On October 7, at 6:30 a.m. local time, on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War that pitted Israel against its Arab neighbors, the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas launched a devastating land, air, and sea attack that killed and injured thousands and seized nearly 200 civilian hostages, who are now believed to be in the Gaza Strip.
On October 12, at 8:49 a.m. PST, Gal Gadot, an Israeli Jewish actress, model, military veteran, and granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, tweeted a missing persons information form for people to report knowledge of civilians whose loved ones cannot find them in the wake of the attacks.
At this moment there are hundreds of missing innocent Israelis, their families broken and begging for any piece of information, any lead to help bring them home.
I am using my platform to share their names. their faces, to tell the world what is happening.
Please share their… pic.twitter.com/GKwbPOv8WO
— Gal Gadot (@GalGadot) October 12, 2023
This message, fairly apolitical on its face, garnered some support but also a vast number of unsympathetic, even outright antagonistic responses. “Israel is a terrorist state,” reads one. “Resist, Palestine!” cries another. Plenty refer to Gadot’s words as “Zionist propaganda.” Some go so far as to openly defend the Hamas attack:
More and more lies of the Zionist occupation. How do you justify killing civilians and children, arresting women and minors, stealing land and homes? We have come to a time that describes defending the right as [sic] terrorism and settlement and killing as legitimate defense!
Gadot is not the only performing artist to inadvertently call down the wrath of the armchair warriors that call Twitter (now X) their home. Star Wars star Mark Hammill received dozens, if not hundreds, of replies associating him with the villains of his own breakout franchise after simply tweeting, “America stands with Israel.” One such comment reads, “What you are supporting is the genocide of the people of Palestine. You’ve taken the side of the empire.”
Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman retweeted a post commenting on the NYU Law School student president’s public message explicitly supporting the Hamas attack. The retweeted post reads, “Imagine being a Jewish student at NYU Law School who doesn’t know if their kidnapped grandmother is alive and seeing the head of your equivalent of the student council saying ‘grandma had it coming.’” One of the numerous unfriendly replies says, “I have so much totally real empathy for that totally fictional person. Also, some grandmas do totally have it coming.”
What motivates this impulse to respond to sympathetic messages from public figures with antagonism and hatred? What makes a Jewish celebrity’s solidarity with her own people so odious to this mob, which perennially seems never to have anything better to do in a time of tragedy than seek out actors, musicians, and artists to “cancel”? These individuals who tried to cancel J.K. Rowling due to her concerns about transgender ideology, who successfully lobbied Disney to commit the politically motivated firing of Gina Carano from multiple Star Wars projects, have now turned their ire toward those who speak out against an assault on a civilian population. Why? What could they hope realistically to accomplish?
I hypothesize, nothing. That’s the point.
This behavior does not require action, only typing. It does not incur the threat of social consequences, since the typists will be patted on the back by everyone who agrees with them for signaling their virtue so clearly. It does not affect their reputation in the real world, as many of them use profiles without their names or photos. It removes any need for critical thinking or the perception of nuance.
What such behavior really does is give the cancelers an illusion of control over the events of history that they witness. Control is a natural human desire; we want mastery over our destiny and, often, the destinies of others. We become frightened when we perceive that life is not within our sphere of influence. Things we cannot control intimidate us.
Online virtue signaling, however, enables people to forget that they are sitting insignificantly behind a cell phone or keyboard, and not on the front lines. Signing a petition to get an author unpublished, tagging movie studios in tweets calling for the removal of an actor, and bullying Jewish models and comedians makes them believe, if the desired cancelation is achieved, that they played a part in effecting it. They might even convince themselves that it was their signature or tweet, and theirs alone, that finally altered the world in their favor. They might congratulate themselves that transgender Harry Potter fans are safe from imaginary Rowling-inspired violence, that Disney+ subscribers can watch The Mandalorian without being “triggered,” and that Hamas controls the Holy Land through their efforts, not the turning tides of history that transcend any action which a single mortal could take to radically alter social systems, especially such an “action” that consists solely of a simple inflammatory hashtag or mean comment.
The behavior of these cancelers makes it easy to adopt a “holier than thou” attitude for those who choose more active, more principled means of getting involved in world events, but it should not. Rather, it should inspire self-reflection about where our priorities lie when tragedy or controversy strikes.
Do we, too, resort to mob mentality and armchair advocacy when we see something happen that we feel is morally wrong? Or do we take meaningful steps to influence our society, by voting with purpose, writing eloquently to our leaders, and above all else, respectfully entering into reasoned discourse with those who see the world in different ways? In an age where reason is radically uncommon, it may be the most important thing we can do to stand up for what is right.