Making Space for Complexity

Given that we departed only one day after the attack in San Bernardino, the events in California – and the debate over their meaning - cast a long shadow over JCRC’s trip to Israel last week with one-quarter of the Massachusetts Senate. From afar we followed and discussed - as did many of those we met along the way – the raging U.S. debates about gun violence, the threat of Islamist extremism, our refugee policies, and the responses of President Obama and those who seek to succeed him. 

We went to Israel to move beyond the headlines we see from here in Boston, to peel back layers of narratives and find ways to understand Israeli – and also Palestinian – society as a place with multiple voices that can be appreciated, not in contradiction but rather in dynamic tension. Understanding these voices and their truths enabled us to deepen our own connection to Israel, as well as our understanding of the complexity of her place in the region.

In the midst of this exploration, I found myself noting a dilemma we face in our U.S. political discourse as well: Our tendency to see our world as rife with opposite choices that must necessarily divide us, and our inability to acknowledge multiple truths and to then act on multiple dilemmas in tandem.

What do I mean?

I can acknowledge as truth that the Palestinians have been profoundly poorly served for the better part of a century by those they did not themselves appoint - their own leaders and others in the Arab world -who have been rejectionists of the very idea of Israel. I can also recognize that current leaders of the P.A. engage in a rhetoric of incitement that encourages the violence currently being directed at Israel. That these things are true doesn’t make it less true to say that Israel has a deep self-interest in ending the current relationship of control of the Palestinians, and that – as most Israelis are quick to tell us - a two-state resolution to the conflict remains the one and only option that preserves Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.

Even if one accepts the premise that there currently is no partner for peace and even as it is reasonable to presume that were a Palestinian state created tomorrow it would likely descend into chaos or extremism – still this is not an excuse to do nothing. There are options for those of us who care passionately about Israel’s well-being to support the development of conditions for a resolution to the conflict.

There are serious and inspiring people on the ground in Israeli and Palestinian society who are working to build meaningful co-existence and cooperative projects that are worthy of our investment and support. There are ways to maintain the potential for a peaceful resolution including, dare we say it, working to prevent further obstacles to a viable Palestinian state. We can embrace these options – to support efforts on the ground toward a better future – while fully rejecting an ideology that delegitimizes Israel and that seeks to undermine U.S. security, cultural, academic and business ties that enrich and support their society and our own.

Turning homeward, in the wake of San Bernardino we need not give into the temptation to reduce complex realities to simplistic truths. Our responses can do more than just validate pre-existing world views along with binary choices that limit critical thinking about urgent issues we face.

We can and need to be able to articulate that there is in fact, a legitimate threat to the U.S. from violent Islamist extremism including that inspired by ISIS/Daesh, while also saying that the pervasive access to guns in this country makes it far easier for those terrorists – and many other violent actors with a variety of motivations – to act upon their commitment to violence with devastating consequences.  

We need to be able to name explicitly that there is a deep and complex struggle within the Muslim world – including that between modernizing moderates and those who ascribe to supremacist ideologies – a struggle that isn’t primarily about the U.S. and the West but yet still deeply impacts and threatens all of us. We can and must do this without ascribing those extreme views to all or even most members of a 1.6 billion member global Muslim community. We must name and support the struggle against Daesh without demonizing those who flee its terror.

Though it is a struggle to do so, we need to make space for complex thinking in an often overly simplistic world. We can reject the limiting nature of our current discourse and work to hold multiple truths and dilemmas in tandem. We ought to demand this level of sophistication from serious leaders at all levels. Only by doing so can we offer realistic solutions in a very challenging time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy