By Andrew Adler
One of the best things about editing Community is that I do so from a cubicle just a few feet away from Matt Golden’s office. Matt, as you probably know, is the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and a gregarious fellow whose ideas are almost always worth noting, and often worth borrowing. So what follows is my take on something Matt has spoken about again and again over recent weeks: the decided lack of nuance when we talk about what’s happening in the Middle East, historically and at present.
We Americans tend to be absolutists in our discourse. We strive to occupy either one side or the other, warily acknowledging the presence of some middle ground that my temper the noise that tends to reduce arguments to so much inflammatory posturing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our nation’s political debate – or what passes for debate. Identity politics has polarized the overall atmosphere to such a degree, lots of us stake out positions and then hang onto them regardless of evidence that might persuade us to move in some other direction. We seem to revel in the vernacular of dysfunction.
Many of us don’t cope terribly well with complexity. That becomes a significant problem when dealing with the Middle East, because few areas of the world are mired in so much confusion, misinformation and distracting rhetoric. The region’s history is long and laborious, with tracks and sidetracks, confoundings and contradictions. Yet again and again, the perceived reality is framed as “them” or “us” — in other words, you’re either with us or against us. It’s an inherently defeatist choice.
All this was true long before the horrific events of October 7, but Hamas’s murderous attacks on Israeli civilians has thrown the issue into especially stark relief. It is virtually impossible to seek out authentic contexts of Israeli-Palestinian relations when the surrounding atmosphere is white-hot. The overriding goal of obliterating Hamas in Gaza makes broader discussion seem almost petty in comparison. All that matters is what’s happening today, tomorrow, and maybe the day after that. There is scant opportunity for reflection, for pondering history, and for cooly analyzing prospects beyond immediate military objectives.
Some of this is bound up in a kind of anti-intellectualism. This is particularly apparent in American politics, where the Academy is frequently mocked and derided as elitist, exclusionary and irrelevant. Republicans love to trash the Ivy League – never mind that both Ted Cruz and Ron DeSantis are Harvard Law School alums. Clerking for a Supreme Court Justice, once regarded as a coveted badge of honor, is now looked upon by outsiders as something vaguely suspicious.
Current campus realities are depressingly strident, verging on ugly. It’s fine to have pro-Palestinian demonstrations – after all, the right of free speech and political dissent is among the most foundational of American values. But when those same demonstrations and rallies devolve into calls for the destruction of Israel amid chants of, “From the River to the Sea,” nuance and beneficial discourse is shoved aside by hatred – sometimes raw, sometimes percolating under the surface – but unmistakably present.
Emotions can easily rule the day in circumstances like these. The deaths of Israeli civilians, and the deaths of civilians in Gaza, rend the heart. The atrocities committed by Hamas must not go unanswered, so the IDF moves further and further into a territory Israel gladly relinquished not so long ago. Protesters scream “Genocide!” in feverish cacophony, typically without considering the true implications of that word. That is the dynamic we live by these days: the comforting, unquestioning simplicity of the absolute. If we’re not careful, it may be our undoing.