When Good People Have Wrong Ideas

Palestinian refugees fleeing the Galilee in 1948

Palestinian refugees fleeing the Galilee in 1948 / Wikimedia Commons

So much of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is caused by the misconceptions held by good people.  I was reminded of this today by a story called the “The First Symptom” by Michael Devolin, which arrived in an e-mail from Jerry Sobel, “Israeli advocate in defense of Israel’s just cause”.

Devolin, a Canadian writer, tells us what Middle Eastern Muslims supposedly believe, “their intended genocide of every living Jew residing in the Middle East,” “Islamic-incited, anti-Jewish hatred and genocide,” and “to wipe out the nation of Israel and all its Jewish inhabitants.”  Is that what Muslims want?  Jews, Christians and Muslims used to live peacefully together in Palestine; they do today in the United States.  Devolin claims that Iranians are seeking genocide of Jews, yet there isn’t even a genocide of the many Jews who live in Iran today.  Even the Hamas Charter says that Muslims, Christians and Jews can live peacefully together.  I wonder what Muslims Devolin and Sobel are talking to; not a single Muslim I have talked to expressed any desire for the extermination of Jewish people.  It leaves me wondering, is a Canadian wrier or an “Israeli advocate”—as opposed to an advocate for all people—a good source of information on what Iranians, Arabs or Muslims believe?

People are often mistaken—at home, in business, in religion, or in politics—when they claim to know what other people believe, particularly when ascribing negative motivations to those other people.  It’s a mistake I try to avoid.  While I don’t know what Devolin or Sobel truly believe, I certainly believe they are warm, caring people who think they know the truth, who want peace, and who don’t want to mistreat other people.  Yet when the Devolins and Sobels and too many of our religions and political leaders here in the United States support violence against other people on the basis of their misconceptions of those other peoples’ motivations, they are part of the problem, a big part of the problem.

Sobel states, “I believe in the right of the Jewish people to live in our ancient homeland and practice our way of life in peace.”  Does he believe that Jewish people have the right to violently expel hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish men, women and children from their homes and villages in order to enjoy that peace?  I doubt it.  Based on the material he writes and disseminates, he probably honestly believes that Muslims are programmed to kill and exterminate Jewish people.  He probably thinks that the Wall is there only for security, that by helping achieve peace it will benefit Israelis and Palestinians alike.  He probably thinks that, even though I am Jewish, I must somehow be anti-Semitic for espousing equal treatment for Jews and non-Jews.  I can’t say for sure what Sobel or Devolin believe, but I certainly don’t think they are evil monsters in the sense of wanting to see Arabs suffer or exterminate them.  I don’t think they are evil monsters in the way that they seem to perceive other people to be evil monsters.  But they, and the so many others who believe that people on “the other side” are evil, are the biggest obstacle toward peace in this conflict.

The solution is not to denigrate other people but to get past seeing other people as being on another side.  Whatever our background, we have been taught to love our neighbor as ourselves.  It’s time to walk the walk.  Palestinian Elias Chacour, whose family was one of the many expelled from their home by the Haganah, expresses what is needed so beautifully:

You who live in the United States, if you are pro-Israel, on behalf of the Palestinian children I call unto you: give further friendship to Israel. They need your friendship. But stop interpreting that friendship as an automatic antipathy against me, the Palestinian who is paying the bill for what others have done against my beloved Jewish brothers and sisters in the Holocaust and Auschwitz and elsewhere.

And if you have been enlightened enough to take the side of the Palestinians — oh, bless your hearts — take our sides, because for once you will be on the right side, right? But if taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, back up. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy, for God’s sake.

The solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict is clear.  The solution isn’t going to come from separation or two-state solutions or the continued mistreatment of the Christian and Muslim families of Palestine.  The solution will come when all of us, the Sobels and Gingrich’s and all their well-meaning supporters recognize that it was wrong to expel peaceful Palestinian families from their homes; that expulsions and mistreatment are the drivers of hatred, not the solution to hatred; and that by following our cherished principles, repatriating refugee families who we expelled, we can have the peace that we all want, all of us.

Steve Feldman
Steve Feldman is the author of Compartments: How the Brightest, Best Trained, and Most Caring People Can Make Judgments That are Completely and Utterly Wrong. He is also author of A Jewish American's Evolving View of Israel published by the American Council for Judaism and A Doctor's Prescription for Peace with Justice published by Americans for Middle East Understanding.
  • Michael Devolin

    You don’t believe that the average Middle Eastern Muslim hates Jews? I recommend you don a kippa and walk down the main street of any Arab Muslim city in the Middle East and see how far you get before you’re beaten to death. Your broad generalization is a lie and a sophism and you know it. You would have to denigrate all media sources in the civilized world as liars and mendacious to believe what you are telling here. It is impossible for any Jew to live in the vicinity of Arab Muslims without fear of violence and bloodshed. If you want to live in this fantasy world, go ahead. Just don’t try and live it in the Muslim Middle East.

