The contradictory truths of Israel-Palestine

Posted on May 14, 2021

A story is told of six blind men who were fascinated by elephants.[1] They had heard so many tales of these majestic creatures, but of course they had never seen one. One day word came to them that an elephant had arrived in town and so they all set out to meet the animal. The first man touched the elephant’s side and declared that the beast was exactly like a wall. The second felt only the tusk and deduced that elephants were round, smooth, and sharp – just like a spear. The third happened to take hold of the trunk and realized that both his friends were wrong, because elephants were like snakes. The fourth, grasping one of the legs, was shocked at how his friends had erred, because he was certain that elephants were round and tall like trees. The fifth, who was also the tallest, happened to take hold of the elephant’s ear and realized the others were mistaken, declaring that the elephant was exactly like a huge fan. The sixth had grasped the tail, and he could not believe all the fuss from his friends, as an elephant was just like a piece of rope. Soon the elephant moved on, and from that day forward the men argued about it, with certainty in their respective rightness and convinced their friends were mistaken.

In this parable from the Indian subcontinent all of the men claim a truth that is based on their own, limited personal experience. They all encountered the elephant, they all touched the elephant, but they all emerged with different and opposing understandings of what an elephant was.

Responding to the news that has been coming from Israel and Palestine we might consider ourselves to all be one of the men in the story. This latest round of violence started because of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to cancel elections in April. Or it started because the Israeli Government would not allow residents of Jerusalem to vote in those elections. Or it began because of a court decision to evict Arab residents from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Or it started after protests against those evictions turned violent with stones thrown and people injured. Or we arrived here because right-wing extremists wanted to march through the city of Jerusalem waving flags, celebrating or taunting, over the reunification of the city. Or we are in a state of war because the terrorist Hamas Government in Gaza wanted to show their strength by attacking Israel. Or perhaps it was something else.

Commentators and politicians, most of them thousands of miles away from the actual events, have been willing to assert with complete and utter certainty who is right and wrong, who is victim and perpetrator, who is sinner and saint, who is to be condemned and who is to be celebrated. Our social media world of Facebook and Twitter have opened the door, or the screens, for anyone and everyone to claim expert status; asserting that their opinions are facts, their perspectives are truth, and that they are right while all others are wrong. And when the subject is Israel-Palestine the words become more divisive, the atmosphere more toxic, the discussion completely stifled.

That is not and has never been the Jewish way. We are, and have always been, a people of nuance, a people who are challenged to exist in a world where we recognize competing and opposing truths, holding that both opinions, while contradictory can also be valid. In the pages of the Talmud we read about the myriad ways in which the Rabbis disagreed, sometimes violently, and yet the diversity of opinions were accepted and the multiple truths preserved.

Alongside the nuance that we hold, we are also a people of “both-and”. Since the dawn of the modern period, when we emerged from the ghetto, we have found ourselves challenged to exist in multiple contexts assuming simultaneous different competing identities. We are Americans and Jews; we are a minority but many of us can pass for being part of the majority, we embrace all that modernity presents while maintaining a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. And we have always found the way to balance the particular and the universal in our Jewish identities; we are Bnei Adam veChava – the Children of Adam and Eve as part of humanity, reaffirmed as Bnei Noach – the children of Noah. We are Bnei Avraham – the children of Abraham as a specific group, but also as one of many monotheistic faiths; and then we are Bnei Yisrael – the children of Israel, the particular identity in the midst of the greater whole.

In this world of nuance and both-and, I can assert with complete dedication and commitment that I believe in the preservation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic State and I am also completely committed to the establishment of a Palestinian State alongside it as a peaceful neighbor. I am comfortable in my ability to mourn both the innocent Jewish victims and the innocent Palestinian and Arab victims as the terrible price that is once again being paid for this conflict. And I am willing to condemn the voices of terror and extremism on both sides who are fanning the flames of hate and encouraging the violence to further their own despicable agendas.

So much of the way that we view this conflict is about perspective. If you zoom in to the streets of Gaza you see a people who are suffering every day, living in what has become one of the worst places on planet earth. Zoom out a little and perhaps you then also see the border communities of the Eshkol and Sderot, undisputed land, with the people living under a daily fear of rocket attacks from Hamas and other Gaza based terrorists. Zoom out further and then you see the whole land of Israel alongside this small Gaza strip, contrasting the might of the Israel Defense Forces with rockets and stones. But then go further still and you see that Israel is a small slice of the Middle East, existing in the shadow of Iran and a variety of other terrorist groups who seek her destruction. If we want to see this as a story of David and Goliath then the view you take impacts the roles you see the various players assuming – and both can be true.

Attempting to offer this nuanced approach many people have shared the clip from Trevor Noah on the Daily Show talking about the conflict. Despite the historical inaccuracy, as there was no Palestinian State for the British to conquer, they took the land from the Ottomans, I did appreciate much of what he said in the first half of the segment. But then as he gave the numbers of dead and injured, numbers that are difficult to hear, he claimed it’s not a fair fight, and he asked us to “set aside motives and intentions.” The problem is that the motives and intentions can’t be ignored; Hamas as a terrorist organization has in its charter the destruction of the State of Israel. Their aim is not for a peaceful two State solution, their aim is one Palestinian State. Unfortunately for the people of Gaza, in pursuit of this vision the mounting casualties actually helps them, because we can see from Mr. Noah’s own words how it plays out in the court of public opinion.

