GERARD HOWLIN: Mob mentality: Once words are weapons, life becomes cheap

On Easter weekend I was taken aback by two episodes of nastiness on social media, writes Gerard Howlin.

Locally, on a Facebook page that is usually full of old photographs, tips about what’s happening and occasional asks to look out for a lost cat or dog, there was cutting, personal comment about a business owner who is selling up after many years. It was gratuitous. The source was apparently readily identifiable people, who didn’t think or didn’t care. The glassy screen they scribble on emboldens but apparently protects. 

As glass houses go, it’s an astonishing construction. You can throw stones, without fear for yourself. You can gather the like-minded into a “community” that resembles a mob. This particular mob was piteously small. It was just curmudgeons ganging up on a single person. But if you are that individual, those hurling abuse at you have most of the essential attributes of a mob. It’s unpleasant at best. Nasty, if you are not thick skinned, and astonishingly revealing about people you probably pass in the street.

I suppose that’s all at the lower end of the scale. Lacking the earthiness of local spite was another incidence with deeper resonance. By a happenstance of the Gregorian calendar which calculates Easter aligning with the lunar calendar which determines the Jewish year, Passover coincided with Good Friday. It’s a poignant overlap for anyone with any sense of history. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar posted on Twitter that he was joining the Cohen family for the traditional Sedar meal. Maurice Cohen is chairman of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland. I hope they all had a good time, and the Taoiseach should be commended for reaching out to minorities in our community. Gestures matter.

What was appalling, however, was the anti-Semitic ranting that followed on Twitter. Some of it was of the coarsest kind. More of it went further. It targeted Jews as de facto agents of Israel. It renewed, in a different format, an older libel that has a particular pathos on Good Friday. Jews once were seen as Christ killers, and therefore had no place in the community. The mutating medieval myth that Jews used the blood of Christian children in the Sedar meal at Passover had such currency it legitimated centuries of pogroms. Later tropes included their alleged control of capital and the media.

Abuse is firstly a story about the inadequacy of its authors. People not on social media, or who are generally upright in their attitudes towards others, will say this is exaggerated. It is true it is magnified by the medium. This raises issues of responsibility for social media platforms, who profit from all the time all their interlocutors give them online. But if the medium magnifies, it also acts as flypaper for what is there already in society.

My sense, still, is that anti-Semitism in Ireland is limited. We don’t have the historic backdrop of European countries. With exceptions, our failing is of omission to do what we should have done before 1939. It is, however, on the increase. It is feeding now off two parallel phenomena. One is the availability of social media platforms for hate of all kinds, from score-settling with neighbours to vitriol based on gender, race, colour and creed. It’s like looking into a shore. You know what is underneath. But when it overflows, it brings its unpleasantness up to new levels of awareness.

The second of these phenomena is specific to anti-Semitism. It is the increasing, and increasingly wanton deployment of Israel as its instrument and legitimisation. It is still a tradition to burn Guy Fawkes in effigy on November 5 to remember the Gunpowder Plot. It’s picturesque tradition now but it is based on a premise lasting centuries that Catholics couldn’t be trusted because their allegiance was to a foreign power, another state that until the late 19th century had substantial territory on the map, and a universal claim to obedience on the basis of religion. So rooted was this view that John F Kennedy had to address its residue in 1960.

But the overhang of Israel on Jews in Europe is not a passing eccentricity. It is burgeoning reality, where unbelievably in light of what passed before, anti-Semitism is on the rise and Ireland as Leo Varadkar now knows is part of the phenomenon.

In Poland and Hungary, where the far right have been mainstreamed in elections, anti-Semitism is increasingly prevalent. In France and elsewhere, radicalised Muslims target local Jews and the institutional life of the community is increasingly lived under armed guard. In Britain, there is the appalling spectre of the Labour Party being infiltrated by groups that are either overtly anti-Semitic or are so singularly focused on Israel as a platform and publicity machine for themselves, that they have become what they accuse that state of being in their own most lurid criticism of it, namely an apartheid organisation. Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite, but he is the cornerstone of an establishment where they roam free.

Attacking Jews as proxies of Israel is anti-Semitism. Attacking Israel on the basis of its policies is not necessarily so. The tipping point is the obsessive singling out of one country, in one region which becomes either by inference or design a mask behind which an older dirty business is continued by other means. As with international money and media, Israel in this telling is directing everything. Its proxies are everywhere. More than a dozen people are dead in Gaza, after last week’s protest. There is a complex story of why Hamas — in power but failing to deliver, and in deep conflict with Fatah which controls the West Bank — decided to mobilise that march. But that complicates a simpler narrative, so it is not told.

Ultimately it’s the local story that tells more. Last Thursday afternoon, I was walking down Kildare St. Outside Leinster House there was a protest for Palestine. I recognised the Lord Mayor of Dublin Mícheál Mac Donncha and Richard Boyd Barrett TD. The chant was “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

The occupied West Bank ends in East Jerusalem. It was occupied in a war that intended the destruction of Israel. It deepened the disaster of the Palestinian people. It is unresolved politics, and a permanent tinderbox.

From Jerusalem to the sea is the internationally recognised the state of Israel. What is intended to happen when Palestine is free to the sea? Who now calling for it is willing to take responsibility for the inevitably appalling consequences? When words are weapons life is cheap. Once coarseness enters the public conversation, and the shores overflow, easy targets and simple solutions instantly emerge. It is eerie how apparently millennia-old issues have small local echoes.


Louis Mulcahy reads in Cork this weekend for the Winter Warmer fest, writes Colette Sheridan.Wheel turns from pottery to poetry

ACCLAIMED filmmaker Damian O’Callaghan is well used to creating cinematic magic on screen.Wedding of the Week: Filmmaker Damian meets his real-life leading lady

From age 6, I was on stage. I started with school plays but it never occurred to me that it would become my job.This much I know with writer and performer Joanne Ryan

I’m 30 and have been with my boyfriend for nearly two years.Sex Advice with Suzi Godson: I can't help him to climax...

More From The Irish Examiner