The audio for this episode is adapted from a recent virtual event (watch here).
Brian Anderson: Welcome to the Manhattan Institute’s discussion about anti-Israel extremism and the role of information in the Israel-Hamas war. I’m Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal, and I’m glad you’ve joined us today.
As I’m sure our viewers know, earlier this month, the Iran-sponsored terrorist group Hamas breached Israel’s border with Gaza, brutally murdering over 1,000 Israeli citizens and capturing nearly 200 more. In response to the surprise attack, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared war on Hamas.
I’m joined today by three writers who offer valuable perspectives on the conflict. Yael Bar Tur is a digital strategist who previously served as the director of social media and digital strategy for the New York City Police Department. She also served in the Israel Defense Forces as a foreign press liaison. Tal Fortgang is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, whose work on religion, politics, and culture has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, National Review Commentary, and City Journal. Martin Gurri is a visiting research fellow at the Mercatus Center, a former CIA analyst, and a frequent City Journal contributor. He’s the author of The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. Thank you all very much for joining us.
If our viewers would like to ask the guests a question, the best way to do that is to register for the event and watch it via this Slido platform. We’ll leave a link to it at the top of the YouTube description and you can put your questions in there. And you can send them as we go along.
So Martin, let me start with you. The Hamas attack caught everyone, it seems, by surprise. It’s clear, certainly, that Israel, which has been living with the Hamas presence on its border since 2007, and the United States, which of course exerts influence on Israeli policy, overestimated both the restraint and maybe even the rationality of this group governing the Gaza Strip. So what in your view allowed these illusions to survive for so long? Does this help explain Israel’s failure to anticipate the attack? Was this an intelligence breakdown? Was it technological overconfidence in systems like the Iron Dome or the Iron Wall, or something else?
Martin Gurri: Well, honestly, in my experience, the Israelis are the best at what they do, so I am very surprised that this happened. I have to believe, as I wrote in City Journal, that Israel has been so prosperous and has been so normalized that I think there was a sense that this sort of horror was not possible, that they were set up such that they could catch anything that happened. And nothing was liable to happen at this scale because nobody was interested in doing it anymore except maybe the Iranians, and they were far enough away.
There’s a whole lot of hostility, as I understand it now, toward Netanyahu who was sitting there while it was happening. That’s probably rightfully so, but it is interesting to me that people who are the smartest at both intelligence and military intelligence in the world, in my opinion, essentially got caught looking the wrong way. I have no explanation other than they lost the sense that if you are a Jew, you are never normal. There’s always somebody trying to do horrible things to you. I think the incursion of Hamas should demonstrate that forever, I would think.
Brian Anderson: This also though seems to be a failure of U.S. intelligence because there didn’t seem to be much of a sense that this was a possibility on that end as well.
Martin Gurri: Yeah. Well, my take is if the Israelis didn’t catch it, we weren’t going to catch it because they’re better than we are.
Brian Anderson: Yael, since the outbreak of the war, social media has proved, I think, a key vehicle for publicizing realities of the Israeli-Palestinian situation that the press I think has often been reluctant to portray honestly. So from photographs of horrific killings at the Nova music festival to videos of kidnappings of Israeli women as their captors are laughing and celebrating, these are very grim images, but social media have exposed a side of Hamas that might’ve been easier to downplay in the past. So I wonder, can you give a description of your sense of how the internet has worked in documenting this attack? What might’ve been the international narrative, say, 15 years ago? Of course, we’ve just seen how almost the entire international press rushed to blame Israel for an airstrike on a Gaza hospital that apparently was nothing such. So what in your view has changed with regard to social media and this conflict?
Yael Bar Tur: Well, I think what’s happening here is, first of all, the scale of this attack is unimaginable to us, and it’s touched pretty much everyone in this country. I’m in Tel Aviv right now. We’re such a small country of 9 million people, so everybody has been affected by this in some way, shape, or form. So the stories coming out, the narratives are very personal, but they’re very grassroots. So we’re not waiting for some agency to come and tell people what to say, but rather, everybody is telling their story from the ground up, sharing photos, sharing testimonies, sharing stories about loved ones or people they lost. So you have a lot of material, so to speak, coming out and flooding social media by the Israelis themselves that feel very, very strongly about telling the world what is going on here, and making sure that people understand that this is something that not only caught us by surprise, but is terrifying, frankly, and should terrify the Western world.
