.

“What became abundantly clear since the massacre on Oct. 7 is that there are actually two fronts in this war, one in Gaza where our IDF soldiers are fighting fiercely to eradicate a terrorist organization whose ultimate goal is eradication of the Jewish state, and the other is the global war being waged against Israel’s very legitimacy and the disturbing ways in which that has metastasized into hatred of Jews and Jewish supporters of Israel,” said Scherzer. This includes the ”appalling, atrocious” claims that Israel is committing genocide, ethnically cleansing Palestinians from Gaza, is a settler colonial state, and most egregiously, that the atrocities on Oct. 7 never happened.

The situation on campuses, while shocking, has been brewing for the last 20-30 years as colleges became “gross breeding grounds for demonization and delegitimization of Israel,” she noted, and the same misinformation has spread to middle and high schools, boards of education, board rooms and the public square. The disinformation campaign omnipresent on college campuses has even turned some Jewish college students from Zionistic families into harsh critics of Israel.

Teitelbaum said many in their age group are questioning everything in trying to make the world a better place as they navigate their place in society while grappling with realities, such as social media, other generations hadn’t experienced. He suggested approaching these students as ”interested learners” to ascertain why coming from Zionist homes they reached their conclusions “rather than engage in an adversarial tit-for-tat argument.

“This is an important intergenerational moment,” he explained. “The Zionism of 1948 was not the Zionism of 1896, which is not the same Zionism of 2023. There is a lot of change that is going to happen in the days and weeks and years ahead of us. Some of our young people are using language that is not true, that is based on propaganda,” but Teitelbaum was optimistic that “We’ll get there.”

He continued, “Americans tend to have a very short attention span,” which he said is a “double- edged sword.” Once there is another conflict people will likely turn their attention away from this war, but conversely many people have already forgotten the brutality of the Hamas attack that started the conflict and now blame Israel.

“There is a disinformation campaign now going on saying this was perpetrated by Israel or that it didn’t even happen or it wasn’t as bad,” said Teitelbaum, who warned that “this not just about a couple of pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel activists who decided they want to repost some new information, but there is actually a concerted effort. There is a disinformation campaign that is part of the Hamas playbook whenever these atrocities escalate.”

In May 2021, when Israel responded to rocket attacks, there was “a deluge” of antisemitic vitriol on social media, said Teitelbaum, that many view as the turning point where anti-Zionism crossed the line into antisemitism and became a concerted disinformation campaign. In this latest atrocity, the leadership of Hamas, which deliberately sat out a conflict earlier this year with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, stated their campaign was to spend two years trying to fool Israel into thinking they didn’t want to be part of a larger conflict to entice Israel to let down its guard.

Although a majority of the American public is closely following the situation, according to a federation survey, Teitelbaum said many of them lack awareness or context of Jewish history or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the misinformation on social media is only serving to further confuse and inflame the public.

Conversations should be started with the assumption the person thinks they understand the situation and he recommended several points to stress: never let them forget about Oct. 7 and that Hamas deliberately targeted and brutalized innocent civilians; Israel’s focus is military targets; the hostages are critical to why the fighting has continued; there was a cease-fire on Oct. 7 (broken by Hamas); and to use “active language that Israel and the Jewish people are working to rescue hostages.” Teitelbaum cautioned, “Don’t let our emotions get the best of us when someone alleges we are supportive of a genocidal regime and all we care about is killing innocent Palestinians.”

Untruths about genocide and settler colonialism should be met with facts, he said, including that the United Nations originally partitioned both a Jewish and Arab state accepted by the Israelis but rejected by the Arabs who invaded in the 1948 War of Independence. As part of that cease-fire, Gaza became part of Egypt and the West Bank was annexed by Jordan. Israel captured them as well as the Sinai in the Six-Day War of 1967, and as part of the 1978-79 peace agreement, Egypt was given back the Sinai but refused to take back Gaza. In 2005, Israel uprooted their settlers and disengaged from Gaza.

“Until this time, through all these iterations, there were opportunities for the Palestinians to create and declare a state they never took,” explained Teitelbaum.

With much of the anti-Israel hate being driven by images of dead and wounded children in Gaza,

Teitelbaum said although any loss of innocent life is “abhorrent and hard to stomach,” the questioning of Israel’s continuing campaign is in itself “gut-wrenching because it suggests, purports, it alleges that we actually are okay with Palestinian babies dying.”

When faced with that question Teitelbaum said the answer is to show genuine empathy with the loss of innocent life while stressing the culpability and responsibility of Hamas for the current situation because of the “unconscionable damage” and atrocities committed on Oct. 7. He said he often points out the warnings given and lengths the IDF goes to preserve innocent civilian lives.

The situation of constant attacks had become untenable for Israel, which Teitelbaum said had no choice but to drive Hamas from power. Even with Israel’s ferocious response Hamas has continued to shoot rockets into Israel and use its own citizens as human shields.

“Those evocative images are intentionally used in order to delegitimize Israel,” said Teitelbaum, and to discredit Israel’s efforts at preserving innocent life. “We have to be careful. We can’t just dismiss out of hand that there are innocent people dying … The answer is we don’t want any dead Palestinians. We also cannot trust what the Gaza Ministry of Health, Hamas, is saying in terms of the impact.” However, he said “to dismiss out of hand that there are innocent people dying … to be crassly dismiss the human impact is fodder for our detractors.”

And while in the future there may be opportunities to engage pro-Palestinian sympathizers, as the war drags on engagement will become more challenging, so Teitelbaum suggested “now might not be the time to engage with those strongest against Israel.”

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked in media relations at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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