It was 2008. Israel.
I was in Mayanot, a yeshiva, reconnecting to my roots.
That’s how I witnessed the expulsion of settlers from a place called “Beit Hashalom” (the “House of Peace”) in Hebron.
Hundreds of settlers were camping out in a house they had, according to a court decision, illegally bought from an Arab. The settlers vowed that they would violently resist any attempts to remove them from the building.
The first night was uneventful, except for some dancing and singing.
Then the next morning came. I was hanging with the journalists outside. They were playing soccer with the settlers.
And then a young man ran towards the building like he was being chased by the devil, yelling.
A huge mass of riot police and soldiers followed behind. They lined up in front of the building. And then, at once, entered.
The rest of the day was a shocking flash of images I wish I could forget. Jews yelling and kicking as other Jews pulled them the building. Women who had shacked themselves in the top of the building throwing everything they could find at the riot police below. The riot police shooting tear gas into the room, causing the women to cry and scream. A boy on the ground clasping his head, trying to stop it from bleeding as his friend whispered to him that everything would be okay. Ten settlers ganging up on two soldiers. Flash grenades thrown left and right. Settlers running at the soldiers only to get beaten. And then running (and beaten) again. Palestinians throwing huge rocks that could kill a man from their homes. Fires set throughout Hebron by the displaced settlers. Getting beaten and hit myself a few times, since the soldiers assumed I was also a settler.
As I finally left, hitching a ride, and I turned around to see an entire city smoking from the violence of the last twelve hours, I remember having this empty feeling. A feeling that something was wrong with the world.
It took me a few days to really pinpoint what disturbed me so much.
I realized, eventually, that it wasn’t about the violence or about the beatings or the flash grenades.
It was the way they looked at each other.
The settlers, yelling, their eyes focused with a full-out energy to destroy the soldiers.
And the soldiers, unyielding and full of hate. A few cried as they stood to the side. But the rest yelled right back at the settlers. The settlers yelled, “How could a Jew treat another Jew like this?!” as they attacked the soldiers. The soldiers yelled back, “We’re better Jews than you’ll ever be!”
It was the hate that disturbed me so deeply. The hate in their eyes. In their voices. In the screeching. In the beatings.
I don’t know if I will ever totally recover from that. It caused me to question my commitment to Judaism for the first time. Not for any logical reason. Just because it was simply too painful to know Jews could treat each other like that.
But, in the end, that’s what made me accept my Judaism even more.
Because something few people understand is that Jews aren’t just a “religion” or a nation or anything else. We are also a family.
You can disagree with your family all you want, but to hate them… it’s just beyond reality. And to witness such hate is a traumatizing experience. Like watching your father beat your sister or something similar. Backwards. Bizarre.
I know it took some time, but I’m retelling this story for a reason. I want you to understand the amount of pain that I felt. And I want you to understand because I want you to now know about the one other place I’ve felt that amount of pain and trauma.
More specifically, the comments section of Jewish websites and blogs.
You, I’m sure, know what I’m referring to. Jews virtually beat each other online every day. To the delight of these websites and their advertisers, people return over and over to tear each other down, to destroy each other, to fight and fight and fight.
I was recently reading a news story that’s about a particularly sensitive topic, and I remember scrolling down into the comments section and feeling that same exact pit in my stomach that I felt in Hebron. That perversion of reality.
The internet, for so many reasons, from the anonymity of it to the way it forces us to confront the people we disagree with to the way websites work hard to inflame passion, has become a place for hatred to froth alive. A place where it’s “okay” to hate.
And even okay to hate our family.
And while it may only be a few angry folks, they infect everyone else around them. People who aren’t interested in getting caught up in it all, still feel our faith in G-d and the Jewish people erode every time we read those comments.
We assume that because it’s “just” the internet that this is okay. That hatred is just the currency of the web, and that it’s something we’ll have to get used to. We tell each other that “Jews aren’t the same as Judaism” and accept hate and pain online.
What this attitude fails to take into account is just how painful it is for a Jew to watch his fellow Jews hate each other. Just how perverse it is.
There is a difference, of course, between disagreement and hate. Disagreement is so normal in the Jewish world that we have jokes about it.
It’s the hate that is perverse. The viciousness. We can disagree with our family all we want, but it’s when that disagreement turns to hate that we get traumatized.
And yet, here on the internet, this kind of perverse hate is not only normal, it’s encouraged. Jewish sites encourage it, purposefully or not, by not properly moderating their comments, by regularly publishing articles that aren’t about “debate” but inflaming hate.
What the hateful commenters and the blogs do not realize is how much pain they are causing to the Jewish people when they do this. They do not realize the amount of people they are turning away from Judaism when they do this.
Because just about any Jew can deal with the difficulties that come with being religious. From simply keeping to kosher to antisemitism to the difficulties integrating science with belief… nothing comes close to the difficulty of seeing two Jews hate each other.
And, of course, that pain is compounded when the hate is directed at us personally. As a blogger, I know this all too well. But anyone that has been mistreated by a teacher in yeshiva can probably relate that this was the biggest challenge to their belief.
I remember recently reading comments on a Jewish site and the first thought that popped into my head was, “I don’t want to be religious anymore.”
How many other people like me are there out there? How many more times will they need to go online before it finally happens? How long will Jewish websites continue to fail in making quality discussion a priority?
And, more importantly, how long will we all continue to accept this as the norm?