Culture, Global, Israel, Politics

Subtlety and the Art of Ignorance

Ahh, it’s that time of year again. “The time when kings go to war” (actually, that’s the spring, but close enough anyway) Israel pulls out its M-16s and us lonely bloggers soak our fingers in baths of vitriol before attacking the keyboard. Two and a half years ago, frustration over how people were writing about Second Lebanon War made me start blogging, and after a long hiatus, this year’s media war has gotten me going again.
You’ve seen them, long screeds and rants, some on this blog, many on others. Desperate e-mails forwarded to you by colleagues and family. One e-mail I received had the ridiculous claim that it is only leftist groups in the Diaspora that oppose this current war, and not those in Israel. While that is blatantly false, it did get me thinking. The difference between the discourse in the two cultures, seems to be the question of subtlety.

What is subtlety? Often, people in America, look to give a ‘balanced’ news story. They write columns in which they indicate that there are reasons the opposition acts the way it does. Take Shalom Rav’s last two posts for example. The first was a screed, while the second was more intelligent, by presenting some good reasons for Israel’s actions, even if he ultimately rejected them. That is ‘fair and balanced’ but I don’t think of it as subtle. Subtlety is the ability to express an idea that is complex, not just that is born out of complex circumstances. A complex idea is difficult, it challenges the thinker, and it challenges the reader. We are not built for subtlety. Since childhood, we are trained to come up with answers and solutions. A solution no matter how intricate, will never be complex. It always consists of the same elements. A problem, a method, and a goal. Straight forward. You can disagree in three places – call it a misdiagnosis, a practical difference in method, or a disagreement in goals. It’s neat, it’s orderly, but it’s not subtle.
Subtle thinking involves breaking down each of those elements. It means placing each of those in doubt. This is so difficult for us. It means learning a new skill, one that is beaten out of us every day – ignorance. We need to learn that we don’t know, and that maybe we can’t even know. For all of the study that I have done in rabbinical school, the most important one is this study of ignorance. When you sit down in a hospital room with a twenty five year old woman dying of cancer, you know no answers. Giving reasons does not help anyone. All there is to do is to listen, and to know that you do not know. When we reach that point, we can start to think again, but everything we say will be graced by subtlety.
Take, for example, the discussion of collateral damage. In war, people will be killed. On the other hand, countries go to war to protect people. There are two solutions that can be offered. A – Countries should fight wars to protect themselves. B – Countries should never use violence. Then, there is the balanced position. C – It is horrible that people die, but countries aught protect themselves. Therefore, countries should fight but they must always work to minimize casualties.
The subtle conversation is more difficult. First, it begins by examining the dilemma standing at the heart of the discussion. Kill or be killed. There are many pithy opinions that solve this problem. From the Talmud asking rhetorically about the color of our blood to Kant declaring in his piety that all human beings are of infinite value. These declarations shape our humanity. Without this awareness, it would be doubtful whether any relationship with a human beign could have meaning at all. On the other hand, to stand idly by while you or your family are made to suffer is impossible. The result is an utter bind. We do not know what to do. We are ignorant. However, we must choose. Not choosing is a choice just as reprehensible as the rest, so we do something. That choice we make, that which we do, is not a solution. There is no problem that has been fixed. All of the evils in the world are present from the beginning to the end. However, we will have thought and acted subtly.
When we think subtly, we may still have opinions, and those opinions might still be strong, but they are different. There is no longer room for screaming or ranting. Those who disagree with us subtly we can love, because we know that they have gone through the same process as us, step by step. Even the greatest antagonists, when they fight subtly, have more in common then any other pair of fighters.
In Israel, it’s easier to reach this point of ignorance. When you regularly mix together attending funerals of those killed by terrorists, with wearing a green uniform and pointing loaded rifles at women and children, it’s easier to get the picture. I guess in America we have the privilege of using Winter Break to play on our MacBooks, and we also have the privilege of thinking simply. I don’t know which is better.

15 thoughts on “Subtlety and the Art of Ignorance

  1. Josh, I love the point you’re making, but I take issue with a couple of the nuances.
    Take, for example, the discussion of collateral damage. In war, people will be killed. On the other hand, countries go to war to protect people. There are two solutions that can be offered. A – Countries should fight wars to protect themselves. B – Countries should never use violence. Then, there is the balanced position. C – It is horrible that people die, but countries aught protect themselves. Therefore, countries should fight but they must always work to minimize casualties.
    I like what you’ve tried to say here, but I think that these options are insufficiently subtle. This is another I would propose:
    D – It is horrible that people die and countries aught to protect themselves…up to an appropriately proportional point. Over that point, countries deserve a condemnation.
    This is where I stand certainly and is a nuance that Shalom Rav was hinting but didn’t explain fully. The deaths of Palestinians are higher than of Israelis by a factor of 10 — 70 Palestinian civilians and 7 Israels. If the death toll were more equal, my condemnation (and I believe that of the world) would be minimal. Because Israel has a right to defend itself. But like President Bush’s response after 9/11 lost him world support, Israel’s military commanders convey to us by death tolls that they are not sufficiently minimizing casualties. And as the world rightly points out, are not worthy of the moral sheild of self-defense they tout. This subtlety is lost in the cacophony of the internet also, but it’s one that I think most progressive people feel is being drowned out by Israel’s PR machine.
    In Israel, it’s easier to reach this point of ignorance. When you regularly mix together attending funerals of those killed by terrorists, with wearing a green uniform and pointing loaded rifles at women and children, it’s easier to get the picture. I guess in America we have the privilege of using Winter Break to play on our MacBooks, and we also have the privilege of thinking simply. I don’t know which is better.
    This isn’t clear to me. Diaspora Jews think more simply because of distance? And Israelis aren’t oversimplistic?
    Israelis are and are not as united — there being robust protestations against the air campaign by Jewish Israelis. But it is also fair to say that Israelis are also blinded by their own pride, paranoia and pain. Their ignorance and avoidance of the occupation (well attested to by Israelis who travel to the territories for the first time) is often part of the problem. Far from Diaspora Jewry being the only simplistic thinkers, Great portions of Israeli society also slip regularly into an overly reduced moral calculus.
    Secondly, I think this type of “only Israelis can understand what it’s like to be shot at” argument is factually true, but is improperly used here to imply that Israelis will make (or ever have made) better decisions about the conflict than impartial observers. That is, if one can consider Diaspora Jewry — whose very self-confidence and identity rest on Israel’s victory — impartial.
    The argument is also a disservice to the Diaspora-Israel dialogue to assume that either is better or less equiped in this debate.
    Other than that, I totally agree that naunce is what is missing, and generally what I hope readers will find on Jewschool, even if it is expressed with a helping of righteous indignation, such as Shalom Rav’s post.

  2. Well, one school of Just War Theory says that if you have Just Cause (complicated enough, but lets just make the big assumption that Israel DOES) you can do whatever the hell you want. When I took military ethics, most of my classmates seemed to agree this was right. But…
    what if you just happen to live in a country that is run by you know, some crazy fucks. the kind who if you question their style of leadership too much, will tie a bag over your head and introduce you to an AK? Chances are you’re not gonna be able to do much about that, so, that’s your government! And then these guys, since they don’t have much criticism, and no one telling them that their bad ideas are, well, bad ideas decide to just randomly shoot missles off, eh, everywhere they can in the neighboring country. I doubt you would say, “Well, our leaders were wrong, now if the enemy carpet bombs us, we deserve it. Oh well. Que sera sera.” You wouldn’t. You just wouldn’t. Think about it.
    In the words of The Dude, “You’re RIGHT, Walter. But you’re still an asshole!”

