Article By Ehud Tokatly

The Binary Blunder

Is There No Other Way?

For the last 35 years, Israeli society has been deeply immersed in a dispute between "right" and "left". We chant the same slogans, dig into the same trenches and storm the same ghosts. Our society is torn between two dogmatic attitudes: "Greater Israel" versus "Land For Peace". The former is usually associated with working class Israelis, who tend to be more religious and often come from a Jewish-Oriental background. The latter is generally identified with more affluent Israelis, whose outlook is less traditional and their ethnic origin is more European. So, what has this rift given us? Have we made any progress through this dichotomy?

Indeed, throughout this period we also heard "centrist" tunes. Most of these have appeared to offer obscure compromises between the two extremes, or simply evade the issues. Thus, most Israelis regard the "centre" as a fairly poor option.

The time may have come for us to admit that neither "right" nor "left" offer viable solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Both ways have been tried: an actual creeping annexation, as well as political concessions along the lines of the "land for peace" formula. Is it not clear that both methods have failed on the ground?

In fact, Israel's political schism may reflect a much deeper problem. One can see a multitude of similar disputes in many modern countries. Almost everything in our public discourse is intuitively divided into a bipolar equation: Socialism vs. Capitalism, Monarchism vs. Republicanism, West vs. East, and so on. The most recent addition to these pairs is the debate over the "One State" or "Two State" solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

One or two? Black or white? Us or them? - They all come in pairs: Either-Or!

Such binary formulae may be suitable for devising basic computer programmes or perhaps other mechanical instruments, although these too require more than this simplistic design. But most healthy adults would probably agree that binary models are hardly beneficial in most human conditions. If we see an individual insisting on repeating his / her own mistakes, stubbornly trapped between two exclusive options, we may conclude that this person is suffering from a compulsive neurosis and advise a suitable therapy. Most of us learn from experience that human situations are best handled through more creative behavioural tactics, a deeper rational understanding and a more balanced emotional disposition. So how come we all turn neurotic when it comes to the public arena?

The roots of the 'Binary Blunder Syndrome' may be found in the deepest layers of our collective psyche. Human civilisation may still be stuck with the most basic, primeval instincts of self-preservation, when each individual or group had to quickly classify any phenomenon as either "good" or "bad", "edible" or "poisonous", "dangerous" or "harmless" and so on. It seems that humans still need this skill to secure their very survival. Western civilisation has excelled particularly in this field, developing superior technology that allowed for greater control of physical conditions, but seems to have instilled in many minds an extremely mechanistic perception of the universe.

However, humans have also developed more complex methods of interpreting reality, sometimes reaching intellectual, emotional and spiritual peaks that made our species unique. Many of these achievements may be found in ancient cultures that are currently being eroded by the forces of European-American hegemony. Indeed, even modern science can hardly be reconciled with the mechanical vision of the Newtonian era.

The Jewish civilisation presents an interesting angle on the binary problem. The ancient Torah scholars have formulated a methodological system of 13 analytical techniques for the systematic study of the law. One of these states: "When two sources contradict each other, the explanation can be determined only when a third phrase can be found to harmonise the two." (Braita D'Rabbi Ishmael). Rabbi Haim Lifshitz learns from this rule a more general principle concerning human behaviour: Where two human forces clash, we need to seek solutions in the realm of values and morals. Unlike basic existential human needs, ethical and spiritual virtues allow for flexible, creative solutions.

Perhaps we would be better off if we started seeking such patterns in our public conduct. If we liberate our minds from rigid dogmas, we may find out that both Socialism and Capitalism have their advantages, yet neither is perfect, so perhaps a third policy would manage to combine the best of both worlds? Similarly, we may reach the conclusion that there are more than two identities in our country, thus we may not need to follow Solomon's example in either chopping the land in two parts, or handing it over to one of the rivals. We may find that there can be many practical models that would allow all of us to live freely and prosper in our country.

Ehud Tokatly, 19/February/2004

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