“Just kill all the Arabs.”
That was the status that popped up in my Facebook newsfeed earlier this week, just days after three Israeli teens had been kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian radicals. My Orthodox Jewish ex-neighbor of nine years, Naomi (not her real name), was the author of the post. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed she was just shooting her mouth off because of her understandable frustration over the situation in Israel. I felt I should nudge her, so to speak, and gently remind her not to say things like that. So I wrote, “That isn’t even mildly funny.” But it turned out that Naomi wasn’t trying to be funny and wasn’t even shooting her mouth off. She assured me that she meant every word of it.
I was shocked that Naomi would say this. Although she had been raised Orthodox, she barely practiced her religion in adulthood. She didn’t even keep shabbat. She had questioned over the years and changed her views on certain issues. For example, once she saw that gay people were not the perverts she’d been raised to think they were, she was okay with them and even supported same-sex marriage. In fact, the only aspects of Judaism that she adhered to/believed were that she kept kosher and thought that the universe was 6,000 years old. She was even okay with my being an (Jewish) atheist and was willing to listen when I talked to her about the books about evolution that I was reading. She didn’t accept evolution, but she was not completely closed to the idea either.
The “Just kill all the Arabs” thread devolved into a tense conversation in which Naomi said that a Jew would never behave the way these extremists did. I told her that Israel has done wrong, every group has its nuts, and that Judaism (or any religion) does not deter violence. She dared me to name one instance where a Jew did something so awful. I reminded her that a few years ago there was a boy in Brooklyn who was raped, murdered, and dismembered by a Jewish man. Naomi dismissed it because it wasn’t political in nature. A few days later, an article emerged about how some Israeli extremists murdered a Palestinian boy. Maybe I should have just let it lie, but I didn’t. On my Facebook page I posted a link to the article, wrote “It goes both ways”, and tagged Naomi in the post. Immediately, Naomi dismissed the article as propaganda (it was written by Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper!). My only point was that both sides in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have done wrong and that every group has its nuts. She told me that I needed to accept that we were “the chosen people.” I told her that I rejected the idea of any group of people being “chosen”. But the conversation culminated in Naomi accusing me of spreading hate, insulting her friends (who she had pulled into the conversation), calling me a self-hating Jew, and then unfriending me. We continued the conversation on IM, and Naomi told me that she’d sooner save my cat from drowning than an Arab, even a child. I said, “So you would condemn a child to death for the beliefs of his parents.” Her justification? “He will grow up and stab a baby Jew.” I played the Richard Dawkins card and told her there was no such thing as a baby Jew or a baby anti-Semite. Both are too young to have religious and sociopolitical beliefs.
I had never known Naomi well. But we were neighbors in an apartment complex in Brooklyn in which I lived for nine years (2004-2013). We had had some nice discussions and helped each other out when needed. One week when I was gone, Naomi fed my cat. When I returned, I thanked her by treating her to lunch at one of the many Kosher restaurants in the area. I guess she forgot that. She probably also forgot that although I’m an atheist, I still value my Jewish roots and aspects of the culture. I have an Israeli flag. I’ve said that some of the best years of my life were spent at my (secular) Jewish summer camp. I would like to visit Israel again someday (I went on a teen tour affiliated with the camp in the ’90s). Naomi had been okay with my being an atheist, but she wrote me off the moment I told her that not all Arabs are “bad”, Israel has done wrong, and that there are some Jews who do bad things. She put me into a box with the label “Self-hating Jew.” Simple. Out of sight, out of mind.
I would like to think this kind of name-calling and oversimplified accusations, the “either you’re with us or you’re against us” mentality only happens when arguing with conservative and religious people. But it happens everywhere, including on the far left. In fact, in some ways the far left and the far right are two sides of the same coin. While it’s offensive to religious (and some moderate) Jews to criticize some of Israel’s actions, it’s considered politically incorrect on the left to defend Israel. In fact, sometimes one of the worst names you can be called is a Zionist. To many people, Zionism is an imperialistic, nationalistic, racist party that wants to kill Arabs. That is not true at all. While there are some scary forms of Zionism– the religious “God gave this land to us and the messiah will come once we have Israel” and “Jesus will come when the Jews have Israel” types of ZIonism are scary and dangerous (and obviously there are some “kill the Arabs” Zionists)– there are some more left-wing forms of Zionism that, while advocating a homeland for the Jews, also advocate a two-state solution and strong support of the peace process. This type of Zionism, in and of itself, I would say I’m neutral to. I really am not sure how I feel about this. One has to understand that European history has been like this: “There’s a problem? Kill all the Jews!” So of course wanting a Jewish state is understandable. However, a case could also be made that Zionism is dangerous, that even its most left-wing forms are slippery slopes to extreme Zionism, in the same way that Richard Dawkins argues that moderate religion is a slippery slope to extreme religion. But that is a discussion beyond the scope of this blog post. Let’s talk more about name-calling.
