Sunday, March 6, 2011

In Appreciation of Complexity

by Miki Kashtan

As I was writing yesterday about the Goldstone report and the Tikkun award given to him, I became more aware of how much both these men are holding positions of great complexity. As far as I understand, Goldstone agreed to accept the invitation to lead this commission because he was hoping to be able to counterbalance what he saw as one-sidedness from the UN. Indeed, his report condemns both sides, even though it was based only on Palestinian views. While he was making efforts to have an Israeli perspective included, the government of Israel didn’t accept the investigation (on grounds that it was biased to begin with) and thus did not cooperate with it.

Similarly Lerner regularly promotes a position that invites both sides of this ongoing conflict to hold understanding of each other, to recognize the difficult history, to understand both of their roles in contributing to the conflict and to violence. I believe they both see themselves as supporting Israel and opposing its policies, and as supporting both Israelis and Palestinians in living in peace, dignity, and safety.

In a climate where positions are polarized, this is a difficult position to hold. The vitriol that accompanies any polarized position spills over, and each side tends to associate those who hold complexity and paradox with the other side. I looked through one blog post and comments on the issue and saw people on both sides calling each other Nazis, for example.
To make matters even more controversial, the UN subsequently adopted a resolution that only condemned Israel, despite Goldstone’s insistence that the investigation and the report must include both sides. 

Those who are in the peace and justice movements hailed the Goldstone report. The Israeli and US governments, along with many vocal parts of the Jewish community, condemned it. I am aware of how incredibly divisive the Israel-Palestine issue is for so many people (even calling it this way can be upsetting for some). I wasn’t aware, however, of just how much Goldstone had been part of the mainstream Jewish community until the report came out. He calls himself a moderate Zionist. He has held prominent positions in very mainstream Zionist organizations. And he participated in investigating Nazis in Argentina to bring them to trial. This is no simple “enemy” of Israel.

None of these credentials protected him from being seen as a traitor by vast numbers of Jews, especially in South Africa. I imagine that he knew the risks when he took on this task. After all, he received similar kinds of responses when he conducted an investigation of apartheid in South Africa. He nonetheless proceeded to accept the invitation from the UN, saying: “I decided to accept it because of my deep concern for peace in the Middle East, and my deep concern for victims in all sides in the Middle East.” I don’t know if he could have predicted that he would ultimately choose not to attend his grandson’s Bar Mitzva.

I started writing about this topic because I was so inspired by the courage. As I was writing and learning about the issue, I realized I also wanted to support, however microscopically, de-polarizing of the topic by naming what I believe is at the heart of each side’s passion and conviction. As you read my attempt to understand each side, maybe you can try to apply it to your own experience with this issue, or to some other issue that you feel passionately about and about which you have strong opinions. I find this especially powerful when I am meeting someone with very different beliefs. Understanding the core values of the person with opposing views or the basic human needs and longings that are common to all helps me see the common humanity and remember the possibility of finding a way forward together, despite differences.

As far as I can imagine, the people who are so angry at Goldstone are doing so in the name of a deep wish for understanding of the pain and suffering of Jews over millennia. Maybe they are longing for relief, for some sense of safety, or for a place they can call their own in the world. I also imagine they want the humanity of Israeli soldiers to be seen. I have no difficulty understanding such longings.

What about those who celebrate Goldstone’s report, or those who ask for economic sanctions against Israel, or even those who call into question the very legitimacy of the state of Israel? I imagine what’s at the heart of the matter on this side is a rather similar wish for understanding, this time for the plight of the Palestinians. I imagine they are hoping for some effectiveness in addressing such pain, a way to create immediate relief and safety for the people who are suffering so much. And for their humanity to be seen, too. Again, I find no difficulty in understanding.

My difficulty is in the polarity, in the belief that there is room for one, not the other. That only one side can have legitimate needs; that only one side is seen as acting harmfully; and that only one side can claim self-defense. Lerner and Goldstone, in their different ways, are holding out to all of us the complex and nuanced perspective of possibility. Whether or not I align with either of their specific prescriptions for addressing the Israel-Palestine protracted crisis, I want, with them, to believe in the possibility of a Middle East that supports all its inhabitants in thriving.