On Saturday, November 14, the morning after simultaneous terror attacks in Paris killed 129 and wounded 352, Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev penned an article that garnered nearly 2,000 shares on Facebook, “10 Commenters on the Paris Terror Attacks I Can Do Without.”
Without naming names, Shalev lambastes people to the left and right of himself whom he feels reacted in a distasteful or wrongheaded way to events in Paris. These include “people who gloat at France’s misery” because of its perceived hostility to Israel and/or Jews as well as “those who use the Paris attack to criticize the recent European Union decision to label products from Jewish settlements,” not to mention “those who equate ISIS terror in Europe with Palestinian violence and terror in Israel because they want to erase the occupation, and those who trace each and every case of worldwide Muslim terrorism back to Palestine because they want to erase Israel.”
Indeed, amid the outpouring of sympathy and shock in Israel over the Paris attacks, there have been voices decrying a perceived double standard in the way the world has treated terrorism in Israel as opposed to terrorism in France.
For instance, on Sunday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took PA President Mahmoud Abbas to task for condemning the Paris attacks but failing to condemn “ruthless terrorism against innocent people in Israel.”
Azriel Ratz, a social media marketer from Beit Shemesh who runs Ratz Pack Media, said that as of Sunday night, when he spoke to The Times of Israel, he had observed three separate trends in Israeli social media.
First, he said, “many Israelis are switching their profile pictures to include the French flag, and are showing full support for Paris. Second, many Israelis are comparing the attacks in Paris to those in Israel on a daily basis, and are wondering why the world isn’t in uproar about terror here. Another group of Israelis are saying that Israel shouldn’t stand with Paris because it’s an anti-Semitic country.”
In fact, a small number of Israelis have gone even further. The former chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba, Dov Lior, described the attacks as punishment for France’s role in the Holocaust.
But where does the average Israeli fall along the spectrum of responses? Since each person’s Facebook and Twitter account is tailored to the user, is there any such thing as a bird’s eye view of what other Israelis are saying?
“No,” says Ratz.”Facebook doesn’t show you what the whole world is saying. It shows you what some of your friends are saying in a very selective way.”
What is the world posting?
Ratz says there is a workaround. It isn’t the last word, but can provide a sense of what people around the world are saying at any given moment. If you type “Paris and Israel” or #ParisAttacks in Facebook’s search window, and click “latest,” you can see public posts from around the world in real time. Facebook is as good a place as any to take the pulse of public opinion, says Ratz, because it’s the world’s second-most popular website.
Twitter, he says, is less representative because of the proliferation of journalists, artists and other professionals who are there “because someone told them they need to be on Twitter.”
In an unscientific survey, The Times of Israel did a search for the English words “Paris” and “Israel” on Monday afternoon and categorized the messages of the 110 most recent posts from around the world. Seventy (63%) of these expressed sympathy for Israel in its fight against terrorism, 18 posts (16%) suggested that Israel’s crimes against Palestinians are worse or more important than the attacks in Paris, 12 posts (11%) claimed that Israel had actually carried out the attacks in Paris, four posts (4%) say the attacks presage the end of days, three posts decried the fact that the world ignores deaths in Syria, Lebanon and the Middle East, two posts denounced Islamophobia, two were anti-Obama and one said the attacks were God’s punishment of France.
Meanwhile, a survey of the hashtag #ParisAttacks on Facebook revealed 24 (26%) posts that were news reports, 20 posts expressing sorrow and solidarity with the French, eight posts claiming that most Muslims are not terrorists, eight posts decrying Islamophobia and a possible backlash against refugees, ten posts claiming that either America, the West or international bankers are behind the attacks, six posts supporting the online hacker’s group Anonymous in its quest to hack ISIS, five posts decrying the West’s aggression, five posts saying European liberals are too weak and blinkered in the face of Islamic terrorism, three posts warning against infringement on civil liberties following the attacks, three posts mocking trivial Facebook responses to the attack, and one post saying the French should be allowed to carry guns.
In terms of specifically Israeli responses, The Times of Israel surveyed public Facebook posts that contained the word “Paris” or “France,” in Hebrew, a language spoken for the most part by Israelis.
Ten of the posts expressed unmitigated solidarity with France. Nine complained of the double standard expressed by the world toward terrorism in France vs. in Israel. Five urged the world to finally “wake up” to the threat of Islamist terrorism, two were news reports, one compared Hamas to Islamic State, one said Israelis should not support France because France is anti-Semitic, and one claimed that astrology had predicted the attacks in Paris.
