I am jealous of people who have no doubts. Those who are sure they know what’s what. People who are convinced that black is black and white is white and never the twain shall meet. Those who regard the world around them – or at least the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as unambiguous, clear as day, clear-cut, cut and dried, open and shut, no ifs or buts invited.
You know who I’m talking about: those for whom Israel is always wrong or Israel is always right; those who view the Palestinians as helpless victims or incorrigible terrorists; those who think the occupation is the root of all evil and those who deny its very existence; those who see only evil on other side but come up pure and lily-white when they look at themselves in the mirror.
It used to be that these no-doubts-allowed types were a distinct minority, on the fringes of the political debate: you had your radical anti-Zionist lefties and your fanatic ultra-Zionist right-wingers, for sure, but most people were somewhere in the much larger middle, weighing the options, balancing the pros against the cons, resigned to an imperfect world. Life, they knew, was complicated.
Increasingly, however, more and more people are gravitating toward a binary either/or, with-us-and-against-you ideology. In the Middle East, the change has been turbocharged by the spread of religious fundamentalism, on both sides of the divide.
In Israel, unfortunately, it’s been a mostly one sided movement, towards the radical right.
The process is called polarization, and has been the object of extensive observation and dissertation in several years: it has a lot to do with the spread of the web, the collapse of establishment media, the tunnel vision created by the proliferation of social media channels and the ever-expanding echo chambers in which one can listen to one’s own opinions, no matter how odious, while drowning out the rest.
Operation Protective Edge has provided ample examples of the digital “dialogue of the deaf.” In cyberspace, Israel is either waging a just war of self-defense in Gaza or massacring Palestinian civilians in order to entrench the occupation. The IDF is the most moral army in the world or a duplicitous bunch of well-trained thugs. It is carrying out surgical strikes aimed at saving human lives or is sowing death and destruction on a scale unseen since the Dresden bombing. And the siege on Gaza is either a benign and unavoidable reaction to Hamas belligerency or an inhumane policy aimed at oppressing Palestinians and beating them into submission.
Turning a blind eye to the other side and delegitimizing its suffering are an important part of the process. Thus, many Israelis and supporters of its incursion have not only persuaded themselves that the pain and destruction inflicted on Gaza is entirely measured and completely justified, they have now gravitated to a place where depictions of Palestinian suffering are viewed as enemy propaganda and tantamount to a betrayal of the Jewish people (as Jon Stewart found out in recent days). Similarly, those human rights champions who view the Israeli operation as excessive, unjustified and perhaps even criminal somehow manage to delete from their internal hard disc any acknowledgement of Hamas’ unabated terrorism, its evil use of civilians as human shields or its ongoing abuse of its own people.
George Orwell, creator of Animal Farm, 1984 and “newspeak”, wrote about this 70 years ago, in his remarkable “Notes on Nationalism.” Differentiating nationalism from patriotism, Orwell wrote “All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them,” he wrote. “Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakably certain of being in the right.”
In such an atmosphere, Orwell presciently writes, “Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties.” Even the past, he notes, is open to reinterpretation: “Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should — in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918 — and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible”.
This should sound familiar to Israelis and Jews who have managed to convince themselves, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, that the Palestinian Naqba is a figment of a fertile Oriental imagination; or to Palestinians who manage to deny, notwithstanding the history of the past century, that they have steadfastly refused to accept reality, reject violence or come to terms with Israel’s right to exist.
Orwell, critics will note, was none too fond of Zionism and, according to some accounts of his life, borderline anti-Semitic. That will be a convenient way for both sides to dismiss his incisive depictions of what they really are: people who distort reality and refuse to look facts in the face while placing their most favored nation “beyond good and evil, recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”
This does not mean that there is no right and wrong in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only that the truth has not, does not and will not reside exclusively with one side or the other. Bur rather than deal with conflicting claims and complex realities, more and more people are attracted to comfort zones of absolute truths, collective thoughts and rah-rah nationalism, to a place where there are no shades of grey and thus no room or reason for compromise.
Given time – and this may be happening as we speak – the middle will collapse, moderation disappear, fanaticism win the day and catastrophe become inevitable, as it did in Orwell’s day.