Grieving Two Peoples

As the war on the ground enters new phases and delivers new casualties, the information war also intensifies.
As the war on the ground enters new phases and delivers new casualties, the information war also intensifies. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Baratunde Thurston
October 29, 2023

The sudden escalation of violence in the Middle East, which began on Oct. 7 with a barbaric terror attack by Hamas, has now evolved into a daily horror show of terror, grief, and death. We see the heartbreaking effects of air strikes, territorial siege, rocket barrages, and feel the horrible uncertainty over the fate of those taken hostage, and those missing beneath bombed buildings. But in addition to the physical war, the Israel-Hamas conflict is an information war, one that is playing out daily in our social media feeds. In this context, we are all involved—both as witnesses and combatants—lobbing links, videos, and text screeds onto the digital battlefield. 

Even if we haven’t personally contributed to the discourse, the sheer volume of content exposes us all to misinformation, manipulation, and mistrust. The Israel-Hamas war isn’t the first time these dynamics have come to the fore, but the lifecycle of these events is only speeding up. Now that social platforms have turned everyone into press secretaries, spokespeople, journalists, and pundits, folks are quick to deputize themselves as professors in order to break down the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, starting anywhere from October 2023 back to the time of Abraham. The volley of hot takes is quickly followed by the purge, during which people remove posts, unfollow their heroes, issue apologies, and express occasional humility. (In one public example, CAA’s Maha Dahkil was demoted for referring to Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people as “genocide.”) 

As the war on the ground enters new phases and delivers new casualties, the information war also intensifies. In the past, I haven’t just seen this, I’ve participated in the cycle: I’ve live tweeted major events as they happened, stayed up late scrolling through my feeds, hoping one more tap or swipe would finally explain the terrible thing, or make me feel good about my own opinion, or make me feel vindicated about the stupidity of someone else’s. But this time around, I’ve spoken a lot less (I did one video post with comments off), because it’s hard to find words for the layers of horror, and I don’t want to add to anyone’s pain.

Instead of adding to the barrage of public posts, I’ve primarily opted to listen and learn while reaching out personally to people I know who might be affected by this war, both in the Jewish and Palestinian communities. I feel lucky and relieved to have found the voice of Noam Shuster-Eliassi. She’s a comedian and peace activist who speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and English. She grew up in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a community North of Jerusalem where Israelis and Palestinians choose to live together. I had first heard of her, in mid-2020, when she was featured in an episode of NPR’s Rough Translation podcast about “Hotel Corona,” a quarantine hotel in Jerusalem with Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, religious and secular people trapped together. Noam was doing standup comedy shows in front of these diverse audiences, and in May 2020, I interviewed her on my pandemic-era streaming show Live On Lockdown. 

One week ago, she published a beautiful and painful essay which she described as being written “for those who have the capacity to grieve two peoples.” The raw emotion and pain she captured, both for those kidnapped or killed by Hamas on October 7, many of whom she knew personally, and for the Palestinians being killed in retaliation, is palpable. She gave voice to the frustration of many Israelis with their own government, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “failed leader.” She also wrote about the role of social media in the conflict, noting that: “It is easier to simply stare at my phone and hope my brain will shut down. But actually my phone is my nightmare; God, Instagram is my nightmare. Who are all these Americans posting from their comfortable homes?”

From my comfortable temporary home—a hotel room in Austin, Texas—I was moved to tears by her essay, so I sent Noam a WhatsApp message to check in. While she admitted to being “broken beyond words,” she also was willing to share more on the subject of social media, and what it’s like to be in the midst of a tragedy while people thousands of miles away join the fray virtually. In a series of voice memos, edited lightly, here is what she said:

“Living the Context”

What are you seeing from Americans on social media that worries you? 

Sorry, my voice sounds like this. I am going from funeral to Shiva to really horrific sites and trying to support the families of those who’ve been kidnapped. The amount of pain is just unbearable. 

What I’m seeing from Americans that worries me is that a lot of people jumped really quickly to give us “context,” while the people here who are living the context, and are the embodiment of the context, were showered and overwhelmed by grief that cannot be put into words. At first, we didn’t even fully understand what was happening. We’re counting the dead and we’re seeing the biggest attack on Jews since the Holocaust. My friends and a lot of people from the peace and justice movement—and the community of activists against the occupation—we’re trying to understand who’s kidnapped, who’s dead, who’s injured, who’s missing?

