Ira Chernus  


There is something depressing about the letters on Israel and Palestine that fly back and forth in the Dailyís opinion page. Each side hopes to convince the other with its facts. But it is a hopeless quest, because the facts, while often irrefutable, are ultimately irrelevant. The only things that matter, ultimately, are the different premises from which each side begins.

The supporters and critics of Israeli government policies each assemble their facts, like pieces in a huge jigsaw puzzle. The odd thing about this puzzle is that the same pieces can be put together to form two perfectly coherent, yet totally different, pictures. The picture does not depend on the pieces, but on the way they are arranged. The arrangement depends on the basic assumptions the two sides start with.

Another metaphor: Itís like two different people describing Arapahoe Peak, one standing in Boulder and the other in Winter Park. It all depends on which side of the divide you look from.

Those who passionately support Israelís policies toward the Palestinians generally assume that Israel is fighting for its life against opponents who would destroy the state, if they could. They assume that Israel has done nothing to create this enmity (they ascribe it to anti-Semitism), and therefore no changes in Israeli policy can lessen the danger. From that perspective, Israelís willingness to withdraw troops from the West Bank and give the Palestinians some autonomy looks like a courageous risk. Any further compromise appears suicidal.

Those who criticize Israelís policies (including myself) see the Jewish state as absolutely secure. After all, it has proven itself over and over the most powerful military machine in the Middle East, by far. Therefore, measures taken against Palestinian unrest seem unnecessary at best, and often unjust. The critics contend that, in every conflict, both sides contribute to the problem, and the stronger side is better able to initiate steps toward resolving the conflict.

These two sets of assumptions each create their own airtight inner logic. But they are diametrically opposed, which helps to explain why the issue is so divisive. It is hard to see what the in-between position might be.

No facts can tell you which premises to accept. Some facts are suggestive. Israel has never lost a war and indeed has rarely had any great difficulty winning a war. Israel receives a minimum of 3 billion dollars in U.S. aid (some estimates go as high as 5 or 6 billion), much of it for military aid. Opinion polls among Palestinians consistently show a sizeable majority willing to accept a Jewish state inside its pre-1967 borders.

These facts can not prove anything, however, to those who are convinced that Israel is surrounded by enemies bent on destroying it. On both sides, assumptions determine facts and fact patterns, not vice versa. That is why each side has a perfectly reasonable, cogent, and persuasive argumentóonce you accept its premises. If the facts do not compel us to take one view or the other, we are free to choose our own perspective. Then how can the vast majority of readers, who are uncommitted and confused, form any firm opinions?

One alternative is to think about the consequences that come with each set of premises. If no changes in Israelís policies can ever placate its opponents, as the "pro-Israel" side claims, then there is no chance for peace. The conflict will just go on forever. Moreover, Jews who take this approach must consider their religion. Whether they realize it or not, they are committing themselves to a religious life suffused with, and perhaps founded on, fear of enemies. There is a serious question about the viability of such a religious life and the satisfaction it can bring.

Critics of Israeli policy lead from hope, not fear. They can imagine peace in the near future. They have a powerful array of facts on their side, and they create a logically compelling pattern of facts. The facts alone can not compel you to agree with them. But there are no facts that compel you to disagree with them. You are free to choose. Will you support a perspective based on fear that can lead only to more conflict, or a perspective based on hope that sees a clear way to end the conflict? That is the question to keep in mind, as you read the letters that will surely continue to fill the opinion page for a long time to come.