The Danger of Opinions Absent Context

Earlier this week I published a blog criticizing MK Michael Oren for his op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal and spoke about why a member of the Knesset’s personal opinion will always be seen as reflective of government policy, rather than as an independent statement.

The responses that I received made me realize that the point which I thought was implicit in the blog was really not obvious to most readers at all. And that is the need for “context.”  What do I mean?

The danger of op-eds, for example, is that a 400-600 word piece published in a newspaper or on line is an entity unto itself, without any extensive background or one-on-one dialogue with the author.  In the case of Michael Oren, for example, I think his new book (of which I have only seen excerpts) would seem to be a necessary and vital contribution to the ongoing disagreement between Israel and the US in how to handle the Iranian nuclear issue.  But this is true because (a) the book is chock full of details [although some have disputed their accuracy], and (b) it creates a context for the reader which gives one the opportunity to understand the author’s points in the extended framework in which he presents it.

The same is true of a lecture.  Someone whom I respect highly attended one of Oren’s lectures on the same topic recently and came away so impressed that he termed Oren’s contribution a “profile in courage” to use the title of an earlier tome by former US President Kennedy.  But again a lecture provides a context for the topic, where the audience has the opportunity to ask questions, challenge the speaker and come away with an understanding of the framework within which the speaker developed his thesis.

An op-ed, on the other hand, interesting as it may be, is equivalent to Cliff’s Notes, that venerable but very abbreviated summary of literary works that many of us used in college but which never gave the reader much of an understanding of the context in which the author created the novel. For the uninitiated who reads an op-ed without context the odds of reading something into that which was not intended by the author enjoys a high degree of probability.

A parallel situation occurred this week with the issue of the UN Human Rights Commissions’ issuance of the report on last summer’s defensive war in Gaza.  Ari Shavit’s op-ed in today’s Ha’aretz regarding this document hits the nail on the head when he says: “But the truth must be told. The UN report on the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict is distorted and distorting, and should outrage every decent person. That is because the detailed, 183-page document has a serious flaw – it has no context.”

“It doesn’t give proper weight to the fact that in 1993 Israel opened its heart to peace, put its confidence in Yasser Arafat and enabled him to set up a semi-independent entity in the Gaza Strip. It doesn’t give proper weight to the fact that in 2000 Israel agreed to leave the Gaza Strip and set up a sovereign Palestinian state, there and in the West Bank.”

“It doesn’t give proper weight to the fact that in 2005 Israel destroyed 24 communities and uprooted 8,000 people from their homes so that the Palestinians would have (for the first time in history) an autonomous region of their own. It doesn’t give proper weight to the fact that all these Israeli gestures – intended to end the occupation and advance peace – resulted not in the appearance of a peaceful, humane Palestine, but in the creation of a totalitarian, violent Hamastan that oppresses Palestinians and attacks Israelis.”

So while the report itself might have some value in assisting us here to look more closely at ourselves, without context the value of the document is significantly diminished.  This is the complaint I still have about Michael Oren’s piece in the Wall Street Journal even if it accurately portrays the facts.

The American abstractionist painter put it well when he said:  “For me, context is the key – from that comes the understanding of everything.”

Without context ideas are not only less important, they can actually be totally misinterpreted and used for the wrong purposes.  It is a lesson all of us who blog, write op-eds and the like need to internalize if what we write is to have meaning.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 33 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, Ontario and Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.
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