Israel is almost always in the news, and it’s an area I take a keen interest in – I have plenty of family there, and it’s a place I know reasonably well. I read commentators in both the British and Israeli press, and often attend talks about Israel in London.
One of the things that strikes me the most, however, is not about Israel per se, but about how we talk about Israel.
The other night, I was at a debate in a synagogue in London. Even while the speakers were presenting their views, people from the floor were shouting “rubbish!”, “you’re wrong!”, etc. One man even had a home-made sign saying “Incorrect!” which he would hold up from time to time. There was a comedy element to this, and, indeed, there was plenty of laughter, mixed in with irritation, amongst the audience, but, ultimately, it was just very sad that there couldn’t even be a debate about the topic, with respect accorded to speakers whose views might be different than those of some of the audience. At one stage, a rabbi in the audience shared that for her, some of the views expressed were very uncomfortable, but what was more uncomfortable for her was the mood of hostility towards those expressing alternative views: “If we can’t respectfully listen to views very different from our own, then what hope is there for peace in the world?”
Despite all of this heat, there is almost no discussion about how we talk about Israel. In fact, we rarely talk about how we talk about anything, but what strikes me about talking about Israel is how quickly any discussion turns into a heated conversation, often turning very ugly very quickly.
And it has reached an even uglier place, where Arab Israeli members of the Knesset have received death threats for having a ‘poisonous stance against Zionism and Israel’. In other words, “if you disagree with how I see it, not only are you wrong, but you deserve to die”.
How can this be? How can we become so heated about an issue that we lose sight of the human being, and merely see whether or not they agree with us as being the key issue? And, how can we be so sure we are right, even without the hostility and the heat?
I think the key to what’s at play here lies in the confusion between ourinterpretation of reality, our beliefs about life, and reality itself. In other words, we don’t say “these events happened, and this is how I interpret them”, or “this is how I see the world”, we say “this is the way the world is”.
We think that what we see, and know, are “the truth”, but actually we are shaped towards seeing the world in a particular way, by the stories we grow up with, by the conversations we are immersed in, by the cultures in which we live, and then we claim that the way we see the world is the way the world is. And then, of course, because we are “right”, anyone who sees differently must be wrong (and, often, therefore, somehow less human).
In the introduction to “Presence”, by Peter Senge is a beautiful story from a leadership workshop which Peter Senge was running in South Africa, in 1990, when the apartheid system was in its last days.
During the workshop, which was for both blacks and whites, the participants were shown a video of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, which had never been seen in South Africa before.
After the video was shown, one of the participants, an Afrikaans business-man turned to one of the black community leaders, Anne Loetsebe, and said to her: “I want you to know that I was raised to think you were an animal.” And then he started crying. Anne just held him in her gaze and nodded.
Clearly, the man’s views are shaped in a particular direction by growing up, and living in, the cultural discourses of South Africa at that time. This point is made several times in the exquisitely good “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin, about Nelson Mandela, and about his role in the Springboks victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.
As the author points out several times, there is no “truth”, there are only ways of seeing the world, and the beauty of Mandela was that he understood that, and then sought to meet people where they were, understanding and legitimising their world-view, and seeking to allay their fears and concerns, even to the extent of learning to speak the language of his “enemy”. The culmination of his years of “meeting the enemy”, always treating him with courtesy and respect, is a very moving piece where he turns up on the pitch for the final game, in front of thousands of white Afrikaaners, wearing the green Springboks shirt (which was hated by black South Africans as a symbol of apartheid), and is greeted by shouts of “Nel-son! Nel-son!” by the mostly white crowd. It’s an astonishing moment of reconciliation that moved me to tears as I was reading it.
So, it is possible to have a very different kind of conversation, even about the issues we disagree on most. But it starts, I think, with one fundamental thing – the capacity to care for the other, and to legitimise that they might see the world very differently from us. I’ve been lucky enough to have had some very good conversations with some of my family and friends about Israel, where we disagree, but where our care about the relationship is more important than being right. When that happens, the conversation is wide open, and there’s nothing to prove – just the capacity to understand why someone sees differently than I do.