When I try to write about Israel and Palestine, the words stop making sense. They become jagged collections of vowels and consonants, stripped of their meaning, like teeth or colored marbles laid out in rows. Tentative sentences come out, half-fragmented—“rockets,” “rubble”—and collapse into a howl. There is just so much pain, misdirection, and cruelty. It feels futile to try to contain it in the confines of a sentence or a paragraph or an article or a book or an entire language’s vocabulary, really, because what words can replace a lost child, or the 69 lost children killed in a few days of bombs and rockets?
All that is already absurd about trying to sum up such things becomes more absurd when faced with the overweening, ever-present American lens on the conflict, in which Americans center themselves so heedlessly and continually that the gravity of the situation is thrown off-kilter. And yet even as aware as I am of the absurdity of my own commentary—and most American commentary—at least I didn’t compare a fart joke to a pogrom.
The woman who did—and also to waterboarding and to lynching—is a music journalist named Eve Barlow, a writer who has made a ferocious iteration of Zionism the centerpiece of her online persona. In a piece for the conservative Jewish magazine Tablet titled “The Social Media Pogrom,” she opened with a lede for the ages: “I don’t know who crafted the first tweet that simply said ‘Eve Fartlow,’ but whoever it was—bot or human—started a fire. Over the past two weeks, Twitter has been littered with the words ‘Eve Fartlow.’ Every time I tweet, this title is the response I attract, and it is pelted at me irrespective of what I write.” About the heated Israel-Palestine discourse online, she wrote, “I dubbed it the world’s first social media pogrom.” Zionists were losing access to direct messages, having posts removed, or having their accounts, she claimed, “threatened with temporary suspension or closure.”
Barlow may have strayed deep into the territory of the Streisand Effect—after the piece went live, the epithet “Eve Fartlow” trended nationally on Twitter, and she made her seemingly inevitable appearance on Fox News Primetime. But as misguided and narcissistic as her behavior was, it was representative of a broader and thornier conflict for many Jews abroad, for whom a strident, increasingly militant Zionism represents a core part of their religious identity. And some of what has passed for anti-Zionist commentary has crossed the muddy boundary into Jew-hatred; some of the commentary used the smokescreen of conflict to gleefully indulge in preexisting bigotry. Even in Barlow’s own country, anti-Semitism had dire consequences around the time of her article’s publication—a brick thrown through the window of a Manhattan Jewish business, a swastika etched into a Salt Lake City synagogue. Part of the successful endeavor of the Zionist political project, from its earliest days of 19th-century myth making, was an explicit attempt to link the creation of a modern nation-state with the biblical word of God; the extraordinary work of resurrecting Hebrew, a liturgical language used for a thousand years only in formal writing and scholarship, formed a central part of this progress, discarding a millennium of Jewish history as exilic, irrelevant. Keening toward Zion in prayer was conflated with the messy and bloody endeavor of settlement, and a robust network of propagandistic and philanthropic efforts has worked to keep Judaism and Zionism inseparable in the subsequent century, and obscure displacement and bloodshed as asides to a story of faith triumphant.
But the notion of settlement as earthly salvation always had its detractors, and it retains a fundamental contradiction. Even if one reveres a land, where does reverence stop and reality begin? You can wax rhapsodic about the walls of Jerusalem, but within it teems a multitude of human life. Is a can of Coke purchased in Jerusalem sacred? Is an Egged bus sacred? A border fence? A bullet? A bomb? Against all this, the solipsism of Barlow’s piece was breathtaking. She tweeted as she did, she wrote, because “the truth protects lives”; it was the kind of thing that induces an uncomfortable giggle, as the reader is unsure whether to laugh or to cry. Because what had inspired it was a cataclysm halfway across the world.
