By Peter Slezak
When patriotic, tribal passions are at their height as now, it is undoubtedly the hardest but the most important time to pause in the name of our common humanity to reflect honestly on the causes and possible solutions to the tragedy that is engulfing Israel and Palestine.
As Bertrand Russell said, we are never as noble, and our enemies are never as evil, as we like to think. It is precisely because of the chasm that separates rival views on Israel/Palestine that we must recognize the need, now more urgent than ever, to pause and to listen to our adversaries – especially those among our fellow Jews.
When I was a student I watched Jacob Bronowski’s TV series The Ascent of Man with its unforgettable last moments in Auschwitz as he kneeled holding a handful of mud. He said,
… I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. …
This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.
Quoting Cromwell, Bronowski made a plea to recognize our fallibility.
In the end … “I beseech you … Think it possible you may be mistaken.”
Bronowski was articulating a central tenet of the Enlightenment, scientific attitude – namely, the need to hear the Devil’s Advocate. This was theme of 19th C. philosopher J.S. Mill’s classic work ‘On Liberty’ – the importance of hearing the dissident opinion, the most contrary view from our own.
Anyone with a shred of humanity today must heed the same plea from fellow Jews – many of whom are children of Holocaust survivors like Harvard’s Sara Roy who is a foremost expert on Gaza, Amira Hass who is an Israeli journalist for Ha’aretz, and Norman Finkelstein who is a US historian. They are among many Jews who differ on fundamental facts about Israel/Palestine today and its tortured history. There is too much at stake to ignore or dismiss these alternative “narratives.” When so much tragedy is at its height, it is both harder and at the same time more urgent to “think it possible you may be mistaken.”
The precept that we must hear dissident voices was the theme of my talk to the Limmud-Oz Festival in Sydney last year. It was an exquisite irony that it was deemed to require banning by some in the organized Jewish community. Evidently, the story and the lesson of the great Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza is too subversive for Jews to hear.
Today, many around the world are making Bronowski’s plea to their fellow Jews, namely, to consider the possibility that widely taken-for-granted assumptions and factual beliefs about Israel/Palestine may be mistaken.
Of course, there is never enough room in a single article, a single lecture or single conversation to explore divergent views of the Israel/Palestine conflict. But we must begin by resisting familiar tricks to prevent taking each other seriously. The idea that Jewish critics of Israel are “self-hating” is a meaningless, pernicious absurdity, but it reveals an incapacity or unwillingness to consider alternative opinions.
Proponents of this idea also insult the intelligence of those to whom it is recommended. The pseudo-psychological diagnosis is intended to prevent people hearing alternative opinions and, thereby, to think for themselves. The denunciation and demonization of critics of Israel is reaching frightening levels and we must start the difficult process of talking across the significant divide on Israel/Palestine – the growing fault-line evident now in Jewish communities around the world. The point is not to accept uncritically any alternative views, but rather not to accept uncritically your own. This means making the effort to break out of the circle of opinions that confirm and reinforce your own opinions – the sources we all tend to rely upon – in our reading, in our communities and in our dinner parties. For example, Jewish audiences never attend visiting speakers such as Israeli Jeff Halper, Ilan Pappe or Noam Chomsky on lecture tours if they are not reinforcing the received opinion. One such visitor has been Israeli Miko Peled, the son of famous General Mattityahu Peled, whose story is particularly poignant (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4ZfnpN4Dfc https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOaxAckFCuQ)
A common reaction to Jewish critics of Israel is the justified demand that we also condemn the crimes of Palestinians such as the Hamas rockets. With others Jews and indeed Palestinian critics of Israel, I have unhesitatingly condemned the Hamas rockets as a violation of international law. However, when I have repeatedly, publicly on social media such as Twitter, asked Jewish organizations like ECAJ to reciprocate and to condemn the racism and crimes of Israel, they have remained stubbornly, conspicuously silent. What message does this give to the Palestinians and to the world? We can’t insist that Israel is a Jewish state acting in the name of Jews and then be surprised if others fail to make the distinction. How can we expect legitimate criticism of Israel to be distinguished from anti-Semitism if leading Jewish figures and organizations refuse to permit the distinction? In the famous words of American journalist Edward R. Murrow, we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. Above all, as Amira Hass warns from her mother’s experience in Bergen-Belsen, we cannot watch in silence what is being done in our name and then protest afterwards we didn’t know.
Accordingly, the place to begin is with such alternative Israeli and Jewish voices such as columnists Amira Hass and Gideon Levy in Ha’aretz, Israel’s human rights organization B’Tselem (http://www.btselem.org), Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions ICAHD (http://www.icahd.org), Breaking the Silence (http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il), Mondoweiss (http://mondoweiss.net/israel-palestine), +972 Magazine (http://972mag.com), not least, IAJV: Independent Australian Jewish Voices (http://iajv99.wordpress.com), and this article co-authored by two Jews and two Palestinians (https://newmatilda.com/2014/07/23/two-jews-two-palestinians-open-letter-simple-truth)
Associate Professor Peter Slezak is co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices (IAJV) and on the Executive of Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN).