How to Talk about Israel & Palestine Online (Without Losing Your Mind)

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Online conversations around Israel & Palestine are uniquely volatile. We’ve all seen discussions on this subject devolve within minutes, turning into flame wars replete with copy & pasted quotes from holy books, poorly referenced ‘news’ sources; rife with derision, condescension, and name-calling.

It would be easy to write off the online mudslinging to ignorance. Unfortunately, education (or lack thereof) has very to do with whether or not conversations about the occupation & conflict are civil. I’ve personally witnessed some of the worst rhetoric and venom from academics trained at the world’s most prestigious institutions.

Sometimes these angry exchanges happen between people we’ve known for years, which can be especially disappointing.  As an interfaith activist, the Israel-Gaza conflict in 2014 was uniquely disturbing to watch unfold on social media. Muslims & Jews I have known for well over a decade would post things so inflammatory that any hope of a measured discussion on the news of the day became impossible. Extreme rhetoric ruled Facebook, Twitter and the comment sections of almost every news source reporting on the situation. People were talking at eachother on social media, angry from the lack of meaningful solutions to end violence, pain and oppression. On top of that, waves of Islamophobes and anti-Semites jumped into the fray to fan the flames.

Because of the volatility around the subject, it is tempting to avoid any online discussion about Israel & Palestine. During the summer of 2014, a lot of the people I know to be critical-thinkers largely bowed out of the conversation altogether.  Who can blame them? For many Muslims and Jews, the occupation & conflict are painful enough realities. The added torment of incessant online conflict only further demoralizes them. These debates are not theoretical or academic; they affect real people within our own communities here in the U.S.

The lack of thoughtful engagement by critical thinkers has taken a toll. People who are willing to hear the pain of both the Israelis and Palestinians tend to avoid the subject; subsequently, the narratives from all sides have been overtaken by some of the most irrational, emotional and biased voices. To make matters worse, online discussions are usually fueled by inflammatory media rife with obfuscation, peppered with images deliberately shared to incite.

Those of us who are anxious to see peace between Palestine & Israel must be willing to engage on this subject to model the type of public engagement that enables us to move beyond vitriol and reminds us of our shared humanity. While online discussions will by no means solve the conflict, we can do our part to make sure things are not exacerbated by destructive online fighting and the spread of hate. It is vital that we find ways to have productive disagreements in public spaces to model the type of engagement that builds trust, and paves the way for peace.

Of course, being online presents a special set of challenges:

  • It’s difficult to find a secure space where people feel free offering their opinions;
  • We are deprived of the non-verbal cues that humans have evolved to rely on in our communications;
  • We are all emboldened to say things we might never say if we were looking at another person in the face.

I have had productive disagreements (in person and online) with people on the issue of Israel & Palestine. I know for a fact it can be done. These conversations don’t have to destroy relationships; but they need to take place over time, becoming richer and more honest as trust is built.

These conversations must be entered into deliberately, and with great care. They are not about converting people, or winning an argument. Engaging around conflict requires a deep commitment to self-control and empathy, with an understanding that you will often experience emotional & spiritual discomfort in the process.

There are, however, some proactive things you can do to make sure the conversations you have online around Israel & Palestine (and other controversial subjects) remain respectful and productive:

Understand social media platforms.

Within each social platform there are varying degrees of privacy settings and access control. Conversations that are completely open to the public can attract random individuals who have no stake in a continuing relationship with you. While it’s not necessary to only engage in private forums, the degree to which you engage in a comment thread should always be mediated by who has access to your comments, and whether or not there is any relational accountability to be found there.

Have your own set of high standards for engagement.

It’s imperative that you never let others set the tone for your engagement with them. Know where you draw the line for yourself before you even begin having a conversation. If someone else decides to resort to name-calling, or shares graphic content to prove a point – you don’t need to do the same thing. It’s easy to get dragged down into mudslinging, but someone has to be the one committed to high standards, and that someone is you.

Expect Respect.

There is no reason anyone should be expected to take abuse, even during a disagreement. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t continue this conversation with you because you’re being abusive” and logging off. That’s not letting ‘them win’. It’s reinforcing high standards for engagement.

Be conscious of those who are reading, but not engaging.

The majority of people you are connected with on a social platform are not actively engaging; but that doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention. Your words, and your demeanor online are noted by many people. Even if you are engaged in a back-and-forth discussion with someone who disagrees vehemently with you, there is still an opportunity to influence a very large audience of people who are reading along, silently.

Take your time responding.

One of the advantages of discussion on the internet is that you are not required to respond immediately. You can take your time and think through your response. You can even type a response and ask a friend privately to review it before you post it. During heated discussions it’s easy to go on a spree, responding immediately to things people post; but by taking your time and responding with thoughtfulness, you will maintain control of the conversation.

Speak from your personal point of view.

It is very difficult to argue against personal experiences. Making a statement like “Drivers in Austin, Texas are crazy!” is open to every kind of argument; but making a statement like, “In my experience, drivers in Austin, Texas can be very unpredictable,” is hard to argue with. Even if someone disagrees with your experience, the way the statement is phrased opens up a conversation, rather than starts an argument.

Be gracious.

Graciousness, especially in the face of disagreement, is missing from most of our interactions online and offline these days. Being willing to thank someone for engaging with you even if you don’t come to the same conclusions is more than good manners. It’s a sign of maturity. When you’re gracious, you honor the other person as a thinking, intelligent adult – and are willing to extend the benefit of the doubt that the experiences/information that led them to a different conclusion from yours may be valid.

Call out people from your own community.

Calling out bad behavior in your own community is another way to keep the standards of engagement high, and it shows accountability. Conversely, glossing over the horrible things people ‘on your team’ are doing, or justifying bad behavior with a ‘they did it too!’ argument is weak and destroys your ability for thinking people to take you seriously.

Check. Your. Sources.

This may be the most important tip of all. The internet is rife with fake ‘news’ sources, blogs and media outlets that are not beholden to journalistic standards of professional ethics. Photos are doctored, eyewitness accounts are unverified. Confirmation biases are bolstered by this type of media, making it a challenge to find (the whole) truth about any situation. This is even more true about the media created around conflict where there are people actively churning out biased and spun information to rally support. Before sharing articles, videos and photos – know who created them, what their credentials are and make an attempt to verify them by multiple sources.

Be willing to admit mistakes.

Finally, the ability to admit mistakes is the hallmark of an intelligent and conscious person. Mistakes happen, even despite our best efforts – whether we have an off day and respond badly to a situation, or share something that ends up being untrue. Being willing to stand up and admit your mistakes will bolster your credibility and make everything you say and do far more trustworthy in the end.

street-sign-141396_1280All this seems like a lot of effort to engage in conversations that are guaranteed to make you uncomfortable. But as peace-makers we must gently and consistently push back against those who say it’s impossible to have respectful conversations around Israel & Palestine. We must be willing to model the responses we want to see from others. These are essential conversations and having them takes courage. They need to be led by people who have the goal of peace in mind.

Be willing to invest your time and energy; don’t be discouraged if the immediate responses you get from people are less than ideal. Having productive disagreements is not second-nature to any of us. It will take time for you to learn how to do it, and for you to teach those around you how to do it, too. But it is certainly a better alternative to what we see happening now.