Opinions | When it comes to Israel, never read the comments section

Israel is enough to prove the axiom “two Jews, three opinions” insufficient. Because of this, I tend not to talk about Israel with other Jews — and almost never on the Internet. Jews talking about Israel online prove another axiom eternally true: “Never read the comments.”

However, once in awhile, someone will write something with which I agree enough to post on Facebook. Most recently this happened with a brilliant Jay Michaelson piece on the Israeli occupation in the Forward. I posted it on my Facebook wall, quoting his thesis that “as a temporary policy, the occupation is unjust [and] as a permanent one, it is apartheid” as my only comment.

Michaelson’s balanced consideration was refreshing, even as he utilized the trigger word of apartheid. He discusses real security issues as well as the undeniable inhumanity of the occupation, all with the same calm, analytic bent. Needless to say, this even-keeled approach did not carry over into the comments on my post.

Almost instantly I received a comment from a friend — let’s call him Shlomo — noting that by placing value on the security of Israelis who are responsible for the occupation, I was using a “standard liberal tactic to draw a false equivalency between the left and right, as if there is any comparison between liberation movements and racist ideologies.”

My response was simple and is at the core of my reluctance to engage on this issue: There is no absolute right or wrong here. There are many facts, and so much more emotion. Rare is the occasion when a piece like Michaelson’s is discussed in a diverse Jewish audience without hatred.

After consideration of my plea for reasoned dialogue, Shlomo fired off that Zionism was the cause of all problems in Palestine and that his Judaism was incompatible with this kind of racist and nationalist movement.

Another friend — let’s call him Menachem — asked Shlomo what would happen if his ideal resolution to the conflict were realized? What would stop a genocide of all the Jews living in Israel and the Territories? Or as he put it, “What would keep them from realizing their dream of an Arab state from the River to the Sea?” (emphasis added).

Needless to say, my reluctance to engage was reinforced by this interaction. All of us have these stories, and many of us have been Shlomo or Menachem at some point. If you think you are above this fray, consider that you take the time to read the opinion pages of a local Jewish newspaper. We’ve all been one or more of these people before.

But this isn’t the point.

What is critical is that if those of us who engage online and in real life are going to do something about the conflict that defines the modern Jewish experience, we must be open to the idea that we do not hold a monopoly on reality.

The occupation is much worse than the technological advancements Israelis achieve are good. The vapid Israeli advocacy that touts Israel’s industrial achievements rings hollow in the face of suffering and the lack of agency that plague the dream of Palestinian nationhood.

At the same time, the terrorism and anti-Semitism that define much of the resistance against Israel are unacceptable forms of resistance and must be rejected. And the list goes on.

Both Shlomo and Menachem were right about certain issues, yet they would not acknowledge the other’s position or the shortcomings of their own. Shlomo’s incendiary leftist approach and Menachem’s Socratic reactionary response do nothing but reinforce the meaninglessness of online engagement. It’s sad that both sides feel empowered to dehumanize the other while complaining that the opposition ignores the humanity of their preferred set of victims — all without seeing each other’s faces.

Ours is a people of respectful dissent; but the online Jewish community, if it can be called that, lends itself to soap boxes and earplugs rather than a Talmudic engagement. I do not expect the land of cat videos to rise to the level of the Sanhedrin, but I do expect more from those who say they believe in a better world. We must expect it of ourselves too.

Donald C. Cutler
is a Jew and lives in San Francisco. He expects to be lambasted as both a self-hater and racist nutbag in online comments and letters to the editor.

Donald C. Cutler
Donald C. Cutler

Donald C. Cutler is a Jew who lived in San Francisco from 2012 to 2021.