Three weeks ago, I woke up, clicked on my Instagram app and saw a story that made my heart sink. It was from an Israeli friend I hadn’t seen in years. I found myself staring at the Israeli flag with the words “Israel is under attack” emblazoned in capital letters underneath. I thought it was probably a barrage of rockets from Gaza or the West Bank, which, while concerning, has also become the norm. It turned out to be the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.
Aside from the sheer brutality of the Hamas attack, which made this feel different to anything that has come before, the ensuing conflict has turned out to be very different in another way, too. Social media has become a frontline. My Instagram stories have been almost exclusively about the Middle East. For many of my fellow millennials, who spend their days scrolling through Instagram, we’re living this battle through our phones. And it’s a highly polarised place to live.
Do you condemn the slaughter of innocent civilians in Israel or are you critical of Israel’s “disproportionate” response in Gaza and the “occupation”? Which side are you on? Videos from pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian users are circulating with a level of urgency, fear and anger that is overwhelming. Unfortunately, there are also swathes of Hamas apologists in the mix.
Social media has exposed how deeply divisive this conflict is among young people. In some ways, it strengthens existing fault lines. A 30-year-old friend put it in the starkest of terms: “If the Holocaust were to happen now, I don’t think any of my non-Jewish friends would have hidden me. These are friends who have danced at my wedding and eaten at my Friday night dinner table. These people haven’t even condemned the massacres. They certainly wouldn’t risk their life to help me.”
But this is not only about those who’ve stayed silent on social media. Gaslighting, too, has become pervasive. “In this age of information and misinformation, young Jews are having to advocate online that these atrocities did in fact happen. I even had a friend tell me that the images of bloodied children’s bedrooms are fake,” she says.
A prominent Jewish influencer I know hasn’t posted anything about the conflict. She has half-a-million followers. Why is she not standing alongside her fellow Jews? Is she a coward? Scared?
The “woke” brigade are the hardest to challenge. Many align themselves with the Palestinian cause on the basis that civilians have suffered oppression and colonisation, saying that Palestinians have been neglected because their lives matter less, and therefore it’s their duty to give a voice to the voiceless. While I lament the deaths of innocent Palestinians, I’m afraid I also know that being pro-Palestinian doesn’t mean you’re aligning yourself with the underdog. That’s an oversimplification of this bitter, far-reaching conflict.
And sometimes, such views are used to justify the terrorism inflicted on Israel or to absolve Hamas of responsibility to protect Palestinians in Gaza, who, let’s not forget, are their electorate. It’s all too easy to blame Israel. It doesn’t make you woke, it makes you lazy.
Instagram is also where my peers have made some of their most painful discoveries. I recently spoke to a 30-year-old friend in Tel Aviv. Midway through our conversation, he said he’d found out something bad had happened via Instagram. I could tell he was still in shock. He’d taken out a girl from Tel Aviv a few times some months ago. He said she was smart, full of life, and in their brief time of knowing each other, she’d shared her plans for the future.
Scrolling through Instagram, he saw that someone had posted a photo of her next to a broken heart. She was 25. In disbelief, he sent her a WhatsApp, messaged her on Instagram and called her number. Nothing went through. She’d been murdered at the Supernova party. We both fell silent on the call and I realised I was trying so hard to hold myself back from crying.
The world has never seemed more fragile. My generation is frightened. Increasingly, I’m hearing from people who can’t face looking at Instagram at all. A friend told me she had to change the Instagram password for a family member so she couldn’t log in anymore. I get it. My generation is used to going on social media to decompress. Instead, when we reach for our phones to try to relax, we’re being traumatised.
It’s normally a lovely place to be. Now it’s dark, unpredictable and weird,” a friend says.
In light of the calamity that has unfolded, we desperately need new ways to reframe the discussion about the Middle East. And the answer isn’t on our phone screens.
Elizabeth Perlman is a commissioning editor at The Times