by Theodore Samets
The Internet has changed the world.
Less than a decade ago, the late Israel critic Edward Said published an essay in the London Review of Books that asked “Is Israel more secure now?” Those who wanted to respond to Said’s piece had to wait and hope that the LRB would publish their letters to the editor in future issues or sound off in other publications.
At the beginning of this month, Allison Benedikt penned her own anti-Israel essay, “Life After Zionist Summer Camp.” To say that Benedikt touched a nerve within the pro-Israel community doesn’t do her agitating essay justice.
The Said essay serves as a reference point for two reasons: First, Benedikt’s ironic tone, which many have criticized, bears the markings of Said’s work here and elsewhere. Second, the change in reaction times has changed the debate over an article such as this; more than simply speed it up, it’s caused some of the voices who weighed in to say things they quite probably regret.
Benedikt’s essay was published in The Awl, an online magazine, and the response has remained online. It’s not the only anti-Israel piece to be published this year, or even this month, yet it’s been the focus of many bloggers’ hours. Why?
Well, Benedikt brought it upon herself. Whether it’s how she actually feels or not, she wrote the essay in a way that implies she’s never had her own, unique thought on the existence of the state of Israel or Zionism. Where she once blindly followed her parents and camp counselors, now she follows her non-Jewish and seriously anti-Zionist husband.
Benedikt’s responders were angered for good reason. The essay showed a lack of deep thinking, ridiculed those who appreciated or loved Israel, and was written in a “childlike” voice, as Gal Beckerman called it, that is almost painful to read.
As Benedikt and her husband have taken to Twitter to defend themselves against criticism, things have gotten heated. When Jeffrey Goldberg, who first brought Benedikt’s essay to the eyes of many Israel/Jewish bloggers, didn’t print her response (it turned out that his spam filter had caught her tirade), Benedikt’s husband called Goldberg a “dick” via Twitter, and then forced his wife to retweet the statement.
And in response to Yaacov Lozowick, an Israeli writer who posed a few questions about Benedikt’s statement that she had removed the story of the wicked child from her family’s seder, Benedikt answered that she chose to edit her Haggadah because “I am Jewish, you mother fucker.”
In this new world, where responses can be instantaneous and are rarely seen by an editor, the quality of debate has gone in the same direction of the quality of rock music.
Within a few days of the original essay’s publishing, online debate had moved from discussion and concern with the piece itself to Benedikt’s comment about removing the wicked son from the seder.
Her decision is weird, yes, but is it really that terrible? I wouldn’t want my seder examined and excoriated online or anywhere (“He let people leave before the grace after meals!”). While Benedikt opened the subject up by referrring to her edits, it seems like an unnecessary distraction.
It’s also when the debate went from bad to worse. While the conversation should have remained focused on Benedikt’s zombie-like approach to opinions on Israel and her obliviousness to the many intricacies of American Jewry’s connection with Israel, it didn’t. In this, the bloggers who spend much of their time perusing the net for modern Protocols of the Elders of Zion allowed themselves to become sidetracked.
Social media continues to change the world. This is felt acutely in the world of political debate, where a day was once like a week and is now like a year; pro-Israel bloggers can’t ignore the demand for the quick response, but they must remember that there’s no existentialist threat to the Passover seder, and no great need for concern that young Jews don’t care about matzo ball soup.
If they don’t, they’ll lose sight of the bigger picture.