You Don't Have to Pick a Side in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict | Opinion

These past few weeks have highlighted yet another glaring example of how polarized we have become. Spurred by cancel culture, an extremely polarized American political system and social media platforms that give everyone a microphone and a stage to voice their opinions, many people feel like they need to pick a side on every important issue and advertise it.

Contentious issues like the May 2021 outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence have been reduced to a black and white choice between two opposing sides. One side is right and the other is wrong. One side is good and the other is evil. Despite the high value Americans claim to place on free speech and debate, people who publicly support the wrong side in today's world are threatened with public shaming and ostracism. To take just one example, the response to Andrew Yang's May 10 tweet that expressed solidarity with Israel defending itself from terror was so negative that he felt compelled to apologize and revise his earlier statement.

On the other side of the spectrum, celebrities like DJ Khaled, Viola Davis, Bella and Gigi Hadid, and Mark Ruffalo (who later apologized for his "inflammatory" tweets) were among those praised for their unequivocally pro-Palestinian social media posts. Many of these included extreme and pointed language that accused Israel of things like "ethnic cleansing," "apartheid," and "genocide."

But it wasn't just celebrities. Friends, acquaintances, and colleagues of mine jumped on the bandwagon and engaged in similar online rhetoric. And I have to admit, it confused me: I knew many of these individuals' backgrounds, what they studied in school, what careers they have pursued. Like the opinionated celebrities, almost none of these friends, acquaintances, and colleagues received a formal education on or worked in careers even tangentially related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So how did they know enough to form such strong opinions? How did they know enough to decide who was right and who was wrong, who was evil and who was good? How were they sufficiently certain about their convictions to broadcast them to the world with the goal of convincing others of their own viewpoints?

The truth is, they didn't know enough. And that's what upset me most.

You don't have to choose
Pro-Israel activists wave Israeli Flags (L) as pro-Palestinian activists gesture during a demonstration protesting against Israeli attacks on Palestinians after at least 28 people were killed following clashes over the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, outside Downing Street in central London on May 11, 2021. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extremely complex and nuanced. It is as far from black-and-white as anything can be. Most people commenting on social media likely have little understanding of the many twists and turns contributing to this most recent outbreak of violence, which in and of themselves only scratch the surface of the underlying conflict.

There is a deep and troubling history between the Israelis and Palestinians that dates back to even before Israel declared statehood in 1948 and then fought in its first formal war with its Arab neighbors just hours later. To become an expert on this subject, or even sufficiently educated on it, is no small undertaking.

Yet hundreds of thousands of anti-Israel posts from non-expert individuals flooded our social media pages throughout the recent explosion of violence. And they did so without being challenged or reproached. Anyone who took a marginally more nuanced version, or even expressed equal sympathy for both sides, was all but canceled.

Gal Gadot, for example, was careful to express sorrow for both her fellow Israelis and her Palestinian neighbors in a tweet calling for peace—and was widely criticized for not sympathizing more with Palestinian suffering. Similarly, Rihanna's expression of horror that "Innocent Israeli and Palestinian children are hiding in bomb shelters" received intense pushback and was even compared to #AllLivesMatter, the troubling hashtag that now connotes racism and total opposition to #BlackLivesMatter.

Why has disapproval of warfare and expressing sympathy for both Israeli and Palestinian victims of violence, especially innocent victims of terrorism, become such an evil and unacceptable opinion?

It's all about what's popular on social media.

What I long for far more than people being able to publicly voice a defense for Israel defending itself, without being canceled or reproached, is something much simpler: I long for people to be curious again, to admit what they don't know, to ask questions, to engage in dialogue with people possessing opposing views, and to accept the intricacy of very complex situations.

This is why I was overjoyed to receive a text message a couple weeks ago from my friend, Tyler: "I know like .00099% of the Israel Gaza conflict and want to know more." Without a predetermined position or judgment, he proceeded to ask thoughtful questions about Palestinian civil rights, Hamas's rule in the territories, Benjamin Netanyahu's leadership, and the Israeli police response at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Not an expert myself, I told him what I knew and readily admitted what I did not know. I sent him some materials I had recently read or listened to, and I myself read more on issues that I realized I had not understood well.

Our goal in having this conversation was simply to understand more, not to be the final arbiters of right and wrong. We did not come to any definite conclusions, but it was the most powerful conversation I had about the conflict in recent years. Unfortunately, this was the only conversation I had like this during this most recent outbreak of violence.

I will conclude with a simple plea: Be more like Tyler. Be curious. Ask questions, consume materials representing a variety of positions, and attempt to understand the nuances of a very complex conflict.

Fight the urge to pass judgment too soon. Don't form an opinion immediately just so you can join the popularity contest crescendoing in condemnation of Israel all around you.

Admit what you do not know and ask others to help fill in the gaps. Use your social media platform to promote dialogue and discussion rather than to proliferate pointed and uninformed criticism.

Resist the temptation of black and white. Embrace the shades of gray.

You do not always have to pick a side.

Jennifer Shulkin is a publishing adjunct at The MirYam Institute. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the University of Pennsylvania. She has served as a former judicial law clerk in the Eastern District of New York and an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. She currently works as a white-collar criminal defense attorney in Washington, DC.

The views in this article are the writer's own.