Dualism is built into us — perhaps part of our neural make up, surely part of our cultural inheritance: light/dark, war/peace, hot/cold, wet/dry, joy/sorrow. Fortunately, we know that there’s a continuum between the antipodes, that things can sometimes be neither hot nor cold but simply lukewarm, neither wet nor dry but simply moist. And in truth, we often find ourselves, whether by choice or perforce, at a place along the continuum.
But there’s another way to structure reality, one suggested by quantum mechanics. Perhaps it is possible to experience both hot and cold simultaneously, both joy and sorrow together, and so forth.
What brings this perspective to mind just now is the dysfunctional disposition of people, in thinking about the Israel/Palestine conflict, to suppose they must choose sides. If Israel is the side they choose, then Palestine is the side they reject. The choice of Israel may rest on belief about God’s promise to the Jews, or may be more pragmatic, as in “we have no partner for peace,” or “we cannot trust them to keep their word.” If Palestine is the choice, and Israel is therefore rejected, the argument may be that the Jews have usurped the land, or that they are an alien intrusion, or that there’s a holy mandate to rid the area of infidels, or that the Palestinians are unjustly being asked to pay the price for Europe’s sins against the Jews.
Nadav Safran was a distinguished professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. Born in Egypt, he’d lived in Israel (and fought in its War of Independence) before coming to America. His first major book, published in 1963, was “The United States and Israel.” In his preface to that book, Safran wrote, “I believe that fundamentally both Arabs and Jews have an unassailable moral argument. A person who cannot see how this is possible does not understand the essence of tragedy; much less does he realize that his position serves only to assure that the Palestine tragedy should have another sequel, and yet another.”
That was 1963, and by now we know that the sequels have piled up, and still show no sign of passing.
So let me state the proposition as plainly as I can: To feel empathy for the Israelis does not preclude feeling sympathy for the Palestinians.
This is more than and different from saying that one man’s independence is another man’s disaster; it is not simply that there are competing narratives and that both are compelling. It is to say that both narratives are true, that independence and disaster are irretrievably intertwined. It is to say that the unfolding events in the Middle East — specifically, the chronic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians — are a tragedy.
And the tragedy is profoundly exacerbated by those on both sides who are without empathy for the side that is not theirs. This is not a case of innocence versus guilt. By now, there is blood on everyone’s hands, and no purpose is served by trying to count up the droplets to determine who has bled more profusely. Can the Israelis be blamed for the fear that is their constant companion? Hardly. Can the Palestinians be blamed for their belief that they are the oppressed? Hardly. Is the distant observer required to choose which tears are saltier, whose grief over the fallen is deeper? No.
But in the world we inhabit, it is just such choices that are made ever day. Those who rise to defend Israel in the courts of American opinion believe that if they allow even a crack of empathy for the Palestinians, they risk that crack opening into a floodgate; if they accept even a tiny degree of Israeli responsibility for Palestinian suffering, they lose the moral advantage they believe, sincerely believe, is theirs. And those who take up the Palestinian cause close off any prospect of reconciliation when, instead of an appreciation of Israel’s hard choices and real fears, they choose to depict today’s Israelis as heirs to the accursed Nazi past.
It doesn’t work that way. The robes of innocence have long since been soiled; they are unbecoming and ill-fitting costumes that should embarrass those who persist in thinking them proper dress, be they Israelis or Palestinians. The portrayal of the Other as Evil incarnate is a lie, a deadly lie.
The work of reconciliation, so long postponed, rendered by now both so much harder by virtue of the accumulated memories of insult and injury and, at the same time, so much more urgent by the prospective future of still more insult and more injury, cannot proceed on an either/or foundation. That work depends for its success on a capacity to stand for both/and.
Who speaks of reconciliation in the face of so protracted and so bitter a conflict? Must not the blood be allowed to dry first, the grave sites to green? No, for if we wait, there will be only more blood and new graves. That is how it has been, and is, and will be. Who speaks of reconciliation? Our children and our children’s children, whose guardians we are. Isaac and Ishmael, weary of sacrifice and exile.
No, pretty words and sweet sentiments are inadequate to the task. There are tough choices to be made, hard bargains to be struck. The lawyers and the diplomats and the accountants, too, will be stretched. That is their work.
And ours? To take to heart Deuteronomy 30:19: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Therefore choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” To breathe life into the words, life for Us and life for Them, for there is no life for either unless there is life for both. Both Israelis and Palestinians. Both, and.