Six Ways We Disagree About Israel
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Opinion

Six Ways We Disagree About Israel

David Bernstein
David Bernstein

In recent months, American Jews have become even more polarized around Israel. One of the biggest challenges in conducting constructive conversations about and reducing conflict around Israel — or any contentious issue, conflict resolution theory holds — is pinpointing the exact nature of the dispute.

Here are six ways we disagree about the Jewish state in the hope that in the future we can engage in more constructive dialogue:

1. Differences in assessing the facts

Israeli soldiers, for argument’s sake, killed five Palestinians on the Gaza border. Palestinians claim the victims were innocent bystanders. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says the Palestinians were shooting at the soldiers. We vehemently disagree about what occurred on the ground.

2. Differences in assessing intent

We agree on the facts but disagree on the parties’ intent. Let’s say we later learned that the IDF fired back at two verified Hamas operatives who were shooting in the general direction of the soldiers. Three innocent Palestinians in the vicinity and one Hamas operative were killed by Israeli fire. Critics claim the Israelis intentionally fired at the innocent bystanders, who were seen running from the scene. The IDF claims it was just trying to stop the Hamas operatives from firing and accidentally hit the noncombatants. It’s notoriously difficult to assess intent, but such analysis is at the very heart of moral discourse.

3. Differences in moral judgment

We agree on the facts and the intent, but we still disagree on the morality of the act. Let’s say we agree that the Israeli soldiers didn’t intentionally harm the innocent bystanders. But the critic asserts the soldiers were grossly reckless in shooting with noncombatants clearly in the vicinity. The defender rejoins that the soldiers have every right — perhaps even a moral duty — to defend themselves and their countrymen from the shootings, even if there was a significant chance they would kill noncombatants. Here we apply different moral standards of conduct to the same situation.

4. Differences in moral significance

We agree on the facts, intent and moral judgment, but we disagree on the larger meaning. Let’s say we agree that the Israeli soldiers were reckless in shooting in the direction of the Hamas operatives, knowing there were innocent Palestinians nearby. The soldiers had other options that would have minimized the loss of life. We disagree, however, on the moral significance of the shooting. The critic asserts this reckless act was symptomatic of the IDF’s callousness toward Palestinian lives. She holds responsible not just the individual Israeli soldiers, but their commanders and the government. The defender argues that, in the fog of war, even the most moral armies are prone to making poor moral choices. He’s impressed with Israel’s internal reckoning over the incident.

Disputes over moral significance are, in my experience, among the most common. A defender of Israel may be troubled over other aspects of government policy, such as settlement expansion and checkpoints, but attach less importance to them than the critic. He may believe that, notwithstanding its imperfections, Israel is a moral country aspiring to do the right thing. 

5. Differences in response

We agree on facts, intent, judgement and significance, but we don’t agree on how to best respond. Some want to take the responsible parties to international court and publicly lambast them. Others want to have a quiet dialogue with the government. We have a different theory of change and a different strategy for attaining the desired results.

6. Differences in moral framework

Up until now, disagreements have been based on a common moral framework, analyzing the conduct of each party. But there are voices on the far left and the far right that embrace entirely different moral frameworks that make dialogue difficult if not impossible.

On the far left, some treat the more powerful party as the perennial victimizer and the weaker party as the victim. The intent and even conduct of each party matter little. Only the impact on the weaker party is relevant. They don’t bother analyzing the situation at hand. They automatically fault Israel.

On the far right, some apply religious thinking that views Israel alone in God’s favor (such religious thinking also exists among certain left-wing mainline protestants who view Palestinians on the side of God). They don’t concern themselves with how either party behaves toward the other, just whom they view as permanently virtuous and permanently depraved.

Unfortunately, dialogue will not, in most cases, do much good with either of these alternative moral worldviews.

If we can understand the nature of our disagreements, perhaps we can better discuss them and be a little less divided in the coming year.

Stay tuned for a sequel on how we can use moral dialogue to advance understanding and lessen conflict.

David Bernstein is president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).

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