On Facebook, A Push For Tolerance Grows


A hashtag won’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it’s good to know that even as rage and hatred continue to drive the conversation on the ground, on social media a movement for a saner discourse is growing.

Two weeks ago, two Hunter College students — an Israeli from Tel-Aviv and a Syrian from Damascus — created a Facebook page titled “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies.” They encouraged friends and family to post pictures of themselves, holding up signs that affirmed the motto.

The slogan “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies,” which has circulated in Hebrew for years, was recently revived through a joint effort of Israeli Jews and Arabs, who over the past few weeks have been rallying to denounce racism and promote Arab-Jewish partnerships in Israel. The slogan was later picked up by the Israeli left-wing protest movement, which is currently demonstrating throughout Israel against the offensive in Gaza.

In Israel, the call for Jews and Arabs to refuse to be enemies has been met with internal violence. Only this weekend, protestors in Haifa bearing signs with this slogan were beaten by right-wing counterdemonstrators. But the slogan’s Facebook page has taken on a life of its own, becoming a full-blown international social media campaign. During its brief existence, it already received over 4,000 likes on Facebook, was re-tweeted thousands of times and was mentioned by media outlets around the world, from ABC News in English to the Giornalettismo in Italian.

Part of the campaign’s success lies in the unusual stories it encapsulates. Take, for example, the interfaith couple that became the campaign’s unofficial poster children: In their picture, Sulome Anderson, a Lebanese-American, and her partner, a formally Haredi Jewish man (who asked that his name not to be mentioned here) are seen passionately kissing. They are holding up the sign “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” between them.

“He calls me Neshama, I call him Habibi. Love doesn’t understand the language of rocket fire, occupation or airstrikes,” their post states.

Jasmine, an Israeli woman, and Osama, a Palestinian man, posted a picture with their young daughter. They are holding up a sign in which reads in Arabic, Hebrew and English: “We are a family. There is an alternative.”

While most posts bear less sensational trappings, they’re all deeply moving. Shirley Kramer, an American Jew living in Los Angeles, posted a picture of herself hugging her best friend, an American Muslim born in Lebanon. The picture was taken only a few weeks ago, in Israel, on her wedding day.

“My Lebanese best friend of 22 years came to Israel for my wedding,” she writes. “We are holding a picture of when we graduated from elementary school together. We refuse to hate.”

The two students who launched the campaign, 23-year-old Abraham Gutman and 21-year-old Dania Darwish, met earlier this year in a Model United Nations class in Hunter, where they were on the same debate team. They’ve since become good friends.

“Abraham is the first Israeli I really got to know, and it was very interesting for me to hear things from his point of view,” said Darwish. “We come from very different backgrounds, have different political views, but we could always talk about things.”

The campaign has a two-fold purpose: to normalize the concept that Arabs and Jews need not be enemies by default, and to present an alternative to the vitriolic discourse which has washed over social media in the past months.

“It’s not that I believe that if we’re all friends, the core issues will disappear. … But stereotypes and the incitement of hatred can’t be part of the conversation,” Darwish said. “We’re trying to create an online community where people with different political opinions could talk in a respectful and productive way.”

Gutman got the idea for the campaign when the online hostilities finally forced him out of Facebook, his main connection back home. “Every post was hate, just pure hate,” he recalls. He was taken aback by the offensive language of Facebook friends from right and left alike; and the aggressive replies he received from his own close circle of friends and family shook him to the core.

When Gutman realized Darwish was facing the same atmosphere within her social network, the two decided to act.

Getting people to participate in the campaign was harder than he thought, said Gutman. While many “Liked” the page and re-tweeted it, in the beginning no one wanted to post their own pictures to it. “People were afraid of their communities’ response. There’s a huge gap between just ‘Liking’ something and actually putting your face on it. … That would open you up for questions.” But more people joined in as the campaign received more media attention, and what was treated before as “radical” is now showing signs of becoming a new normal.

For Darwish, the biggest difficulty was creating a forum that respects both Arabs and Israelis, without appearing to normalize the occupation. She and Gutman agree on that point.

Reading the somber headlines from Israel, seeing the pain and rage boiling over on both sides, it would be easy to dismiss this campaign as a comforting piece of fluff. But even cynics would have to grant it one small but important success: despite the sensitive timing, so far no one has posted hateful or offensive remarks. Whatever criticisms people had were written moderately and with respect. “For me, this is refreshing, this is new,” said Gutman.

“We don’t think this campaign is an exclusive tool to battle what’s happening,” he continued. “We don’t think that if we all just get along and sing Kumbaya in Hebrew and Arabic, it will all be fine. But there needs to be a voice that said: ‘OK, we don’t have to be friends, but we definitely don’t have to be enemies just by default.’ That’s what we want our presence to become.”

Orli Santo is a correspondent for the New York-based weekly Yediot America. Her column appears monthly.