Binary thinking has no place in debate over Israeli policies

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By Kelly Mears

On Friday, Oct. 24, a dialogue began on campus with the invitation of National Advocacy Director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation Josh Ruebner to deliver a presentation that condemned the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and the human rights abuses that the nation of Israel has committed against the Palestinians therein. The energy in Reamer Auditorium was palpable.

For the first time in what felt like a long time, Union students were actually excited about something other than the latest Greek life scandal.

We were engaged, intrigued and suddenly aware of a new perspective, one that challenges a very pervasive construct that forgives and condones all actions of the state of Israel unconditionally. But the moment was fleeting.

The following day, reports of anti-Semitic and homophobic vandalism found in an academic building on campus immediately changed the discussion.

Condemnations of the anti-Semitic (and homophobic) vandalism were sent out by students, faculty and even our own President Ainlay.

This time, the response was all too familiar. A focus on critique and debate was replaced altogether by a condemnation of “hate speech.”

Homophobic slurs — found among the vandalism in question — were largely ignored.

Predictably, the line between being critical of Israel and being anti-Semitic was blurred, and nearly disappeared, despite the best efforts of some students and faculty to reinforce the distinction.

All forms of hate-speech ought to be deemed unacceptable; this is something we as human beings should be able to agree upon universally.

But the misrepresentation of Josh Ruebner’s message and the labeling of critical publications as anti-Semitic forced this conversation to end before it even had time to flourish properly into a rational debate, leaving many who were originally engaged to polarize their opinions or leave the conversation altogether.

Assuming that critique of Israeli policy in Gaza and the West Bank automatically equates to anti-Semitism is ignorant, irresponsible and, in accusatory cases, slanderous.

But it is not only in the debate about Israel that we find this sort of dangerous polarization. Viewing people and ideas in binary terms is what we as human beings do best.

We place people and ideas in boxes to make our understanding of others simpler.

We determine in our minds whether someone is friend or foe, pro-choice or pro-life, male or female, capitalist or communist, straight or gay, white or black, pro-Israel or anti-Israel (read: anti-Semite). But the world is not that binary.

When we define the world in terms of absolutes, we place constraints on any sort of intelligent debate.

Territorial disputes, human rights issues, discussions of what exactly constitutes equity and equality — often, these debates are far too complex to comprehend fully without years of careful observation of the world around us.

But now, our tendency is not to observe. Our tendency is to classify first — if new ideas and questions don’t fit in to the way we already perceive the world, we cast off that new information as extraneous.

Binary approaches are dangerous because they push us to complete extremes and force us to think in terms of absolutes that don’t and can’t ever exist.  When we force ourselves into binary structures, we force ourselves into the willful ignorance to facts.

Our experiences often push us into understandings of the world as with us or against us, and we look back on history with favor towards ourselves, no matter the realities or complexities of the situation.

Blame politics, blame human nature, blame historians — but the point still stands. Until we can separate out the biases that inform our individual perceptions of the world from the objective facts of human history, we’re doomed to repeat our own mistakes.

We will continue to polarize our debates, silence broad constituencies and steer these conversations away from the true issues at hand.

This is not to say that biases don’t inform our passions and our debates, but an open debate that recognizes differing perspectives and biases on all sides is the basis for all forms of progress within society.

The danger is in allowing these biases to define our understandings of the world; our shared experiences must supplement the facts of history, not replace them.

Challenging the facts presented at Ruebner’s presentation is certainly not “wrong” by any means — it bolsters a culture of open debate and discussion that places like Union ought to encourage.

However, the silencing of opposition to Israeli tactics is completely detrimental to that goal.

In order to establish an honest and open debate, we need to boil the arguments down to a few indisputable facts, and there are a few that are not up for debate.

Fact: Israel is, and has been since its establishment in 1948, a hotbed of political and religious conflict.

Fact: There is, has been and likely will continue to be bloodshed on both sides of this conflict.

Fact: The loss of both Israeli and Palestinian lives is universally — and equally — reprehensible.

But it is also a fact that only Israel has the explicit financial, political and military support of the United States.

It is the use of this power for the loss of life, the perpetuation of Israel’s geographic expansion and the imposition of martial law in Gaza and the West Bank that is illegal, unacceptable and a violation of international law.

It is this point that Josh Ruebner came to campus to elevate and it is this point which was entirely dismissed by the irresponsible accusations of anti-Semitism in his wake.

It’s time to think in terms of facts. It’s time to break away from the binary.

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