Fear of the Other Conference papers
This paper is of the programmatic type. My goal is to suggest that the Radical Left can, and should, play a more productive role in the effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than it does at the moment. This, however, can only be done if we manage to allow some pragmatic insights to constrain our discourse – both in terms of our understanding of our own discourse and its audiences, and our conception of the conflict, its history and its future.
As my point of departure, I would like to take the fact that a lot of what seems to us – as people of the Left – as legitimate criticism of Israel and the occupation, is all too often interpreted as the type of
illegitimate criticism which emanates, consciously or unconsciously, from anti-Semitism. Instead of trying to find a way to rigorously distinguish between legitimate criticism and anti-Semitic bigotry, I would like approach the problem from a more empiricistic angle, one which accepts that things are the way they are – that such interpretations do play a major role in the discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially in the United States and in Europe – and try to understand why this is the case. And I would like to ask this question in a way that does not immediately blame the other side of intentional or unintentional misinterpretation, or propaganda. Such pro-Israeli propaganda does exist, of course, but I would like to try to understand the phenomenon in a way that does not end up with us tossing the ball away from our own court. I would like to ask the question in a way that might eventually help us understand what we may try to do in order to avoid this type of
misinterpretation. At the moment, I will take it as a presupposition that we do not want our critical assertions to be interpreted as anti-Semitic. This presupposition is not as self-evident as it seems at first glace, but for the moment, it will do. I will get back to it later on.
To begin with, then, let me say a few words about discourse in general, and conflictual discourse in particular, that I think will help us understand why the above empiricistic formulation of the problem is so important. Let us try to think about speech events – speech events of all types - as triplets, or triads, of speakers, assertions and audiences. And let us think of speech events as triplets of this type in the strict sense – a speech event is the whole triplet; none of its components can be examined independently of the others; the basic unit of analysis is entire event. When a speaker talks in front of an audience, there are as many speech events there as there are people in the room; and if the very same things are said by somebody else, the entire set of speech events is totally different, even though the assertions, and the audience, are exactly the same. This seemingly modest theoretical move has many
fundamental implications for the understanding of communication in general, which I will not get into in this paper. For our purposes now, however, what it implies is that the question we are interested in – why it is that assertions which emerge, from the point of view of the
speakers, as legitimate criticism of Israel, are interpreted as
anti-Semitic - is a question about the entire speech event. It is not a question about the assertions, or about the speakers, or about the audiences – it is a question about the interaction between all three. If a certain assertion is formulated by a speaker, and is interpreted by certain audiences, as legitimate criticism – then it does indeed
constitute legitimate criticism. But if the very same assertion is interpreted by other audiences as anti-Semitic, then, in the context of the speech events in which these audiences are involved, the assertion is anti-Semitic. The assertion is colored by anti-Semitism, it reverberates with anti-Semitic overtones, whether the speaker likes it or not.
Assuming, then, that we do not like it, I think that this perspective leaves us no choice but to accept that speech events constitute legitimate criticism (of Israel, in our case) only as long as both sides of the speech event interpret them this way. And if the speaker finds that his or her assertions are interpreted as anti-Semitic, the speaker has no choice but to accept – as a fact – that there is something wrong going on in the speech event, that this cannot be explained away as just a mistake, or the result of propaganda. And if the speaker wants to do something about it, then he or she should consider himself or herself directly responsible for the unwarranted interpretations of his or her assertions: Not guilty of anti-Semitic talk, but responsible for it. And what this responsibility implies is that the speaker should find a way to listen to his or her listeners, and try to understand where the interpretation comes from.
Let me, then, make a distinction between two types of discourses which play an important role in situations of conflict. The distinction, of course, is not clear-cut, but for the purposes of our discussion, I think it is crucial. One type of discourse I will call a Guilt-Oriented
Discourse; the other – a Solution-Oriented Discourse. The distinction, I think, is quite intuitive: Guilt-oriented discourses are oriented towards figuring out who is guilty of the conflict; solution-oriented discourses concentrate on how the conflict can be solved. Let me make a few
observations about the two types of discourse:
The first observation is that the two types of discourses produce two very different images of the world, in our case, of the conflict:
Guilt-oriented discourses tend to accentuate those elements of reality which potentially prove accusations against the other side, or refute accusations against us. This is a hugely powerful epistemic devise. It constructs a worldview of a very specific type. Something in reality becomes important – is highlighted, publicized, argued for, reiterated - only if it helps prove that the other side is guilty of this or that, or, alternatively, if it helps refute an accusation coming from the other side against ours. In this sense, the language which guilt-oriented discourses develop is legalistic. It tends to focus on evidence, intentionality, coercion and victimhood. If they blame us of doing something wrong, we first of all deny it (this is not true; you don't have evidence for that; you're lying), and then, if forced to admit it, retreat to the second line of defense – we didn't do it on purpose; this was not our intention; we were forced to do it. And we accentuate those elements of reality that support this perspective of denial. If, on the other hand, we blame them of something, we spend a lot of energy on proving the deed was done, and we are much more than ready to assume that it was done with perfect intention to do harm. We find it very easy to believe that the other side knows exactly what it's doing; that there is a plan. And we accentuate those elements of reality that support this blaming perspective. In both cases, we tend to highlight our own victimhood, our own fragility. In this sense, guilt-oriented discourses tend to produce worldviews in which many of the gray areas of reality, and many of its colors, disappear into a black and white picture.
