In addition to this outpouring of real-time testimony, you could read actual discussions, and often heated arguments, taking place in the comments sections of certain blogs, in which Lebanese and Israelis engaged each other at the deepest levels about the politics of the conflict, their fears, and sometime even their hopes for the days after. Those provided an important outlet for many people, even when the rhetoric was belligerent. At least we’re talking, bloggers frequently pointed out. One site, lebanesebloggers.blogspot.com, created in February 2005, became one of the main destinations for such conversations, and during the month-long duration of the fighting, received a quarter of a million page views.
Lisa Goldman, an Israeli blogger who grew up in Canada, has far-reaching contacts in the Arab blogosphere and has been, for many Arab bloggers, their first link with an Israeli. She worried that in the darker moments those lines of communication would be cut. And to some degree, she admits, they were. Friendships were ruptured. But for the most part, the connections stayed intact. “I pictured a very small core of people huddling together surrounded by this massive, massive sea of hate — everyone just yelling at each other and pulling out the same old narratives and arguments and refusing to see past them,” she said. “The only solace, I think, was that at the end of the day, if you really look at what happened, even with war flaring around us, it was impossible for the bloggers from both sides who were talking to really wage a battle against someone you had a genuine relationship with.”
The blogger known as Egyptian Sandmonkey, the twenty-five-year-old son of a prominent member of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party, is on the phone from Cairo and laughing. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as a poor Jew,” he says. “What? Poor Jews? How did that happen? I thought that at your bar mitzvah you got full membership and the manual for how to rule the world. And then they give you your shares in the media. I keep telling my friends, if the Jews really control the media, they are some of the most self-hating Jews I’ve ever met in my life.”
Developing a complex picture of Jews, and of Israelis (the distinction between the two is not often made in the Arab world), is no easy task in Egypt. Even for someone like Sandmonkey, who comes from what he calls an “upper middle-class family,” and was educated largely outside his birth country, the distorted perceptions run deep. “The Egyptians know nothing about the Israelis,” he says. “We don’t know anything about Israeli society. We don’t know anything about their culture. And part of that has been our government trying to keep us away from the information. An Israeli can come into Egypt very easily. For an Egyptian to go to Israel, it’s really, really hard to do. You have to go through a large bureaucratic process. And the point is to keep us in the dark. Don’t humanize the people. It’s easier to vilify the Jews in Israel.”
Maybe the most dramatic way in which this blogosphere is affecting the Arab world is by breaking down that ultimate taboo. Even in a place like Lebanon, with a large portion of the population striving to create a liberal, modern society, Israel is the last barrier. That is rooted in Lebanon’s history, including recent history. Yet there is so much investment in seeing Israel as the source of all its problems that it has become a mindless reflex for many.
There are, of course, plenty of bloggers who use the Internet as a way to disseminate more hate and misunderstanding, many of whom also gained attention last summer during the war. One case, infamous among Arab and Israeli bloggers, is Perpetual Refugee, a Lebanese businessman who had occasion to visit Israel a few times, socialized with Israelis (even sharing a bottle of wine with Lisa Goldman), and subsequently wrote friendly posts about making peace. As soon as the war came, he made what was described as a “360-degree turn,” becoming virulently hateful about Jews, about how Israel “massacred innocent souls to fulfill its biblical destiny.” But Perpetual Refugee was something of a high-profile anomaly among the English-language bloggers.