We should be very wary of the people who claim to see the nuance, but then choose to blame only one side for the escalation of the violence. In that debate the Israelis and the Palestinians become a football for politicians and others to kick around, furthering their own agenda at the expense of the people who are suffering from the conflict.

I particularly worry about the rhetoric around Israel and Palestine and the way that it is affecting our young people. With an approach of being with us or against us; many of our young people, who support a variety of liberal causes are faced with their friends and allies attacking them or their support of Israel. Essentially rejecting their partnership on a whole variety of issues because of their connection to Israel; they are kicked outside the tent of liberalism because of this one nuanced, complicated subject. For these groups and conversations, it is worth noting that Hamas as the rulers in Gaza are the same people whose courts have ruled that a woman needs her guardians’ approval to travel,[2] and they are the same group who have executed their own citizens for the supposed crime of being a homosexual.[3] There’s always nuance and a need to dig beneath the tweets and headlines to get a fuller picture of the story; it’s important to not rely on one source, but look for many perspectives and opinions.

As my heart breaks for the Israelis and the Palestinians it seems clear that once again the winners will be the extremist forces on both sides. Hamas will tighten their grip in Gaza and have already seen their popularity increase in the West Bank. And for extremist Jewish groups in Israel, they will use the recent violence as evidence of why there can be no negotiations, no resolution, and no peace. The anti-Arab Jewish groups, some of whom are now in the Knesset such as Lehava have been emboldened by their political success and they have spread hate and incited violence which has seen Jews and Arabs rioting across cities in Israel. On the global stage, the last few years have seen Israel making progress with her Arab neighbors; the other winner in this round of violence is the Iranian regime, who are fighting through their proxy and once again driving a wedge between Israelis and Arabs.

For me, while the danger of rockets is real and the fighting between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas is a cause for concern; I am much more anxious about the rioting that is taking place in the Jewish-Arab cities of Israel on uncontested land. I am frightened by this breakdown that is seeing extremists on both sides take to the streets to do damage and cause harm to each other. For all the bluster, I am unconvinced that Hamas poses an existential threat to Israel, but I am certain that the breakdown of civil society does. There is a threat when Arab youth see the suffering around them and take to the streets to express their frustration with violence. And there is a threat when Jewish extremists, egged on by their political leaders, take to the streets to attack Arabs – it is an embarrassment to our Jewish values and our Judaism.

There is so much darkness, it is hard to see the light, but I want to remind us that before this latest round of violence negotiations were taking place for the establishment of an Israeli Government that would have been formally supported by an Arab political party. Arab Members of Knesset hold the balance of power and they were being wooed by politicians on the right and left. Alongside this so many Jewish and Arab leaders have come out in condemnation of the rioting and violence, reminding their communities of the need to come together and support one another. There has been unity in their message, a reminder of the values that we share and a refusal to allow the extremists to define Jews and Arabs as enemies. And I have been struck by the photographs on social media; pictures of Jews and Arabs handing out flowers, standing together and declaring lo beshmi – not in my name. There have been riots and protests of hate, but there have also been so many demonstrations of love and solidarity, of peace and friendship, of unity and support. Perhaps this moment was the wake-up call that the country needed; to prioritize and work aggressively together as Jews and Arabs for peace, equality, and social justice.

As I watch from a distance, my heart breaks for all of those who are suffering, for those who are living in fear, and for those families who have had to bury innocent loved ones. As I watch from a distance, I can see how the extremist forces on both sides, the seemingly sworn enemies, actually end up strengthening one another through this latest round of violence. As I watch from a distance, I feel a responsibility to add nuance to the narrative, to offer perspective and to help people see that it is never black and white.

In the Torah we read Tzedek tzedek tirdof – justice, justice shall you pursue.[4] In trying to explain this verse the Talmud suggests: “Where two boats sailing on a river meet: if both attempt to pass simultaneously, both will sink, whereas, if one makes way for the other, both can pass [without mishap].”[5] The Talmud is suggesting that the repetition of the word justice is a reminder that there can be competing, opposed claims to justice – there’s always nuance, a need for “both-and”. Extremists on either side will tell us that there’s a choice, a right and a wrong, but when we follow their path ultimately the result is that we will all sink together, united in our enmity. The Talmud offers a different way, and it is the only way that we can survive – we must make space for one another, we must make space to allow contradictory truths to be heard, we must make space to recognize competing claims. We may be thousands of miles away, but we can still raise our voices; we can mourn with those who have lost innocent loved ones, we can offer support to those who are frightened, and we can help make the space that is truly needed, the space to live side-by-side in peace.

[1] Adapted from and, with thanks to Rabbi Amy Hertz for suggesting this story.
[3] As an example:
[4] Deuteronomy 6:20.
[5] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 32b, translation from the Womens Rabbinic Network: