Is Cyberbullying Sinat Chinam?
Thank God for the Internet.
Really, though. As the internet has grown to occupy center stage in the average individual’s private life, the advantages it provides to the global Jewish community have become abundantly clear. From websites organizing Jewish social movements and providing information on Jewish religious tradition, to social media groups providing an outlet for ongoing conversations about virtually all aspects of Jewish life, the Internet has truly done wonders for enhancing the ability of a Jewish person to connect with their cultural identity and fellow Jews.
But all things come in their season, criticism runs in my blood, and despite the outstanding positives that the Internet landscape provides for our displaced people, every silver cloud has a tarnished lining. As someone who has spent countless hours engaging in comment conversations and meme reactions with my fellow Jews on “Jewbook” groups, I have noticed an increasingly disturbing trend.
Jews cyberbully each other on social media.
Yeah, that’s a bit of a sweeping statement, isn’t it? But in my experience, that’s absolutely the truth. Now I know there are those among us who would pipe up and let it be known that Jews are mean to each other in person as well. Indeed, we are a culture defined by our Chutzpah, Kvetching and our addiction to heated debate. But there’s something about the way it unfolds on social media groups that just doesn’t have the charm of an in person confrontation.
Let me give you an example.
I’ve been a member of a Jewbook group dedicated to challenging notions of Ashkenazi dominance within Jewish culture. When I first joined, I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to engage with other like-minded individuals and to explore my Mizrachi heritage with a group of others doing the same thing.
However, as soon as I made my first post, I realized that connecting with these people wasn’t going to be so easy. As I introduced myself to the group and asked for assistance with a school project that would require my acquiring an advanced knowledge of Mizrachi poetry, I committed the apparently unforgivable faux pas of addressing the crowd as “my fellow Yidden” - the Yiddish word for “Jews.” Thinking this would be an innocent and ironically humorous nod to the central message of the group, I sat back and awaited the assistance of my fellow social media Mizrachim.
Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. A veritable swarm of comments appeared out of nowhere, each more harsh and critical than the last. Despite not even knowing who I was, my fellow Jews on Facebook started calling me out for my ignorance, for my stupidity, for my insensitivity… the list goes on and on. Only one or two righteous souls found the strength to look beyond the wording and attempt to assist me with my project. The rest were content to throw some shade and move on.
The few encounters I’ve had on that group since then, and indeed, on other groups where I have entered conversations that involved some level of disagreement, have been overwhelmingly negative. I have been shot down and marginalized, I have been attacked ad hominem for simply stating my beliefs (which usually aren’t even that controversial!) Worst of all I have seen it happen to countless others and have felt powerless - this is a wave, this is much bigger than me. I can’t butt into every comments war and exclaim the need for a special degree of tolerance between Jews. I’d get eaten alive.
I have faith in the Jewish people. I know that we have historically struggled with infighting among ourselves - indeed, the Talmud indicates that this “Sin’at Chinam” was the reason for the destruction of our second Temple, and implies that the third will not be rebuilt until we love and accept each other unconditionally. I believe that “Jewbook” has the potential to unite Jews on a level beyond that which we have ever seen. I am constantly awed by the unprecedented hub of Jewish cultural exchange that the Internet has created, and I indeed believe that it has the potential to reverse the fractious nature of the Jewish people and unite us on a higher level than ever before.
But to get there, we’re going to have to do some serious work. We’re going to have to start by understanding that interacting with a fellow Jew on Facebook is different than getting in a comments war with a troll on a random clickbait post. We need to elevate our respect for one another, despite the virtual nature of these interactions.
But the odds are truly stacked against us. Breaking medical research is indicating that social media stimulates parts of the brain that are responsible for fight or flight reactions, resulting in a “dopamine feedback loop” that keeps us glued to the screen and scrolling. One of the byproducts of this parasympathetic nervous system stimulation is a heightened sense of anxiety and aggravation, which leads to a need to “fire back” and remain intensely engaged in these virtual dialogues regardless of the personal investment we’d feel for them in a real world conversation.
The dopamine feedback loop takes the disagreement between Hillel and Shammai and makes it a flame war, defined by biting, cynical comments and a comprehensive lack of willingness to consider the view of the other side. Gone are the days where the same Sages who disagreed on every principle could enjoy a Shabbat dinner together - on “Jewbook,” all it takes is one disagreement to have the admins tagged in to remove the dissenting individual (I wish I wasn’t speaking from experience.) And if that doesn’t work, well - we can always block each other!
Despite my vision for enhanced Jewish unity through social media, I have recently taken a pledge to avoid posting comments on any post that I read while on Facebook, and especially if that post was made by a fellow Jew or within the context of a “Jewbook” group. I’m not willing to feed the fire of involuntary hostility. Until the climate of social media changes to one of peaceful coexistence, I won’t be a part of corrupting it further into the hatefest that it so often becomes.
I have now broken my pledge four times and counting. God have mercy on us all.
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In my girlfriend's parents' Orthodox community, it's fairly common for people to refuse to eat at other families' houses. Sometimes it's for kashrut [keeping kosher, observing the dietary laws] concerns (disagreements over acceptable heckshers) [hecksher=notation indicating supervision for Kashrut by a known group or organization], but the majority of the time it's for seemingly unrelated issues (e.g., the wife not covering her hair or wearing pants) that somehow also reflects on that family's kashrut observance for these people. I find that kind of divisiveness disturbing -- wasn't it "because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed"? [Administrators note: this refers to a story about Sinat Chinam - baseless hatred and shaming another.] Which is the more important Jewish value -- unity among Jews [klal yisra'el] or strictly maintaining your religious standards? Can they be reconciled?
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