Following an ecstatic dance gathering, many years ago, I was swapping personal stories with someone, and in the course of our conversation, I mentioned an anecdote about when I was living in Israel. “I’m anti-Zionist,” he interrupted me. “OK,” I said, nonplussed, diving back into my story.
“I’m anti-Zionist,” he repeated, with more emphasis this time. “Yeah, I heard you,” I said, picking up where I’d left off.
“Usually the conversation ends there,” he interrupted a third time, with a tone of surprise. “OK, well, I accept people with different viewpoints,” I said.
As we walked to our cars, the conversation shifted to Middle East politics, and I shared some of the layers of my story as an Iraqi-Israeli-American Jew. We continued talking for about half an hour, following which, I said I’d enjoyed talking and would like to continue. When I asked for his number, however, he was suddenly standoffish, saying he could give me his email.
The conversation ends there.
He, the anti-Zionist, I realized, was the one shutting down conversations – too entrenched in his dogma, to allow his paradigms to be challenged and, heaven forbid, shift. I, meanwhile, had friends and acquaintances from the spectrum of political viewpoints. At one interfaith Passover gathering, in fact, I was breaking massa (matzah) with people who had organized rallies opposite the rallies I had organized.
I not only embrace different points of view, but I also find that those who are anti-Zionist are characteristically ignorant of the depth and breadth of Jewish history, Middle East history, and the intersections thereof, so they are playing a game with half a deck of cards. Most have never even heard of the existence of Mizrahim – indigenous Middle Eastern Jews – and certainly have never spoken to one of us before. Being that we have comprised as much as 70% of the Jewish population of Israel, that’s a major oversight.
As part of processing this disturbing experience, I talked to my family in Israel, and was amused by how their responses reflected their individual personalities:
My aunt Nava, the quintessential ambassador’s wife – with a stately presence even in her nightgown – advised me to invite the guy to Israel, so that my cousin could take him to all the clubs and show him a good time. My uncle Yaqub, with his non-confrontational demeanor, said I should be pleasant to the guy when I see him again, but otherwise stay clear of him, because he could be hateful and dangerous. Yaqub’s wife, Belforia, thought I should push the issue with this guy, challenging his anti-Zionist thinking.
I dropped the matter altogether, but it still bothered me. Where was this man’s curiosity? His quest for discovery, for new knowledge and insight?
Preconceived notions not only can color how we see things but can make us unable to see, period. Without an open mind – one that is ready to go so far as to question our foundational beliefs – we can end up seeing through the filter of what we already think, so that we do not actually see, but rather, project. We can then build an entire world on the construct of false ideas, and go so far as to punish people for something we made up about them, in recursive thinking that is heartbreaking, exasperating, and even dangerous to people’s lives.
One of the most telling examples in my life was back in the 1990s, when it was par for the course for organizations to sponsor Black-Jewish and Arab-Jewish dialogues, without a single Black Jew or Middle Eastern Jew invited to speak. I attended one such Black-Jewish event, with a Black Jewish friend of mine, and when the program was over, we went up to the organizer.
“Where do you see someone like me?” my friend asked. “Where do I fit into this?” The organizer proceeded to mansplain to us how Jews are White, as our proverbial jaws dropped. “Look at my face!” my friend replied, exasperated, pointing at herself. “I am Black. I am a Jew.”
He just couldn’t get it. My friend was, in his mind, an anomaly, an outlier. Her existence did nothing to challenge his preconceived notions. He blew the educational opportunity standing right before him, quite literally. Instead of integrating her presence into his thinking, he projected his thinking onto her presence.
An Arab Muslim friend of mine recently said, “We have more commonalities than differences.” While that may be true, I don’t need someone to be like me to want to connect with and learn from that person. In fact, I love difference because it expands not only my thinking but also how I think. If my perceptions are screwy, I want to know, so that I have the opportunity to learn, grow, and change.
When people shut down conversations, or worse yet, when they knowingly spread misinformation – as is happening worldwide today – we lose that opportunity.
Case in point: Three decades ago, I was the Israel group leader at Columbia University, where today much of the violent anti-Israel activity is now happening on campus. I approached one of the anti-Israel organizers back then, to have a conversation about our respective thinking on the Arab-Israeli conflict. When she made claims that I believed were unfounded, I offered to read a book that contributed to her opinion. “Oh that must be why you think the way you do,” she replied, in a tone dripping with condescension. “You just haven’t read enough.”
Disdain aside, this woman was so closed-minded and arrogant that it did not occur to her to ask about a book that I might suggest. And from what I can see, that pretty much describes the overwhelming majority of anti-Israel protestors today: Their perceptions run through an entrenched, stagnant filter – effectively dismissing, devaluing, or outright denying what someone with a different point of view has to share.
We are all pieces of a highly complex puzzle. When we listen instead of project, discuss instead of argue, and have a goal of learning instead of winning – approaching dialogue with an attitude of curiosity and discovery – we can benefit from the unique life experience and thought process that we each bring to the table. With our combined intelligence and insight, we just might, together, solve the elusive puzzle of how to manifest peace in the Middle East.