  3. KFJ,
    Please, do not misunderstand me, I do not at all want to say that Israelis think better about these issues than Americans. I was just trying to categorize the difference between the forms the discourse seems to be taking. My point is not that getting shot at or shooting people makes you think better, but it helps lead you to think in a different way. There are many people that have done those things and don’t think differently (Bibi Netnayahu comes to mind) and there are Americans who I think do think of the world in these ways (Barack Obama perhaps).
    Also, I’ve been thinking more about what I wrote. It’s important to point out that a subtle argument is not neccessarily better than a non-subtle one. They are different forms. I think the subtle conversation is more appropriate for the Arab-Israeli conflict, but there are many who disagree with me.

  4. Interesting piece, and if I understand what you are saying correctly I appreciate it. But it’s important, I think, to not be paralyzed into inaction by the idea that we don’t know.
    Yes, we must realize that we don’t understand and can’t, and then we have to make the best bet based on what we’ve seen and heard and act on it. Hopefully we can learn humility by realizing how much we can’t understand, and then fight for the most reasonable choice, based on what we do.

  5. Here are a couple quotes that seem relevant from Julius Lester:
    “I have a fantasy that peace will come to the middle-east only when small groups of Jews and Arabs sit in circles and tell each other stories about who they are and what they do and who their parents and grandparents were. No one would be permitted to talk about what they believed. No one would be permitted to [give] an opinion about anything or anyone. You could only tell stories about yourself and those whose bones you are guarding. You could only listen to stories about others and the bones in their care.”
    and this,from the end of a book on writing for kids:
    “Perhaps we begin to repair the universe by expanding our experience of what it is to be alive and we make the offering to others part of our living. In so doing we will learn not to inflict suffering on others. Can you imagine what stories will be told then? Can you imagine the stories we would be? Can you imagine?”

  6. “D – It is horrible that people die and countries aught to protect themselves…up to an appropriately proportional point. Over that point, countries deserve a condemnation.”
    What does proportional mean? Proportional to what?
    Dore Gold, in today’s Jpost, wrote: When international legal experts use the term “disproportionate use of force,” they have a very precise meaning in mind. As the president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Rosalyn Higgins, has noted, proportionality “cannot be in relation to any specific prior injury – it has to be in relation to the overall legitimate objective of ending the aggression.”
    Should Israel start lobbing Grad rockets back at Gaza, 50-100 per day? We lose a couple of civilians this week, they lose a few next week, and on and on and on?
    It seems to me that according to international legal definitions of “disproportionate use of force,” Israel should respond with the force deemed necessary to end the conflict, to prevent Hamas from posing a threat to the Israeli civilian population, and no more.
    Specifically, what response would you deem proportional?

  7. I think Yaakov touches on a crucial bit right there. What is “the force deemed necessary to end the conflict, to prevent Hamas from posting a threat…” I think in order to accomplish that goal using force, it would be necessary to completely destroy Gaza and kill everyone in it down to the last child. As long as it survives as a community, Hamas will always be able to reform itself and rebuild and recover its ability to attack Israel.
    So the alternatives are genocide on the one hand, or finding some other approach on the other. I confess I do not see another approach at this point. Maybe, once the USA’s chief executive is not a drooling moron backed up by juicy Halliburton-flavored evil, something better will emerge. I hope so.