Solution-oriented discourses, on the other hand, tend to accentuate those elements of reality that can be changed for the better. The question is not: Who can we blame for this? But: How can we do something useful about it? This, too, is a very powerful framing strategy. Something in reality becomes important if it shows a promise for improving; if it hints at a possible venue of activity that might be helpful. In this sense,
solution-oriented discourses are suspicious of blacks and whites; they are suspicious of simplicity. This is so, because those areas of reality which are indeed black or white – those components of reality which are simple - are probably the most difficult to change. Solution-oriented discourses are looking for those areas of reality which seem to be less crystallized, less frozen, more dynamic and more complex. These are the gray areas. Things look very different indeed when the gray is allowed to stay in the picture.
The next observation is this: The two discourses develop two very
different conceptions of time. Guilt-oriented discourses tend to focus on the past. They tend to look for primary causes, for the original sin. This phenomenon emerges directly from the legalistic nature of the discourse: If we did this to them, it is only because they did that to us before. They acted first, we only reacted. But they say that what they did then was in itself a reaction to something we did before they acted. Their action was also a reaction. Where can this spiral of blame stop? Well, only at the very beginning. So guilt-oriented discourses tend to go back into history, running again and again through the same cycles of blame and denial, until they reach the origins – and there the debate stops. Now, both sides at least share one conviction: They know that the gap between them cannot be bridged.
And because guilt-oriented discourses focus as they do on the original sin, they tend to imply that a solution can only result from a radical treatment of the original sin. As long as Israel sees itself as a Jewish Democracy, nothing can be done; as long as the Arabs do not westernize to the point of losing their entire identity, nothing can be done. In this sense, guilt-oriented discourses are deeply paradoxical: They turn their gaze to history, but they are a-historical in the most foundational sense. Everything that is important in the history of the conflict can be a-historically explained on the basis of the origin. This is why, when Guilt-oriented discourses turn to the question of solution, they tend to drift into the realm of utopia. "The impossible", in Edward Said's famous words, "is easier than the difficult." If the solution can only be resolved by treating the origin, and if the origin is the most
foundational element in the story, then the solution seems very far indeed.
Solution-oriented discourses, on the other hand, tend to focus on the present and the near-future. The general attitude they project is: "We don't care who started it; what we want to do is try to solve it." Solution-oriented discourses tend to look at the guilt-oriented discourses – all of them, from all sides – as part of the problem, as another obstacle to a solution. All this does not mean that solution-oriented discourses necessarily turn their gaze away from history. But they spend much more energy looking at the reality as it is right now, and because of that, because they understand the complexity of the problem at present, they tend to find more nuanced narratives of the conflict more plausible. And solution-oriented discourses also imply that a solution to the conflict does not necessarily have to involve a radical treatment of whatever each of the sides considers the original sin. They tend to assume that radical changes may follow the more mundane ones; or that they might eventually turn out to be unnecessary. They tend to assume that radical changes need a more positive atmosphere; that practical solutions to problems on the ground may gradually lead to a change at the deeper level. And they also work with the assumption that the suffering of people on the ground, right now, is more important than principles of abstract justice, or the memories of the suffering of the past.
The third observation is that each type of discourse produces a specific type of identity – both at the individual and the collective level. People and societies project different identities when involved in these two very different types of discourses. Guilt-oriented discourses produce
identities which are deeply and bitterly entrenched in self-righteousness, anger and sarcasm; identities which are more than anything else dedicated to the preservation of their own images as innocent victims. There is not a lot of hope there, and definitely no place for the suffering of the other side. Regrettably, this is so for a good reason: At the end of the day, guilt-oriented discourses are about punishment. Once the guilty side is identified – once we have proven our case – it is time to punish. And the punishment is the annihilation of identity. This is what
guilt-oriented discourses are about: As long as the other side is what it is, there is no hope for solution.
