Israel/West Bank trip, day 4

(Tel Aviv) Since I last blogged, we have met with Vice Prime Minister (and Lieutenant General) Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon,* Ethiopian Israeli politician Shlomo Molla (who’s very talented, by the way), human rights attorney Hanny Ben Israel (who painted a fairly horrifying picture of Israeli treatment of African refugees), an entrepreneur named Amir Peleg, at his startup’s office, and two vintners, at their vineyard.

The number of people we have interviewed is now approaching 20. One way in which they vary is their ability to articulate the perspective of opponents or enemies. Some Israelis like to talk about the Israeli and Palestinian “narratives,” and they preface their remarks with empathetic summaries of both sides’ stories. On the other hand, some people just speak for their side and may take pains to dismiss the other perspective. Dr. Abdallah Abdallah of the Palestinian Authority, for example, said that Israelis’ security concerns were “imaginary.” Settler leader Israel Harel said that Palestinians are just Jordanians.

Normally, I would argue that being able to articulate the other side’s views is both a moral and intellectual achievement. It broadens your mind and can constrain your own interests. Once you have explained the beliefs and hopes of your historical enemy with reasonable accuracy and justice, it becomes harder to dismiss their interests. Even if you don’t sincerely care about their “narrative,” expressing it constrains you in the way that la Rouchefoucauld meant when he said that “hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue.”

But let me complicate that a bit. Being able to articulate your opponent’s deepest beliefs and values is also a source of power and influence. In bilateral discussions, it makes you more effective, because you know what to offer and what buttons you can push. In dealing with third parties (such as my colleagues and me, on this trip), it makes you far more persuasive. Compared to a person who dismisses his opponents completely, one who begins with a thoughtful and respectful version of their “narrative” comes across as much more reliable and decent. An example would be Colonel Danny Tirzah, the man who designed and built Israel’s security barrier with the West Bank. He expressed great sensitivity for Palestinian concerns and identity, and he ended with a devout wish that the wall may be torn down so that both peoples can live in peace. By the way, he is good-looking, funny, confident, and completely fluent in English. But what if the wall has been placed–as the Palestinians claim–in locations designed to maximize the amount of territory the Israelis can settle before they cede portions of the West Bank in negotiations? Then all Tirzah’s sensitivity and breadth of understanding is irrelevant, and we should be critics of the wall. In advocating for his side, he is far more effective than a Palestinian or an Israeli who comes across as a hard-liner lacking empathy. But that doesn’t mean that he is right. I see variation in sophistication on both sides, but my limited sample suggests that Israel’s official representatives and negotiators are generally more effective communicators than their Palestinian counterparts. Whether that reflects greater moral maturity or sheer PR superiority would be a matter for debate.

By the way, is that thing that Danny Tirzah built a wall, a fence, or a security barrier? Almost every descriptive word in this place is controversial, starting with what to call the place itself. Is the region to my east right now Erez Israel, Judea and Samaria, Zone C of the Palestinian National Authority, a part of Palestine, the Holy Land, the West Bank, or the Occupied Territories? Examples like this are legion. To name one more, are the people moving into Israeli territory from Eritrea migrants, refugees, or infiltrators?

These words combine facts and values in way that Bernard Williams (developing an idea from J. L. Austin) called “thick.” A classic example would be murder. In order for that word to apply, someone has to be killed and the killing must be unjustifiable and deliberate. So moral and empirical considerations combine. We often try to separate the two, but I have long been convinced that they interpenetrate–or, to put it another way, reality is best described by thick terms; propositions that include thick terms most closely approximate the truth. What is true is both accurate/valid and good/just.

To a large extent, the rhetorical contest in this region is about incompatible “thick” concepts. But there are also disagreements about basic facts. I am keeping a list of purely factual claims that are disputed among respectable groups, e.g., between centrist Israelis and the Palestinian Authority. Example: Was the wall/security fence the main or sole reason for the decline in suicide bombings? Answering that question would hardly resolve the larger issues, but I would like to know.

*Actually canceled. I composed this before I that last meeting occurred.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.