On Twitter, a search for recent tweets containing the word “Paris” in Hebrew that were not from news organizations revealed three expressing solidarity with France, three condemning right-wing responses to the attacks, one saying not to pray for Paris because religion is what caused the problem in the first place, two sharing news reports, two saying the world needs to wake up to the threat of terrorism, and one accusing France of anti-Semitism.
One such tweet read, “to all those comparing the Paris attacks to what we experience 24/7, do you realize how condescending and insulting that sounds?”
Another read, “Paris? My ass. Do you think when Jews and Israelis were murdered it moved a single muscle in their hypocritical, anti-Semitic faces?”
“The Israeli right’s dancing on victim’s blood is pretty much the only idea they have for a solution in the territories and in France,” read another tweet.
Yet another tweet in this reporter’s Twitter feed called on the public to boycott a colleague who had tweeted “a war is coming, which side are you on?”
“Disgusted,” commented the tweeter.
The world according to Facebook
The Times of Israel asked Azriel Ratz what might account for the fact that some Israelis believe the world is filled with anti-Semites while others believe their own country is filled with right-wing xenophobes. Can both be right?
In a way, yes, says Ratz, because when people read their Facebook feeds, they are not getting a representative sample of viewpoints, not even of their friends’ viewpoints.
First of all, says Ratz, Facebook sometimes has an agenda. For instance, the fact that so many people changed their profile photos to French flags was not a spontaneous show of solidarity, but heavily encouraged by Mark Zuckerberg himself.
“Mark Zuckerberg changed his profile photo to the flag first, and underneath his photo he placed a button that will automatically change your photo too. Three million people see Mark Zuckerberg’s profile, the algorithm is set up that way.”
Beyond that, says Ratz, Facebook has a single goal, “to get you to stay on Facebook longer. If you’re the type of person where when you see an article you disagree with, you write a long response, then they’ll show you a whole bunch of those. If you’re the type of person who passes that over then really loves watching videos, they’ll show you more videos.”
In this way, says Ratz, Facebook creates a virtual bubble around each person that feeds whatever proclivities they already have. If someone enjoys angry political arguments, Facebook will provide them with whatever most outrages them. If they like pictures of babies, Facebook will provide more of that. If a Palestinian teenager likes to look at pro-stabbing posts, Facebook will feed them even more violent images.
“Whatever keeps you on Facebook the longest, whether it’s love or hate, is what you’ll get,” explains Ratz.
“There are kids who grow up their entire lives in this area where a lot of people don’t like Jews,” he adds, “and they see these videos and posts about stabbing Jews. Because they show interest in that thing, Facebook shows them more of it. that’s why some might see the post that gets them to eventually do the deed itself.”
But there is another element to the battle of memes online. This is the pleasurable feeling of righteous anger that some people experience when they gang up on someone who said or posted what they consider to be the wrong thing.
Historian Richard Landes connects such online behavior to the theories of French anthropologist/philosopher Rene Girard, who argued that at the root of religion lies the human impulse for a group to gang up on and kill a scapegoat. “This creates a sense of unity and purpose,” explains Landes, “sealed by the collective guilt. No one wants to be the victim; everyone would prefer to be the victimizer.”
Depending on your peer group, you can be subject to public shaming for expressing a dissenting view. Once a victim is singled out, other members of the group will fall into line for fear of becoming the victim themselves. Landes points out that the experience of the victimizers can be highly pleasurable, without them realizing they are ruining someone else’s reputation or even destroying their life.
In liberal circles, says Landes, people use shaming “to socialize people to be ‘nice’ people, not racist, not xenophobic, not cruel, to make such things as killing people, violence, transfer, ethnic cleansing, collective punishment, all forms of coercion somehow unthinkable, and anyone who dares express such notions anathema.”
This is a good thing up to a point, argues Landes, except when it is taken too far, and a “victim’s feelings are so valued that anyone who micro-aggresses them becomes the object of a macro-aggression.”
Landes, who sides with those Israelis who see a double standard, says that in his view, in free societies, public shaming is a tactic more commonly used by the left than the right, even though it is common in all social groups. He believes that the worldwide “progressive left, including academia, journalism and policy makers” are reluctant to direct their wrath at jihadis, who are the real enemies of their values, in part because they are not shamable, he says.
“What satisfaction could they get from scolding them? They would laugh in their faces. If you scold Israelis, they put their chins down and whimper.”
But is public shaming ever justified, no matter who uses it? What about the case of a man who refuses to give his wife a get, or divorce writ?
Landes says that Jewish tradition “accepts a certain amount of humiliation, when deserved, as acceptable, but too much as reprehensible. In the story of the deposition of Raban Gamliel, no one objects to him humiliating Rabbi Yehoshua for lying. But when he rubs it in by continuing to have him stand while going on with the larger discussion, they rebel.”