A number of years back I had an epiphany while arguing with a friend about Israel. He had his views, I had mine. We’d go back and forth for what seemed like hours. And then it came to me: He wasn’t going to convince me, I wasn’t going to convince him. And even if we managed to change the other’s mind, what difference would it make in the grand scheme of things? We weren’t politicians, or decision makers, or even Israeli voters.
At that moment I decided to relent, and just listen. As his words washed over me, I felt like Obi-Wan Kenobi as he sacrifices himself to Darth Vader, leaving behind an empty cloak.
The crisis in Israel and Gaza has unleashed an army of what Jonathan Freedland calls “laptop warriors” — pundits, bloggers, and everyday people who are writing and sharing articles shoring up their sides. It’s a strange sort of warfare, conducted mostly among like-minded people, and with little expectation that what you write or post will sway the other side. Those on the Right tend to talk to those on the Right, sharing the latest outrage about the media’s unfair treatment of Israel and scary reports of thwarted Hamas attacks. Jews on the Left pass on articles about the mounting death toll in Gaza and the need for compromise that will make the next war unnecessary.
Occasionally one or the other side emerges from the trenches for a brief skirmish in no man’s land — an angry comment on Facebook, a snide reply on Twitter. But then they retreat and hunker down with compatriots on their side of the ideological debate.
So what would it look like: a pro-Israel dialogue about Gaza that was actually a conversation? What would each side have to learn, acknowledge, or consider?
If you are on the Left, and feel the human cost of Israel’s ground campaign in Gaza is too much, you need to be prepared to explain the alternative. What options have you considered for halting the rain of Hamas rockets, or the threat of incursions from the network of tunnels?
If you are on the Right and are convinced that Israel had no alternative but to invade Gaza with the force it is using, you need to explain why this war and why now. You need to consider the assessment of former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin, who maintains that the Netanyahu government lost an opportunity when it moved to undermine the unity government between Hamas and Fatah under the leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
If you are on the Left, and consider the death toll of Palestinians to Israelis to be uniquely “disproportionate,” you need to make the case despite the following, via J.J. Goldberg: “The UN estimates 75 percent to 80 percent of casualties [in Gaza] are civilian. Studies by UNICEF and others show that the average civilian toll in modern warfare is consistently 80 percent to 90 percent.”
If you are on the Right, and complain that the whole world is against Israel, you need to ask in what ways Israel has failed to convey that it is eager for peace and describe what compromises it would make to get there.
If you are on the Left, and feel the pro-Israel lobby and mainstream Jewish organizations have exerted undue influence on U.S. politicians and public opinion, you need to consider the paroxysm of anti-Semitic invective and violence in Europe, and explain how that sort of Middle East activism is preferable to what we experience in America.
If you are on the Right, and support Israel’s tight control of goods and traffic between Gaza and the outside world, you need a good answer to the charge that the blockade is creating the very conditions — shortages, helplessness, isolation — that often translate into support for radical groups like Hamas.
If you are on the Left, and believe Israel needs to relax its blockade of Gaza in order to remove the conditions that breed support for Hamas, you need to explain how Israel can be assured that Hamas and the even more radical movements in Gaza won’t use the opportunity to bring in more weapons and export more terror.
If you are on the Right, and consider Israel’s democratically elected government either infallible or above second-guessing by the Obama administration, you need to reconcile that with your reflexive distrust of your own democratically elected government.
If you are on the Left, and reflexively distrust the Netanyahu government, you should at least wonder why Israelis on the Left and Right considered Secretary of State John Kerry’s outline for a quick ceasefire a diplomatic blunder along with, as left-leaning Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev described it, “Kerry’s almost inexplicable series of mishaps, faux pas, and unfortunate events.”
If you are on the Right, and are giddy over Israel’s rift with the Obama administration, you might also consider something else Shalev wrote: “Kerry is still the foreign minister of the still indispensable United States and could very well achieve a Gaza breakthrough.”
Too often, what we seek in our on-line interactions and our kiddush chats is not enlightenment or dialogue, but victory.
It’s a terrible strategy for actually learning something new or admitting that maybe, just maybe, one side doesn’t have all the answers.