Americans, stereotypically, are wary of talking about religion and politics. Both can lead to charged debate, both can easily offend, and why ruin a nice dinner with heated discussion about the war in Iraq?
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This might explain why, as Tim Murphy wrote in New York Magazine’s website, “The Gaza conflict has become New York’s great conversational taboo.” Especially when it comes to Israel, Americans, it seems, prefer a policy of “don’t go there”.
Israelis, on the other hand, seem to adore a good fight, and boy, do we fight about politics. We go there. Whether it’s on Facebook or Twitter, posting to news sites or on radio shows, or on television, Israelis wear their political beliefs on their sleeves and then go fight a guy at the opposite extreme.
That is why Internet posts (or “talkbacks”, as Israelis call them) are so popular in Israel. Shows featuring Israelis on both sides of the political spectrum yelling at each other have been the bedrock of our TV for decades.
Why is political debate a way of life in Israel? That's no great mystery. Natural stubbornness aside, fighting about politics is a measure of control. A way to vent, and feel you're contributing, to either side of the political map.
Fascist vs asshole: Ready, set…
During the latest campaign in Gaza, however, the political discourse in Israel took a poisonous turn. Famous left-wingers like comedienne Orna Banai were threatened after speaking their mind; they were forced to apologize for “demoralizing” the troops. Verbal fighting has become actual fighting: right-wing 'militias' have attacked protests by the left and beat up demonstrators.
The volume of political discourse in Israel, turned ridiculously high even during normal times, has been pumped up to “Deafening”. But a new site currently taking Israel by storm might just help turn that volume back down to levels acceptable by human ears.
The site, called Mishu Lariv Ito (“Someone to Fight With”), is a text-based Chatroulette-style service that pits Israeli extremists from the right against Israeli extremists from the left, so they can - according to the site’s developers, brothers Asaf and Eyal Geva, students from Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem - fight anonymously and “bridge the gaps in Israeli society, or happily deepen the divide”.
The site's design is stark and simple. Upon entering Someone to Fight With, users pick a side: Right or Left. They are then asked to wait for their counterparty, a “right-wing fascist" or a “left-wing asshole” (the site’s tongue-in-cheek definitions).
Then, without so much as a ceremonial ding-ding-ding, the fight begins.
The warring sides are totally anonymous, identified only by political affiliation and color: red, right; blue, left. If they don’t like the person they’re fighting with, then like with Chatroulette, they can move on to the next chat.
So what are the conversations themselves like? They can be, of course, downright horrible. “You’re an idiot!”, a leftie might say to a rightie. “How does it feel to pleasure a man?” the right-winger might snarl back.
Some debates are subtler, some much worse. Venting is venting.
Occasionally, the left-wing "asshole" and the right-wing "fascist" are really just nice people, awkwardly trying to fight without knowing how to begin. This, for instance, is the transcript of a true conversation:
Right Winger (RW): hi
Left Winger (LW): hi
RW: how’s it going?
LW: ok, you know. It is what it is. How about you?
RW: very well, thanks
LW: It’s funny, I thought we were supposed to fight
RW: yeah, I thought so too
RW: I only came here to see what this site’s about
LW: yeah, me too. Truth is, I don’t really want to fight
RW: Me neither
LW: we’re both probably good people, anyway
RW: I agree :)
RW: there was this one guy here, all he wanted to talk about was birds
LW: At least there no penises, so it’s not as bad as chat roulette
The above, and conversations like that, are the reason why Someone to Fight With, tongue-in-cheek though it may be, is one of the best things to happen to Israeli society this summer. It's like a surgical drain letting the pus out. Because when we talk about politics, even if we yell, at least we are talking. When we flamewar online, at least we are not looking around for leftists to beat up.
Maybe that's why Israelis like to talk so much about politics to begin with. Because by talking about it, we can avoid hashing it out with our fists.