"Peace" Discussion Groups
Israeli “Peace” discussion groups: common pitfalls and how to recognise them
WRITTEN BY MARY RIZZO Discussion groups are the salt of activism and networking. Even newspapers and magazines such as Newsweek and the NYT have realised that comments blocks of blogs are probably just as relevant to the discussion as the article itself.
So, we all have to know the best ways to get the most out of these situations and one of the key things to do is to avoid the pitfalls of letting Gatekeepers and Trolls dominate discourse and deviate the issues.
What they are "there to do" (in my view) can be divided into several branches:
1) Isolate opinions that are not to their liking, and in our case, ones that directly cite Israeli responsibility. These opinions are "imposed" as being off topic, irrelevant, beyond the pale, etc. The opinion is then discarded very rapidly and the gatekeeper cuts to a very routine "attack the person who did that", leading to point two:
2) Ostracise people who point out the inconsistencies of the arguments of those who are spreading Hasbara (pro-Israel propaganda, often masked as being moderate or seeing that both sides have equal responsibility for the conflict). No one wants to be in the position of the isolated person, and many will not find others who defend them, so this is usually the most effective mechanism they use to keep all issues only where the Gatekeeper wants them. It also creates divisions within the group, which is useful in establishing new (or initial) leadership roles, all of them informal, but very much used.
3) Lead discourse into areas where there is no risk of bringing up difficult or uncomfortable issues, which would invariably exacerbate the weakness of the Gatekeeper's position.
The role is generally NOT assigned, but it is often the person or persons who post the most often and speak in the plural "We think this issue has been covered", who speak making global assumptions about the group, "No one is listening to you", and the insinuations that behind the scenes you are disapproved of, therefore, the person has a position of authority that is recognised (but undemonstrated) and it implies you are in a minority and others who are too busy or shy would like action to be taken, but delegate it to another. They often will point out in a very general way to “rules of conduct”, (such as treating others with respect), which are broad, vague and certainly not even related to what is going on or to the actual discourse that is being made. I call this “rule smokescreening”, since they insinuate that agreed-upon rules are being violated and that is a way to cover over all of the uncomfortable arguments. Most of those pointing out the rules (often by reposting them in the heat of a discussion), by the way, are actually the most frequent violators of them! They do this almost always to Pro-Palestinians who they consider “extremists”, (differently from the “good Palestinians” who tow the line that they like to call “moderate”), even though there is nothing extreme in them at all besides extreme disgust at injustice.
The Gatekeepers often (always, actually) misquote, take out of context, manipulate your and other comments and imply that you personally are not acting in an orthodox or appropriate way, while they are certain they are behaving correctly. They believe you are not onto what they are doing, but they need to be exposed. They also will deny they are doing it, which makes it more interesting. One very interesting example of what they do is to refer to “banned members” who will serve as an example. On many boards, which I will illustrate more in detail below, the banned person’s entire history of intervention is wiped out. Only those who assiduously participate may even remember the content or context of the interventions, but the name of the banned person remains as the “evil uncle reminder”, so that others can know that there is someone out there who paid for his misdeeds and they must have been so terrible to have caused him to be banished from the family, therefore, the interventions are gone, and the memory of what the banned person did is left in the hands of the gatekeepers themselves to manipulate as a fear factor to keep everyone else in line.
I will state what I believe they are trying to achieve, besides controlling the way persons interact in discussion. They want to assume a position of authority and leadership. If they don't have a majority, they will make a “ghost majority”, just like the "People have told me this and that" and "You are wasting bandwidth here" and "What are you here to do?" (as if the others are standing in an orderly queue and you have jumped it and need to be shoved back down the line). So, that is a group dynamic thing of POWER. But WHY? Why do they do it? Because they themselves do not have a strong argument that is watertight. It is very hard to declare "I'm democratic but I want a Jewish State" and to insist upon "being realistic" since of course, they are the ones with the privilege. (Like Dylan sang, "if you ain't got nothin, you got nothin to lose" but those with privilege hang onto it with tooth and nail). Being realistic means accepting normalisation immediately. Accepting a moderate position (favourable to Israeli hegemony) and especially, being the critical voice of Israel, but not TOO much… “Israel is here to stay as a Jewish State” seems to be the sentence they use to frame all discussions. For them, it is forbidden to even question the status quo at all, as if it’s all been settled and any mention of what it means to continue in this way is going against peace and is instead seeking war.
