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‘You wouldn’t just unfollow the Nazis’ – dealing with online hate

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The Jewish community must never kowtow in the face of online hate. It needs to reframe the discussion of Israel to counter allegations of colonialism and learn about Palestinian history. This is the advice of activist Rudy Rochman about how best to cope with the current rise in antisemitism in mainstream and social media.

“Ask yourself what you would do if you were living when the antisemitism that would lead to the Shoah was rising? I don’t think any of us, knowing what happened next, would say, ‘Let’s ignore it. Let’s unfollow the Nazis, and let them do what they want to do.’ We would all expose them; we would fight them; we would try to change society,” said Rochman at a webinar organised by the SA Zionist Federation, the Israel Centre, The Arch, and The Base this week.

“Keep that in mind as antisemitism is rising in front of us now. Don’t put your head in the sand and ignore it,” the French-born former Israeli Defense Forces soldier said. Rochman continues to serve as a reservist, and is also involved in organisations and on various public platforms that deal with Jewish education and uniting Israeli and Palestinian activists.

The social-media influencer said that accusations that Israel was a colonial state had to be turned on their head. “In terms of colonisation and settlements, these are terms describing foreign experiences and foreign individuals coming into a land that doesn’t belong to them, and exporting those resources back to the motherland.

“The Jews are from this land. When you dig in the sand, you find our history. We are the indigenous, first civilization, pre-colonial identity – the descendants of the Hebrews that finally, for the first time in history, achieved decolonisation. We came back and undid what the Romans did.” While Rochman acknowledged that there had been “a lot of failure in between” and “much to fix” whereby “we were getting it wrong about the other”, including Palestinians, “our origins, our legitimacy, our identity, and our connection to this land isn’t foreign”.

He also called for a change in labels. “A Jewish village isn’t a settlement, it’s a Jewish village or town or city. We have to stop using this language.”

Rochman said a further problem was that the Jewish community, for the most part, never learnt the Palestinian narrative. “We were never taught that they are real human beings who are also suffering; that Israel is also involved in the situation, can play a role, and has a responsibility to deal with their suffering.”

Furthermore, many Jewish students are then exposed to the Palestinian story only as spun on university campuses by movements like the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. Once they feel like they have never been told the whole story by their own community, at times they then reject supporting Israel in the future.

Those supporting Israel not only need to understand Palestinian history, they also need to understand the way Palestinian supporters have twisted this to argue against Israel so that they can better counteract it. “We need to be able to show why being anti-Israel isn’t the way to be pro-Palestinian.”

After all, suggested Rochman, many of those who purport to be pro-Palestinian are in fact “hijacking” their experience for other purposes. “They don’t care when Palestinians are dying by the thousands in Syria; when Palestinians are suffering by the hundreds of thousands in refugee camps in Lebanon; when Palestinians don’t have equal rights in Jordan or are suffering in refugee camps there; or when they are being blockaded by Egypt on the side of Egypt and Gaza. They care only about Palestinian suffering when it can be used against Israel.” This manipulation has to be stopped.

When it comes to the mainstream media, Rochman suggests that these channels tend to communicate information like a “soccer match – making it about one side versus the other; a good guy versus the bad guy”. This reductionist approach needs to be challenged, he urged, suggesting that in this case, social media is actually an advantage because it allows a plurality of voices to emerge.

In addition, modern media houses are ultimately businesses concerned with selling advertising. As such, if their audience is anti-Israel, they will keep that angle in their news. The responsibility of those supporting Zionism is “to be ten steps ahead, and be able to change the audience”.

The point also isn’t to defend Israel based on its accomplishments, such as how it created cherry tomatoes, drip irrigation, or internet applications. It’s also not about playing “Israeli music, eating hummus, and feeling proud for a few minutes”. Even highlighting the country as a democracy in the Middle East isn’t useful. “First of all, democracy is a corrupt system that clearly doesn’t work in many places and doesn’t achieve true justice for what it’s intended to build,” Rochman said.

Second, he questioned why, if monarchies like Thailand, Jordan, and Morocco, or semi dictatorships like Singapore, didn’t have to defend their legitimacy, why Israel should.

Rochman contends that a solution for the region will have to come not from the top, but from the ground up. For a variety of reasons, “politicians currently in power, on both sides, aren’t interested in changing the status quo”. Instead, “there’s something better that we can create that can fulfil the aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. It’s going to be about getting both people to open their hearts to recognise the other.”

If this is the end point, there’s no quick fix in turning the tide of antisemitism. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in one conversation,” he said.

Nevertheless, the focus has to be on investing in the next generation and education. “It doesn’t matter how many petitions you sign or laws and resolutions you pass; all those laws will be overturned because the next generation is growing, and they are against Israel. So it’s our responsibility to make sure that the next generation isn’t like that.

“Ultimately, it’s important in these tough times to make sure that we take the next chapter of our history into our own hands,” Rochman urged.

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