The “echo chamber” phenomenon of media consumption these days is well documented. In this age of media specialization, many people have gravitated to voices and perspectives that tend to reinforce their beliefs and opinions, and they rarely venture outside of the safe zones they have created for themselves. In an era of information overload and social turmoil, it is understandable if people want to tame the cacophony by tuning out dissonant voices.
I’m no different from anyone else in this instance. I tend to surround myself with people who think like me, and I read the newspapers and blogs of people with whom I agree. Still, I try to go outside my comfort zone and allow myself to be challenged by ideas that may move me from entrenched positions, because more than being strictly comfortable, I also want to get it right. Yet listening is challenging if the speaker’s motives are suspect. But even people with whom we generally disagree may have points which we should consider.
This week I read an article in which the author challenged “Israel’s exceptionalism and sense of entitlement.” My first reaction was to be defensive, but then I tried to consider it objectively. Jews in Israel (and supporters of Israel) love to list Israeli Nobel Prize winners, scientific achievements, or the fact that at times of natural disaster, Israeli teams show up among the first responders. This is indeed what we expect of ourselves and what we want the world to recognize about us.
Perhaps the illusion that we can be or should be exceptional goes back to the call in Leviticus 19: “Be holy, for I your God am holy.” We are not God (or gods), but we believe that we are called to extend ourselves. Many of us also believe that our long history of suffering should now lead the world to give our failings a pass. Isn’t this an expression of exceptionalism and a sense of entitlement?
At the same time, we resent the expectations of others that we create a society that is more moral than all others. It seems deeply unfair to us that people single out the failings of Israel when terrible crimes are committed by other governments and nobody seems concerned about them. Israel’s Declaration of Independence declares “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other peoples” (emphasis mine). As a people like all other peoples, we know that we have criminals and crime like all others. Why should we be singled out?
It may be fair to expect more from ourselves than we want others to expect from us. Still, we need to face the fact that Israel’s advocates want to have it both ways. Israel should be recognized as exceptional, but forgiven for the ways that it is unexceptional or even problematic. Can we really expect to be treated this way? If we are “like all other peoples” we cannot expect special treatment, even as we expect more of ourselves.
The same author whose challenge gave me pause also called for an accounting of “the consequences of [Israel’s] continued occupation…including the moral, economic and political costs.” The security barrier has in fact meant that most Jewish Israelis have less contact with Palestinians than they had a decade ago. We are able to forget what is going on “over there.” But this call reminds us of the suffering caused by Israel’s control over aspects of the lives of approximately 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 1.8 million in Gaza.
After more than 46 years, it seems that we have reached a point where this has gone on for so long that we Jewish Israelis mostly ignore it. It is no longer acceptable to discuss the issue in polite company. We’ve grown instinctively defensive of any criticism or even mention of the occupation to such an extent that few Jewish Israelis think any more about the damage caused every day. Can we justify this?
The criticisms cited above were lodged by Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee and a long-time critic of Israeli policies whose approach pushes the edges of what is acceptable for Jewish Israelis. Dr. Ashrawi made those points as she was defending calls for BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), and I suspect that her call was applauded mostly by her own echo chamber of like-minded individuals. As for me, I spend a considerable amount of time in my job speaking and writing against the calls for BDS. Yet even those of us troubled by the BDS movement, or by Ashrawi herself, must consider those arguments.
Getting out of our echo chambers and beginning to listen to those whose words make us uncomfortable may be difficult and even painful, but it is a necessary first step, because if we do not listen at all, then we cannot begin working out our differences. Can we bring ourselves to dig down just a little bit and open ourselves up to consider new ideas?