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Talking Gaza: Some Practical Suggestions About How to Discuss the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

August 22, 2014 – Warsaw


Konstanty Gebert is a journalist and international affairs commentator based in Warsaw. Konstanty has spoken to Humanity in Action Fellows in our Polish program and at our International Conferences in Sarajevo, Warsaw and Sønderborg in recent years. In August 2014, Konstanty began working with us in another capacity–as an advisor to our international network. Over the next year, he will lead special discussions on a range of subjects to our communities in Copenhagen, Berlin and Warsaw in addition to providing advice to the Humanity in Action staff in New York. This essay, a collection of practical suggestions for discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the first of many contributions from Konstanty in this new role. We are grateful for his thoughtful guidance. –Judy Goldstein

The latest Israeli-Palestinian confrontation in Gaza has become the focus of extremely acrimonious exchanges, even between people who normally usually agree with each other. Many of us have experienced debates which ended up nasty, and left people hurt. Given the degree of suffering involved in what is the subject of the debates, this is possibly unsurprising. Yet it would seem that much of the anger is due to misinterpretations of positions taken in the debate, often compounded by insufficient knowledge of facts – and insufficient appreciation of emotional stakes involved for debate participants.

The following guidelines are an attempt to formulate a basic framework for debates about the conflict. They have been drafted with the purpose of being debated and amended within Humanity in Action, and then approved as an auxiliary tool in future debates. To clarify possible misunderstandings: this is not a “party line”: it must be possible, both within Humanity in Action and in civil society at large, to have an open debate without the constraints of any guidelines, even if purely voluntary. Nor is this an attempt to formulate a Humanity in Action position on the conflict: it is not at all obvious that attaining such a position would be possible, let alone desirable.

The guidelines intend solely to help debate participants avoid bogging down in arguments over misunderstandings and misinterpretations, allowing them to concentrate on the real areas of contention. Their common endorsement by participants – if and when – might also have the added bonus of making them realize they actually do have a lot in common, something the general acrimony of the debate often tends to occlude. Many of these guidelines, incidentally, retain their validity when applied to other areas of contention. Finally, they have been drafted by someone who is an observant Jew and feels a strong bond to one of the parties to the original conflict – Israel, as well as empathy and understanding for the bond other people feel for the Palestinian side. If this were to disqualify – or even to somehow qualify - the proposed guidelines, then in my belief their basic assumption, namely that a civilized disagreement over the issue is possible, would be proven wrong.

1.

Many people the world over feel a strong bond to one or the other party to the conflict. This bond often grows from fundamental identity choices, and hence criticism of the party involved can be experienced as criticism of the person herself. Regardless of whether one experiences such a bond oneself, and regardless of whether one recognizes or understands the validity of that bond in the other, the reality of this identity connection needs to be appreciated. This entails a special responsibility for the choice of words, especially avoidance of hurtful ones.

Examples: terms such as “war crime”, “terrorism”, “anti-Semitism”, “apartheid” might, or might not, be applicable to the issues at hand. In either case they are guaranteed to generate an emotional reaction from your partner. Think hard of whether the difficulty in reaching understanding thus produced is a price worth paying for the use of these terms. If you think not, use other ones. If you think yes, at least acknowledge the emotional impact and explain why you are risking it.

2.

People often get involved in a debate not only to exchange views in pursuit of a common position, but to express their emotional attachments, approvals and condemnations. These two objectives work at cross purposes. If yours is the former and you encounter the latter, it might be worthwhile to allow your partner to express his emotions before continuing the rational exchange. If yours is the latter and you encounter the former, it does not make much sense to accuse your partner of insensitivity. To complicate matters further, most people usually embrace a mixture of both. One should therefore try to be aware of what both oneself and the partner are expressing, and to try to be helpful to the partner.

Examples: statements such as “why is it that Israel gets unfairly singled out” or “why is it that Palestinian suffering gets ignored” may express either genuine intellectual queries or expressions of emotional frustration. Your reaction should depend on the proper reading of the intent behind the statement.

3.

It is legitimate for people to hold very divergent views; sometimes, however, the perceived divergence is inferred only. If what your partner says seems to your eyes totally unacceptable and even outrageous views, try to understand which of your dearly held positions it clashes with, and then check with your partner whether he in fact rejects that position. If he says yes, both of you should examine the consequences of that implication. If he says no, both of you should examine what made you think he did. Such exercises are not nit-picking. To the contrary, they are indispensable for establishing where in fact you disagree – and where you do not.

Examples: The statement “Israel should not have been created” can mean e.g. that the person making it believes: 

  • Even if other nations have a right to have nation states, Jews do not;
  • Even if Jews have a right to have a nation state, it was created unfairly and should be abolished;
  • Israel should acknowledge it was created unfairly;
  • Israel should acknowledge that, as with many other states, its creation involved unfairness;
  • I am just very angry at Israel and wish it would go away.

