Hanging In When We Would Rather Shut Down

Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg is the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi.  She serves as a spiritual director, peace and justice educator, and teacher of Mussar (a classical Jewish system of spiritual development).

When I first began my journey of learning to listen to Palestinians and to their perspectives on Israel and Palestine, one thing that I heard repeatedly shocked me.

Again and again, I heard the bitter lament, “The American media is biased against us.”

I had been trained in multiple forms of active listening in the presence of conflict, and in these listening sessions, I brought a strong intention to listen as compassionately and non- judgmentally as I could. But this one almost made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it.

They think the American media is biased against them? How could they possibly think that? In the Jewish community, it was widely felt that most American media outlets were biased against Israel, that both their coverage and their commentary were slanted toward the needs and narratives of Palestinians, with little understanding of Jewish sensibilities and vulnerabilities. Jewish leaders regularly wrote letters of protest to the New York Times and many other outlets about their “anti-Israel bias.” The same is true today,

Gradually I came to understand that my Palestinian conversation partners were serious. When they consumed American media, they perceived Palestinians portrayed as terrorists, without any curiosity or nuanced analysis of Palestinian needs or concerns.

I began to ponder the claims and counterclaims of bias in the media. How can it be that on multiple sides of a conflict, people find little in the media that adequately represents their position? How could the media be biased against everyone?

The answer became clear. Feeling passionately right and deeply wronged in a conflict, both sides viscerally feel that their position is being misrepresented. In a conflict situation in which emotions are high and almost any statement can touch a place of raw pain and grievance, only those who think exactly as we do are experienced as unbiased.

Think about this in the context of interpersonal conflict. When you and a partner or family member are engaged in a painful argument about something that had been said or left unsaid, the other person’s narrative seems terribly wrong —part of their mistaken, unkind or even outrageous version of events. This can happen even when there is relatively little disagreement between your position and the other person’s. Only when both people feel heard and attended to can the two sort out what felt wrong about one another’s narratives.

As we know all too well, there is such a thing as our opponent (including public officials) simply lying. There is actual “fake news,” in which people maliciously invent false versions of events. People can invent their own facts, and “news” can be completely fabricated.

But in conflict situations, by definition, there are unavoidable differences in perspective between the two sides (otherwise, they would not be in conflict!). These differences are both in the large arc of ideas and in the understanding of specific facts and events. What is the “correct” answer to the question, “When did the Israel-Palestinian conflict begin?” What is the “correct” name of the events of May 1948 or of June 1967? What do we even call this land, and to whom does it “belong”? Jewish Israelis and Palestinians are inclined to answer all of these - and countless other - questions very differently. This is not necessarily evidence of biased perception. It reflects their different perspectives on the conflict.

Even the words we use to describe elements of the situation reflect our different perspectives, and these words can carry a very strong emotional charge. To take one small but important example, for many years I regularly used the phrase “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” to describe the situation of Israel and Palestine. This expresses many years of thinking about Israeli-Palestinian realities as a conflict of two nationalities over a single piece of land. But for Palestinians and their allies (and many leftist Jews in Israel and abroad), this deceptively simple phrase is offensive, because it suggests a “conflict” between two parties of relatively equal levels of power. By contrast, for Palestinians and their allies, the power differential between Israel —a major military power —and the Palestinians — living under occupation— is absolutely fundamental. That is why they so often use “the occupation” as a shorthand way of describing the situation of Israel and Palestine.

Have I offended you or made you flinch in pain in response to things I have written here? If so, is it because I am “biased”? Perhaps I wrote something inelegantly or insensitively. But maybe it is because I have referenced language and perspectives that are different from your own, and these are painful to hear.

When I read a news article or op-ed that challenges my own beliefs, I can quickly close the page or change the channel, in order not to be disturbed by evidence of “the other’s” perspective. I can reject the content as biased, or reject the speaker’s legitimacy. But I have another option, especially if the source is worth paying attention to. I can stop and ask myself: Why did she write that sentence in that way? What assumptions might underlie her view? If I lived where she does, or grew up in the context in which she did, might her perspective make more sense to me? In short, who is the person beneath that opinion that I found so difficult? Is there something I can learn here?

As the Sisterhood has moved from a stance of avoidance into active exploration of Israeli-Palestinian issues, we have the extraordinary opportunity of hearing perspectives different from our own in safe and loving spaces, and also witnessing what happens inside us when we encounter material we find difficult to hear. When we attend a program or hear a speaker whose view is different from our own, we can notice the part of us that recoils. We can send compassion to that pain inside and notice where it comes from. And we can open our hearts to a little more learning and a little more understanding about “the other” and about ourselves.

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