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Editorial: Middle East Conflict and Human Nature

israelIn my capacity as editor of The Global Herald, yesterday evening I briefly took down the article written by Sunny Sharma, “Why the Arab-Israeli Conflict?” after it received a small raft of comments. After reviewing all of the comments, the article itself and the original article within The Guardian upon which Sunny bases much of his article, “Not Jewish but Jew-Ish” by Jonathan Margolis, Sunny’s article has been reinstated, because it raises many important points, does so fairly, and clearly explains the position of the author.

Some very important points have come from both articles which I believe are worthy of further exploration. In particular, two arguments came from Jonathan Margolis’ article within The Guardian which were not pressed particularly hard – as the points were raised somewhat en passant – due to this, however, nor were they rebuffed or refuted in Sunny’s piece.

One point Jonathan Margolis raises is the idea that Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism in disguise, at least in some cases which he describes as “extreme”.

The second point I would like to draw more attention to is that which was touched on by both authors: that it is somewhat ‘cool,’ at least in middle class liberal student circles within Britain, to be anti-Zionist.

I shall put aside any religious element for one moment, and also, for the time being ignore the fact that it is very difficult to separate a person’s rationale for siding with either Israel or Palestine without engaging them each, individually, in rigorous debate and ascertaining just why they have formed their personal belief.

Instead, what I shall concentrate on here is human nature. It is important that one never forgets just how difficult it is to shift a person’s opinion, or, importantly, beliefs,one way or the other, once they are formed. Herein lies the difficulty which faces Israel: the belief of their people is at odds with those in the countries in its immediate vicinity, and have been for three or more generations.

Such disputes, whether tribal, religious, purely political or an heady mix of everything, are difficult, if not impossible, for those involved to resolve in manner which is satisfactory to all concerned due to the very nature of human beings: all sides believe they themselves to be ‘right’.

Throughout history, we have many examples where pieces of land have been claimed by more than one group of people. Very few have ended with every side entirely happy. Sunny points to colonialism as the root of the conflict here, and in many respects this is true of many of these historical problems. Indeed, we only need to compare Aboriginal Australians, Mauris in New Zealand and indigenous Americans in both North and South America to see the differing ways in which, at least traditionally, these conflicts have been ‘managed’.

However, the Israeli-Arab conflict is more complicated still.

Largely speaking, at  least until relatively recently, only one “side” has traditionally ended up ‘owning’ disputed territories. In this case, Israel is seen by many as the aggressor, though in truth neither side can be blamed or blameless entirely, and this is why it becomes important to look to human nature.

Naturally we humans tend towards a “work outwards” approach when it comes to protecting oneself whether in a conflict or a purely philosophical argument. By this I mean that, on the whole – and one can find many examples both within small circles and nation states to back up this notion – people will seek to protect first themselves and their family, then their community (whether this be religious or otherwise), their region, their nation and, if called upon, their continent or a wider ideology, should it be attacked in one way or another.

This is quite clear from both articles; they both say similar things, just from differing standpoints. Jonathan Margolis would appear to be a person with Jewish heritage who does not ascribe himself, particularly, to the Jewish Religion, however, as someone who has suffered religious, racial and cultural intolerance throughout his life as a Brit his opinion of the Arab-Israeli conflict is going to be somewhat coloured by this; quite naturally he will question whether those who are anti-Israel are not just the same people who bullied him as a child, or made jibes throughout his early and more recent adult life.

By the same token, Sunny Sharma as a British person with Indian roots will feel much in common with those, such as Jonathan Margolis, who are part of an ethnic minority within the UK. However, it is not likely Sunny will feel particularly defensive upon hearing someone critical of something which has been done by the nation state of Israel. Chances are, he will not have spent his life dealing with the many differing forms of Anti-Semitism, and the shifts in guise that this has taken throughout the past 50 or so years. Is he more objective because of this? It is difficult to say.

What “Why the Arab-Israeli Conflict?” really drives at is the pain one feels when your rationale is called into question by another. When the accusation, whether implied or inferred, seems to be that your opinion is formed either upon “the general consensus” or – worse – something more malevolent, such as thinly veiled Anti-Semitism, it pains us all the more, particularly when similar intolerance is something we might have spent our lives railing against.

But this is a point which, as someone from neither the “for” or “against” community on either side of these (and many other) issues, perhaps only someone like me is able to easily concede.

With or without religious guidance, our opinion cannot, in many instances, be proved ‘right’ or ‘wrong’: we can only base our principles upon what we believe to be true. What you believe to be true is shaped by so many things, not least your socio-economic group and the thoughts of your peers. Jonathan Margolis is right: many students have taken on the Palestinian cause in ignorance and because it is seen as popular, edgy or cool. Sunny Sharma is also right: his position is not borne of ignorance, but of many years studious intent; of rigorous self-questioning.

One question I would like to ask both authors, which I like to ask anyone who feels passionately about any subject is this: is there anything I could prove to you that would make you change your point of view, and if so, what is it? It is only by fully exploring the potential for successful counter-arguments that you truly learn whether what you believe to be true is, in fact, solid, or whether it is simply a theory you have either inherited from previous generations, or derived osmosis-like from those around you in your peer group.

Whether your peers are, deep down, Anti-Semitic is difficult, as I indicated at the top, to ascertain without rigorous debate. Whether or not you are, is more simple: ask yourself some difficult questions and you will know the answer.

That the Palestinian position within this conflict is ‘right’ does seem to be the popular consensus in Western European Liberal circles. Whether or not everyone who considers him or herself sympathetic to this particular side of the debate has truly grappled with many or even any of the important questions which the conflict has raised in the last three generations is impossible to know. It could be difficult, however, for someone who’s cultural heritage is Jewish to witness the Palestinian flag becoming something of a fashion accessory for people who couldn’t place the region on a map; it could also be true that someone who has spent years studying the political framework and historical issues which have created the current Israeli-Arab conflict would be saddened by the implication that his beliefs have been arrived at because of this apparent trend, rather than a more rational, studious approach.

If I can be reasonably certain about anything, it is this: a person’s beliefs should be arrived at following regular and repeated rigorous internal appraisal; but, in reality, most are shaped to a greater or lesser degree by external influences. When those external influences are completely at odds with each other, it makes it very difficult for anyone to arrive at a compromise, whether personally or as a group or community.

What is most important, for the sake of our race – the Human Race – is that we never stop trying to resolve these conflicts, in a way that we can all truly justify. Whether this is practicable remains to be seen, and this will never happen without some shift in what people on every side of many fences believes to be true.

The question may ultimately be whether or not this is a compromise human beings en masse are capable of ever making, and whether or not this is even important.

In any case, maybe the goal should be peace, however uneasy, rather than a potentially impossible happiness.

About Robin Scott

Robin Scott
Robin Scott is co-founder and publisher of The Global Herald.

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