These “moderates” want to pretend they support your cause, but the problem is YOU, that you are intransigent and stubborn and if you are not Israeli or living in Occupied Palestine. You obviously can't speak as you do with authority because you are defective from the outset. "You don't live here" is a common “insult”. An international can really, at that point, only thank their lucky stars they don’t (that is, if they are not Palestinian, in which case they lose no matter where they are living).
Now, those Zionists who live in Europe and the West have another game going. They want to believe they are at the progressive vanguard. If you show them the holes in their argument, they turn it into an ad hominem attack. At that point, it gets personal, because they insist upon that kind of interaction. A load of them say, "you never saved a single Palestinian life", "You are damaging and breaking the movement", and make attempts at putting all kinds of huge failures onto your shoulders. You see, all of this has almost nothing to do with the comments you are making, the discourse you bring and the arguments you present. It all turns into a kangaroo court against YOU!
Another interesting occurrence is that many will claim that they are not Zionists, although they talk and act like Zionists, even believe in the same things as the ideology and pragmatic actions of Zionism and were raised with this belief and never have countered it. It is an interesting phenomenon, but one I have only seen on these boards. I think it is a tactic the Hasbarists have told them to try to use, because there really is no other explanation for it.
Trolls are those who establish a truly "counter" position and rather just want to steer conversation to another topic and distract everyone, especially those who are not experts, (because they themselves are far from being experts in the argument). They are generally going to put in a million facts, all of them totally irrelevant to any discourse going on, so that you waste time with arguments you are not even engaged in. They always find a group of other trolls to work with them, and they are probably more coordinated than Gatekeepers, because they can leave one board and then troll another. They also use the word "censorship" a lot.
In boards about Israel/Palestine, the hot trolling topic is to bring up one or many of the following arguments, often in a distorted or false way: women’s rights, gay rights in other Middle Eastern countries, Sharia Law including events they think are to be condemned in Muslim historical narratives, the Talibans, Saddam Hussein and WMDs, infibulation and female genital mutilation, Muslim traditional dress, the reactions to the Danish cartoons, internecine Palestinian political relations, holocaust denial, the childhood of the Catholic Pope, Wahabism and its restrictions, Iran (yes, just the word Iran conjures up the thickest of prejudices and is an all-purpose troll device). All of this serves to avoid confronting the arguments presented and to set the parties on “equal footing”. If one is talking about an Israeli human rights violation, it is natural for the Hasbarists to simply counter that with a human rights violation in Pakistan rather than to look in the mirror or to actually allow the opponent in the debate to articulate his thoughts and expect relevant debate in return.
Then there are the things I call “fear triggers”, which the gatekeepers and trolls are convinced are the most effective tools they have. They are codewords that they simply assume you are going to be trembling and in a state of mental distress the moment you see these words associated with you, and it is all a game of how they can associate things in the most "useful" way to what they are trying to achieve. They know we are public persons, or at any rate, in at least one social network, therefore, in relations with others, thus the need not only to control the "adversary" but to make sure he doesn't repeat the crime, they use words and concepts that are intended to make us back off. Some of them are realistically threatening. Years ago, one person who threatened me on an internet forum (Beliefnet) because I said he should not be using the school computer to harass others during teaching hours, told me he would report me "to the US authorities" and I would "never be able to travel there again"… How he could do this, I don't know, but he felt threatened because I exposed his weakness and his harassing me and others on time the US govt was paying him to work! I didn't take his threats seriously, but I reported him to the site, which banned him and he hounded me for a few years anywhere I tread! He opened up a hate site against me, (which I don't even look at, much less read) and of course put his students on assignment to troll my sites! So, this harassment can be something real, or… it is fear of being associated with ideas that either we do not adhere to or ideas that get bad press where we live.
The key words in these Palestine/Israel boards that are launched as fear triggers are the accusations of being Anti-Semitic or supporting terrorism. This is another way to deviate the discussion. They love this argument, especially in Europe, since Europe has some laws prohibiting certain discussion, including historical events following WW2.