And within minutes, hours, I’m starting to get influencers and political whatevers putting “context” into something when we don’t even know what’s happening yet. A lot of the people who were kidnapped and murdered are the context. Israeli Jews have been working to end the occupation, working on Palestinian human rights, and all these Americans are pounding our heads with “context.” So imagine while you’re bleeding, people are offering you “context.” That was just very, very painful. 

The other part is the extremely quick way in which all this pain we were seeing and experiencing is being weaponized into justifying a huge amount of force against the Palestinians… You also know how hard the revenge from Israel and America is going to be on the Palestinians. It’s a very lose-lose situation for people like me, who are kind of trapped.

Why do you think people outside of the region have so much to say about what’s happening in the region? 

What happens here in this little piece of land is very emotional. It ignites a lot of emotions for people abroad. The Holy Land is Christians, Muslims and Jews. It’s Arabs, Palestinians in the diaspora, Jews in the diaspora, it’s a lot of people who really get emotionally triggered. And the conversation abroad just completely overshadows what is happening here to us on the ground. 

People came [to social media] with pre-made ideas and put them into their binary boxes of how they want to see the political world right now. They immediately put this situation into the framing that they came from home with, if that makes sense. People were missing that this Hamas attack on civilians also targeted Palestinians—Bedouins in the South, who were trying to save people, were murdered as well. Palestinian citizens in Israel have also been captured by Hamas and have also been killed.

Some people on the Left in America were quick to try to explain the Hamas attack as a form of resistance against Israeli occupation. As someone who wants that occupation to end, and someone who lost people to Hamas’s attack on October 7, how did it feel to see people excuse such a horrific attack?

I don’t think people look at this violent event as something that should be looked at on a human level: it was immediately framed as a result of the occupation and the Israeli government. I’ve been part of a movement for a year now that has been protesting against this government. And we told everyone that a disaster is coming, and a disaster came. Instead of listening to us, to the people who tried to warn everyone, people in the U.S. are having a discussion and a conversation completely over our heads.

I wish I had a mic where I could broadcast to the world, and put some sense into people, of the multiple pains that you can hold and the multiple realities that you can live with. It is possible to mourn and be appalled by what happened on October 7, and to give that space while being completely against the systematic oppression of Palestinian people. 

The civilians that were targeted in the South in Israel were not legitimate targets. What happened to them is horrific. It’s horrible. And to people who want overall justice and equality for everyone, it is completely unacceptable to justify anything from what happened there. We can blame the government. We can look at how for years we’ve neglected the Palestinian cause. We’ve been screaming to the world, This is going to have consequences! This is going to have backlash! But to justify [the Hamas attack] and to completely overthrow the pain and grief of so many people right now is really a disaster.

When you look at the bulk of U.S. social media responses, regardless of which “side” they advocate for, do you see any overall pattern? 

I think the main thing I see is how a lot of people’s responses were essentially, Look at me, and what I have to say, and here’s my story. And I will tell you why, in this case, I am right. It’s all very narcissistic. 

I think it was good when people said, There are some Jews and Israelis and Palestinians that you can listen to or Here’s an example of someone that I know and I’ve followed for years, and they were affected by what’s happening. Let’s listen to them. I think that was good, but it’s not enough. Instead, we were seeing, This is the truth, and I’m telling you this, and here are my credits, and you should listen to me. That was the kind of violent social media presence that was just so damaging.

If Noam’s idea of living in multiple realities and holding the pain of many people resonates with you, I’ve been adding to a collection of voices you can check out, and I particularly urge you to follow hers. Thanks to her, I learned of an “emergency webinar series” featuring the voices of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists in the region hosted every Sunday. I learned more in an hour on this Zoom call than in a week of social media consumption. 

With everything speeding up, I’ve been trying to slow down myself, and to sit with the history of Jewish people being chased around the world for thousands of years, with the reality that there are only 16 to 20 million Jews in the entire world, many of whom justifiably live in fear of extremists committed to eliminating them. I’m also sitting with the decades of displacement, occupation, and dehumanization of the Palestinian people, who are stateless in their own land and being collectively punished. I’m sitting with the horrific actions of Hamas, which does not speak for the people it rules.  

Some simple truths emerge. We need the hostages released. We need a ceasefire in the physical war and in the information war. Let’s all slow down, lower our arms (and thumbs) for a moment, and try to expand our hearts so they are big enough to contain the grief and the love of many peoples and see the humanity of us all.