Overcoming the Fear That Drives the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Once again, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are in a divisive argument over the seemingly eternal Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As I read the analysis of Obama's speech, I was most reminded of a recent story on The Onion: "Incomprehensible Shouting Declared U.S. Official Language." In fact, Israel may even be ahead of the U.S. in this realm. Gregory Levey, a former speechwriter for Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert wrote a book a few years ago entitled "Shut Up, I'm Talking -- And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government."

So while it's clear that everyone is talking -- or more accurately, shouting incomprehensibly -- it's even more clear that no one is listening.

Why is it so hard for either the Palestinians or the Israelis -- or, for that matter, different voices within the Jewish community -- to stop shouting and begin listening to one another?

Quite simply, Israel is not secure -- not physically and certainly not emotionally. And when we feel insecure, we cannot accept (let alone explore) the diversity of ideas that may help us solve problems.

A study done by New York University psychologist John Jost noted: "Threatening situations ... seem to increase people's affinity for politically conservative opinions, leaders, and parties" ("Conservatives Scare More Easily Than Liberals, Say Scientists"). "The study's authors also concluded that conservatives have less tolerance for ambiguity. ... Liberals, on the other hand, are 'more likely to see gray areas and reconcile seemingly conflicting information'" ("Psychology Study: Fear Leads to Conservatism").

So when liberal Zionists -- who are generally able to tolerate a lot of ambiguity -- feel like they need to fear for Israel's security, it naturally leads them to hold more conservative positions. And liberals feel very torn when they realize they are holding conservative positions. Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The New Republic about that sense of ambivalence and cognitive dissonance that arises when our liberalism and our conservatism collide around the Israeli-Palestinian issue:

I know that a Palestinian state is an existential necessity for me -- saving Israel from the untenable choice between being a Jewish and a democratic state, from the moral erosion of occupation, from the growing movement to again turn the Jews, via the Jewish state, into the symbol of evil.

But I also know that a Palestinian state is an existential threat to me -- forcing Israel back into eight-mile-wide borders between Palestine and the Mediterranean Sea, with the center of the country vulnerable to rocket attacks from the West Bank hills that overlook it.

And, if Tel Aviv were to become the next Sderot -- the Israeli town on the Gaza border that has endured thousands of missile attacks following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 -- the international community might well try to prevent us from defending ourselves against terrorists embedded in a civilian population, with all the consequences of asymmetrical warfare.

So yes, there are reasons to be afraid. But it is crucial for our fears not to dictate our actions. After all, it is far too easy to use emotions like anger, sadness or anxiety as justifications for "why we did what we did." Instead, our responsibility is to act on our deepest values even though we are afraid. Those who care about Israel need to be able to say, "Even though I may be worried about Israel's security, I want it to be a light unto the nations. Even though I may be scared of rocket attacks, I want Israel to show the world how we treat one another."

And while fear is powerful, hope is even more powerful. Hope is what provides us with the strength we need in order to move in the direction we most truly desire. So while Israelis may be understandably and legitimately afraid, Israel also cannot afford to lose its sense of purpose.

This Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not an issue that is going to be solved simply, easily or painlessly. And yet the only way either side will move forward is if hope overcomes fear, listening overcomes shouting, and each side does the difficult and internal work to truly ask, "What values do we want to live by?"

And so in the words of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism, my hope for Israel is that it will act "not [as] a vaccine against assimilation, but [as] an inspiring source of Jewish creativity and identity," and I join with Rabbi Jacobs in proclaiming:

"I will never back down from my commitment to a secure Israel.

I will never stop fighting for an Israel that grants all of its citizens, Arabs and Jews, fundamental human rights.

I will never stop working for an Israel that grants equal rights to Jews no matter their spiritual practice or belief.

I will never stop advocating for the US to remain Israel's staunch ally.

I will not back away from my commitment to a two-state solution living side-by-side in peace and security...

When Israel gets into our hearts, then I know that we will never stop fighting for an Israel that is secure, religiously free, guided by justice and dwelling in peace."

May our hope trump our fear, and may that hope -- and not our fear -- be what guides our actions.