Solution-oriented identities, on the other hand, are more optimistic, more self-assured. People, and societies, can say and do quite a lot when they do not feel that their very identity is in danger. Solution-oriented discourses understand that, and therefore, they understand that the conflict can only be resolved if both sides feel that they are not pushed out of their identity, that they are not expected to sacrifice everything that they are in order to reach a solution that no longer involves them. This is why solution-oriented discourses tend to spend more energy learning the identities of both sides, looking for those gray areas of identity that might be developed into something that may eventually help bring about some positive change.
Unfortunately, most of the discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – in Israel, Palestine, Europe and the States – is guilt-oriented through and through. Everybody is busy blaming everybody else. In a recent book, The Suppression of Guilt (Pluto Press), I show that the Israeli media is invested in the guilt-oriented discourse to the point of
obsession – they are doing everything to produce a coverage of the conflict that blames the other side of whatever happens, and proves that we are innocent. As I show there, some of the media even prefer to characterize the Israeli government as incompetent and irresponsible – to demonstrate that no-one there knows what he's doing - only to prove, as a last, desperate line of defense, that no intention is involved in anything we do, which means that, at the bottom line, we are not guilty.
But the Israeli media, and Israeli society, are not alone in this. By their very definition, guilt-oriented discourses can only keep going as long as both sides are actively involved in them. And because this conflict is so much about identity – because so much of it is about perceptions and narratives - this cycle of guilt keeps the conflict alive almost as much as the cycle of violence on the ground. This can be most tragically demonstrated by the day-to-day experiences of the spokespeople for the two sides – those Israelis and Palestinians who regularly appear on CNN, for example. The Israeli spokesperson has "a good day at work" when a bus explodes in Jerusalem; the Palestinian spokesperson has a good day when Palestinian children are killed by IDF snipers. This is a fact. It is a fact about this conflict, and I think we should take it very seriously into account.
And we should also accept that most of what is said and written by the Radical Left is thoroughly implicated in the guilt-oriented discourse about the conflict. Most of what is said by spokespeople of the Radical Left is about pointing the finger at Israel, going back to the original sin of Zionism as a colonial project, and assuming a grand plan being handed over all the way from Weizman and Ben-Gurion to Barak and Sharon. And much of it, of course, is about the notion of Israel as a
Jewish-Democratic state. One does not have to deny any of these claims – one does not have to deny, for example, that the notion of a
Jewish-Democratic state is a contradiction in terms – in order to
understand that a discourse that consists almost entirely of accusations of this type does not play a very positive role in the conflict, precisely because its targets everything which is at the center of Jewish-Israeli identity.
All of which takes us back to the question we started with: Assertions which we think of as legitimate criticism of Israel are often interpreted as anti-Semitic not because there is something specifically anti-Semitic about them, and not necessarily because Jewish-Israelis, or Jews outside Israel, identify something that is specifically anti-Semitic about them – but because the assertions are guilt-oriented. The word 'anti-Semitic' is used as an adjective, a marker, and it is attached to anything that looks like a guilt-oriented discourse against Israel. Just as Arabs, and people on the Radical Left, would tend to interpret a guilt-oriented discourse directed at the Palestinians as Orientalist, Jewish-Israelis, and Jews in general, would tend to interpret a guilt-oriented discourse directed at them as Anti-Semitic.
Again: The point is not whether we are right or not – we are probably right some of the time, and some of the time we are not - but what type of effect we want to achieve. Earlier, I introduced a presupposition – that we do not want our critical assertions to be interpreted as anti-Semitic. Well, it is important to note that this is not the only option. Some people, for example, might be of the opinion that there is no point in communicating with the Jewish-Israeli public in the first place – the only thing that can be done is the accumulation of outside pressure against Israel. I do not think this is going to work, but if this is the goal, then these people definitely have no reason to complain when what they say is interpreted as anti-Semitic. If, however, we do want to communicate, we have to do something about it: Not to look for a clear distinction between anti-Semitic talk and legitimate criticism of Israel, but to try and see how we can translate what we say from the language of guilt to the language of solution.