You see a lot of that information coming out from regular people. I’m in five WhatsApp groups of people who are just sharing photos, “Here’s a story. Here’s somebody to interview.” The whole country seems to have a real interest now in telling people what is going on here and flooding social media. When it comes to the hospital that you mentioned yesterday that Al Jazeera came out, and of course, the narrative was, of course, immediately that within 30 seconds the Hamas Ministry of Health, which is de facto a terrorist communications arm, but within 30 seconds had already said that it was Israel and that 500 people were killed. The IDF, of course, has to go through the information, has to verify things. We are never able to verify things as quickly as a terrorist organization is able to lie about them.
But given the amount of time it takes to verify, I think the IDF did come out within a few hours and really call out the international media with proof of their mistake. I’m hoping, maybe I’m a little naive, but since there was so much proof, there was video evidence as well as audio evidence of Hamas operatives talking about the attack, hoping that it is a wake-up call for perhaps people in the media who tend to take the narrative of a terrorist organization and narrative of a democratic country with checks and balances and hold them next to each other equally. That specific incident I’m hoping will be able to, at the very least, show people in the media that both sides don’t have, let’s say, an equal attachment to the truth.
Brian Anderson: Tal, the mainstream national conversation in the U.S. has been frustrating, I think. Left-wing intellectuals have tried to label Hamas a far-right organization, which New York Magazine called them. Other publications like Dissent have declared that Israel was preparing to commit genocide. These are just two of numerous examples. I think it’s fair to say that most Americans are still supportive of Israel, but public opinion, especially among younger people, is trending pretty strongly in an anti-Israel direction. So what in your view explains this, because it is a pretty significant shift?
Tal Fortgang: Yeah, I think there’s really one big idea that has animated the intellectual classes in the West, and particularly in the Anglosphere in the past few years, and that is the wholesale replacement of an idea of morality with analyses of power. Such that a powerful entity like Israel is relative to Hamas and Gaza, as a matter of presumption, it cannot be the more moral actor. By the same token, an oppressed group, a subaltern group to use some of the intellectual lingo, by default and as an irrebuttable presumption is licensed to do whatever they need to do to rid themselves of the chain of oppression.
So when Israel is doing what to someone analyzing the situation under immoral framework, when Israel is doing things that are obviously justified, defending the very basics of their sovereignty, defending Israeli citizens, that gets filtered through this new analytical lens of power which translates moral behavior into unconscionable evil. I think that’s really the idea that drives everything. There are deeper questions we can ask, and we can probe about why it is that this one big idea has taken root, what it is that people find so appealing about it, and what’s really going on beneath the surface. But I think simply in order to understand how the intellectual classes have convinced themselves that up is down and right is wrong and everything is backwards, I think that has the most explanatory power of anything.
Brian Anderson: Just as a follow-up to that, anti-Semitic violence in the U.S. has been on the rise in recent years. Given what you’ve just said, do you see this as linked to these radical theories, and is it an elite-driven phenomenon primarily?
Tal Fortgang: I don’t know that it’s elite-driven primarily. I will say that it is often waived aside or minimized by elites depending on who is doing the anti-Semitism. You can ask any American Jew, and they’ll tell you without hesitation that they’ve encountered all different kinds of anti-Semitism in their life. When I lived in New York, I’d get one kind of anti-Semitism on the subway and then another kind of anti-Semitism at my destination at New York University School of Law. They sounded in some of the same themes, but they were coming from different places. And depending on the identity of the people doing the anti-Semitism, elites react vastly differently. So when it’s the kind of anti-Semitism as Arab liberation, which is what I would get at NYU, that’s the kind of thing that’s like, “Well, Jews are powerful, so are you really a victim here, or are you actually just siding with the oppressor?” When it comes from people on the subways, it’s, “Well, the people on the subway, they might be able to stab you, but they don’t have institutional systemic power. So really how big of a problem can that be?”
But in the case of a different kind of anti-Semitism of white supremacist anti-Semitism, when a maniac white supremacist comes into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and kills Jews, that all of a sudden becomes the anti-Semitism that’s worth focusing on because it comes from a group that is perceived as being more powerful and is perpetrated against a group that is relatively less powerful. So we see exactly how Jews fit into the hierarchy through the way that elite institutions and individuals process these events. It’s rather transparent. It’s really not very intellectually sophisticated.
Brian Anderson: Thank you. Martin, shifting back to Israel, before the war, the country was deeply divided politically. Judicial reform supported by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s religious coalition allies had sparked protests from the nation’s more secular business class. I think it would be one way to describe it. Netanyahu himself is a controversial figure. He served several terms as prime minister, of course, but he’s facing mounting legal and political pressure in recent years. For now, all of this is on hold as he leads a wartime government that includes major opposition figures in key positions. But do you think it’s fair to say that domestic politics can form a strategic vulnerability? What might the future of Israeli politics look like in a country where many citizens, including according to early polling, voters in his own party, appear to hold the prime Minister at least partly responsible for not preventing these attacks?
Martin Gurri: Yeah, a real clear symptom that the Israelis felt that being Jewish had been normalized was that they were indulging the same sort of the political madness that we have engaged here in the U.S. and the much safer and much more protected conditions. The whole fuss around the Supreme Court in Israel that put the focus on Netanyahu, where, for example, reservists would say that they would refuse to show up if called, that kind of set me back a bit. I haven’t been to Israel in many years, but one should always feel under existential threat can make those kinds of, even as a political posture, something that you want to proclaim about your stand, that you’re not going to show up for the reserves.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think that Netanyahu, if all those polls are right, is finished. Interestingly, way back when Labor was caught in more or less the same fix and was surprised by an Egyptian and Syrian invasion of Israel, that began a secular shift in Israeli politics towards the right. I don’t know whether the Left will profit from this or the far Right will profit from this. I have no idea. But it’s entirely possible that whoever can claim that they will protect the country from these horrors that they have just endured in a way that’s believable will get a political upper hand.
Brian Anderson: Yael, maybe I’d like you to respond. It’s a two-part question for you. As you noted, you’re in Israel right now. Clearly the country is unified in justified anger over the Hamas atrocities, yet I think it’s true too, as Martin was just saying, that many Israelis are seeing Netanyahu as at least partially to blame for the situation, security breakdown. So how do you see things from Israel on the ground there in terms of this tension playing out? And then to get back to the information warfare question, this kind of battle in the digital age is increasingly a crucial operational space. In a military context, social media can be a tool to build morale on your own side or to demoralize or confuse your opponent. The Israel Defense Forces is very active on social media. It’s tried to demonstrate the precision of its airstrikes, for example. Hamas’ information strategy, on the other hand, has been to locate its military headquarters in civilian areas like hospitals and mosques using them in effect as civilian shields. And then if non-combatants get killed in military exchanges, provoke global condemnation of Israel and Israeli war tactics. So that would be my second question, is there an effective way to counteract this strategy? You were starting to talk about that a bit, I think, in your first response. But first to Martin’s point, what is the situation on the ground there?
Yael Bar Tur: Yeah. Well, I think it’s pretty incredible. If Hamas’ goal was to expose the weaknesses in Israeli society, they’ve really done the opposite. They’ve really managed to unify people and show that we are so much stronger than even we gave ourselves credit for, because the last 10 months in this country have been, at least in my lifetime, the most divided I’ve seen here between Left and Right, secular and religious. It’s been very, very difficult. But what we saw happen on the very first day from the people in the field saving lives, giving their lives for strangers that they didn’t know, and up until all of us here who were volunteering and doing things, there’s really not a pair of idle hands in the country right now, you see that everybody has come together to support this war effort and to look out for each other and protect each other.
It’s not because we all get along so great. It’s not that we’re not going to wait till the day after the war to continue fighting again. But it’s really the sense of unity that comes from necessity, that comes from this idea of an existential threat, that comes from the idea that I know that I could be in this position tomorrow. So you’ve really seen people come together, the reservists and all the people who stopped going to reserve duty and the military reservists who led a lot of them, led these protests against Netanyahu, they said, “Okay, stop. We’ll pick this up when we’re done.” They’ve really converted all of their efforts, all of their networks, all of their people into supporting the efforts of bringing people from the south and making sure they have homes, supporting the soldiers in the field. So I think in that sense, Hamas really achieved the exact opposite. It’s managed to unify everybody and realize that this is what we’re good at, this is where we excel. We know how to hunker down and look out for each other.
Now, I’ve been consuming the Israeli media all the time and talking to everybody, and the first day or two, everybody was shocked that this happened. Like Martin said, how did we miss this? But I think there’s been a bit of a conscious decision to say, “Okay, we’ll deal with that. There will be accountability. People will pay the price, but not right now. Right now we really need to focus on what’s ahead of us. How do we bring back these hostages?” I think last they said it’s, I think 203 hostages, ages eight months to 84. “How do we bring back these hostages? How do we support our soldiers that are fighting on both the north and southern fronts? How do we support thousands of people who had to leave their homes because where they live is not safe anymore? And how do we protect ourselves? We’ll go back to fighting when that’s done with each other.”
As for the social media part, it’s interesting, we’re never going to have the speed of a terrorist organization. As a democracy, as a country that needs to put out verified information, official information, we’re never going to beat them when it comes to speed and when it comes to lying. I happen to serve in the IDF spokesperson unit. You can say a lot of things about their efficiency, but they don’t just make things up or just lie about things. Because we know we have a very robust media, we have a very robust civil society, and we’re a democracy. So in that sense, we’re always going to be as a strong and more organized side of this conflict where we’re always going to have that “disadvantage.”
But I think, like I said, at the end of the day, it sounds kind of funny for me as a social media expert to say it, but we have to keep our eye on social media, but we also have to keep our eye on other things as well, on diplomatic relationships, on relationships with the institutions. Social media and messaging is part of the game, but we’ve seen over the last few days how important the diplomatic relationships are with the United States, with Great Britain, with European nations who have come forward to support Israel. So we can’t lose track of, aside from the messaging that’s supposed to hit the masses, the back channel diplomacy.
Brian Anderson: Thanks. Tal, in the aftermath of the attacks, to get back to the U.S. campus college students, many campuses declared support for the group almost simultaneous with the attacks, which was to me very, very disturbing. In many cases, explicitly condoning the atrocities as justified. Many universities had anti-Israel rallies. At Harvard, notoriously now, more than 30 student groups signed a letter holding Israel entirely responsible for Hamas’ murder, rape, mutilation, kidnapping of its citizens. Harvard, though, wasn’t alone. You had NYU, you had the University of Washington, University of Chicago, Columbia University, similar protests going on at all of these places. And then you had the university presidents at many of these schools who not so long ago were gravely condemning police departments across the United States and they were attacking foes of affirmative action, issuing political statements constantly offering very, very mild disavows of violence on all sides.
What must it be like, in your view, to be a Jewish student on some of these campuses right now? What were the presidents thinking? Are we going to see a significant pushback? We’ve certainly seen beginnings of it because some of these presidents have started to walk back their initially weak comments.
Tal Fortgang: Yeah, I don’t really have to imagine what it must be like for Jewish students on a lot of these campuses because I was a law student at NYU last year when gunmen on the streets of Tel Aviv killed Israeli civilians while they were drinking beer on a regular weeknight. Not a military operation, nothing like that, just a straight-up terrorist attack, and my classmates celebrated. They celebrated openly on social media. They celebrated with posters in school. There was no hiding that they thought that this was not just a regrettable part of a cycle of violence. It was something worth celebrating. It brings back mid- to late- 20th century tropes about why you would commit terrorist attacks. It brings attention to a cause. You have to capture the world’s attention somehow.
And I think that explains a lot of these demonstrations that we’ve seen, which I’ve seen and heard them called protests, but that’s not a very apt term, because they’re not protesting anything. These statements and demonstrations sprang up before Israel began responding to the most heinous attack that has ever been committed in Israel. They sprang up as organic responses, celebrations, statements of support for what had gone on because they believe that it brings necessary attention to the cause of liberation.
Is the dam starting to break? I think it might be. I think decent people around the country still recognize that this is insane. This is moral backwardness. Our universities are not just producing a few crazy students who believe these things, who go out and shout them publicly, but are staffed by administrations that can’t work up the courage to say, “We’ve seen the face of evil.” And this was lab-made to be the most evil thing possible, and they can’t possibly find it within themselves to condemn it. They’ve so intellectualized and abstracted the issue that it’s become just like, “Well, what should the highest marginal tax rate be, and how many Jews can die?” Those are just open political questions upon which reasonable people of goodwill can disagree.
I think some donors, particularly donors to the University of Pennsylvania, or former donors at this point, have started to recognize that. What I think is still lacking is the push to see these universities thoroughly revamp their operations. Not just issue slightly better statements that display a little bit more moral clarity, because you know that beneath the surface there are all these people just trying to cover their liability, so to speak. You can call for university presidents to be fired, but there are a million new morally bankrupt administrators in waiting ready to take their place. There’s something deeply, deeply rotten in the academy, and that needs to be addressed. I’m sure we’ll talk about this later on, there are stakeholders who can push for that to be addressed, but we need to see the issue clearly. And that’s a deep moral dilemma, it’s not a surface issue.
Brian Anderson: Martin, perhaps carrying further-reaching implications for American foreign policy and global stability is, something you noted in your piece, the role of Iran in these attacks and American attitudes toward Iran. Iran funds and supports various terror groups across the region, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, yet the Biden administration, like the Obama administration before it, has courted Iran as a regional partner and unblocked billions of dollars in cash for it to access quite recently. The Wall Street Journal reported, however, that immediately after the attacks, the Journal reported this, Iran had played an active role in planning them. U.S. intelligence sources are reportedly denying that that’s true. So I’m not sure, we’re not sure whether that’s true or not, but I think you could at least say that the Iranians were aware of what was going to happen. And now you have Hezbollah maybe threatening to open a second front in Israel. Are the Democrats in the US going to finally scale back their ambitions to be friends with Iran, and might these events just force their hand if this continues to escalate?
Martin Gurri: Well, that would mean that the Obama-Biden organization, I guess you might call it, is a learning organism, and I’m not at all sure whether that’s the case. You go back to the Obama speech that he gave at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo very early in his very first term, and everything that has happened in the, I would say, I don’t know, 12 of the last 15 years or something like that, you can see the model right there. It’s a foreign policy that essentially there’s a new beginning, we’re in a new world in which national interests are not to be pursued. We work on shared interests. It’s a rules-based world order. And what that is meaning of course is that in the old world, those who are allies are tainted. Of course, there is no more tainted ally than Israel. And those who were our enemies, even if they don’t have the same kind of democratic lifestyle we have, they’re to be admired and should be approached for some sort of compromise.
Of course, there’s no more anti-American virtue than that shown by the Ayatollahs. So the entire focus of the Obama-Biden foreign policy has been to somehow create out of this regime in Tehran a pillar of stability in the greater Middle East. Of course, it’s gone dreadfully wrong many times, but I’m not really sure that that’s ever going to end. I have yet to see in either the Obama years or the Biden years, the administrations gathering together, looking at the reality of the case, and saying, “I guess we got this one wrong.” They just don’t think in those terms. They think that basically if they say different words, if they are apologetic to a higher degree, if they release more money, somehow or another, they can strike that bargain.
Brian Anderson: Yael, one subtext, of course, of the social media landscape is Elon Musk’s ownership of X, formerly Twitter. Since he’s bought the company earlier this year, he’s shifted the website’s content moderation policies in a much more vigorously free-speech direction and has come under fire for that. In general though, he’s less likely, or the platform is less likely, to censor views that progressives deem offensive, which have been going on. Instead, X is using Community Notes as a feature to provide context for incomplete information. In your view, to the extent that X has been certainly a vector over the last 10, 11 days for exposing the brutality of Hamas and these terrorist attacks, what’s your view of X as a platform now? Do you think this has made a difference in the current conflict?
Yael Bar Tur: Yeah, I mean, I think the jury is still out about the effectiveness of Musk’s changes. I think in this particular case it was incredibly useful to be able to put out some of these videos, some of them that are more graphic. For example, I had put out a video by CNN, so not a snuff film, that was removed from the Meta network because it gets caught up in the algorithm that catches something that might be a little gory. So I think in this case it was very helpful these changes to bring out all the information.
The issue of anti-Semitism on X is kind of funny for people like me who tend to be more concerned about the anti-Semitism that is masked as anti-Zionism or anti-Israel, because that’s always been on the platform. Nothing has changed. I don’t think that’s increased or decreased. I don’t necessarily feel it any more or any less, but I think just in terms of the videos and the images that we can upload right now that are not pleasant to watch, I think a lot of them probably would’ve been caught up in filters pre-Musk. And then the Community Notes have been incredibly helpful for the most part as well.
Brian Anderson: Tal, you were starting to talk about this, and I like to return to it, perhaps in this case higher education may have crossed a line in the United States and that we’re going to see significant change. Corporate leaders, major donors to universities, they’ve long turned a blind eye to the radical insanity that’s gone on in the universities. But this time, and it’s a growing number, they’re holding students and certainly administrators accountable for their positions here. You have prestigious firms announcing they will not hire students who have declared support for Hamas. I’m not sure that will stick, but we’ll see. But you certainly have a lot of major donors now saying they’re not going to give another penny to these elite schools in response to their unwillingness to denounce the attacks. So I wonder, could this be a turning point to push the universities in a saner direction?
Tal Fortgang: I think so. I think that there is an opportunity for people who can exercise leverage over the white university, the centers of power in universities. There’s a way to point out that what has characterized universities over the last several decades that frankly conservatives and many Zionists have been pointing out and have largely been called conspiracy theorists or worse, is that the very ideas that have justified these atrocities, the very absurdities that justify atrocities have been woven into curricula. They’ve been woven into entire fields of study. They’ve been woven into the way that the administration runs student events, the kinds of concepts that are taken for granted, the ways that you are taught to think about ideas as seemingly unrelated. Things like sexual assault, you have your freshman year anti-sexual assault training, and it’s all framed through the lens of power. You have to understand that it’s all about power. That on its own doesn’t seem like an objectionable frame, it doesn’t seem analytically wrong on its face, but it’s an example of the way in which universities conduct their affairs through this lens, always through this lens.
And that’s entire academic departments that need to be rethought because they have been propagating the few big ideas that just do not have explanatory power for world events, and they are not morally justifiable ideas. If this is the best analytical frame you can come up with to understand what’s going on in the Middle East, you need a better analytical frame. This is simply insufficient and leads to abhorrent conclusions. If you know a theory by its fruits, if it leads to people celebrating dead Jewish babies, it’s gone wrong somewhere. So donors and other stakeholders can push schools to really investigate and possibly just root out the academic fields that have been overtaken by this kind of thinking.
Another, I think, pretty radical but logical approach is to push for investigations of admissions. How are admissions officers determining who should get into our nation’s finest universities, law schools, et cetera? Because there are only a couple of possibilities here. Either the universities are ushering in hundreds, if not thousands, of students who are susceptible to these obviously abhorrent ideas, who are quick to jump on the bandwagon of liberation of Palestine by any means necessary, including this, that’s not very good. That means we should probably reevaluate how we are assessing high school applicants to college, college graduates applying to graduate school, see what characteristics we’ve been selecting for that lead to this. Or it will lead us to the conclusion that these institutions are actually cultivating this kind of worldview, which is a different and possibly bigger problem. I think with pressure on these specific points, donors and other stakeholders can move the needle.
Brian Anderson: This answers a question that’s come from an audience member who asks, and you just basically answered this, how views that are shaped on campus by neo-Marxist de-colonial ideologies, this power narrative that you were describing earlier, how do you change that academic monoculture? These are at least a couple of pressure points now. This audience member says that this kind of worldview is particularly prevalent in Middle Eastern studies on campuses. I think you would agree with that.
Tal Fortgang: If I can add one more point on this, the very assumption that is taken so for granted in so many of these institutions that drives a lot of the justifications for the murder of Jews in Israel is that Israel is a settler colonial state. If we just interrogate that for a second, we could recognize that there are assumptions baked in, which is that Jews are white, they don’t belong, they’re not indigenous. If people can be indigenous to a place, which I question that, but if people are indigenous to places, then the Jews are not indigenous to the Middle East. They’re white European colonizers and interlopers.
Now, that is, as far as the Israeli population goes, that’s just obviously not true on its face because more than half of the Israeli population is Mizrahi, Sephardic, North African, et cetera. Fine, leaving all that aside, even if it were just talking about Ashkenazi Jews, this is a form of harassment, of denial that the Jews are the Jews of the ancient world. That would not be tolerated with regard to any other group. Imagine students going around to members of a distinct group on campus and saying, “You are frauds. You are not who you claim to be. You are posers who are doing this for nefarious purposes.” That’s unacceptable. Yet it’s baked into this very assumption of Israel as a settler colonial state.
Brian Anderson: This is a question also from the audience, and I think it’s really directed at both Martin and Yael, both of you’ve thought about media quite a bit. The question is, “Because of the lack of information or truthful information, the slant in mainstream elite outlets, what is the IDF’s strategy in communicating going forward as the Gaza conflict continues? And what should it be? Are they doing things effectively? In your sense, are there things they could be doing better?” So first you Martin and then Yael.
Martin Gurri: I mean Yael obviously knows more than I do about this. But from the framework of the American media, it’s pretty evident to me that this incident is the most anti-internet event you could ever imagine. It should not allow for hot takes. Every time a claim is made, we need to take a deep breath, stand back, and say, “Actually, who said what, to what purpose, and what actually did happen, and how do we know that it did happen?” Instead, of course, we have these wild claims being made by Hamas. They have a playbook. I mean, the article I wrote for you, Brian, said there’s going to be talk about bombing hospitals. I mean, this is a playbook that goes back as far as I can remember during the war on terror. Everybody’s intentions, the Israelis, they have a side on this war. They’re not Olympian, they’re not neutral. But I’ll tell you, at the moment, the best information you can get you get from the IDF.
Yael Bar Tur: Yeah, I agree. I think the IDF, and that’s a unit, like I said, that I know very well, but I think they’re doing an excellent job for the most part. They understand the, let’s say, imbalance in the narrative that people always view the Palestinians as the underdog and the IDF as the stronger one. And for a lot of people, that’s enough to make a decision, right? Because maybe this goes back to campus culture and some of elite media culture is this combination of being ignorant of the conflict on one hand, but also being arrogant enough that you think that you have to say what you think about it, and you think you have to wade into the conversation.
But I think the IDF is very aware of that, so constantly putting out messaging, but also trying to show people a picture that will appeal to their emotion. Unfortunately, there are so many emotional things coming out of the conflict. I don’t know if you saw, I’m sure a lot of people saw some of the media, but Anderson Cooper went out with his cameraman and filmed, and his cameraman that’s been all over the world in conflict zone actually was retching, was throwing up on camera because the sights and smells are so horrifying.
I mean, not to bring your audience so deep into this, but this is what we’re seeing here for the last two weeks. Any media on the ground is seeing it as well. You can’t hide from it. So I think the IDF has been very, let’s say, forthcoming. First of all, it’s not all up to the IDF, right, because there were so many people and families and hostages that they can do whatever they want. But as far as what’s considered access to military, access to closed-off military zones like some of the villages that were desecrated, the IDF has been taking journalists there and allowing access and allowing exposure because, like I said, we want people to see what we see here.
Brian Anderson: And I guess on a very different level, Yael, your experience with the NYPD as director of social media, the police are often in a position of trying to counter a prevailing narrative in the press, right?
Yael Bar Tur: Yeah.
Brian Anderson: Is there something that could be learned from both sides there?
Yael Bar Tur: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of similarities. I think there’s a sort of a knee-jerk reaction to assume that there’s a balance of power or assume that the person who is, let’s say, wearing a uniform is necessarily the bad person. I’ll leave it to Tal to say how we got here, but I’ve said in one of the pieces that I recently wrote that the same people who want to defund the police and think the police in America shouldn’t have weapons are also the same people who think that Hamas has a fundamental right to murder babies and the elderly. So there is that huge disconnect here.
But yeah, I think for some of it it’s just this ignorance of a conflict, ignorance of a wider understanding of what it means to be in the Middle East, but also when it comes to policing, what it means to provide public safety. If you’re seeing everything at the tweet level, if you’re just seeing everything at the image level of a police officer in front of a man or a soldier in front of a child, you think you have your whole head wrapped around the issue, but you don’t. It’s the job of these institutions to continue to provide more context.
Brian Anderson: Here’s another audience question. This I’ll direct it to Tal since it concerns, I think, campus culture, “Why have feminists in the West been so quiet about the repression of women living in Gaza and the rape and other forms of violence perpetrated against Israeli women in the Hamas attacks?” First, do you agree with the premise of that question, have feminists been quiet about this? I can’t say that I know one way or the other on that, but if they have been, why do you think that’s the case?
Tal Fortgang: From what I’ve seen, I would say that that’s partially true. On the part of many feminist groups, I’d say there’s been strategic silence knowing that coming out in favor of the party or ideological line would look obviously bad. Some feminist groups have affirmatively come out and said, “Our issue is the treatment of women. The way that Hamas treated Israeli women is barbaric and evil,” and expressed all that needed to be expressed with that statement. And that’s good, and they deserve to be applauded. I think unfortunately for the rest, this is true of identity groups beyond feminists, but the question addressed feminist groups, so I’ll say that unfortunately, I think the conclusion that is most reasonable to draw is that this is really part of a popular front movement that doesn’t quite have so much to do with advancing various oppressed groups’ particular interests so much as a cosmic view of all oppressed groups need to be liberated.
And so even though there’s this really stark disconnect between advocating for women’s rights and advocating for LGBT rights and advocating for Hamas, there are obvious discrepancies and problems there. There’s this almost faith-based view that liberation for some of us is liberation for all of us, we have to collectively break the chains of oppression. And so feminism is one identity that gets subsumed into that greater view of liberation. We’ve seen other forms of this sacrifice of the particular cause for the greater movement for liberation on various campuses where the abhorrent statements that we’ve seen were written usually by Students for Justice in Palestine, but lots of identity groups signed on. It boggles the mind that all these identity groups were so quick to sign on as if being a South Asian law student or a Latino law student has anything to do with the law Students for Justice in Palestine. Unfortunately, I think we have to conclude that they do because it’s really not quite about the identity that they represent so much as being a progressive liberationist institution that is defined by a particular characteristic as regards its members. So unfortunately, I think that the cynical conclusion is in most instances the correct one.
