The Gaza Conflict Has Become New York’s Great Conversational Taboo

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Whatever you see in this image, keep it to yourself. Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

My friend Diana, 29, a communications professional, is Jewish and supports Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, but is strongly against Israeli occupation of and aggression against Palestinians. She’s learned, however, not to talk about the conflict with anyone. “I have an ongoing online chat with friends where we talk about sex, family, politics, anything goes,” she says. “Literally the only topic we banned from conversation is Israel. And with the current conflict, this has proven wise.”

She’s not alone. The topic may be the only one that otherwise mostly like-minded New Yorkers avoid at all costs, meeting any mention of the issue with averted eyes that signal "Let’s not go there.” The past month, New Yorkers once again have found themselves fixated on the conflict in Gaza, torn between wanting to talk about it and terrified of offending someone.

In New York, folks don't think twice about cheering gay marriage or abortion rights, but never know what buttons they'll push among friends, family, or colleagues if they so much as murmur sympathy for either, or even both, sides of the Gaza imbroglio. Will we ever be able to talk about this with the un-self-consciousness we bring to other serious issues that surge in the news cycle — especially those in which America has such a clear stake?

Nightly, for the past month, I have noticed on Facebook how mind-numbingly ping-pong-like the threads on the topic quickly become. Images of dead Palestinian civilians are met with infographics chronicling 2,000 years of Jewish global persecution. In no time at all, people are calling one another underinformed blowhards, line-crossers, or worse (you can probably guess). It's an easy thing to do on a platform where you don't have to process anger or hurt in someone's eyes, or where you might not even really know the person you are arguing with. (Friend of a friend of a friend?)

According to Brad Gorham, a communications professor at Syracuse University, social-media posting has a way of reinforcing tribalism. "Every post, comment, or like on social media is a very public performance of our group identity," he says. "We may conform to the expectations of our groups, or we police the norms when we see others stray from what we think is the 'correct' response for members of 'my' group."

But then again, that’s social media. In face-to-face interactions, Gaza has become the great New York conversational taboo. We rarely even get to the “agree to disagree” point — we just avoid the topic entirely.

“I'll opine on most things openly in social circles,” I was told by one friend of part-Jewish descent whose feelings about the topic, like many people’s, fall into a nuanced gray area. “But I have firmly decided not to open my mouth on this one. The raging passions, the vitriol, the lecturing, it's just impossible.”

Another friend, Jeff, whose father is Jewish but who doesn't identify as Jewish himself, told me that his father just reprimanded him for posting on Facebook Brian Eno's essay calling Israeli action in Gaza ethnic cleansing. "And that's just the tip of the iceberg," Jeff said. "When I posted on Facebook about being upset over the four Gaza boys killed on the beach, another Jewish friend pretty much bitch-slapped me through my computer screen."
 
If we criticize Israel, we risk being seen as anti-Semitic or, if we're Jewish, self-hating. Defending Israel's recent action is, in some company, treated like an endorsement of apartheid government.
 
A non-Jewish poet friend wrote me, “I have a Jewish friend I've known since 1992. After I posted a link to a Twitter feed by a current resident of Gaza, this old dear friend wrote me expressing disappointment that I had succumbed to anti-Semitic propaganda and pain at my betrayal. She removed me from her friend list. I'd somehow undone all of our years of friendship with one post."

Lena, 40, a Palestinian-American finance exec, says she has learned, for the most part, not to engage Jews or Israelis on the issue. "We're going to disagree and I'm going to become very upset. I've been crying about this every day. If someone asks me how my family is doing, I'll answer, but I don't feel like going back and forth." She says she is friends with a rabbi who goes to Israel often. "We both agree that it's a beautiful land and we just want everyone there to be able to raise their families in peace," she says. "But we avoid going into details."

Jews feel the sting of these conversations — or attempts at them — too. “Being Jewish — culturally, not religiously — I take offense at the anti-Semitic Facebook rants and the tacit support that some of my circle seem to have around that,” a friend said. “It also makes me feel vulnerable that these people who I considered friends may ultimately dislike me for being Jewish and not agreeing with their politics.”

I have another friend who works for a Jewish organization and often finds herself defending Israel. “It literally makes me cry when people call me a Zionist War Pig or something of the like,” she told me. “So I don't talk about it. I just die inside.” Then she added, “To be fair, no one had actually called me a Zionist War Pig, but I fear that's what they think I am.”

She's not alone among New York liberals who find themselves feeling strangely conservative and out of sync with their friends when they defend Israel's actions. "If I were starving or being persecuted today, Israel would send a helicopter and come get me," said my friend Ben, 46, an entertainment lawyer. "We've been ousted or exterminated everywhere else. Israel protects me as a Jew." He feels that Israel has been justly defending itself the past month. "Israel is held to a higher standard that is untenable."

He admitted that he could barely bring himself to express those feelings to his liberal friends — even to his husband, an Eastern European Gentile who feels that Israel has been overly aggressive, or to his doveish 85-year-old Jewish stepfather. And he doesn't like feeling disconnected from his peers. "The worst thing is, everyone I know who's anti-Israel seems to be intellectual and progressive, so defending it makes me feel just a little bit stupid, like I'm on the wrong side of history," he says.

But maybe we all need to breathe through our fear. In past weeks, I have been captivated by threads on the Facebook page of Sarah Schulman, a Jewish East Village activist, writer and professor who in recent years, as she chronicles in this book, became intensely critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. (She is on the advisory board of Jewish Voices for Peace, along with such members as actor Ed Asner, playwrights Eve Ensler and Tony Kushner, and writer Noam Chomsky.) I’ve been struck by the regularity with which Schulman posts firsthand dispatches from Palestinian contacts she’s made in Gaza in recent years, despite reporting rejection or hostility from family members or longtime friends.

She insisted she never let social consequences get in the way of speaking her mind though. “Only people who are very privileged can say, ‘I’m afraid to say what I believe to be true.’ I’m not vulnerable. My friends in Palestine are vulnerable. People who read New York Magazine” — which I told her this story was for — ”have an ideology that they should never have to be uncomfortable. So they say, ‘I’m afraid to say anything.’ That’s a misuse of the word fear.”

The question on the mind of nearly everyone I spoke with for this article was: Is there another way to articulate our ethics and beliefs without the verbal equivalent of launching rockets or dropping bombs at those we disagree with? Perhaps there's hope yet. Says my Gentile and anti-aggression friend D., who works in social services, "I have a friend and former colleague whose father is a Holocaust survivor. Once a few years ago when I told him I'd protested Israeli bombing of Gaza, he just got very pained and shut down, so I dropped it."

But a few nights ago, D. met up with her friend for dinner. Over a bottle of wine, they chatted about work and apartment-hunting. Then it came up that D. had just been at a rally to protest the attacks in Gaza. "I was nervous but he actually said he thought I was courageous," D. told me. "He said, 'What did you get from going to the rally?' I told him that I felt so upset and helpless over what was happening in Gaza that going to a protest was at least something I could do, to show solidarity with the people being killed."

D. and her friend ended up talking about the issue till 2 a.m. "It was so deep and long and so painful, and so good, the conversation continued in my dreams all night," she said. "I don't think he'll step out to the next rally. He's not that kind of person, and he believes it's necessary for Israel to always be a Jewish state. But still, we both really heard each other."

The next day, D. texted him saying it was a great conversation. "He didn't reply for a while and I got nervous," she said. He finally replied, said D. "He wrote back, 'My sentiments exactly.'"