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Grieving Two Peoples
A human way to approach these times
I’m on the road again. Last weekend I attended the Formula 1 Lenovo U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, my first ever F1 event. I’ve made two seasons of a talk show series with Lenovo exploring technology and business, and they were nice enough to invite me down. To prepare for the event, I played some racing games on my iPad and finally started watching Netflix’s Drive To Survive. Now I’m legit hooked. I’ve never fallen so quickly into a sport before. The name Max Verstappen means something to me, and in the VR version Lenovo set up at the Austin event, he and I both placed in the top 10, so I feel like that makes us peers.
This week, I’ve got a pretty big event on the calendar. I’ll be emceeing the Obama Foundation’s Democracy Forum on Friday, November 3! You can tune in virtually for free or come hang out in Chicago with me and the former POTUS.
Meanwhile, here’s some news grabbing my attention lately:
Finally, some rare, positive news for the housing crisis. Los Angeles County is using predictive analytics to identify people likely to lose their home, and intervene with financial support before that happens. We’ve been building a lot of housing for people. The problem is that more people are falling out of housing than are getting in. This pilot program is an example of government working comprehensively across agencies, using data, and applying a human touch. More of this please!
The New York Times offers a grounded perspective on what militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border looks like for the people who actually live there. Many residents of a Texas town initially welcomed the aggressive tactics launched by Gov. Greg Abbott, but after living with the consequences, many find that the government is literally taking over their land and using inhumane methods to deal with migrants, and these residents want out.
The Los Angeles Times reported on a creative community’s efforts, using text-to-speech software, to help a teen living with Autism Spectrum Disorder find his voice through music.
Finally, for those in New York, if you’re looking for a good time at a good gala raising money for a good cause, I highly recommend attending the Desai Foundation’s 10th anniversary Diwali on the Hudson event on Thursday, November 2. Diwali is a massive Hindu festival of lights, celebrating light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance (so needed right now). The foundation empowers women and children through health, livelihood and menstrual equity programs in India.
Now, for the main event: Some thoughts surrounding the escalating crisis in the Middle East, and in particular how we’ve all been drafted into an information war on social media. At the end, I share my interview with an Israeli comedian and peace activist, Noam Shuster-Eliassi, who moved me with her sharp observations and powerful words.
Grieving Two Peoples
The sudden escalation of violence in the Middle East, which began on Oct. 7 with a barbaric terror attack by Hamas, has now evolved into a daily horror show of terror, grief, and death. We see the heartbreaking effects of air strikes, territorial siege, rocket barrages, and feel the horrible uncertainty over the fate of those taken hostage, and those missing beneath bombed buildings. But in addition to the physical war, the Israel-Hamas conflict is an information war, one that is playing out daily in our social media feeds. In this context, we are all involved—both as witnesses and combatants—lobbing links, videos, and text screeds onto the digital battlefield.
Even if we haven’t personally contributed to the discourse, the sheer volume of content exposes us all to misinformation, manipulation, and mistrust. The Israel-Hamas war isn’t the first time these dynamics have come to the fore, but the lifecycle of these events is only speeding up. Now that social platforms have turned everyone into press secretaries, spokespeople, journalists, and pundits, folks are quick to deputize themselves as professors in order to break down the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, starting anywhere from October 2023 back to the time of Abraham. The volley of hot takes is quickly followed by the purge, during which people remove posts, unfollow their heroes, issue apologies, and express occasional humility. (In one public example, CAA’s Maha Dahkil was demoted for referring to Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people as “genocide.”)
As the war on the ground enters new phases and delivers new casualties, the information war also intensifies. In the past, I haven’t just seen this, I’ve participated in the cycle: I’ve live tweeted major events as they happened, stayed up late scrolling through my feeds, hoping one more tap or swipe would finally explain the terrible thing, or make me feel good about my own opinion, or make me feel vindicated about the stupidity of someone else’s. But this time around, I’ve spoken a lot less (I did one video post with comments off), because it’s hard to find words for the layers of horror, and I don’t want to add to anyone’s pain.
Instead of adding to the barrage of public posts, I’ve primarily opted to listen and learn while reaching out personally to people I know who might be affected by this war, both in the Jewish and Palestinian communities. I feel lucky and relieved to have found the voice of Noam Shuster-Eliassi. She’s a comedian and peace activist who speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and English. She grew up in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a community North of Jerusalem where Israelis and Palestinians choose to live together. I had first heard of her, in mid-2020, when she was featured in an episode of NPR’s Rough Translation podcast about “Hotel Corona,” a quarantine hotel in Jerusalem with Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, religious and secular people trapped together. Noam was doing standup comedy shows in front of these diverse audiences, and in May 2020, I interviewed her on my pandemic-era streaming show Live On Lockdown.
One week ago, she published a beautiful and painful essay which she described as being written “for those who have the capacity to grieve two peoples.” The raw emotion and pain she captured, both for those kidnapped or killed by Hamas on October 7, many of whom she knew personally, and for the Palestinians being killed in retaliation, is palpable. She gave voice to the frustration of many Israelis with their own government, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “failed leader.” She also wrote about the role of social media in the conflict, noting that: “It is easier to simply stare at my phone and hope my brain will shut down. But actually my phone is my nightmare; God, Instagram is my nightmare. Who are all these Americans posting from their comfortable homes?”
From my comfortable temporary home—a hotel room in Austin, Texas—I was moved to tears by her essay, so I sent Noam a WhatsApp message to check in. While she admitted to being “broken beyond words,” she also was willing to share more on the subject of social media, and what it’s like to be in the midst of a tragedy while people thousands of miles away join the fray virtually. In a series of voice memos, edited lightly, here is what she said:
The interview is available in the Puck version of this newsletter. Given the intensity of this war and the pervasiveness of media and pain around it, I’m gifting that article to you. Use the link wisely. Try to be kind to yourself and each other.