But how can we do that without losing the critical edge? Well, we may start with the understanding – the critical understanding – that
solution-oriented discourses are not without their own dangers. Most importantly, solution-oriented discourses tend to drift into a type of a-moral relativism. They tend to forget that both sides do not suffer in equal proportions; that they are not as strong as each other. They tend to look for easy, shallow solutions, and therefore, they tend to forget that the solution – in order for it to work - should not just be possible and easy to implement, but also fair, and deep, and thorough. And because they look for the easiest solution possible, they tend to allow the stronger side – especially in our case, where Israel is backed by the U.S. - to determine, unilaterally, much of the process and much of the reality on the ground, and, most importantly, much of what is eventually called the agreement. It is exactly because of this – because they reify power relations – that solution-oriented discourses would benefit enormously from a good injection of radical discourse – a radical discourse that, on the one hand, remembers what solution-oriented discourses forget, but, on the other hand, makes an effort to give up the language of blame and join the effort of solution:
Instead of blaming Israel for the conflict, we should insist that as things stand now, right now, finding a just and deep solution to the conflict is first and foremost an Israeli responsibility. Not because of the original sin of Zionism, not because of the background of colonialism, but simply because, at the moment, the Palestinians are under Israeli occupation and not the other way around. This perspective, for example, should allow us to criticize everything that has to be criticized with respect to the IDF's disengagement from the Gaza strip – regardless of the historical circumstances that made it happen, and regardless of what we may think about Sharon's intentions there: No, the ball is not in the Palestinian court now; no, it is not their turn to prove that they can rule themselves or that they want a peaceful solution; no, the occupation of Gaza is not over, not as long as the people in Gaza cannot move freely in and out of the strip, not as long as no movement is allowed between Gaza and the West Bank.
Instead of looking for the ideal solution to the conflict, we should understand that what is needed is a good-enough solution – the best solution that is possible – and see what we can do in order to push the notion of good-enough to its limit. Not beyond its limit, not into the realm of the impossible, but as far as it can go. We should try to push the possible-and-easy towards the possible-and-difficult, but not cross the line. In more concrete terms, the question is not whether we should replace the two-state solution with something else – nothing else is possible – but how we can help shape the two-state solution in a way that will be as just as possible, and as deep and thorough as possible. According to all polls, the two-state solution is supported now by the majorities on both sides, and although the disengagement from Gaza has not improved the lives of the Palestinians, it has nevertheless deepened the understanding among Jewish-Israelis that the two-state solution is practically possible – mostly because, for the first time ever,
Jewish-Israelis saw with their own eyes that settlements can indeed be dismantled. The two-state solution, then, is possible, but the specific form it may eventually take is far from decided. Between its easiest variations and its most difficult ones, there is a huge space for
maneuver. This is where we should concentrate our efforts.
Instead of insisting that the demand for a just solution stems from a certain understanding of abstract justice – our understanding of it – we should make it clear, to ourselves and to our audiences, that a just solution is necessary because unjust solutions do not work. They fall apart. It is in the best interest of all sides to achieve the most just solution possible. And because impossible solutions do not work very well either, we should make it clear – this time mostly to ourselves – that the best of all possible solutions will inevitably involve certain types of compromise over the question of justice. What types of compromise? On what? Why? These are the question we should ask. And the answers should be, by their very definition, pragmatically constrained. Between the unjust solutions that won't work, and the just solution that is
impossible, there is a just-enough solution that is needed. We should try to figure out what this solution is.
Which means that instead of only criticizing, we have no choice but to think productively and positively about some of the details of that just-enough solution. Because this is one of the most important secrets of this conflict: A lot of people, on both sides, do not necessarily object to a just and deep solution to the conflict. They simply don't know how. If we manage to recruit all the energy, and wit, and clarity of thought that we put into the project of critique – a project which eventually plays a problematic role within the global discourse of guilt - and invest it in radicalizing the solution-oriented discourse, and developing a discourse of responsibility, I am quite certain we'll be able to play a much more productive role in the effort to finally resolve this conflict.
Back home, I'm supervising a project run by two organizations - the Palestinian organization Miftah and the Israeli organization Keshev – in which we work very closely with the media on both sides, trying to help them break away from the cycle of guilt, and develop, together, a discourse of responsibility. The Israeli and Palestinian media are very different from each other, and the realities in which they work are very different too. But something about the difficulties we both experience in this project is nevertheless identical. No-one wants to be the first to break away from the cycle of guilt. Each side is suspiciously looking for those first signs of change on the other side: Let them change first, then we will. Of all those who play a role in the cycle of guilt, I think it is the Left which can take the lead and show the way. If we manage to do that, if we manage to produce a new type of discourse, which is radical, and nevertheless solution-oriented, I am sure we will be able to make the type of difference we want. And we will also find ourselves accused much less of anti-Semitism.