Can Reasonable People Disagree Reasonably?
By A.D. Freudenheim

15 June 2003

Since the start of the current Palestinian Intifada several years ago, I have generally adopted a policy of non-confrontation where discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are concerned. Although I have thought about the situation extensively and written about it here more times than I can reasonably count, I have shied away from talking about the situation with most friends and family – because the disagreements were too painful, and often became too emotional too quickly. I do not consider my views to be terribly radical – indeed, there are probably more people around the world who agree with me than disagree – but because they are out of step with what seems to be the prevailing view within American Jewry, the topic is strongly polarizing.

What interests me now, however, is not the specific details of the conflict, the assignation of blame to one side or another (or both), or even the lively questions one could ask about the views of American Jews, the American government, or other interested parties. No, after lying low for so long, what fascinates me is whether or not reasonable people can disagree reasonably on a subject as emotionally charged as this one. My conclusion, alas, is: not really. Nor can I say that this is a particularly pleasant realization, or that it augers well for anyone’s future, even as it does seem to be more and more the norm.


My grandparents were ardent Zionists, activists whose lives in the 1930s and 40s were centered around their work for the eventual establishment of the state of Israel. I am told that during this time – before Israel was founded, when the whole idea of Zionism was as fiercely debated among American Jews as it is today – my grandparents would excommunicate “friends” who disagreed with their views, writing them off as unworthy or otherwise undeserving of the pleasure of their company. Growing up and hearing these stories, it was hard to imagine, not only because my grandparents were older (and had mellowed a little), but because it seemed so obviously unreasonable to expect that one’s peers should all share precisely the same perspective.

This kind of hot-headedness seems resurgent in America today, particularly with the shift in tolerance and perspective after the terrorist attacks in September 2001, as the country (and our government) moved to a more aggressive posture towards the outside world. The charge was lead by President Bush, who said to the world that you are either with us or you are against us, but that there is no middle ground. And there is no small irony in the fact that just as our media outlets covered this shift in perspective with some level of clarity, they themselves also moved to adopt more conservative positions, reflecting back at us only the information certain to reinforce this same, new American perspective: that the world hates us, the world is upset by our vigor and our superiority, and that our best defense will be to show the world the strength of our offense. It seemed perfectly clear who were our friends, and who were not – and there was not much need for public discussion, while the little debate that there was left anyone not aligned with the Bush administration labeled as weak and unpatriotic. There’s nothing like name-calling to advance the general quality of public discourse.

Heading into a American presidential election year, that trend seems to be continuing. The field of opposition candidates has not exactly distinguished itself by voicing views strongly counter to Mr. Bush’s. Some candidates look like mini-Bush, distinguishable only in manner and form, but not in substance; others attempt to mark themselves as different by focusing on policy details, while claiming the (presumably politically beneficial) position of sharing a broad philosophical agreement with the President. Needless to say, perhaps, but these are the more successful of the candidates, the ones whom the media likes and implicitly presents as viable challengers – while revealing, of course, how precisely unelectable they are for being so similar to the man currently in the office. For the one or two candidates have strongly stated their ideological concerns with Mr. Bush and the direction he is leading the country, they are offered to the electorate more as entertainment than as serious challengers – as was the case with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000. Offered the choice between a vigorous fight and an affirmation of our unanimity, it isn’t hard to figure out what Americans like more.


This kind of apathy may be the norm on the national level, but when the conversation drops to the personal, it does have a tendency to become personal. In my circle of friends and family this is not true for all subjects, but is certainly the case for many of them, the leading edge of which is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Nor am I just blaming others – I suspect I am as guilty of it as everyone else.) Yet the effect is clearly to stifle debate and the open flow of ideas. It is as if we cannot find a happy medium between the uncritical blandness of national politics and the emotionally-charged responses at the personal level. But we have to keep trying. For my part, as the situation in Israel has gotten both better and worse in recent weeks, I have decided to make an effort to engage people on the subject more often, to try to listen to their opinions and to put forward my own, without polarizing the discussion.

It seems ridiculously obvious to say so, but: my inter-personal disengagement has not solved anything. (Surprising, isn’t it?) Maybe it’s time to face the conflict, instead of fearing it. Come to think of it, if the Israelis and the Palestinians were more inclined to do the same thing – to face each other, instead of assuming that each side knows the other all too well – perhaps they could take effective steps towards resolving the situation, instead of exacerbating it.

Copyright 2003, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.