Sunday, June 26, 2011

Message bored -- How to cure yourself of an obsession in one easy step...

For those of you who know me, it will come as no surprise to read that the first words that I ever typed into a search engine were “Tottenham Hotspur.” (For those of you who said that you wouldn’t read any football blogs, please bear with me.) This was over 15 years ago and I was on a course learning how to use this new-fangled Internet thingy. I suppose everybody has their own main reasons for using the Internet. For some it’s to keep up with the news; for others, it’s to keep in touch with friends and family in far-flung places of the globe; for many it’s the easy access to diverse types of pornography (so I am told) and for me and many others like me, it’s to keep up with the goings-on in the world of football.

A few years later, after finally getting hooked up at home to the web (I seriously lagged behind most other people I knew in this respect), I immediately began to look for ways to keep in touch with the team that I had supported, man and boy, for around 3 decades. And, lo and behold, I was able to come across a plethora of fan sites. I was truly spoilt for choice. At first I signed up for an e-mail mailing list. Every day, I would find waiting in my in-box e-mails from Spurs fans. I joined in the conversations as well as I could, being 3,000 miles away from the nerve-centre. It was an exciting but cumbersome beginning.
Eventually, I upgraded and joined a messageboard. For eight years or so, I was an active member. It provided me with a virtual community that often confounded the wife who could not understand how I could spend so much time chatting with people whom I had never seen or had little chance of seeing, for that matter. And for most of that time, I was amazed at the ease with which the members of the MB connected with each other. People seemed always willing to lend a hand. Once I wrote that I was going to England for my father’s memorial service and I thought that I might have to arrive at Luton airport. I asked about the best way of getting to Stanmore and someone even offered to pick me up. (In the end I flew to Heathrow.) . It was, in addition, a font of knowledge for me. I learnt, for instance, what a “Prince Albert” is. (If you don’t know to what I am referring, you can google it for yourself, but I warn you; it is not for the faint of heart.)

The high point came when Spurs were drawn to play Hapoel Tel-Aviv in Israel in the UEFA Cup in November 2007. My dream had come true. I was going to see my team and my boys whom I had brainwashed into suffering along with me as Spurs fans would be coming with me. The other posters realised what this meant to me and wrote to me congratulating me on my luck. Even though the club was arranging tickets, a couple wrote to me asking if I would buy them tickets here where they would be cheaper. I had no hesitation in agreeing. I laid out the money and they wired me the payment. These were guys I had never met. Call me a mug if you like, but supporting the same team seemed to be the only connection that we needed. I met them before the game to give them the tickets.

I have to point out at this juncture that the team I support has a large Jewish following. This was due to the fact that it is based in North London where, at one time many Jews lived, and once was one of England’s most successful teams, a time which has sadly passed. Inevitably, there were many Jews who used the messageboard. Occasionally, we would send Private Messages (PMs) to each other and play Jewish geography. I discovered that one poster, one of the few women on the board, was the wife of a guy who had been a friend of mine from school. Another had been in a youth movement with my brother. Another came to live in Israel and came round to watch games with my mates and me several times. Sometimes, I would get PMs from board members telling me that they were coming to Israel and asking me if they could see Spurs games on telly here. I remember even giving one guy some advice as he was thinking of getting married in Israel.

For a while, everything seemed fine on the messageboard. The Jewish members seemed to be quite open about their beliefs and customs. We would wish each other seasons’ greetings before each festival. Most of the non-Jewish fans took a healthy interest in what was going on and would ask genuine questions about the religion which we were more than happy to answer. When we weren’t moaning about the overpaid underachievers who wore the sacred white shirt of our beloved team, the discussion would tend to turn to politics not only the British domestic kind, but international politics as well with the Israel/Palestine issue being a very emotive one. Despite this, however, I felt at the time that it was possible to have a civilised discussion about the Middle East. Posters would get more worked up about the debate as to which of the strikers should be the first choice for the team than the fate of the Palestinians and Israelis in that volatile region. I had very interesting off-board exchanges of emails with posters who had swallowed the Palestinian narrative hook, line and sinker. We agreed to disagree and left it at that without any unnecessary name-calling. Our love of the same football team was the main reason why we were spending our time on the messageboard.

But then things started turning ugly. I began to notice snide remarks which could have been interpreted as anti-Semitic. For around 25 years, Spurs have had Jewish owners and chairmen. During that time, the team underachieved, failing to live up to the high expectations of its supporters. The successful teams in the Premiership splashed out big money in transfers and salaries to entice top players to join them. There were accusations that Spurs’s owners were being stingy and when you read comments like “Levy doesn’t like parting with his money”, it is hard not to feel a tad paranoid.

I recall one day coming home and switching on the computer and logging on to the messageboard and finding a PM waiting for me from one of the other Jewish members. Had I seen so-and-so’s post, he asked and did I think it was anti-Semitic? A discussion thread on an MB will be displayed at the top of the “page” if someone has commented on it most recently. I had to trail through a couple of pages, waiting impatiently for them to load in order to find the thread in question. As a teacher, I don’t have constant computer access during the day, so I would usually only check up on the more recent threads when I got home. I found the comment in question. It was something about Israel, I think. I carefully worded a reply and posted it. It was not the first time that I had been PMed by Jewish posters who were concerned about some anti-Jewish comment or other. I think that they saw me as the most knowledgeable Jewish member of the MB and living in Israel gave my opinions extra veracity. I didn’t really relish this role. My logging on to the MB was supposed to be a way of escaping the realities of life in the Middle East.

