published Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Balázs: Ambiguity stymies muddled middle on Mideast crisis

Thomas P. Balázs

EDITOR’S NOTE: First of a three part series.

The question of Israel’s troubled relationship with the Palestinians is one I’ve grappled with on and off since I was a child. During my current trip in Israel in which I’ve taken shelter from rocket fire in basements, stairwells and inside public sculptures, it’s been a lot more on than off.

Over the years, I’ve read countless columns and articles, numerous books, a graphic novel, letters to the editor, and, most maddeningly, hundreds of reader comments on the Internet. I have discussed the matter with friends and family living in Israel; I have watched it debated on TV and on YouTube.

I know a lot more than some and a lot less than others about the issue. But this much I can tell you for certain: Few topics demonstrate so well the postmodern notion of the impossibility of arriving at certainty.

Professors and journalists, government officials and NGO spokespeople, bloggers and tweeters, can all cite convincing statistics and documentary evidence, offer compelling anecdotes, and muster mind-altering rhetoric to back up their arguments, but none of them — myself included — can transcend their pre-existing political, social and psychological biases.

On the left, the automatic opposition to hegemony and the emotional attachment to the underdog trumps intellectual neutrality. On the right, fear-driven clinging to the status quo and a flat refusal to question one’s own assumptions negates obligations to consider contrary evidence.

And the middle?

The middle remains inflexibly committed to flexibility, to seeing all sides, to being fair and open-minded, and so it abandons the usual methods for distinguishing between reliable and less reliable evidence in favor of a kind of fairness doctrine that treats all opinions as equal and, therefore, renders all opinions meaningless.

Complicating political predispositions, are, of course, socio-religious biases: Muslims who side with the Palestinians because of a shared religion and culture; Jews who side with Israel for the same reasons; iconoclast Jews and Muslims who are rewarded by disproportionate media attention when they take positions opposite to the ones expected; Christians who blithely dismiss the conflict as the product of religions inferior to their own or, alternatively, who see the conflict as ordained by God; and atheists who see religion itself as the problem and the only solution to be sensible and secular like them.

All this is further bedeviled by the current media climate, which encourages lazy, knee-jerk, uninformed commentary, so that Google+ status updates appear side-by-side with news analysis by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

It’s crazy-making. But postmodernists would say one must learn to tolerate ambiguity.

Good advice, but not so easy to follow from a bomb shelter.

As I typed this column, sirens blared and I had to hurry to a steel-reinforced basement where I heard at least two explosions above the city and wondered how my 5-year-old — in camp about a mile away as the rocket flies — was doing.

I wasn’t feeling very tolerant of ambiguity right then, and I’m sure the people of Gaza are feeling even less so now.

Thomas P. Balázs teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is currently in Israel visiting family and working on a novel set in Tel Aviv.

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