Can we talk? Or is it too soon?

Robbie Gringras and Abi Dauber Sterne
November 1, 2023

Is it too early for us to talk openly and broadly about the war?

Some of us need to close down or narrow debate. Some of us are in too much pain to think and speak clearly, and some of us feel weighed down by the guilt of ambivalence.

We have been trying to think about how, when, and with whom we might talk about this terrible period.

As the nature of the Hamas attack became clear, so too did the moral perceptions of many leaders throughout the Jewish community. We have been witness to pure evil, and together with grief, pain, and rage, has come a clarity and a purity of thought. If this is what Hamas celebrate, then they and all their supporters are our mortal enemy with whom no compromise can be made. And here the discussion ends.

Yet, for some, this moral clarity about Hamas is spreading to other areas of discourse about Israel’s actions following the depraved Hamas attack. Many of us in the community have an impatience, a frustration, with people – Jews included – who insist on holding Israel to account. “They still don’t get it?” say many leading Jews, “don’t they get that supporting Hamas is part and parcel of that whole red-green alliance? Maybe in their hearts these traitors actually think we deserved it?”

However not all of those who find themselves disgusted by supporters of Hamas are inclined to therefore give Israel a free ride. “Just because Hamas is pure black,” they say, “does not mean that Israel’s consequent actions are pure white.” In particular Jews on the left, who have felt themselves betrayed by their fellow progressives, find small comfort in Jewish circles where their critique of Israel is frowned upon.

This expansion of the black-and-white can be sensed everywhere. Some of us might have been following the increasingly tense discourse between Israeli Yonit Levi and British Jew Jonathan Freedland over the past few weeks in their excellent podcast “Unholy”. As the days have gone by since the 7th October atrocities, it has become clear that Yonit, the Israeli, one of the newscasters who spoke on air with so many helpless desperate people whispering from their safe rooms on that fateful day, cannot now listen to the calm sometimes-critical (while highly empathetic) voice of the British Freedland. Usually witty, balanced, and quite brilliant, she comes across short, impatient, defensive – and this is with a proud Zionist friend of hers!

Yonit is not being irrational. She is in mourning. Many Israelis and Jews around the world feel the same. We are in such shock and pain now that we feel capable only of curling up into a ball and shutting our eyes and ears. Yet at the very same time we are expected to respond, to react, to defend, and to advocate – to our friends, to our now-former friends, to attackers, and sometimes to ourselves.

Yonit Levi is not alone. We are all being asked to talk about our loved one’s murderer while sitting shiva.

Yet talk we must.

Insisting that Hamas is an evil that must be eradicated, is only one – crucial – aspect of our task. We must also convince and be convinced that the way in which Israel goes about this eradication of evil is not understood to be evil in and of itself.

It is our belief that this second challenge cannot solely be met with facts and talking points. An adversarial approach to maximally controversial topics will not succeed – especially with those who look to us for a home in this time of trauma. Instead we believe that we must invite as many people as possible inside our moral dilemma. To grapple with the imperatives we face. We should aim to bring people off their detached umpire’s chair and invite them on to the court of tough decisions. Let as many people as possible – Zionists and non-Zionists [Jews and non-Jews?] — join us in our agonizing challenge of how best to address a hellishly difficult task.

This requires conversations. Open conversations. What we call Healthy Arguments. There are debates, where I must win or convince. There are negotiations, where we must reach a shared conclusion or decision. The kind of discussions we need now are of a third kind: The Healthy Argument where we learn, we grow, we gain more perspectives. A healthy argument creates a community of fellow-grapplers, even when they disagree.

So far so good.

The question is, how can any of us, in our current mood, succeed in having a healthy argument with someone who disagrees with us, even slightly? How do we not bite (or knock) their head off? Everything is so raw. So black and white.

We at For the Sake of Argument are realizing that our stories and our processing tools are of great value for having healthy arguments, but perhaps only when all sides are ready for such an encounter. There is no value in my trying to build a community of grapplers, when I am likely to scream if someone says something that rubs me the wrong way.

We have an idea of a way to test our readiness. It’s not a moral test, it’s an emotional test. When is my heart ready to listen to, even be curious about, the views of someone who disagrees with me about Israel, Hamas and Gaza?

Here is the test. If both you and your interlocutor were to agree with these two statements, we reckon you might be emotionally ready for a healthy argument:

A. I cannot accept the actions of Hamas on 7th October, in deliberately attacking civilians of all ages, murdering over a thousand and kidnapping some two hundred people.

B. I cannot accept the destruction of Gazan homes, the collective punishment of Gazan civilians, and the deaths of thousands of Gazan civilians as “collateral damage”.

As you can see, we are also anticipating that your conversant might need the emotional test as much as you. As we know, thousands of Gazans have died in the past fortnight, and we can be fairly sure that a significant number of them were civilians entirely disconnected from the Hamas attack. Likewise many have lost their homes because they were close to Hamas targets. No doubt anyone horrified by the deaths of any innocents will be feeling raw, as well.

We know there are many who are not ready to sign up to statement B. We imagine there are those who are not ready to sign up to statement A. Or at least there are those of us who could only bring ourselves to agree to both if our conversant were also to agree to both. This is not about “giving ground” or “saving face” – this is about sensitivity to our fragile states. It’s not ego; it’s care.

If both of you are able to agree with both statements, this does not guarantee perfect harmony and friendship. Far from it. Statement A is the bare minimum many Jews and friends of Jews need to hear, and it may not suffice. Statement B is the bare minimum a Palestinian and friends of Palestinians need to hear, and it may not suffice.

But knowing that both are acceptable will allow you to carefully begin to address the Hillel paradox.

  1. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
  2. And if I am only for myself, what am I?
  3. And if not now, then when.

In our grief and fear, some of us cling to the first line and reject the second. Others skip past the first line and raise up the second. It is the challenge of the Jewish People — now — to hold both in quivering, fateful tension.

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