Try to think how it might be for those who are Hasbara activists if they were subjected to the kind of ploys they use against us. If they mentioned a crime against an Israeli Jew and we decided to talk about the bombing of Hiroshima by the USA, or about the incestuous father in Austria. It would be as off topic and irrelevant as the mention of the Talibans is in a discussion about Palestinian events. But, people who promote Palestinian rights stay on topic. They have facts they want to present, and they don’t need to demonise the West or to point out its war crimes. A pro-Palestinian activist has got to ignore the diversion. Doing so isn’t always easy, and sometimes the alternative is simply to disengage and waste less time. Either way, the Palestinian discourse is thwarted.
I will close this presentation with a brief illustration of my own personal experience at some Ning boards.
Google developed a type of site that is quite interactive, known as Ning, which is a sort of social club where people join, assume a “persona” and then interact with one another. There are spaces for submitting blog posts, videos, etc., but the most dynamic element is the forum/discussion board, which functions more or less like a traditional Bulletin Board forum. Ning sites require an “owner” who often serves in the role of moderator and would ideally set the rules for participation, which should exist to 1) keep the Ning board dedicated to the argument that it is registered as (no one wants to see a political board turn into a place where one sells resort apartments or become a place for stalkers to pick up victims); 2) to keep the community relatively active. In this, there is generally no requirement that one post after joining, in fact, most members simply do NOT participate at all, and the active membership settles to its average, always incredibly lower than the listed membership; 3) to restrict certain material that it deems unsuitable which is generally determined by consensus as to what the site itself is dedicated to and almost always is only to prevent advertising spam and pornography, since both contain violations against some international communications laws.
The owner generally is expected to participate, or at least to motivate decisions taken such as banning, accepting re-admittance, accepting re-admittance under a new pseudonym, and other administrative tasks. The owner is not obligated to enforce opinions (although sometimes this seems to be his major task), nor is the owner granted a right to obligate or restrict any kind of activity by any of the members in any other venue whatsoever unless it is operating as if on behalf of the Ning. This means: if I use the name of the Ning group to host a meeting without prior consent or permission, I violate the owner’s rights, and this would be an acceptable motivation for removal of my account. If instead, I express my opinion on that site regarding issues the site deals with, or on any other site, expressing opinions about that site, it is fully within my rights to do so and membership in a Ning board does not entail surrender of my freedom of opinion. To be banned for this reason is an abuse of power.
Ning groups have a few conditions, actually. There are some that you must join if you want to have reading access. This creates membership, but that does not mean it creates “members”. There are others that allow you to consult them freely without needing to give any information at all, and if you like the group or only want be included as a member, it becomes a thought-out choice, that is, you didn’t join out of curiosity, but because you decided that your participation was something you wished to occur. Both groups share the feature that if you wish to participate in comments, you must become a member. Becoming a member requires you to give biographical information and assume a “persona”, which can be your own self or a pseudonym.
I found my first Ning group in Palestinian Mothers (http://www.palestinianmothers.com). It was founded by a friend of mine, Iqbal Tamimi. I fully support the platform of the group, and I joined because I wanted to be part of a discussion community that was outspokenly Pro-Palestinian. Since I have no problems with my own opinions being known, I join with my full name and my photograph. At a later point, a Palestinian friend of mine invited me to join a Ning called MePeace. Essentially, this group expected to be a dialogue group where “both sides” had a chance to contribute and members are automatically labelled as “peacemakers”. It didn’t take long to find out that this group was really very hostile to any kind of specific criticisms towards Israel, and when it happened the mechanisms illustrated above were set off. This occurred time and time again, with myself and with other members who were critical. Some members were banned or left because they felt mobbed, and some of them would come back with a new persona. I found out from these members that this was happening, because they told me. I would not interact much with the “new” personas, but watched as they attempted once again but with invented personal stories and other things that I personally find damaging to a sense of trust in a community. I want to know who I am dealing with and I don’t like it that some are peddling totally bogus stories. However, if this was the only way to remain on a board that cast them off, and they were determined to remain, that is the motivation of their choice, fooling people and making them believe something false is only a contingent result of it.
