Flare-ups and screw-ups in the Middle East reveal peoples’ biases much closer to home — and I’m addicted to discovering them. The last few times there’s been a flare-up of violence and controversy between Israel and its antagonists, I’ve taken to quietly but obsessively scrolling through the comments sections of blogs discussing the topic. I get a perverse kick out of witnessing people desperately trying to avoid a flame war and eventually getting sucked into one anyway. Of course.
Each thread has its guaranteed characters: Those for whom the mere mention of conflict in Israel seems to cause steam to come out of their ears, those who immediately complain about undue criticism of Israel and point to far more autocratic regimes, their foes who repeatedly list human rights abuses Israel has allegedly perpetrated, and the would-be mediators, the proudly rational “let’s all calm down” folks.
And then there are the bigots — on both sides. Yes, occasionally people write something really intelligent after a fiasco like the recent flotilla raid. But more frequently the internet gives one access to a whole bunch of anti-Semitism on one side, and equally vicious anti-Arab racism on the other. My husband and I call it the “Zionism is racism vs. the racist Zionists” phenomenon.
Facebook and Twitter just make this voyeuristic masochism even more acute — not only are strangers on the internet revealing their nasty streaks of prejudice, but relatives and colleagues are doing it, too! So often, this disappointing rhetoric comes from people I previously admired, like Helen Thomas. So to me, Thomas’ downfall — which Sisterhood contributors wrote about here and here is just another example of the kind of disillusionment I’ve gotten hooked on.
I know and understand why this kind of thinking appeals to liberal-old me. It brings this snowballing crisis back under my control and understanding. It’s easier to condemn a cousin or a journalist than carefully weigh and parse out blame to nations and their governments.
I was an English major, after all. I can quite handily parse comments for a level of shrillness that denotes racism or anti-Semitism and self-righteously shake my head at general “you started it!” immaturity from both sides. But what I can’t do is solve the crisis overseas. I think getting angry at people closer to home is one way to make manageable this seemingly unsolvable, emotionally draining conflict. It’s also one of the reasons people have so eagerly switched from asking how the heck we’re going to stop the violence to debating Helen Thomas’s remarks, weighing them against her breathtakingly inspiring career, and asking whether someone else said the same thing, they’d get in as much trouble.