Why Do We Get Caught Up in Compulsive Online Debates About Israel?

When crisis strikes the Jewish state, we in the Diaspora feel an urge to voice our concerns and support. Most of the time our 'friends' don't agree.

Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens
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A woman looks at the Facebook website.
A woman looks at the Facebook website.Credit: Reuters
Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens

My life has had many phases. I’ve been at a state comprehensive school in Leicester, in the United Kingdom. I’ve been a philosophy student in London. I’ve been a student politician, alongside Trotskyites and eco-activists. I’ve been involved in drama and theater. I’ve been a seminary student in Orthodox rabbinical schools. I’ve been an academic researcher in a center for philosophy of religion at a Catholic university. Through all of these chapters of my life, I’ve picked up interesting and wonderful friends, and a varied assortment of acquaintances. Many of them have ended up on my list of Facebook friends, which now looks like a fossil record; charting all of the different periods of my life.

And so, if I ever write something on my Facebook wall, especially something likely to engender responses, I often end up generating an ever-growing thread. Perhaps one of my old school teachers will get into a debate with a hill-top settler, interspersed by comments from a British parliamentary candidate, a communist and a thespian, with philosophical analyses dropped in for good measure by a PhD student from the Midwest; all quietly observed by my Dad’s first cousin. And then I feel myself pulled in all sorts of directions; wanting to express my original point, and to better articulate my position, but also wanting to make peace between all of the discordant voices from the disparate strata of the fossil record of my life.

Take a recent example. I was in Israel when the three teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrah, went missing. I shared in the overwhelming sense of national longing for their safe return. I was still in Israel when it was confirmed that they had been murdered. And I felt the wave of national grief, which must have been felt by Jews in the Diaspora too, but was so charged and potent on the streets of Israel. And, as the grief settled in, I became wary of the desire for revenge that boiled under the surface. Sadly, I was proven right, with the anti-Arab riots in Jerusalem and the unspeakable revenge killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

Before that outpouring of violent revenge, I had been scared by the reaction of the Israeli cabinet to the murder of these teenagers. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon suggested that we build a new settlement, as punishment for the death of our three Israeli boys. I didn’t see how that would make things any better, but I could see how it would make things worse. Others suggested a ground invasion of Gaza; this was before the rocket-fire escalation. Before the rocket fire started, I couldn’t see the point. I didn’t see how a ground invasion would bring our boys back, but I could see how it would make things much worse. I certainly thought that Israel should do all it could to find the perpetrators of the hideous killing of the three Israeli teenagers, but the measures suggested in the cabinet sounded like revenge for the sake of revenge, and action for the sake of being seen to act.

So, for some inexplicable reason, I took to Facebook. I wrote a comment praising Justice Minister Tzipi Livni for being one of the few cabinet ministers to stand up to these suggestions. I was writing because I wanted to articulate something that I was struggling with myself over: the desire to overcome the will for mindless revenge. When we had seen pictures of young Palestinians celebrating the abduction and murder of Israeli children, it wasn’t hard to feel the tug of the desire for revenge. But it is a desire to be fought; a desire that seeks to dehumanise the other and disfigure ourselves in the process.

And then what happened? The post received 113 “likes,” and was “shared” by ten people. That was very nice; very affirming. But, it also generated an ongoing debate that stretched to 84 individual comments. “How dare you write a political comment in a time of national mourning?” – to be fair to that critique, I did post my words during the funeral of the three victims. Perhaps that was insensitive, but the funeral was sandwiched by the two parts of the above-mentioned cabinet meeting; the desire for revenge was just about to boil over. Incidentally, when I later apologized for causing any hurt by the timing of my comment, I got lambasted by other people for daring to apologise – even though I hadn’t retracted my opinion!

Before long, I was mediating a long debate about the politics of settlement building and the prospects for a two-state solution; continuously trying to defend myself but also to keep the peace. Soon I was captive to a compulsive desire to check to see what some blast-from-the-past might have written, and to put all practical real world matters around me off for a moment, as I rushed to respond in detail. Why?

In philosophy, we’re interested in a problem that we call the problem of personal identity. What is it that makes me the person that I am? Over time, I’ve changed a lot. Even at the molecular level. Apart from some neurons that I was born with, every cell of my body is new. They constantly regenerate. So I’m not even made up of the same stuff as when I was younger. So what is it that makes me me? What is it that makes me identical to the person that I was?

The famous philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, had a response to this problem, but it requires knowledge of his intricate and somewhat eccentric philosophy. Abstracting away from the subtle details, and from theoretical complications, his suggestion boils down to the following central thesis: we are defined by everything that will ever happen to us. You are defined as the person who has done all of the things that you have done, and all of the things that you will do. That’s what makes you you.

There might be a kernel of truth at the heart of Leibniz’s theory, if only in the sense that we are, in some profound way, defined by the things that have happened to us, the places we’ve been, and, importantly, by the people that we’ve met along the way. No other person has lived the life that I’ve lived, and no other person occupies the same place in the very intricate social web that I have spun around myself. Perhaps these unique, indentifying factors, play an important role in defining who and what we are.

So, when we try to articulate ourselves to our Facebook friends – the fossil record of our own biographies – perhaps there’s a sense in which we’re trying to articulate ourselves to ourselves; to find a way of saying how we feel about our current situation in a way that will make sense not only to our current friendship group, but to all of the friends we’ve ever had. Of course, we’re not going to find a way of building consensus on these sorts of thorny issues, but, when we’re talking to the friends and acquaintances that we’ve built up over a lifetime, the very attempt to find a way of expressing ourselves that brings as many people with us, or that resonates with as many people as possible, or that even offends as few as possible, is probably, in some shape or form, an attempt to make sense of ourselves.

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Rutgers University.

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