I never chose to be on the Israeli side of the conflict. I was born in central Israel. My native language is Hebrew. Like almost all of my friends, I served in the IDF. But even though I vote just like the next guy, I don’t tend to disclose my political opinions. For Quora, that didn’t matter. The minute I signed up, Quora noticed that field on Facebook informing that I am a veteran and started on sending targeted questions to my inbox:
And while I have never answered any of these inquiries and their look-alikes, some people did. I don’t refer to Israeli explanatory organizations like StandWithUs and the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs. When asked to comment on this piece, they made it clear they are not active on Quora nor consider the social platform as a part of their explanatory endeavors. Even the company Quora, which is currently launching its activity in Israel, has yet to respond to my attempts to reach out. An official with whom I’ve discussed this said the platform is still sorting out on how to approach the subject.
The people who took it on themselves to explain the actions of the IDF are private individuals, who are not engaging in this subject anywhere else. To understand the reason, I reached out to them.
Dr. Linda Olsvig-Whittaker (66), a landscape archaeologist, started by receiving the same emails as me. A while back, she saw a post from Quora shared by one of her friends on Facebook. Ever since then, she starts her morning by sitting at her computer with fresh coffee, answering inquiries on topics she finds interesting.
Olsvig-Whittaker, who lives in Har Gillo (a settlement located south of Jerusalem), emphasizes that she is not Jewish and that there are no Jewish people in her family. She came to Israel in 1981 on a postdoc at Technion, then a permanent job at Ben Gurion University at Sede Boqer in 1984. “I have always been in Israel for scientific reasons, not ideological ones”, she says.
Then why are you so passionate about answering questions on Israel?
“I have lived in Israel for 39 years and I think as a Gentile I have an unusual perspective — especially since I work with Palestinians as well as Israelis”.
Does Quora enable you to have a dialogue with the other side of the conflict?
“Uh, which “other side”? I stand with one foot firmly on each side. I’m Israeli, but considered left-wing but live in a West Bank settlement but volunteer at a Palestinian high school, but belong to a Jewish Messianic congregation, but I am not a Jew. I don’t fit one side or other”.
“That said, I am disappointed both in Facebook and in Quora with the absence of Palestinian voices. We get a few, not many. I don’t know why since Palestinians do so well at PR in other media. I don’t count Americans or Canadians speaking for Palestinians any more than I count them speaking for Israelis. I focus on the voices of the people with their feet in the Middle East”.
Dani Ben Ishai (33), a musician and aspiring game designer, says the main benefit of Quora, in comparison to other social media websites, is the option of being heard in a much larger social circle than your own geographical or political network. Ben Ishai, who unlike Olsvig-Whittaker clearly states that he uses Quora to fight “antisemitism on social media”, explains:
I like Quora because it’s one of the only public spaces I know of where Jews are not marginalized. We can actually be heard on Quora. Facebook and most other websites are more than happy to let Jew-hatred stand while punishing people for speaking out against it, but Quora doesn’t do that. They understand very well that ‘criticism of Israel’ can be and often is just repackaged antisemitism. Unlike Facebook, bigots get banned. Anti-Semites on Quora are visibly frustrated by this.
For Olsvig-Whittaker, the reason for not participating in such debates on Facebook and Twitter is more technical than ideological. “I don’t like twitter — I don’t think in sound bites. But I’m active on Facebook. Quora seems a bit more civilized than most forums on Facebook. I think courtesy enforcement is tougher.”
Quora, indeed, has a different style of discourse than on other websites. The site enforces a BNBR policy — when BNBR stands for “Be Nice, Be Respectful”. If someone uses a bad language, he or she can be reported on and even banned after some time. This eliminates all trolls which are widely available in the rest of the social media in general and the dark web (aka 4chan) in particular.
How can you tell the general audience is listening and not just whoever asked for your opinion?
Ben Ishai: “Answers from the pro-Israel side of the fence often get hundreds — sometimes even tens of thousands — of upvotes (Quora “likes” which make the recommended reply appear ahead of others, O.Z.). Before Quora, I had never seen Israeli perspectives get that much support. I remember pitching articles to outlets like Salon, Vox, and Vice and receiving snotty replies. Many of my friends received the same treatment. Quora, by contrast, has been very welcoming”.
Do you sometimes engage in a dialogue with people who think differently than you? Or Palestinians?
“I’m not particularly impressed by arguments made by the other side of the conflict. I’d say at least part of that is because I used to be anti-Zionist and, therefore, am not all that convinced by their arguments. But I think the deeper reason is that most pro-Palestinian writers on Quora (barring a handful of exceptions) have antisemitic views. For instance, they’ll say things like ‘Ashkenazi Jews are not from the Middle East’ or ‘the IDF are the new Nazis’ or ‘Zionist lobbies control the American government’. Some writers manage to express pro-Palestinian views without falling into Jew-hatred, but they’re few and far between.”
My reading of dozens of Quora threads came to the same conclusion. While it seems many users on Quora care of what both people from Israel and the Palestinian territories have to say, it is still not the place where both sides of the conflict can engage in a direct dialogue with one another.
Even when asked about highly controversial issues, like this one, each side prefers laying its arguments rather than suggesting counter-arguments. In many cases, as Olsvig-Whittaker observed, the Palestinians are absent from the discussion, enabling supporting users from other countries to respond on their behalf.
Even when present, Israelis and Palestinians just don’t tend to reply directly to each other, even though some of them are willing to respond to extremists, including anti-Semites and suspected white supremacists.
When looking for Palestinians to shed their light on this piece, not a single one was willing to participate. Some haven’t replied, some positively declined. And while respecting their reluctance to discuss this with an Israeli Jewish writer, one must be wondering if there’s ever going to be an online network in which we will feel free talking to one another, without hate speech, even if we are not comfortable with what the other side has to say.