This group has an owner who was not participating for a long time. Actually, the active participants are limited to maybe only 5% of the members, with the same persons participating in the same way over and over again. One day, he decided to open a thread to allow people to ask him anything. I asked him what gave him the power to change certain very unorthodox membership rules as he was proposing, so that one had to “support the community” in all internet activity, which would mean, if we criticised it (and there was so much to criticise!) we would be the cause of our own exclusion. He did not answer that, but responded to autobiographical questions asked by others about how he studied in a Yeshiva in the USA. When I asked him where he received the money to travel in the name of this group, what became of donations made to the group, and questions of the sort, I found myself banned the very next day. Banned after a letter from him just a few hours earlier thanking me for my participation in the group! To be banned obviously eliminates all the interactions you have made, not only comments but complete posts and private messages, it removes your account and makes it impossible for you to obtain the email addresses of those you had been in contact with and might like to continue to interact with. It is totally Zionist occupied territory and there are a few brave souls who still battle there, but I honestly can’t see what the point of that is.
The next group I joined was Palestine Israel Crossroads, founded by one of the banned members from MePeace, who at the time was also a friend. It was (and I believe still is) a very small group of mostly Israeli peace-seeking people. The discussion was generally acceptable, but I soon learned that some of the rules carried forward from MePeace. That is, if you are an “international” (this does not include if you made Aliyah, because in that case you are Israeli when it suits you and something else when it fits the argument better) you are considered to be not really involved and you are open to more criticism, should you begin to question some things that disturb the belief these people have of being the vanguard of the Israeli peace-seekers. You are expected to simply ignore racist jokes against Muslims, to accept that the discourse of an exiled Palestinian is called a “stunt” and to be considered to be “extremists” if you support full right of return and don’t consider Gilad Shalit a valid cause for launching a war against a nation.
It’s slightly more civil than the Hasbara “let’s not play the blame game” then followed by semi-intellectual blather about new-agey spiral dynamics or other gatekeeping discourse that serves no function but to isolate anyone who promotes full Palestinian rights, but all the same, it’s a kind of framing of political discourse into an area that takes the comfort level of Israelis into account before all else. I left the group of my own accord after not liking the accusations one of the Israeli members was making in “explaining” my thought to others and getting it wrong. My suggestions for the principles, however, had remained intact. I don’t know if they still are. Last time I checked, it was basically a place to exchange recipes.
Lastly, I was urged to join Ipeace (how about those names, folks!), where supposedly many who were not satisfied with MePeace had transmigrated. I actually had to join before I could even take a look at it. (So don’t believe all those high membership claims made! The active members here are probably closer to 1%). Another “peace” group by an Israeli! The rules would be more or less the same: meaning, Zionists would control the discourse and if you were not going to go along with it on some level, you were to be ostracised. This did not take long to happen. Most of the members, at any rate, are into a generic kind of peace that is about rainbows, flowers and unicorns, as well as a lot of spiritual stuff spanning everything under the sun. Very little people knew about or were able to engage in discussion on Palestine, and when those of us who know and sought to engage tried, we were told to “tone it down” by the Israeli moderator. I basically ignored the site for months. Then I was told that there was a notorious post by the Israeli singer Noa (Achinoam Nini) which was justifying the Israeli war crimes against Gazans. I saw that the commenters were not engaging much, most of them thanking her for her “courage” and others telling her how humane she was. That is not a joke! At the time friends and acquaintances of mine in Israel were running the campaign to ask Noa to not do a charity performance for Gazan children, given her declarations. We all considered it hypocritical to on the one hand say about the destruction of Gaza with everyone in it, “this is the only way” and then to act all innocent and sing “there must be another way”. One can’t have it both ways. I mentioned this on the site. I was immediately banned. Apparently, if you don’t condone war crimes against Gazans, you are not a real peace-seeker!
So, with this experience under my belt, what are my conclusions? First of all, there is so far no such thing as an Israeli board that truly supports justice 100%. There are always some tricks that get pulled out of the Zionist hat. Some sites are just more blatant about it than others. Secondly, there is a group dynamics created on all boards, and not all boards are open about what their real agenda is. However, sooner or later, the agenda does get exposed. It is simply forbidden for Palestinians and their supporters to get a fair hearing, to be treated with correctness and for their arguments to remain on the table. My suggestion: dialogue and refine arguments with those who support the cause of justice for Palestinians, and that means, avoid the time-wasting and frustrating Israeli peace boards. They would have fit quite well in an Orwellian world where “War is Peace”. Comment and participate on sites that do not have gatekeepers, and learn to recognise their tricks and traps.
Mary Rizzo is an art restorer, translator and writer living in Italy. Editor and co-founder of Palestine Think Tank, co-founder of Tlaxcala translations collective. Her personal blog is Peacepalestine.