Brian Anderson: We only have about seven minutes left, so let me ask a question directed to all three of you. You closed your excellent essay for City Journal on the situation in Israel, Martin, by speculating that ultimately the international reaction to what is sure to be this ongoing Israeli response will put the nation in a familiar position of being the scapegoat of the world, for Israelis to be the scapegoat. I wonder, for those who don’t want to see that happen, what can philanthropists do, policymakers, educational institutions do to counter this growing anti-Israel extremism that we’ve been discussing? So starting with you, Martin, Yael, and then we’ll conclude with you Tal.
Martin Gurri: Well, that is a long, long question that would consume not only the seven minutes, but probably seven hours if I started talking. I think it goes far beyond anti-Semitism. I think it goes to that strange, established church of identity that Tal has talked about, that I tend to view far more simplistically as the manipulation of group status by elites in power who get to decide which group is up and which group is down, and whose ultimate goal seems to be to undermine everything that has been traditionally believed in terms of morality and politics and so forth.
I think the only thing we can do, honestly, until we can change that structurally, the fact that our country is divided politically, but culturally, monolithically sworn to identity, until that happens, it’s up to every individual to have the courage to say what they think and not to be cowed by the fact that you will be considered also part of the scapegoat of history. If you side with the Jews, you’ll be considered a pariah and a murderer and so forth because you are with the colonialists, you are with the whites in the Middle East.
Most people who mouth these identity platitudes do not believe in them. I make it an act of faith that that’s even true among young people. I think you just basically have the courage of saying, “This is not a fence you can straddle. You have to be on one side or another. You have to be either with a side of the people who want to exterminate every Jew in Israel or with the people who are trying to prevent another horror like what happened just recently.” You can’t just stand in the middle. You can’t just judge both sides from some kind of Olympus.
Yael Bar Tur: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I completely agree with Martin. Part of me hopes that this will be the cracking open and the crumbling of identity politics. Because if you look around and you see, for example, the feminist organization, the LGBTQ organizations, and all the people who a minute ago told us to believe all women but now they’re actually really don’t believe the women that are saying that they were raped and they want proof, what I’m hoping is everybody that’s looking at it from the side will be able to know that it was all not true all along, right? I’m hoping that this will be the match maybe that burns the identity politics for the rest of us who have been looking from the sidelines and realizing that it’s just all been meaningless all along. If you can’t come up in this point of time and condemn this brutal act that’s so clear cut, maybe you didn’t mean any of the other things you were saying as well. All the land acknowledgements and all the pronouns and everything, maybe that was all a show.
I’m hoping this is a wake-up call for a lot of people, and I do hope people will speak up. I do agree that a lot of people are just going along. I don’t expect people to understand the Middle East conflict. I just expect them to not necessarily go along with somebody who they don’t agree with. So I’m hoping a lot of people, if they do feel in their heart that somebody’s saying something wrong, not to worry about being impolite or not to worry about stirring the pot and say something. Because you’ll be surprised, you’ll have a lot of people behind you who might raise their hand too and tell you that they agree with you.
Brian Anderson: Thanks, And Tal, to conclude with you.
Tal Fortgang: I endorse Martin and Yael’s comments in full and incorporate them here. I would add that there’s a lot of temptation right now, and I’ll admit that I am partial to this temptation to do everything in my power, to use the heavy hand of the state and business and every other institution to punish people who I think have views that do not belong in polite society, in decent society, in civilization. I will not disavow that temptation at this point, but I will say that none of that is sustainable without the widespread understanding within American society, within the West that people who support Hamas really are just as awful, just as evil, ought to be equally pariahs as members of the KKK or any other of those token hate groups that we use as paradigms of being evil.
So persuasion, persuasion of regular Americans and getting them to understand the toxic and absurd ideas that justify this is an important mission for all of us. We cannot simply rely on power to do the work sustainably. I cringe at saying the words “do the work,” but there is work for we regular Americans to do in making sure that the people who are cheerleaders for barbarianism do not approach the gates of American society.
Brian Anderson: Well, I want to thank all three of you, Martin Gurri, Yael Bar Tur, Tal Fortgang for your informed commentary. Thanks, everybody, for tuning in, and for the good questions coming from the audience. I appreciate your time today.