BOSTON – As observant Jews fast today in commemoration of the Temple’s breached walls, some tech-savvy Jewish leaders are debating the merits of taking an occasional “fast” from the intensity of Israel-related social media.
The debate kicked off on Sunday, when Yehuda Kurtzer – president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America – published an op-ed in The Times of Israel calling for an online “social ceasefire” to commemorate today’s holiday.
Though not as proscribed as Yom Kippur or Shabbat, the 17th of Tammuz kicks off Judaism’s central national mourning period, culminating with Tisha B’Av — the remembrance of Jerusalem’s destroyed Temples — next month.
Opining social media’s role in “polarizing” people with respect to Israel, Kurtzer recommended a “widespread ta’anit dibur – a silent fast – in which we commit to keep quiet on these platforms, and strain ourselves to choose introspection over their corrosive capabilities.”
Kurtzer said that fast days like today’s are meant to be “jarring,” and an opportunity to “take stock of the behaviors and degradations that inevitably signal the breakdown of the social order,” he wrote.
Powering down smartphones and laptops has less to do with collective mourning, said Kurtzer, than it does with the need to clean our own proverbial houses.
“We should continue to follow the news – whether from the comfort of our living rooms or in the bleak fluorescence of our protected rooms – but we should mute the urge to interpret the news for others or judge the political opinions of those with whom we disagree,” wrote Kurtzer, an educator and the author of “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past.”
Shortly after Kurtzer’s op-ed went live, the first major rebuttal to his “social ceasefire” proposal came from America’s Cradle of Liberty.
“I agree that there is a serious problem with the social media conversation about Israel,” wrote Jeremy Burton, executive director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council, in a letter posted yesterday on JewishBoston.com.
“Silence is not the answer,” wrote Burton. “Our response — to distortions of the reality on the ground that serve to vilify Israel, to rote accusations that reflect no understanding of the complex issues at hand, and to vile discourse about Israel and Jews — needs to be more people engaging in responsible conversations with our friends, coworkers and others; in person and on social media,” he said.
With the proliferation of social media platforms, pro-Israel groups have had to refine their online strategies. Not least among them is the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA), a watchdog against anti-Israel coverage around the world.
From the perspective of CAMERA executive director Andrea Levin, Israel supporters should “actually redouble our work in the information battle,” she said.
“Israel’s adversaries aren’t resting a moment from their efforts to mislead the public and defame the Jewish state,” said Levin, whose group frequently blows the whistle on distorted coverage in news agencies including The New York Times and BBC.
“The many voices speaking out on the facts are an invaluable asset in correcting the record continuously and making clear, for instance, that Israel is defending its civilian population in the face of an aggressor that exploits its own women and children as defensive shields,” said Levin.
According to Joe Hyams, CEO of Honest Reporting, it’s too late for Israel supporters to consider withdrawing from social media, “the very thing that could have prevented Judge Goldstone’s [anti-Israel] allegations from spreading [after the 2008 Gaza conflict],” he said.
“The lies against Israel just can’t take root if everyone is so active on social media,” said Hyams, who believes that how social media platforms are used is just as important – if not more — than why.
“It’s like the decision with Iron Dome, to launch or to not launch,” said the British-born Hyams, who abstains from social media on Shabbat. “With social media too, we need to use thought and precision and be aware of the powerful tools that words are,” he said.
Hyams called silence in the face of media assaults on Israel “unacceptable,” comparing it to the story of Rashbi and Rebbe Eliezer “leaving the cave” to encounter a shocking world, followed by a return to the darkness.
According to some observant Jews, this year’s national mourning period feels like it started earlier than usual – with the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenage boys last month.
“I have not been the same since then,” said Rabbi Chananel Weiner, executive director of Aish Campus Boston.
“All of us who care about Israel and are not there right now are frustrated,” said Weiner. “But we do have a chance to make a real impact on social media,” he said, giving the example of photos from the Syrian conflict being used to show alleged “Israeli atrocities” in Gaza.
Though Wiener had not heard about the “social ceasefire” debate when contacted, he said the conversation is a chance to help people focus on the meaning of today’s ancient fast, and Jewish history in general.
“When Jews do Judaism, we are fulfilling our national mission,” said Weiner. “We should not minimize our role in this conflict as Jews. Hamas wants to rip us out of our land, and we can beat that by being the most knowledgeable and educated Jews possible,” he said.
As with Weiner’s assessment, the view of Shawn Landres – a participant in the debate on Facebook today – makes space for both social media activism and thoughtful pauses.
Landres, co-founder and CEO of the Jewish innovation-focused Jumpstart, said he agreed with both Kurtzer and Burton’s views.
“I think you’re responding to different impulses,” wrote Landres of the Kurtzer-Burton debate.
“I read [Kurtzer] expressing concern about the failure in our society — and Jewish community in general — to listen honestly to well-intentioned views that differ from our own, and the tendency to devolve into social media sinat chinam [“gratuitous hatred”],” said Landres.
“I read [Burton] to be asserting that we cannot remain silent in the face of lies and falsehoods, especially amidst a conflict such as the current one,” he said. “These are not incompatible ideas and concerns,” he concluded.
Exercising his own right of response, Kurtzer said he and Burton might really be disagreeing about “whether a pause in and of itself is a form of disengagement,” he wrote.
“I think [a pause from social media] is an opportunity to develop in us the humility that gets worn away quickly by the insistence on constant and urgent response to everything that is said, all the time — whether we are trying to reinforce what we agree with, or reject that which we disagree with,” posted Kurtzer in an exchange with Burton.
“I am not calling for permanent silence which would invite your substantive critique, but for a reminder of the ethics of why we are in this work,” he added.