Don’t believe the social media portrayal of visceral Israel-hate

Most people are either supportive of Israel or don’t have a view, but social media gives undue weight to the obsessives

November 17, 2022 14:42

If you haven’t heard the term “Agenda-Setting Theory”, you certainly would have experienced the effects — namely that what’s important doesn’t become the news, the news becomes what’s important. When the public conversation is based on whatever is reported by the press, we get the impression that this news matters most, when that is not the reality.

I see this amongst my fellow Jews, a thriving and flourishing community still too readily defined by negativity or victimhood. Indeed, when the Institute for Jewish Policy Research recently asked Jews across Europe which aspects of Jewishness were most important to them, “combating antisemitism” or “remembering the Holocaust” topped “sharing Jewish festivals with family”.

Given that we are in living memory of the Holocaust and have witnessed an increase in antisemitism globally, this is understandable. Most British Jews have come from somewhere else, and many of our families, such as my own, came here not through choice but through forced exile. For Jews not to take antisemitism seriously would be absurd. But I worry that the inability to see the big picture leaves us feeling unnecessarily pessimistic.

After the last major flare-up in tensions between Israel and Gaza in 2021, levels of antisemitism in the UK reached shocking, record-breaking levels. You didn’t have to experience the antisemitism personally to feel it because the very public displays were there for all to see. The video of a convoy of cars waving Palestinian flags and driving through Jewish areas, shouting “f*** the Jews, rape their daughters” was shared countless times. It was impossible not to feel personally violated seeing our peaceful streets disrupted in this way. The fear amongst British Jews was palpable.

After this incident, we wanted to understand how this was perceived by the wider British public. Our polling showed that most people in this country do not approve of antisemitism and felt sympathy for the Jewish community. Almost nine in ten Britons agreed that the perpetrators should be brought to justice — with over half of those agreeing that those responsible should face the toughest penalties possible.

Forty-four per cent of the population said that the incidents like the convoy made them worried for the safety of British Jews and a strong majority — 59 per cent — agreed that they were “angry and embarrassed” that things like this could happen in the present day.

Our fixation on the bad news leaves no room for the bigger picture. Community confidence, understandably, was knocked but these figures give some hope about the broader picture.
Those who support Israel felt they could not put their head above the parapet for fear of the consequences against them. Many felt unable to even defend Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state, let alone that Israel had a right to self-defence. Worse, the peer pressure from social media from those who claim that “silence is violence” forced many to share or like content to be on the “right side” of their peers.

Most British Jews want to express their connection to Israel as part of their identity without being held accountable for its actions. In every other context this is not only understood but protected. Chinese Brits celebrating Chinese New Year for example, are not asked to condemn the Chinese Communist Party. There is a lot of talk about authenticity and bringing your whole self to situations but many supporters of Israel feel bullied into silence and ostracised by so-called progressives on campus or getting pile-ons on Twitter merely for suggesting that their friends and family in Israel have a right to not be targeted. For supporters of Israel to retreat and to hide a part of their identity for fear of being called a fascist is to be unfree.

We did further qualitative and quantitative research to understand public attitudes to Israel and the results were instructive and give cause to feel less negative. A tiny four per cent of respondents in the 2,500-person poll listed the Israel-Palestinian conflict as one of the three most important issues facing the world right now.

The majority of participants were either very supportive of Israel or don’t support either side. There is obviously more nuance to “taking sides” in a complicated conflict but this is proof that it does not feature on most people’s radar.

The key finding was that those who posted about the conflict on social media were much more likely to be anti-Israel and thus distorting the wider reality of public opinion — the silent majority.

Of course, it is easy to say that we should ignore the noisy minority — those who don’t believe in Israel’s right to exist, let alone defend itself, and those for who antisemitism is an acceptable form of racism. But that would be to deny human nature and the craving we have for affirmation from our peers. Your university friends may not represent wider society, but it’s their views and support you seek. Social media has the ability to catapult that noisy minority straight into your personal feeds, often without your consent.

I am interested in how we can help the community, particularly younger members for whom social media is a reality they have never not known. How do we help them to navigate this minefield and the feeling that it often leaves of negativity. It does, of course, go wider than the Israel Palestinian conflict, but lessons can be widely applied.

We can not and should not wrap people in cotton wool and tell them to withdraw completely. What they don’t see can’t affect them, but this is not a way to build resilience and notwithstanding the unfeasibility of not using widely used platforms.

The journalist and mindset author Matthew Syed, gives some advice in his book What Do You Think?, which helps children build confidence and avoid disagreements. When it comes to social media, his corrective advice for young people (for all of us, if we are honest) is to help them understand how these technologies work. There is a commercial imperative for these platforms to induce us to look at what they air. Having an awareness of this, Syed argues, might make us more able to see these platforms as commercial entities with their own interests.

Indeed, newsfeeds of various kinds are not objective depictions of the world but curated to reinforce our world view or even the content that will trigger us.

Just being cognisant of this fact can encourage all of us to escape the echo chamber. The mute button is also a helpful resource.

As an organisation, we are led by data and the data tells us to be more optimistic and confident in our place as British Jews. Getting the wider community to zoom out and take stock without underplaying the very significant and real threat posed by antisemitism or toxic online discourse will be a challenge.

If we can remember that news exists to get our attention and that social media is led by algorithms, we can remind ourselves that it doesn’t reflect reality but precisely that which is uncharacteristic of reality. Hopefully then we might start to get a sense of proportion and feel more confident in our place as British Jews.

Claudia Mendoza is Co-CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council

November 17, 2022 14:42

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