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EDITORIAL: Beyond black and white

The Jewish Independent
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EDITORIAL: Beyond black and white

Published: 1 December 2023

Last updated: 19 March 2024

It is not only possible but necessary to grieve for both Israelis and Palestinians and to understand the conflict in terms of complex and contradictory narratives.

As the Gaza War unfolds, people on all sides of the conflict are increasingly cleaving to partisan camps, shouting slogans: I stand with Israel, Free Palestine, Stop the Genocide, No to antisemitism.

This tidal wave of simplified advocacy masks the fact that many people are wrestling with ambivalent feelings about both sides of the conflict.

The official line run by Jewish community leaders is singular – just as the lines run by Palestinian advocates are one-sided – but many Jews are wrestling with more complex attitudes.

We know that Israel is neither a monstrous perpetrator nor a powerless victim, that Palestinians are not wholly represented either by the vicious terrorists of Hamas nor the innocent civilian victims whose faces crowd the media.

The most difficult moral challenge of this war is the task of trying to hold two or more contradictory perspectives in your head at the same time. Psychologists label it “cognitive dissonance”. It is an essential test of humanity.

On the one hand, Israel’s military campaign to destroy or neuter Hamas is legitimate. Hamas cannot be allowed to remain sufficiently intact to mount another massacre like that of October 7, or to present an ongoing threat to Israel.

On the other hand, many of us feel sick about the massive loss of Palestinian life in Gaza that has resulted from Israel’s offensive. Part of that is the result of Hamas’s disregard for the lives of Palestinians by embedding itself within civilian infrastructure. But whether the fault lies with Palestinian leadership or Israeli military action, we wish it were otherwise and hope that future casualties can be drastically minimised.

On the other hand (yes, a third hand – there are more than two sides to this debate), those of us who support the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel the Palestinians and other relevant parties feel deep disappointment at events which have put back the cause of peace, probably by a generation.

We must recognise both that Hamas’ attack was unprovoked and unjustifiable and that the Palestinian people have a genuine grievance.

These three narratives cannot be reconciled into one coherent perspective. Indeed the reductionist demand that we approach this complex conflict from a single viewpoint is part of the problem.

As Jews, we need to refuse to think about this conflict in black and white. We must insist on the grey zone. We must recognise both that the Hamas attack of October 7 was unprovoked and unjustifiable, and that the Palestinian people have a genuine grievance that will not be resolved until there is a Palestinian state.

Similarly, we must acknowledge that Israel has a right and a responsibility to defend its citizens against murder and kidnapping that necessitates military action in Gaza, and that Israel must do everything it can to avoid civilian casualties and support the creation of a viable life for Palestinians in Gaza.

We also have a right to expect an acknowledgement of these tensions and layered truths by advocates for Palestinians. They should share our conflicted sympathies over Israel’s suffering and that of Gazans. Such an acknowledgement, at least, would be the beginning of common ground.

Just as we, as Zionists and supporters of Israel’s right to exist, also acknowledge the rights of Palestinians and the need for an end to occupation, we need to hear from Palestinians who care about both the rights of Israelis and the rights of Palestinians. The almost complete absence of grappling with Hamas by the pro-Palestinian camp – on the street, on the campuses and in the media –is a failure that must be addressed.

Let us hear from Palestinians about the cognitive dissonance they feel and know that they are able to feel grief for an Israeli child who has seen her parents murdered just as we grieve for Gazan children.

Advancing conflicting perspectives, the great American poet, Walt Whitman, wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The challenges of the Israel-Palestine conflict are huge. We need to become larger in order to contain the multiple truths and create more honest and civilised public debate.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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