I have noticed that people often call one another names and hurl loaded accusations to guilt-trip them into buying into their point of view. The above anecdote is just the beginning; there are many other instances of this. For example, if someone criticizes radical Islam, they get called a racist or an Islamophobe. If someone criticizes a certain brand of feminism, they get called a misogynist. If someone says that “rape-culture” is too simplistic of a term for a society that has a rape problem, then they are told they themselves are part of the problem. Richard Dawkins has these names hurled at him on Twitter all the time. People also read deeply into everything he says. Although pro-choice, Dawkins once expressed concern about the fetus feeling pain during the abortion procedure. The result? People labeled him as sexist (never mind that many women hold the same view). Another time, he listed three white men as his intellectual heroes. Bad move. He was called sexist and racist. And yet another time, he said that he had been “grabbed” by one of his housemasters at boarding school. He said it didn’t do him lasting harm and that such “grabbing” isn’t nearly as inherently harmful as other forms of sexual abuse. Suddenly, he was accused of defending child molesters.
“I don’t know how he continues to put up with this shit,” said my father when I told him about some of the things that people have Tweeted at Richard Dawkins. Well, Dawkins isn’t the only one who has to deal with things like this on the Internet. Flame wars erupt all the time all over the blogosphere, and especially on YouTube. Accusations of racism, sexism, rape culture-enabler, professional victim, Zionist, self-hating Jew, anti-Semite, and more abound, and nobody is immune from these accusations. I’d like to think that this sort of thing is limited to the Internet where one can hide behind a computer, but it has happened to me in real life. In 2002, while working at a left-leaning summer camp, I was accused of animal cruelty. What did I do? I taped a sign to a cat. That’s right– I TAPED A SIGN TO A CAT. And no, the sign didn’t say “kill me” or even “kick me”. We had an activity called Secret Friends in which we would be assigned a random person to give gifts to. I thought it would be cute to “give” one of the camp cats to my Secret Friend, a 10-year-old girl. I made a sign that read “To Gloria, from your Secret Friend” and taped it to the cat. A counselor told me to remove it. I can’t remember what she thought was wrong with the sign being there. But I removed it. In the process, the tape pulled out some of the cat’s hairs. Startled, the cat ran under a porch. In front of the kids, the counselor said, “That was cruel. I don’t think the cat liked that.” and that I had probably hurt the cat while removing the sign, since it pulled some of the cat’s fur. It was absolutely humiliating to be reprimanded like that, especially in front of the kids. It was especially humiliating because I don’t think there are many people who love animals– especially dogs and cats– as much as I do. I also think it’s ironic that she had no qualms about humiliating me (albeit not intentionally) in the name of social justice.
Another time, at the same camp, I had the kids make a card to send to the then-developing memorial at Ground Zero in New York. Addressing the firefighters who had run into the World Trade Center to rescue people, I wrote on the card, “You’re the real heroes.” It turned out that this card wasn’t acceptable, either, as it suggested to some of the counselors that I was defending America’s foreign policy and being nationalistic. Needless to say, I never sent the card to New York. In frustration, I tore it up and threw it away.
Also at the same camp (in a different year) I wrote, “I love New York” on the sidewalk in chalk. In front of the kids, a different counselor told me that it was an offensive and nationalistic thing to write and that I should get rid of it.
