It didn't take more than 18 hours after the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas escalated when the usual Facebook and Twitter updates of greetings, cute pictures of kitties and cloying pictures of seascapes with treacle drenched expressions of how one should aspire to love, laugh and live ("like"!) were replaced with status updates ranging from exclamations of "Sending peace to the Middle East!" to updates of a distinctly different kind.
Quite suddenly, as if a hare were thrown to the dogs, Facebook and Twitter were awash with vivid slogans and angry condemnations of either the Palestinians or the Israelis. Pick a side. The social media PR war had kicked into gear.
The updates claimed to be sharing important information about what "is really going on!" but offered no solutions, no action steps -- just righteous anger. Photos of suspicious provenance began to propagate disinformation. Loosely labeled '"facts" were wielded by those who, if pressed, would blush at their poverty of knowledge about the history of the Middle East, their inability to contextualize.
What is really going on, in Facebook world, is a brushfire of divisive opinions, unconfirmed disinformation and in some cases, inflammatory jingoism. The vast majority of these status updates are posted from the comfort of some other, distant place.
Of course, choosing just the right status update to reflect "what is really going on" depends on a number of prerequisites: politics, religious affiliations, which brand of underdog one can most relate to. In one view, Israel is yet again needlessly attacking Gaza with disproportionate force and killing civilians and babies with wanton abandon. In the other, Israel is rightfully defending its country from ongoing rocket attacks and if civilians are harmed in the process, it is because Hamas uses them as human shields. Each side nurtures a powerful narrative.
How is it, I wondered, that feelings on this conflict run so deep and so hot whereas the war crimes in Syria, having claimed, according to one source, 30,000 lives so far, have garnered almost zero attention on Facebook? 30,000 lives. No status updates on that. Curious.
Could it be empathy fatigue? Too many disasters to cope with? So why is the situation in Israel so enlivening? Because empathy has run dry and rage has to have somewhere to go. If not boredom. What's more quick, fun and satisfying than by the click of a button making a proclamation of one's superior knowledge and understanding of what is REALLY going on?
At first, I found myself participating unwittingly and increasingly, unwillingly. That's not TRUE! I DISAGREE! My blood began to boil and I realized I was having a reaction to words on a webpage and not any reality I was actually experiencing. I had to get off that train wreck for my own well-being.
You see, I am sitting in a café as I write this and I am knowing that if the air raid siren goes off again today, I have one minute and thirty seconds to hit "save", snap my computer shut and get to a bomb shelter. I know where it is -- it is right across the street. I have already done the one-minute thirty second dash twice in the past two days. I am surprised at how fast I can move.
But while I'm doing it, while I'm grabbing my shoes, keys and passport and heading toward the bomb shelter, I'm thinking -- this is not happening. This is not real. But unfortunately, this is what is really going on. In this moment, this is my status update. And I can't wrap my mind around it.
The moaning of the air raid siren ceases. And you wait for what feels like an eternity but what in reality is seconds. And then it comes -- boom boom boom -- a sound like thunder. Then you wait. Was that it? BOOM.
You have to understand. I am a blonde, California girl and on good days my eyes are the color of the deep blue Pacific Ocean that hugs my golden state. I've been to Burning Man, I meditate about peace and love and understanding, I burn Nag Champa daily. Yeah. I'm that hippy girl. And lately, I am surprised to find myself in an ad hoc, musty bomb shelter, waiting for the explosions to stop.
I moved to Tel Aviv a little less than nine months ago. That's usually a record scratch for most people. Who moves to the Middle East? Who voluntarily moves to the world's most hotly disputed country?!
Reader, I did.
Two years ago and change, through a series of unpleasant events, I became bitterly disillusioned about my life and career in Hollywood as a story consultant. Then something happened that dwarfed disillusionment; my older brother Peter took his own life. The two blows were back to back and my instincts told me to get out of Dodge altogether. To seek an environment in which I could wash away the grief and try to restore my soul with a new perspective.