    How can you pretend to be such a “social messiah” and innocuous while simultaneously transmogrifying the truth about terrible situations for the Jewish people?  

  • http://flavors.me/christab Christa Blackmon

    Normally I wouldn’t bother responding to such a tedious comment, but since it appears that it was written by one of the subjects of the article…

    Yep, all Muslim Arabs and Palestinians have an uncontrollable urge to beat up rabbis. That’s why they like to have photo ops with anti-Zionist Orthodox rabbis. http://www.haaretz.com/news/anti-zionist-jews-meet-with-hamas-leader-in-gaza-1.280162

    Or why so many Palestinian organizations openly work with Israeli counterparts in documenting and resisting the occupation. Oh but, I see. Those are the exceptions to the rule. The rule which is so simplistic and applied to such large groups of people that it is impossible to quantify and therefore must always be true, even when presented with examples of when it isn’t. OR It could just be that elements of two societies locked in a bitter war over land decided to glorify their political antipathies by pretending that its all about religious edicts and thus rally greater portions of the global population around their cause, but really have no issue with the individuals from the other religious group when those individuals express similar political beliefs. 

    Can we move on please?

  • Devolin

    Gnash your teeth on this. Finkelstein Sparks Outrage Within BDS Movement BDS activists, Finkelstein and Chomsky, acknowledge that the movement calls for the destruction of the State of Israel. By Rachel Hirshfeld First Publish: 2/22/2012, 9:00 PM

    Israel and the Palestinian nightmare
    Zeev ShemerIn a surprising and atypical interview last week, controversial political scientist and Israel-bashing ‘Palestinian’ rights activist, Norman Finkelstein, called the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel “a cult.”Finkelstein’s comment sparked outrage within the BDS movement and other, like-minded, anti-Israel groups. The video, which had been spreading widely on the Internet, was soon removed by ‘Palestinian’ activists who clearly were dismayed with Finkelstein for defending Israel’s right to exist.Renowned MIT linguist Professor Noam Chomsky, a radical leftist and avid ‘Palestinian’ activist who met with Hizbullah leader Nasrallah, has voiced similar criticism of the BDS movement, citing the “hypocrisy [that] rises to heaven,” and questioning why other countries haven’t been the targets of such boycotts due to “human rights” concerns. Chomsky even “went so far as to suggest the movement was calling for the ‘destruction of Israel,’” Campus Watch reported.“While no one can gauge individual motivations for persons in the BDS movement, the movement as a whole is going about its activism all wrong. Urging the self-determination of Palestine isn’t innately anti-Semitic. But cutting off, and in essence damning, the whole of the Israeli people because of the policies of the current (or past) administration(s), ignores and inflames an issue of great complexity. A crisis of this magnitude will never find itself bettered without an approach that is sensitive, subtle, and mindful,” Campus Watch stated.“Lumping the entire Israeli people together through calls for a wide-sweeping boycott is not the answer… such categories are feeble in their ignorance,” it continued.

  • Devolin

    Mr. Feldman, suggesting I “read again” your article with a more open mind exposes your unctuous and condescending mentality: everyone opposing you is simplistic, everyone supporting your views is “enlightened.” It is such arrogance and mental disjointedness on your part that prevents any positive denouement to this Muslim-Jewish situation (and this is what it is). Islam is the only obstacle to peace in the Middle East. That’s the long and short of it. It is right in front of you and you are too much of a coward and politically correct to acknowledge it publicly. I am done posting here. “Answer not a fool in his folly…” 

  • http://www.facebook.com/drstevefeldman Steve Feldman

    Jews have lived peacefully alongside Muslims in many places
    and at many times.  I’m curious how
    one can ignore the expulsions of Muslim and Christian families as the primary
    cause of the conflict and violence.
    Perhaps it will help clarify the issue if we ignore Islam for a moment and
    focus just on the Christians in Palestine.
    They were expelled from their homes, too, and were made refugees.
    There have been Christian Palestinians who thought violence was an
    appropriate response (though neither Muslim nor Christian Palestinians have been as violent toward Jews as Israeli Jews have been toward Palestinian people).  Islam is
    clearly not the obstacle to peace.
    Palestinian Christians say their main problem is mistreatment by Jewish
    people (http://www.fosna.org/content/naim-ateek-letter-archbishop-rowan-williams), not Islam.  The obstacle to peace, the elephant in the room of obstacles, is
    expelling peaceful families from their homes and not allowing them to return.


    The bottom line is, to our Jewish sensibilities, expelling
    whole villages of peaceful men, women and children is a violation of our moral
    character and the cause of the violence.

