Alan Weintraub

Binary Thinking and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Embed from Getty Images

While attending my college-wide graduation commencement ceremony, someone leaped up from just a few rows behind me and shouted at the president of the college, who just started speaking, accusing him of “supporting genocide.” I then turned around to see a group — presumably of students — marching up the walkway chanting anti-Israel phrases. 

Unfortunately, whether for reasons of antisemitism or misinformation, many are fixated on the false binary of an oppressor-oppressed dynamic. A false binary that does not factor in Hamas’s admitted use of civilians as human shields. A false binary that, regardless of one’s feelings about the Israeli government, does not seem to acknowledge the problem the Palestinian leadership is for bringing about peace.

Without drawing any moral equivalencies, supporters of Israel can be prone to binary thinking as well, such as insisting there are no “innocent civilians.” Whether this is accurate or not, in order to best combat the violent antisemitism of Hamas we need to take into account that the perpetrators of October 7th, and many of their civilian sympathizers, are teenagers and young adults indoctrinated from birth and taught to blame Israel alone for the situation they grew up in.

The unique nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict challenges any attempt to see things as black and white, and requires nuanced discussions and creative solutions to address the situation of the Palestinian people and ensure that Israelis can live in peace and security without having to run to bomb shelters and perpetually monitor their geographic neighbors. 

Actually, considering how many moving parts there are in the conflict, the odds are that no two people should agree entirely on the facts or solutions. Yet, my impression is that many on both sides are unwilling to see beyond a binary lens and explore actual answers.

Returning to that graduation, where I was celebrating my master’s degree in History, it so happened that I was to speak later that day at my department’s post-commencement exercises. My remarks were inspired by my frustration with this prevalence of binary thinking in today’s political discourse. 

I highlighted how pattern recognition — learning from the patterns of the past — can inform us on the challenges we face today. When we say “history repeats itself,” this is what we mean. One such pattern is how binary thinking goes to the benefit of the extreme elements of political discourse.

The most devastating, extreme political movements, like fascism and communism, have historically relied on polarization and sounding the alarm about the other extreme. In a sense, they serve as assets for one another. When promoting binary thinking and pointing to the extreme on the other side, or when misleadingly presenting the other side in an extreme or less-than-flattering way, people will flock towards one extreme as the best means to combat that other extreme.

On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag — the German parliament building — was set on fire. Whether or not this was a false flag operation conducted by the Nazis, the result was that the Nazis capitalized on this incident by blaming the communists and stoking fears about the threat they posed to Germany. This alarmist approach, a historical appeal to binary thinking, fueled anti-constitutional legislation and Adolf Hitler’s swift rise to dictatorship. 

We see these kinds of alarmist accusations today. Anti-Israel voices insist that everyone else is complicit in “genocide.” Some supporters of Israel often take liberties with who they label as “antisemitic.”

This is the kind of division that fuels aggressiveness on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, I would posit that if at the same time both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders were more pacifistic, the conflict would probably be over. But instead, through contempt for the other side the militant elements get to hold onto power and win out, while the people lose as a result. 

To avoid binary thinking does not necessarily mean agreeing with the other side of an issue. However, by acknowledging valid points and nuances brought about by the opposing side we can evolve our opinion or reinforce our preexisting beliefs with a better command of the subject. We can also be more open to acknowledge the humanity in others and, for those in positions of power, perhaps negotiate a solution. 

That is, more broadly, the value of education — we become better equipped to explore complex ideas and reconcile conflicting information. Ideally, this should make us more open minded and less binary in our thinking. Ironically, such binary thinking has been so visible on college campuses.

History, and common sense, teaches us that binary thinking is the cause of, not the solution to, many of today’s problems. While seeing things through such a narrow lens may benefit extreme ideologies and powerful people who wish to retain that power, this ultimately hurts those who genuinely want to engage with an issue and find a solution. We cannot allow binary narratives to win.

About the Author
Alan E. Weintraub holds a master’s degree in History, an Advanced Certificate in Public History, and writes about Jewish history and political and philosophical thought. He is also a genealogy researcher and advanced chess player.
Related Topics
Related Posts