The final straw came on the day of the ill-fated Gaza Flotilla last year. I had done my best to follow the news during the day as the events unfolded. The first reports had described an unprovoked attack on peace activists in which Israeli commandos had killed twenty of them. Eventually it became apparent that the truth was far more complex and that nine people had been killed after attacking the commandos who had abseiled onto the ship. But the fact that the Palestinian side had rushed to the press first being unfettered by censorship obligations meant that more damage had been done to Israel’s already tarnished reputation.

I got home feeling emotionally exhausted and sat down by my PC. I just wanted to escape the events of the day and instinctively guided the cursor towards the icon on the toolbar which would log me in to the messageboard. But then I stopped. The incident would obviously have aroused interest and comment during the day and someone would have started a thread on it. The last thing I needed was to read scathing comments against Israel and to be dragged into an argument. I just wanted to get some up-to-date news on the team that I supported. I did a quick calculation in my head. The incident had taken place in the morning. Any discussion would have taken place sometime in the early afternoon so the thread would not be on the page that would appear when I logged in. Surely, everyone had had their fill of it by now. I promised myself that if I should see a thread about it, I would not simply ignore it.

So much for that. The moment that the MB page appeared on my screen, I saw that there was indeed a thread about the Flotilla debacle towards the top of the page which contained around 40 comments. It was still hot news, it seemed. I would have kept my promise to myself had it not been for the title of the discussion thread; “Nazi Israelis murder Peace Activists”, or something in that vein at least.

The thread had been started by C. with whom I had had several interesting correspondences in the past. He had started off on the board as a born-again Christian. Religion apparently had saved him from his previous life of alcohol and debauchery. Off the board we discussed religion and Israel quite freely. But then something changed in C. In addition to Jesus, he discovered George Galloway, politician, media whore and friend of Saddam Hussein whose anti-Israel agenda bordered on the anti-Semitic. C. accepted every word of Galloway’s as Gospel truth. His posts became virulently anti-Israel and I began to notice that other MB members who knew little about the Middle East were being taken in by what he was writing. Arguing with him was a futile exercise.

The truth is that I didn’t really care about what was written about Israel’s actions that day. I knew that they had appeared far worse than they actually were and that it was still too early to know what had really taken place. I didn’t feel that I was armed with all the facts yet to present a credible case. However, I was not prepared to be called a Nazi on the MB. The word “Nazi” to me is a red rag to a bull. I will always use my status as the son of Holocaust survivors to try and prevent the cheapening of the word.

I started off a new thread in which I complained about the use of the word. As ever I tried to be as civil as possible. Although I am not averse to a bit of effing and blinding in real life, on the MB, I tried to avoid it. I simply requested that he edit the title of the thread. I didn’t want to quarrel over what had happened in the Mediterranean that morning. The word “Nazi” was inaccurate and offensive and out of place on the messageboard. C. wrote back refusing to change the title claiming that Israeli forces had behaved like Nazis. A couple of other posters also commented in offensive ways. Actually at this point, I was quite surprised that the board’s moderators had not intervened and closed down the threads on the subject. They had done so on previous occasions and members had been suspended from the board for what I had considered to be lesser offences.

Another member, Tony, posted a comment asking me to explain what had happened from the Israeli point of view. I had got to know Tony through his postings on the MB over the years. We too had exchanged a number of emails about various subjects. He had never appeared to me be anti-Israel and seemed a decent chap. I knew that his request was genuine. I found a report on the Ha’aretz website and copied and pasted it into my reply. Whilst Tony thanked me for this, others, including C. wrote back implying that this was Israeli lies and propaganda. (Several months later, Tony was to “friend” me on Facebook and tell me about the BBC “Panorama” documentary that he had just seen. He said that it confirmed everything that was written in the article that I posted that day.)

It was at this point that I realised that I had had enough. I simply typed that I thought that my time on the messageboard was up and logged off. This was a slamming of a virtual door. I didn’t even sneak back later to see what reaction there had been as I really couldn’t be bothered. I don’t remember being that angry; I had just come to the realisation that there was little point in arguing with people who were not prepared to accept that there was another angle to the situation in the Middle East. I knew that some of the posters were probably bored individuals who got a kick out of winding others up, those like C. were adamant in their beliefs and nothing would persuade them that they just might be wrong no matter how many facts were presented to them.

And so eight years of what was almost an obsession had come to an abrupt end. During that time I had lived games vicariously through the reports of those that regularly attended them. I shared memories of players with some of the older posters and had got into interesting discussions on all types of subjects.

I can’t say that I left it without a twinge of regret. The next day, I logged on, more out of curiosity than force of habit and found a couple of PMs waiting for me from members telling me not to leave the board and not to take notice of what others wrote. I was truly touched and wrote back saying that I needed time to cool off. I did consider going back, but only for the football talk although I realised that I had a role to play in informing people about what was going on in Israel and trying to represent what I hoped would be seen as the acceptable face of Zionism. I suppose for that reason, I should have returned, but I didn’t have the strength for it anymore. I just wanted to talk Tottenham without being dragged into endless and pointless arguments about Israel’s right to exist. My football fix I would have to get from elsewhere. And anyway, by this time I was using Facebook more and had got in touch with former classmates of mine from 30 years ago. There is a limit to the number of virtual social lives that one can manage at the same time.

2 comments:

  1. Great post David. I also have a virtual social life of fellow bloggers on twitter and I to seem to have become the authority on all things Jewish and Israel. It's nice while there's little controversy. I dread another flotilla debacle or such like.

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  2. David, the battle is very hard. The anti-Israel narrative is so powerfully entrenched that it is almost impossible to combat it. i am frequerntly involved in a couple of fora but it gets very dispiriting.

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