As she wrote those words, and Tablet published them, there were office buildings and homes reduced to rubble; according to the UN, approximately 72,000 Palestinians had been displaced, as a result of 11 days of relentless shelling into one of the most densely populated places in the world, the blockaded, open-air prison that is Gaza Strip. In total, 254 Palestinians were killed, with nearly 2,000 more sustaining injuries. Israel came under relentless rocket fire, with more than 4,000 rockets launched by Hamas militants; 13 Israelis were killed, with more injured. Within Israel itself, cities that were home to mixed Israeli and Arab populations—Lod, Acre, Haifa, Bat Yam—erupted into ethnic strife, and both Arab and Jewish mobs killed and beat victims. The Al-Aqsa Mosque—a magnificent building standing atop the Temple Mount, the third-holiest site in Islam—had been stormed multiple times by Israeli police, who tear-gassed Palestinians, beat them with batons, and blinded them with rubber bullets during the last days of Ramadan. Al-Aqsa overlooks the holiest site in Judaism, the Wailing Wall; they are nearly touching, one just below the other, and at this site, the violence had begun.
The Israeli military called its war “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” after a melancholy 1977 song about a young soldier defending Jerusalem through a rainy day and a moonlit night. For 11 days, rockets and intercepting missiles clashed in burning air. After the cease-fire, the operations became arrests, raids, and gassings. And across the world a woman wrote a story about how strangers wouldn’t stop mocking her name. A rocket lands with a different impact from a fart.
I have dedicated my life to words, and I concede that no number of them can replace a lost house or a lost child. And even the most dedicated propagandists must admit the same: Beliefs, no matter how earnestly held or cruelly challenged, are nothing compared to human necessities—bread, a roof, a way to bathe the dead. Gaza lacks consistent electricity, lacks clean water, and does not control its airspace or its fishing rights, which were among the first rights revoked as Guardian of the Walls began. Buildings crumbled to ashes with people inside, and the blue sea stayed blue, inaccessible and unchanging, yards away. In Israel, families mourned too, children became acquainted with bomb shelters, neighbors feared neighbors, minds turned hotly to violence.
The discomfort of American Jews should be a footnote to a footnote. The enormous weight of the numbers of the dead and injured and their proportions shifted something in the tenor of American conversation on the left; the right enjoyed its usual indifference to Palestinian life, among both far-right Jews and the far more numerous Christian Zionists, who see the conflict as the means to a blissful eschatology, to which Palestinians are an obstacle that must be eliminated. Only the sheer amount of American military aid to Israel—the Biden administration dispatched another $735 million on May 17—made US sentiment remotely relevant.
Looking inward from half a world away, Barlow and her defenders substitute their emotions for a reality orders of magnitude more painful, and cannot see the degree to which their vision is distorted through that warped lens. They turn the word “pogrom” into a punch line. Discussion of the dead and wounded, of land stolen and rockets launched turns into a conversation of hurt feelings, as if these things have equal mass. Such translational efforts, even those undertaken in good faith, risk wrenching the gaze of the observer from the rosy and dusty stones of Jerusalem, the battered edifices of Ashkelon, the barbed-wire confines of Gaza, to the sealed and self-congratulating consciousness of the American observer. Too much history, analogue, and emotion in our commentary obscures the reality of pain. Metaphor is an instinct that carries its own perils.
There are some things words are useful for and ideas that benefit from public debate, even on social media. Questions of indigeneity and dignity, of nationalism and its uses, of colonialism and its continuance whirl through the ether, and barbs are traded in that weightless space where nothing is ever resolved. The notion of pragmatism keeps arising here: Any would-be solution that ignores either the immense power differential between the two entities or that millions of lives hang in the balance, rooted in that place soaked in history and blood, is fundamentally unserious. Yet to lapse back into an apathetic pragmatism, when pragmatism upholds injustice and immiseration, is perhaps unserious too. There are pictures of the dead children, their dark eyes huge in their tragic faces, each one a planet of loss. Videos of the residents of Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood whose Palestinian residents are being steadily, forcibly removed from their homes to make way for militant Israeli settlers, gave voice to the displaced.
In the aftermath, from so far away, all we have are words—to soothe and persuade, to plead and spar. The least we can do in the face of the dead is not to conflate our gossip and Twitter jokes with the actuality of violence; in the stillness that we leave, the gap when American observers remove ourselves from our stubborn positions at the center of everything, might leave us space to see a little further, beyond the enormous obstacle of ourselves.