To say I have gained new perspective is of course an understatement. I am an American girl down to my very DNA. I have traveled a fair bit but never lived abroad. Oh the things I have learned. Like what it feels like to be perfectly intelligent, responsible adult who, due to language and cultural barriers, is now functionally inept. Like what life in the U.S. looks like, viewed from a great distance.
Like what it feels like to live on the razor's edge, where simmering hatreds lie just beneath the surface of every day life.
Whichever narrative of the conflict in Israel you select as your truth, your status update, there seems to be a burning need to convince others that one view is in fact the correct one. It would be fascinating if it weren't so dismaying to see how quickly we speak of peace and love from one side our mouths and hate and blame from the other.
Here's my status update, my truth, my informed, on the ground take about what is "really going on." Sorry, I don't have a clever graphic to go with it but here it is: People are dying. Men, women, children. People. Death takes no sides. And the world is fanning the flames with ardor.
I believe humans have every tool we need, every shekel, every dinar, every diplomat, every envoy and every olive branch to end this conflict. But collectively, and unconsciously, we choose not to end it. Because somehow, somewhere, this conflict is feeding something. Primarily arms dealers but upon closer examination, this conflict feeds our own frustrations. Life is hard. Somebody is at fault. So we spin the globe and pick the obvious -- the Middle East. Be the change you want to see in the world, we post on Facebook or Twitter -- and grab that pitchfork and torch!!
But here's the thing -- I believe that humans can and eventually will decide that enough is enough. That we want peace and freedom for everybody more than we want our own personal gain -- whether material or ideological.
We have to take a stand for unity and for the good (and goodness) of all. I know what you are thinking -- it's a pipe dream. But it just happened in the American election. The majority of Americans said NO to fear and division even in a period of great economic distress. I take great comfort in this affirmation of not just American but of human ideals.
So I sit in this café and I try to act normal as I am also inwardly bracing for another siren, another attack. And my heart breaks for those in Gaza who must be traumatized beyond belief. And for those in Southern Israel, who are also traumatized. Thought it is surreal, I appreciate that I am living in an extraordinary place in an extraordinarily challenging time. This experience offers me great insights into myself and into all of us. How quickly we knee-jerk to side-taking. How quickly we default to fear and scarcity. How quickly we forget that our individual, complexity and humanity is simply a variation of that of "the other side". How stubbornly we hold on to "us versus them". How blind an eye we turn toward the fact that we are fueling the conflict in doing so.
When we pay less attention to inflammatory media reports and biased, irresponsible social media and more attention to our desire to make this world a better place through our real life, offline thoughts and actions, when we put a premium on living rather than posting status updates about full moons and kitties and love and stuff, then we can truly be the change we want to see in this world.
It takes great restraint to not scratch the itch of anger, fear and blame but rather, to hold that olive branch stubbornly. The most subversive thing you can do is to believe in peace in the face of war.
So what can you do about the conflict in the Middle East? You can stop saying "There will never be peace in the Middle East." You can just say no to posting and sharing misleading or incomplete information. You can focus your energy on situations that need your focus, like your family and your community. Think globally, act locally and use social media as a tool to make love go viral, gangam style.
About fifteen minutes after I hit "save" another siren sounded. I huddled with the other café goers and waited for the explosions. They came quickly and loudly. When it was over, we all looked at each other awkwardly, having bonded momentarily, in an adrenaline rush of fear. Some people smiled reassuringly. Somebody helped an old man back to his seat. The waitress handed me the check.
That night, as I prepared for bed, the television news featured conflicting reports of a ceasefire. I was hopeful. But still, I put my shoes by the door.
This morning, as I edited and polished this article, I was twice interrupted by sirens. Wisely, I managed to hit "save" first. Hamas has '"claimed responsibility". My blood boils, I want to lash out. But instead, I say a prayer for peace.
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. ~ Mother Theresa #forrealz
Follow Julie Gray on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Julie_Gray