The statement “there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation” can mean e.g. that the person making it believes:

  • Even if other nations have a right to have nation states, Palestinians do not;
  • Even if Palestinians have a right to have a nation state it should be implemented elsewhere, and not in Palestine; 
  • Palestinians should recognize they were yet not a nation when Israel was created;
  • Palestinians should recognize that their nation, like other nations, was created at a certain point in history;
  • I am just very angry at the Palestinians and wish they would go away.

One may disagree with all the different beliefs in either batch – in fact, one can disagree with all the beliefs in both batches – but understanding what is it one disagrees with is crucial for a sensible debate.

4.

Big quantifiers are always wrong. Never use them. No exceptions.

Example: The/you Jews/Arabs/Muslims always/never are/do/think…

5.

Moral big quantifiers are also always wrong, but may be more difficult to identify. The fallacy here is to believe that the means disqualify the cause, since we agree that the cause does not sanctify the means. But this is a fallacy. If it is true e.g. that it is unacceptable to use violence or the threat of it to make someone change his mind, it does not result that trying to convince people to change their minds is wrong. Criminal, or even just unfair means are not made acceptable if the cause they serve is just, but neither is a cause automatically disqualified because means used in its support are wrong. For a very important qualification see 6.

Example: Since Palestinians/Israel use/tolerate/endorse terrorism/occupation, they do not have a right to achieve their goals, at least not until they cease from using/toleration/endorsing it.

6.

A fundamental exception to the rule in 5 is genocide. A cause or entity which necessitates, uses or contemplates “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” is criminal by definition and cannot be tolerated. The definition invoked is that of the relevant UN Convention; the terms “intent” and “in part” can be interpreted, however, in widely different ways. The consensus is that the intent must be provable beyond reasonable doubt, and if the crime had affected only a part of the targeted group, it was not for lack of trying by the perpetrators. As such, none of the actions committed by either party to the conflict meets this criterion. The term, therefore, must not be used.

Other crimes, such as massacres, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, murder do not disqualify causes in the same way simply because if this were the case, no cause (with the possible exception of vegetarianism) would remain acceptable.

7.

Terms mentioned in 1, and others like them, must be used within mutually acceptable definitions. Formulating those is not nit-picking, but a fundamental element of the process of reaching a shared understanding.

Examples: “terrorism” does not have an international legal definition, but is usually taken to mean the use of indiscriminate violence against targeted civilians to intimidate and terrorize, in view of reaching a political goal. Under those terms, a state could also be guilty of terrorism, while it would be doubtful whether the mere membership in an organization which engages in terror activities while also promoting other, acceptable activities, is grounds to be called a terrorist, or if a member of an armed terrorist group is still to be designated a terrorist when fighting another armed group, i.e. an army.

“Apartheid” designates the existence of two separate legal systems which treat individuals differently depending on their race. The mere existence of separate legal systems (e.g. a military and a civil justice system) does not constitute apartheid, nor is the term applicable when other criteria (residency, citizenship etc.) trump race in determining which system is applicable.

8.

If a certain activity of a party to the conflict is singled out for condemnation (or for approval), it is not enough to identify the features which justify this assessment; one also needs to compare it to the behavior of other parties under similar circumstances in order to ascertain whether such behavior is the exception, the rule, or somewhere in between. If the activity is determined to be unexceptional, it might still be condemned (or approved), but with the proviso that other parties engaging in similar activity under similar circumstances should be treated the same.

Examples: the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is not unique. Turkey occupies northern Cyprus, Morocco occupies Western Sahara, Armenia occupies Mountain Karabach, India occupies eastern Kashmir. Policies of occupying powers differ: Turkey and Armenia have conducted total ethnic cleansing of populations deemed hostile, and have established puppet states on occupied territory. Morocco has conducted partial ethnic cleansing, and India none; both have formally annexed occupied territories and extended/imposed their citizenship on the populations. Israeli occupation policies should be assessed within this framework.

Palestinian armed and non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation is not unique. Almost without exception, occupied populations have resisted occupations, but with different methods. In currently occupied territories armed terrorism alongside non-violent resistance is rife in Kashmir and present on the Sahara. The Muslim population of Serb-occupied Bosnia engaged in armed struggle against the occupying army, but not in terrorism against the occupiers’ civilian population. Palestinian terrorist activities should be assessed within this framework.

9.

Analogies need to be valid to be useful. One should strive to look for multiple, and not unique, examples of conflict to create the relevant framework. As a rule, analogies involving WWII should not be used, for the singularities involving that particular historical conflagration far outweigh the commonalities it might have with other conflicts.

Examples: Regardless of the anti-Semitic, murderous and at time genocidal rhetoric of some Palestinian/Arab/Muslim spokespersons or organizations, it should not be compared with that of the Nazis, for the contemporary enemies of the Jewish state simply do not have the means to perpetrate an analogous crime.