  8. More needs to be done by American Jewish peace groups.
    http://middleeast.change.org/blog/view/where_is_the_progressive_jewish_community_right_now
    This is a list of all the remotely useful activities that progressive Jewish organizations should already have done:
    * Create a downloadable flyer with arguments against the current violence, or at least asking Jews to publicly demand an immediate ceasefire and break with Israeli PR talking points.
    * Ask supporters to call the Israeli consulates expressing outrage at the death and destruction rained down on Gaza, and speaking as American Jews who support Israel.
    * Conduct a united, nationwide effort to hold gatherings where supporters of peace can find each other, hear expert analysis from respected community leaders, and brainstorm about the best ways of mobilizing progressive Jews at this time.
    * Call for a demonstration in New York or Washington D.C. that will condemn the invasion while refusing to accept support from enemies of Israel. The current wave of demonstrations will not attract ‘respectable’ progressive Jews, so let’s have one of our own. Can’t we find a minyan in either of those cities willing to brave the cold for an hour? Will it have to be grassroots activists like myself putting out the call, while you dither about the language of your next press release? Must we give the Israel-haters the entire public stage?
    * Engage in online activism that can make a difference: ask supporters to send emails to Israeli consulates, leaders of the Reform and Conservative denominations, and the Conference of Presidents.
    * Write an open letter to the progressive Jewish foundation community criticizing them for being stingy with peace organizing in the Jewish community, pressuring progressive Jewish groups to stay out of foreign policy, and creating an artificial division between “progressive Jewish” and “progressive Jewish on Israel.”
    * Ask your rabbinic cabinets and board members to write articles and statements right away making their positions widely known. Now, not after the scale of the tragedy makes is easier.
    * Have supporters write letters to the editor aimed at the Jewish press expressing dismay at the violence.
    * Ask your leaders to contact the columnists and editors they know, and get them to generate stories about American Jewish opposition.
    * Highlight your relationships with Palestinian, Arab and Muslim voices in the United States that are outraged, but still want to develop positive relationships with progressive Jews.
    * Pay for a blog ad campaign that appears on progressive Jewish websites like Jewschool or Jewcy, as well as DailyKos and Haaretz.com. Send out an alert raising money for Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, to address urgent needs.
    Are you listening?! More can be done, even with the limited resources at your disposal. Your silence when the Lebanon war began in 2006 stands as an indictment you have yet to overcome. You all KNOW that this round of violence is counter-productive, should end as soon as possible, and is related to in part to pre-election posturing. Say so! Loudly! And do it in statements that are short, unified, and aimed at influencing American public opinion outside the Jewish community.
    To quote Thomas Paine: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

  9. Kung Fu Jew, it may seem like a minor quibble but when you say:
    like President Bush’s response after 9/11 lost him world support
    Let’s be clear that the world community basically supported the campaign to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan, which was a response to 9/11. Bush lost the world community’s support for a.) using 9/11 as a false pretext for the invasion of Iraq; b.) using the occupation of Iraq as a pretext for corporate plundering; and c.) handling the occupation with such ineptitude as to to cost many more Iraqi lives than should be tolerated.

  10. “I think in order to accomplish that goal using force, it would be necessary to completely destroy Gaza and kill everyone in it down to the last child. As long as it survives as a community, Hamas will always be able to reform itself and rebuild and recover its ability to attack Israel.”

  11. Continuing from above (because my browser isn’t quite working): I don’t think it has to come to that. Sure, the elimination of Hamas is the only way Israel can see peace, but genocide will only strengthen its position in the Arab world. Instead, it should be rendered unviable as a political organization, i.e. pull it out from the grassroots.

  12. JGooders is supporting Front Line communities during this time of conflict.
    We will add 10% to all contributions made to projects through JGooders, actively helping those on Israel’s front line, whether in Beersheva, Sderot, Ashkelon or other targeted cities.
    Click the link for a list of active projects:
    https://www.jgooders.com/info.asp…fo.asp? infoid=9
    Tamar
    JGooders is a new online giving portal based in Israel, helping people give directly to Jewish and Israeli causes.

  13. I think one good point you are making, Frankel, is that there’s a difference between understanding based on ideas and understanding that comes from seeing something, being in the story. Especially good if you can meet people who can also speak from experience, but have different ideas than yours.
    I’ve heard that a lot of Israelis can’t go into the territories, unless they are going as soldiers. Perhaps a good start to solving this thing would be to expand the our experience (as Jews) with Gaza and the West Bank and Palestinians. I haven’t been myself, but it seems great good could come of this.

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