  • Anonymous

    My dear brother Steve,

    I enjoyed reading your autobiographical essay, “When Good People Have Wrong Ideas.”

    Your foundation premise that “much of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is caused by the misconceptions held by good people” is incorrect. The problem is not the inability of people to see another’s point of view. Christa is correct when she writes that it is “two societies locked in a bitter war over land.”

    The war between the Israelis and the Palestinians began in 1948, and has never ended. This is a war that the Palestinians have been losing, but they continue to fight. The most effective weapons the Palestinians have are non-violent resistance and the demographic conquest via the right of return. The most effective weapons of Israel are the security wall and the settlements.

    More people are recognising that advocates in the boycott, divestiture, sanction movement, and those who advocate for a massive Palestinian right of return, are not working for human rights and peace, but rather are supporting the Palestinian war effort. People should also recognise that advocates for the security wall and the settlements are not promoting security and peace, but are supporting the Israeli war effort.

    I am an advocate for individual human freedom. In the past, the world’s primary obstacles to freedom have been slavery and despotism. Today, however, the major growing threat to freedom is war. With improvements in technology and tactics wars can be waged with less collateral damage. Unfortunately, this has also led to conflicts that are no longer self-limited. Like the War on Drugs or the War on Terrorism, the Israel-Palestine war has been going on for decades and there is no end in sight.

    Israel will not stop fighting a war it is winning. The point of the article under discussion “The First Symptom” is that Israel recognises that its enemies are not fighting Israel for what it does, but rather for what it is. If Israel loses a war, it will not just lose some resources or some land, but will be destroyed. I do not think the Palestinians can or will win this war. The best solution is to lay down the weapons of the war and come to the negotiating table. As time goes on and Israel continues to win, any negotiated settlement will be less and less advantageous to the Palestinians. To have a better life, living in their own state, on their own land, they must end the war on Israel.

    • http://www.facebook.com/drstevefeldman Steve Feldman

      The ideas expressed by Devolin and promoted by Sobel—claims
      of “intended genocide of every living Jew residing in the Middle
      East,” “Islamic-incited, anti-Jewish hatred and genocide,” and “to wipe out the
      nation of Israel and all its Jewish inhabitants”— are of the “good people with
      misconceptions” type.  But what
      you’ve expressed here is a far more insidious problem, one of context and
      world-view affecting how people perceive reality, another key issue in the
      Israel/Palestine conflict.


      Your letter claims that the peaceful efforts of Palestinian
      refugee families to return to their homes, and the efforts of the people who
      support those families, is war
      against Israel.  It is an
      interesting way to frame the issue, to label peaceful resistance against
      injustice “war.” Perhaps this spin helps one mentally reconcile two
      contradictory notions: one, the desire to support Israel even when Israel
      discriminates against non-Jewish families; two, our moral abhorrence of discrimination.  How ironic, as we Jews have been
      victims of this type of discrimination far too often.


      Granted, in some sense this is a war, a jihad, a struggle in the sense of
      peacefully fighting for equality and human rights against adversaries who—though
      they are intelligent, caring, friendly people—have a world-view which makes
      them believe it is okay to expel hundreds of villages of peaceful Palestinian
      families from their homes; okay to kill as many Christian and Muslim
      Palestinian men, women and children as necessary to maintain security for Jews;
      okay to create a state run by and for Jewish people in a land where other good people
      were already living.


      You mentioned the war on terrorism.  If only there were a war against terrorism.  Terror is horrible.  We have felt the suffering of the
      families of S’derot and of the friends and families of those killed by suicide
      bombers.  All of us want that
      terror to end, but knowing the depth of that suffering, those of us who have
      thrown off the yoke of bias also realize that the far, far greater terror that
      we are inflicting on Palestinian families, families that we made refugees, must
      end, too.


      In this struggle, in this war, Israel is not winning and cannot win.  Discrimination against non-Jewish
      families is a violation of our most cherished Jewish principles, and we are
      losing to whatever extent we continue that discrimination.  The end of this conflict will not only require
      the Devolins and Sobels to get past their misconceptions of Muslim and Arab
      beliefs, but also for the rest of us to give up our prejudices and realize that
      peace will come when we end mistreatment of our Palestinian brothers and


      You perceive that Israel’s “enemies are not fighting
      Israel for what it does, but rather for what it is,” but what is happening is
      that Israel’s friends and supporters are
      coming to realize that discrimination against Palestinian families is wrong and
      that we should help Israel, help
      Israel to become the beacon of peace and justice that we all want it to be and
      which it will be when Palestinian refugee families are welcomed home and
      treated as equals alongside Jewish families.  Let’s beat our (massive supply of) weapons into ploughshares,
      tear down the Wall, and come to the negotiating table to discuss how best to achieve
      the peaceful repatriation of Palestinian families.