Regardless of the seeming linguistic and situational similarities between Palestinian camps and Nazi camps for Jews, the Israeli separation wall and the ghetto wall etc. such analogies are entirely spurious, for there is no genocidal intent. More relevant analogies can be made e.g. with the camps the Sahraouis live in in Algeria, or the Moroccan barrier dividing the coast of West Sahara from the rest of the territory.

10.

Recognize the limitations of the legitimacy of the narrative you identify with, if you have one. Make the default assumption that for your partner, the legitimacy of his narrative, if he has one, is as valid as yours is to you. Think about the parts of your narrative which might be outrageous to him when reacting with outrage to his narrative. Always search for a meta-narrative which might include both, or at least be equally unfair to them.

Examples: The existence of a Jewish kingdom in what is now Israel/Palestine is a fundamental element of the legitimacy of the Jewish narrative for most Jews, and used to be one for many Christians. This, however, has no validity to Muslims, and the Christian validity fades with the rapidly diminishing impact of Christianity on secularized societies. Some people might nonetheless endorse the Jewish biblical narrative for extra-religious reasons, but it is not fair to expect this kind of endorsement.

The fact that a hundred years ago what is now Israel/Palestine had an almost homogenous Arab Muslim population is a fundamental element of the legitimacy of the Palestinian narrative for most Muslims/Arabs. This, however, has no legitimacy to most people, as the world has seen huge migrations, depopulations, and settlements since. Some people might nonetheless endorse the Palestinian narrative out of anticolonial solidarity, but it is not fair to expect such an endorsement.

11.

Your narrative, if you have one, might be part of a larger righteous narrative, which in turn might be used to legitimate yours, or to delegitimize your partner’s. This procedure has only limited legitimacy and, when seen as abusive, will unleash the contrary effect.

Examples. Since Israel is a Jewish state, and Jews were (and sometimes still are) victims of anti-Semitism, culminating in the Shoah, it is sometimes the case that criticism of Israel is in fact anti-Semitism, and should be exposed and condemned as such. However, not only obviously not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but also the fact that some of its critics are is no fault of those who are not, and they should not be expected to bear the responsibility for that (though they should disassociate themselves from such critics).

Since the Palestinians are an Arab Muslim nation, and Arabs and Muslims have historically been victims of colonialism and of Islamophobia, including in the present, it is sometimes the case that criticism of the Palestinians is in fact neocolonial/Islamophobic, and should be exposed and condemned as such. However, not only obviously not all criticism of the Palestinians is neocolonialist or Islamophobic, but also the fact that some of their critics are is no fault of those who are not, and they should not be expected to bear the responsibility for that (though they should disassociate themselves from such critics).

The best way of finding out whether criticism is driven by prejudice is checking whether it remains the same if applied to an entity which is not subject to the prejudice, but which displays analogous behavior.

12.

Bias exists, and should be recognized as such. The fact that the criticism of a party to the conflict is biased is not per se, however, proof that this criticism is false or unfair – but it does constitute solid grounds for suspicion that it is.

Examples: Until approximately the mid-70s of the past century, world media and public opinion were solidly biased against the Arab/Palestinian narrative of the conflict. The Arab side was seen as brutal, murderous, possibly genocidal, motivated by a reactionary and illegitimate hatred of the small but gallant Israeli underdog. This narrative neatly flipped as a result of the oil embargo and the Lebanon war, with the underdog role henceforth ascribed to the Palestinians. This in itself does not prove by itself that either of these portrayals was unfair – but it at least justifies raising that issue.

About a half of all condemnatory resolutions passed by the UN Council (previously: Committee) on Human Rights target Israel. This can legitimately be seen as proof of either the unredeemable evil of the Jewish State, or of the abiding anti-Israeli bias of the world body. The overwhelming majority of condemnatory resolutions targeting Israel in the UN Security Council have been blocked either by an US veto, or by the threat of its use. This can legitimately be seen as either proof of gross pro-Israeli bias in US policy, or of the abiding anti-Israeli bias of the world body.

13.

Although symmetry has been sought out throughout these guidelines for the sake of fairness, one should not seek symmetry at any price. Asymmetry should be accepted as a natural element of reality.

Examples: There has been no Arab/Palestinian occupation of Israeli soil (save the sliver conquered by Syria in 1948), and there has been no mass support for the murder of Arab/Palestinian civilians among Israelis.

14.

This is not a conflict of right versus wrong, but a conflict of two legitimate rights which until now have not found it possible to reach a compromise – yet without that compromise both sides are doomed to a continuation of violence and suffering. If you do not strive for a compromise with your debate partner, you are simply repeating their mistake. Always bear in mind that evil can, and in fact has routinely been committed in the service of a good cause.

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