Yes, We Are Different

The Illusion Of Similarity

An Arab teen has been killed.

If you follow the news around Israel, you’ve surely heard about this by now.  In an attack eerily reminiscent of the recent abduction and murder of the three Israeli boys, the teen was abducted, murdered, and then abandoned.

The news sites have rushed to claim that the killing was clearly an act of retribution.  Revenge by extremists.

Then there are the reports of a Facebook campaign by Israelis to demand vengeance, reminiscent of the three-fingered salute Palestinians were spreading around Facebook in support of the kidnapping.

The conclusion seems clear: we are no different than Palestinians.  We have the same urges for vengeance, the same bloodlust, the same extremist elements in our midst.

Indeed, today, there have been a number of articles published claiming this very thing.  One of the most common themes in the Times of Israel blogs today is this concept.  The point that we need to self-examine, self-assess, see the negative within our own society.  We need to stop pretending we are perfect.

I totally agree.  We do need to self-examine.

And it’s true, there are extremist elements within the Jewish, and certainly Israeli, communities.  Even if it turns out this latest murder wasn’t an act of revenge, it’s impossible to deny that there are elements within Israel that are perfectly capable and willing to pursue such action.

But we need to be careful when we see these things.  When we notice seeming parallels between Israeli society and Palestinian society.

Because while there are similarities, we are also different.  And those differences, when unnoticed, put us in danger.

The very fact, for example, that we are having this debate in the first place, and that the debate itself is so vigorous, is a sign of the differences in culture.  Yes, there are some Palestinians, and certainly Muslims (especially in the US), that have condemned the kidnappings of the Israeli boys.  But by and large, especially in Palestinian culture, even if there are people that disagree with these abductions, there is no sign of the culture of debate over killings, kidnappings, and more.  Instead there is an “official” condemnation by the leader of the Authority, who also happens to be allied with the government that authorized the very abduction he has condemned.

In fact, there have been only two Arabs (not even Palestinians, but Arab Israelis) truly attempting to vigorously debate their society, and their lives almost instantly were put in danger.  The most vocal, Mohammad Zoabi, had to be put in police protection after his father and uncle, among others, planned to abduct and torture him.

It is almost impossible to imagine a situation in which an Israeli, and certainly a Jew in the diaspora, would be put in a similar situation simply for speaking his mind.

This is not an attempt to make a blanket attack against Palestinians, or even the Palestinian culture itself.  There are people determined to make peace.  There are amazing, good, wonderful, folks on their side, and I myself have met my fair share.

But we can’t fool ourselves: our two societies are different.  There are similarities, just as any society will have similarities, but we can’t fool ourselves into thinking we are exactly the same.

The Danger Of Equivalency

In fact, making this argument invalidates both our society and that of the Palestinians.

By refusing to understand our differences, we refuse to acknowledge the point of view of the Palestinians.  We hope that if we act to them the way we would want to be acted towards, they will capitulate, and we will all be friends.

Anyone that has ever been in a serious relationship knows how dangerous this way of thinking is.  My wife is vastly different than me, and when I try to treat her the way I want to be treated, she cannot even comprehend why I would act the way I am.  In my mind, I am doing the right thing, in her mind, I am not truly loving her (and she’s right, by the way).

Now imagine this same situation with a culture vastly different than your own.

Peace will only be achievable when we accept that Palestinian society is different from Israeli society.  Realities will need to be accepted, and perhaps realities that we don’t feel comfortable accepting (like, for example, the possibility that there is large group within that society that would rather die than ever accept the existence of a Jewish state).

And yes, we need to introspect.  We need to understand who we are.  The positives of our society and the negatives.  We need to see why we are different, what makes us unique.

But This Isn’t About Differences Or Similarities…

We need to also stop worrying about who is “better”.  In fact, I think the very existence of this word is part of the reason this split between people who fool themselves into believing Jews are immune to evil and those who think we are all the same exists.  One group recognizes differences and immediately slaps a value judgment label on it.  The other group, rightly, cringes, at the value judgment of the word, but then, in order to combat it, argues that we are no different at all.

The truth, as always, exists in the middle of these two camps.  Yes, we are different, but adding value judgments and applying these differences to our entire society is just as dangerous as claiming we are no different.

True diversity can’t be sustained without embracing differences.  A rainbow can’t exist without its multiplicity of colors.

The true enemy of peace isn’t just hate.  It is an inability to accept subtlety.  An inability to see competing truths in one place.

We live in a world that is constantly telling us that we are all the same.  In a place like America, it is almost possible to imagine that this is the case.  Sites like Humans of New York beautifully display to the world how, despite our diversity, we have common strains that connect us.  In fact, most people would argue that is the great contribution of HONY, a reminder of our similarities.

But the site also shows us our glaring differences.  It reminds us that those differences are what bring out both our beauty and our ugliness.  It reminds us that you cannot know even your neighbor without reaching out to him, without trying to understand him and his story deeply.  It reminds us that we, and even our society, are not the center of the universe.

It is in this subtlety, in this tension between a united and fractured reality, that we will find true peace.  As the teachings of Kabbalah say, you cannot have harmony without both compassion and severity.

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