What is happening here? Why do so many people– particularly on the far right and on the far left– like to oversimplify things and make accusations? Why was Richard Dawkins accused of apologizing for child molesters when he said that being “grabbed” didn’t cause him any lasting harm? Why was I accused of animal cruelty for taping a sign to a cat? Why is it that if you are Jewish and criticize something Israel has done that you are a self-hating Jew? Why is it that if you don’t think the Palestinian side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is entirely innocent that you are labeled as a racist and Islamophobic? Why is it that if you don’t buy into a particular brand of feminism that you’re suddenly a misogynist? Why do people call each other guilt inducing names– such as misogynist, racist, etc.– to try to force another person to their point of view?
I think the answer lies in evolutionary psychology. It’s an in-group/out-group mentality, I believe: You’re either with us or you’re against us. This mentality helped our tribal ancestors survive. Human tribes consisted of about 150 people, and certain dress and customs helped them to recognize who was in their tribe and thus NOT a threat to them. Jews have been horrendously persecuted for centuries (although in the last 50 years or so, particularly in the Northeastern United States, their situation has dramatically improved), so it’s easy to see why some very religious ones might be suspicious of a fellow Jew who doesn’t see Israel as flawless. It is a matter of survival. Maybe it’s harder for me to empathize with that mentality because my father’s family (his side is the Jewish lineage) got to the United States long before the Holocaust and thus the Holocaust isn’t in my family’s history.
But what about the other name-calling: the misogynist, pedophile-defender, cruel-to-animals, racist, etc.? Well, it’s pretty ironic, isn’t it? People have seen the injustices in human history– racism, sexism, child sexual abuse, animal cruelty– and want to put an end to it and not alienate people. The ironic thing is that in the process they ARE alienating people and continuing in the in-group out-group mentality, but just in a different way. If you identify as being on the sociopolitical left, you know damn well there are certain views that you’d better have to be accepted. Unless you think that the Palestinians are 100% innocent in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, then you’re a racist. If you say that some child sexual abuse is worse than others, then you’re defending child molesters. If you don’t make sure your list of heroes includes a certain quota of blacks, women, black women, black transwomen, and people with disabilities other than Stephen Hawking, then you’re a racist, sexist, misogynist ablest asshole. You’re not left-wing enough and are part of the problem. You also need to use words like “white male privilege” on a regular basis. Okay, that was a joke. I have used that expression on occasion, but I think some people on the left use it to the point that it’s a meaningless cliche.
Don’t get me wrong– I’m well aware that there are still problems with racism, sexism, and ableism. I’m also aware that there are minorities who haven’t been given enough opportunities, let alone credit, in many intellectual fields. Most of my intellectual “heroes” (in quotes because they’re people, not literal heroes!) are white men. Is it possible that UNCONSCIOUSLY I’m rejecting other great voices because they’re not white men? I doubt it, but it’s possible. Checking in with friends and family– and oneself– once in a while and asking, “Hey, are you sure you don’t like what she has to say because she’s a woman?” or “Do you think you would listen to that guy more if he were white instead of black?” is a very important, positive and constructive activity and helps us to become more aware of our unconscious biases– which EVERYBODY has, whether or not they would like to admit it. However, when it reaches a point that people are called names for not having enough minorities on their “hero” list, reject the term “rape culture” as too simplistic of a label for a society that has a rape problem, or are labeled in other ways, then what could be a very constructive conversation turns into a flame war– online and in real life.
That’s my little rant. Thank you for your time. Now start thinking. Please.
Addendum: I have no doubt that some people are going to want to make a list of some of the things that Richard Dawkins has said that were not prudent and use that as evidence of him being a racist, misogynist, [insert accusation here], person. So I’ll save you the trouble and address the issue myself: I have news for you. People say things all the time that get misunderstood. Sometimes it’s a genuine miscommunication, and other times it’s just a stupid thing to say. That’s life. Get over it. Everyone is guilty of it. My father said something really stupid recently. He said that people who cut themselves do it to get attention. Um, wow. That was a pretty stupid and ignorant thing to say, but that doesn’t make him mental-illness-o-phobic. It means he just doesn’t get it. He told me that he had read this “fact” in a textbook in college. I reminded Dad that he went to college in the late ’60s/early ’70s and psychologists didn’t know much about anything then. So I had to educate Dad and explain to him that people who cut (I haven’t done it but have known people who have) are in a lot of mental pain and are taking out their rage in a very unfortunate way. While SOME might do it to get attention, they are the exception, not the rule.
Good thing Dad isn’t famous. They would have called the incident Cuttergate.