The Blind Man And The Elephant

Moment Of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine's Toughest Questions

Has any subject ever been better a fit for the parable of the blind men and the elephant than the Israel-Palestine conflict? You know the one. Several blind men inspect an elephant. Each touches a different part of the beast and that part only; each draws an entirely different conclusion as a result. An elephant is like a tree; like a snake; like a rope, like a fan.

Understood – or rather, not understood – from the outside, Israel-Palestine is that elephant. A set of competing, often incompatible or outright contradictory narratives, more often than not held by people who have constructed a sense of self around one of them, whether individually, as a collective, or both. In the case of Jewish and Palestinian (or wider Arab) diasporas this is, if you like, a rational irrationalism. The narrative may or may not be accurate. (Who can say? Who should say? We shall come to that.) But the connection to it, the strength of feeling, the need for it – that is simple enough to make sense of.

Yet those with no skin in the game frequently seem just as powerfully animated, sometimes even more so. In particular, when I encounter the contortions demanded and the rhetoric inspired by the issue’s peculiar status as the entry-level requirement for the “community of the good” (as scholar David Hirsh has it) of the modern western left – which happens daily, hourly – I think of George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism. Orwell wrote of how “transferred nationalism” allows the holder to be “much more nationalistic – more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest – than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge [ . . . ] he can wallow unrestrainedly in exactly those emotions from which he believes that he has emancipated himself . . . all the overthrown idols can reappear under different names, and because they are not recognised for what they are they can be worshipped with a good conscience. Transferred nationalism, like the use of scapegoats, is a way of attaining salvation without altering one’s conduct.”

Still, let us be even-handed. Does this proxy nationalism not also occur among many external – that is, non-Israeli, non-Jewish – adherents of Israel? Yes, undoubtedly. But while some certainly exhibit a degree of zealous monomania, I’ve not observed it to be as prevalent generally as it is among supporters of the Palestinian cause on the left. And in Israel-boosters on the right, it has often struck me more as a cause of convenience. Some of them, I have come to suspect, support Israel chiefly because their political adversaries hate it; “to trigger the Libs”, as they might put it. The “my enemy’s enemy” fallacy is not confined to either side.

But perhaps this observation is due to where I stand and whom I know. Perhaps it is also down to what I know, which is where a book such as Moment of Truth comes in, a compendium of expert essays on and analyses of the current state of the conflict, largely written in an adversarial point/counterpoint form, with individual writers responding to one another: a necessarily complex and convoluted exercise in Socratic method. I certainly need to know more. One always needs to know more.

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