In Second Life there is a new Israel, appropriately called SL Israel, which recreates in virtual form aspects of the country, from religious landmarks of Jerusalem such as the Temple Mount, to tourist sites of Tel Aviv. Last week when Israel began launching guided missiles at Hamas targets in Palestine, however, SL Israel became a flashpoint of another kind. As the airstrikes pounded Gaza, so did protesters, teleporting into SL Israel, waving flags.
"Lots of people yelling," Beth Odets tells me. "They were going on and on with slurring obscenities about murderous Israeli forces, etc." She gives me a screenshot taken during the incursion, festooned with anti-war or pro-Palestinian signs, some depicting dead Arab children.
Ms. Odets helped create SL Israel, so she maintains land permissions to the region. She began ejecting the most obstreperous protesters. "I had to be careful not to boot people who didn't actually do anything wrong," as she puts it. But the protesters kept coming, and eventually she felt forced to close all of SL Israel to outsiders. "Just shut it down for a little while. Just to make it stop. 'Cause people weren't wanting to be logical, or talk."
The protesters keep arriving, however. On a brief visit to SL Israel late last night, for example, I found a half-dozen members of something called "Second Life International Socialists", brandishing placards and chattering in front of a lone avatar wearing a yarmaluke.
In SL Israel, this was not the full extent of the reaction to the ongoing war in Gaza, however. "Later came people who were wanting to really talk," Beth adds, "like the ones here." She teleports me over, so I can see for myself.
Which is how I found myself on the shoreline of SL Israel, amid an impromptu colloquium between a pro-Palestinian Muslim in a kaffiyeh, and avatar dressed as an IDF soldier, three Jewish women, and, of course, a talking rabbit.
Along with the Arab headscarf, Clip Chau wears a "Free Palestine" T-Shirt, and when I arrive, he is talking on the boardwalk with a brunette named TamaraEden Zinnemann.
"... and I was the only Muslim in the class and she was the only Jew so whenever Israel and Palestine came up, you know what happened," Chau tells her. "She was a great teacher. Never biased, and she understood Palestinian pain. I think she was a huge reason behind me starting to even consider talking to Jewish people. Before that it was a no go area for me, it was a birth hatred, I guess."
"I am very cautious when my kids ask me 'Jewish' or Political questions," she tells Chau. "I like to tell them when they want my opinion that my job, as their teacher, is to help them make up their own minds."
I mostly listen from the sidelines, but TamaraEden Zinnemann looks up.
"Hamlet, please write that I'm an American Jew. Clip is a Canadian Muslim, and we are having a great time sharing our commonalities. I'm serious."
"Write that I'm a bunny, OK?" Shmoo Snook demands. I assent to that as well.
"And cute, too!" he adds.
That duly noted, the bunny proceeds to talk about the photos he saw of IDF rescuing Palestinians from a collapsed tunnel, and complain about the Bush Adminstration.