Nuancing Nuance

Nuance: A subtle difference in, or shade of meaning, expression, or sound (The Oxford Dictionary).

“Make sure it’s nuanced,” I’m often asked by those inviting me to speak about Israel’s history and current affairs. “Tell us about the 1948 War or about last summer’s battle, but please do so with elegance and nuance,” they suggest.

I like nuance. Nuance enhances communication, adds flavor to the conversation, deepens our understanding of the world.

The history of a conflict, the current state of affairs between two Peoples, cannot be explained away with sweeping general statements. There’s no place for dogma. Indeed, to explain the current predicament in this neck of the woods, specifically between Israel and the Palestinians, requires a great deal of nuance.

All this was a disclaimer (we’ll revisit disclaimers later on) to an insight that I had about “nuance” the other day.

My insight was that people often confuse nuance with something else. I’ve come across this over and over again in my work as an educator. They confuse “nuance” with “balance.” Let me explain what I mean in the context of last summer’s war in Gaza (Operation “Protective Edge”).

Between July 8 and August 26, 2014, Hamas launched 4,532 rockets into major cities and towns in Israel, targeting over 5 million Israelis. In the course of the operation, 72 Israelis (66 of whom were soldiers) were killed and hundreds of others were wounded.  The “Iron Dome” missile defense system was largely credited for saving the lives of thousands.

The Israeli Defense Force attacked over 4,800 terror targets in Gaza, many of which were intentionally located inside or adjacent to residential buildings. Over 2,000 Palestinians were killed. After 50 days of fighting, and 9 ceasefires — which were each successively agreed to and then broken by Hamas — an open-ended ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas was signed on August 26, 2014.

A nuanced account would address the complexities of the operation, detailing perhaps the different tactics employed by Israel and Hamas. In a balanced account there is often an implicit understanding that both sides are equally responsible. After all, innocent people have been killed and injured on both sides (actually many more in Gaza).

A nuanced account promotes accountability (“here’s what happened – let’s see what we can do to prevent this from happening in the future”). A balanced account promotes avoidance (“I don’t care what happened – just make the fighting stop”).

In the context of the Gaza War, nuanced and balanced accounts are not the same. There is more than a subtle difference between Israel and Hamas. Israel is a liberal democracy. Hamas is a violent militant organization, designated by the US and the EU as a terrorist organization. Israel’s Defense Force is charged with protecting the people of Israel. Hamas’ terror groups are charged with obliterating the State of Israel. The IDF’s commitment is to prevent civilian casualties, both in Israel and in Gaza. If it makes mistakes and civilians are hurt, there is a system in place that enhances self-reflection and improvement. Hamas’ commitment is to kill as many civilians on both sides – targeting towns and cities in Israel and then hiding behind human shields in Gaza. If civilians are hurt by Hamas, there is joy and celebration, not grief and remorse.

Between Israel and Hamas, there is no balance – not in objective, nor in conduct. This is precisely the inherent flaw in the recent report submitted by the UN Human Rights Council on the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict. The report does everything it can to appear balanced – assigning equal responsibility (or blame) to Israel and Hamas, and drawing an absurd symmetry between Israel and Hamas. A good litmus test for distinguishing this distorted worldview – often termed “moral equivalence” – can be found when “balanced” phrases such as “cycle of violence,” or “tit for tat” are used to describe the conflict.

Another common mistake is to confuse “nuance” with “disclaimer.” The latter means “a statement that denies something, especially responsibility” (Oxford Dictionary). The problem is that when overdone, disclaimers have a tendency to actually deny personal responsibility for what’s being said.

In the name of political correctness, proponents of Israel will often open their statements with apologetic disclaimers such as:

Well, I’m not saying there is right or wrong, after all people are dying on both sides, the suffering is unimaginable and we need to show compassion.

And then close with a weak summary:

But we had no choice, we had to defend ourselves.

And by the time they’re done, all their disclaimers have diluted, perhaps even drowned, their message.

Disclaimers can provide nuance, but they should not replace the essence of what we want to say. Another way of communicating the above could be:

The suffering in Gaza is unfortunate, but Hamas needs to be held accountable for its extremist ideology and violent terrorism.

All of this is not meant to dismiss the importance of applying balance, or using disclaimers (maybe just a little). The point is that nuance matters, but only insofar as it promotes a clear and truthful observation of reality. And if we are able to successfully communicate our reality here in Israel – with all its subtleties and complexities – then I believe we can make it possible for the world to see us for who we really are.

 

 

 

About the Author
Zeev Ben-Shachar is Jerusalem U's Director of Israel Education. He oversees curriculum development and lectures widely at synagogues, Jewish federations, Christian communities, college campuses and international conferences. Zeev has a BA in Psychology from Harvard – later receiving a certificate of distinction for teaching there – and a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies from Tel Aviv University. He is featured in Jerusalem U's mini-documentary, "The Plight of the Palestinian Refugees."
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