Thursday, June 20, 2024

On war in Gaza, ‘people are talking past each other,’ deepening the divide

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Almost from the beginning, when more than a dozen Pomona College students occupied Marston Quad in late March, calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, some critics have expressed confusion, even astonishment over the student-led protests that made headlines this spring:

• “If even a small percentage of our university students are voicing support for Hamas terrorists and cheering the death, rape and torture of Israelis, then it’s time to ask what on Earth are our academic institutions teaching our students and where does this moral rot come from?” Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, posted on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, in late April as campus protests became more widespread in California and across the nation.

• “We have to fight back and educate our students (so they) understand the very importance morally and from a national security standpoint of the existence, celebration and empowerment of Israel in the region,” Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis said May 15 at a Sacramento reception for the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California.

• At a May 8 speech at Florida State, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called campus protesters “imbeciles” and said pro-Palestinian protesters “have not studied” Middle East history.

Those who disagree with protesters at college campuses from Columbia University in New York City, to UCLA, USC and dozens of other campuses in California, around the country and internationally say they don’t understand how students can be against Israel’s actions in Gaza. Are they anti-Semitic? Do they not watch the news?

There’s a fundamental disconnect happening between protesters and those watching them from afar, according to Brian Levin, the former head of Cal State San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and a retired professor of criminal justice.

“People are just talking past each other,” said Levin, who visited protesters at both CSUSB and UC Riverside earlier this spring.

“Folks label all protesters as supporting Hamas, which is not only untrue and insulting, but a distraction from communication and reconciliation,” Levin said. “Similarly, I’ve seen (people saying) even at peaceful protests that Zionists are synonymous with White supremacists and colonialists.”

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Part of the disconnect between younger and older generations appears to be tied to the differences in where they get their news.

Older adults are more likely to get information from traditional sources, such as cable news, talk radio or newspapers. In the Israel-Hamas war, much of the information available to traditional sources is provided by the Israeli government. That’s severely limited outsiders’ access to the situation on the ground in Gaza following Oct. 7, when Hamas fighters attacked en masse, some of whom flew in using paragliders, killing 1,139 people and taking about 250 people hostage.

“In general, the Israeli media is drafted to the main goal of winning the war, or what looks like trying to win the war. If you want to try to find some similarities, it’s along the lines of the American media after 9/11,” Raviv Drucker, an Israeli investigative journalist, told The Guardian in January. “The shock was so brutal, and the trauma is so hard that journalists see their role now, or part of their role, to help the state to win the war. And part of it is showing as little as possible from the suffering in Gaza, and minimizing criticism about the army.”

But younger adults, including college protesters, are more likely to get their news from social media. According to the Pew Research Center, about one-third of Americans between ages 18 and 29 get their news from TikTok.

“Because of the prevalence of social media and particularly TikTok and the ability of videos to circulate virally, globally within minutes of being shot in a manner that can’t be controlled, young people are getting much more information that is much closer to the ground than they ever had,” Mark LeVine, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history and the chair of the Global Middle East Studies program at UC Irvine, wrote in an email.

“Let’s just say kids have learned more from (rapper) Macklemore’s new song” supporting pro-Palestinian protesters “than they have from most anything else in their lifetime,” LeVine said.

Viral videos on social media often include video apparently shot in Gaza, sometimes live or posted moments after a military attack, which presents the point of view of Gazans on the ground, rather than what Israeli military and government officials are saying.

“That of course leads to more sympathy by young people for what’s happening to people in Gaza since the images and the narrative they get from the ground is so diametrically opposed to what they get from the mainstream media or the political leadership in this country,” LeVine said. “That of course leads to an increase of distrust in not just Republicans but also the majority of the Democratic Party, as the discourse seems very much at odds to the reality they see.”

Joey Benadretti, a Jewish man from Irvine, said in early May that protesters were wrong to say there is a genocide in Gaza. He spoke during a pro-Israel gathering across the street from an encampment of pro-Palestinian protesters at UC Irvine.

He said pro-Palestinian protesters are presenting death toll numbers across the board.

“Social media has twisted everything that is happening,” Benadretti said. “They are rewriting history.”

Benadretti said he understood some frustrations about the war, but said the protest movement is one “where people don’t even know what they are standing up for.”

In other words, each generation — operating with different information the other often doesn’t have — are talking right past each other.

“We don’t have one Walter Cronkite any more,” Levin said. At the height of his popularity, CBS Evening News anchor Cronkite was watched by about 14% of all Americans on a nightly basis. “The news that we get is often immediate, sometimes incomplete, and oftentimes funneled through an echo chamber.”

The schism is exacerbated by each side being shown the most sensational possible version of the other point of view, Levin said.

“Online opportunists will take the worst example of what the other (side) is (doing) and put it in a non-stop video loop whose transmission multiplies by the hour,” Levin said.

Unsurprisingly, both the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian college students feel like they’re under attack in the super-heated political climate on many campuses, Levin said.

“Both Jewish and Muslim students, over 50% feel a diminished sense of safety,” he said, citing a University of Chicago survey of American college students conducted earlier this year. “And when you talk to these individuals, separately, what I find so striking is that both groups feel fear, both groups feel that atrocities are not being adequately discussed and that universities are not engaging at the levels they could or should.”

Levin said emotions are running high. But demonizing people on the other side of an issue just makes things worse.

“If we label protesters as Hamas supporters in most instances, that’s not true,” Levin said. “When any type of Jewish person adheres to some notion of Zionism, which is both politically rooted and religiously rooted, (is equated to) being a White supremacist all that does is divide us further.”

Staff writer Michael Slaten contributed to this story.

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