Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Bias and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

It often happens that college and other types of events dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian (I-P) conflict are accused of bias or of being one-sided or of lacking balance. So, for example, if a teacher shows a film in her class that is sympathetic to the Palestinians, some students complain that it is biased and that the whole event is, because of that, biased also. If a student organization puts together a panel of speakers who are supportive of Palestinian issues, the event is accused of being one-sided and of being biased, to give another example.

The use of the term "bias" in such cases differs from the way it is sometimes used when people say, for example, "I am biased toward chocolate, not vanilla." This way of using the term expresses simple personal preferences. It is also different from the way the term is often used in the sciences, where we speak of a sample being biased, meaning, simply, that the sample was not chosen at random and that it reflects a certain range or type of evidence. In such uses, there is no implication of moral wrongdoing or of failure. Not so with accusations of bias in the I-P conflict (and perhaps other political events). These are meant to imply that there is a serious moral failing in such events. Is there? This is the issue I want to briefly look into.

What could be the source of such accusations? One answer that comes immediately to mind is that if a teacher shows a pro-Palestinian (which does not mean, by the way, anti-Israeli) movie or assigns such a book, she is biased because she is taking sides, and that the event is biased because it encourages the students to take sides also. But this cannot be right. Taking sides, as such, is not bias in any seriously negative (moral) way. Suppose I witness Terri taking Rachel's coat, and I side with Rachel, asking Terri to return to Rachel her coat. How can I possibly be biased? Surely not simply because I took sides! Indeed, if we do not take sides in certain cases we do show a moral failing and a serious one at that: we fail to be just and fair. Moreover, it seems to me that the general connection between accusations of bias and taking sides is this: when one takes the side of the wrong party in the conflict, one can be legitimately accused of bias in the sense that one is either being blind to the facts, including the moral facts, or one is willfully aligning oneself with the wrong side, even though one knows what the facts are. In the case of the I-P conflict, whatever failures and moral misdeeds the Palestinians can be rightly accused of, ultimately, it is Israel that cleansed the Palestinians in 1948 and built a country at their expense, that occupied the rest of their lands in 1967, and that continues to treat them in woefully morally inadequate ways.* So to show sympathy to the Palestinians and educate the world about their plight is certainly no baised stance. If anything, it is a just one, and, depending where and in what political atmosphere one takes such a stance, a courageous one to boot.

But another meaning of "bias" in such cases is that the event or the person in charge of the event, be it a panel of speakers, a rally, or a classroom discussion, fails to show both sides of the issue. As we all know, there are two narratives to this conflict, the Israeli one and the Palestinian one. And to exhibit bias or to be baised is simply to fail to show or explain both sides; it is to lack balance. And this, one might claim, is a failing, and, indeed, a moral one at that. But is this true? Is showing or explaining only one side a moral - or, at the very least, a serious failure?

Not so obviously. Consider - and I am not making an analogy with the I-P conflict - a panel discussion at a college campus on Apartheid South Africa during the time when Apartheid was alive and well. Is it a moral failing that no one representing the pro-Apartheid side is present? It seems to me that no one would want to make such a claim, and for good reason. For if the task of the panel is to inform the students about the moral wrongs of Apartheid, no one is going to, or should, claim that the pro-Apartheid side be represented. If we do, then we are balancing the just with the unjust. Is this the balance we strive for? Surely not.

We can immediately derive two lessons from this. First lesson: one cannot simply require that for any such discussions that both sides be represented; whether one should make such a requirement depends on the issue being discussed. That is, some issues are genuinely morally complex in that more than one side is in the right; in such cases, requiring that both sides be represented makes sense. In the case of the I-P conflict, it does indeed have many complex aspects. But at its core, it is a simple conflict and is about giving the Palestinians their just due. Currently, there is no such due being given: no viable state, no right of return for refugees, no self-determination for the people, etc. If anything, Israel continues to act unilaterally and at the expense of the Palestinians. So if by both sides we mean that both sides are equally morally right, then we kid ourselves. For no point of view can morally defend the general practices that Israel engages in towards the Palestinians. There is no balance to be sought here between both sides.

Second lesson: whether both sides should be represented depends also on the nature of the event and what it aims to achieve. Consider a history class on South Africa: it would seem to me to be entirely fair to demand of the teacher that she explain the pro-white point of view as part of the history she is seeking to teach her students. This is because the point of the class is history, and to teach this history well, the students need to know the history in as comprehensive a way as possible, and this includes all relevant sides to the issue. or consider a discussion of the philosophical issues involved in the I-P conflict. In such a discussion, it is imperative that students hear both sides of the issue. This is because the discussion is a philosophical one and the students need to assess the arguments of each side. But once the teacher turns from strict history to moral lessons from history, then the wrong side immediately ceases to have representational importance, for we do not, and should not, learn our morals from the wrong sources. With respect to the I-P conflict, again much depends on the nature of the event. If the event is on the psychological toll of the conflict, then yes, both sides should be represented, for both people have suffered because of this conflict. If the context is a history or a philosophy class, then yes, it is important that students know both sides of the issues. But if the context is, say, a panel to educate people about the core issues of the conflict, then it cannot be right to accuse it of lack of balance if certain Israeli points of view (I say "certain points of view" since many Israelis are very much on the side of the Palestinians); for the core issues are moral, and when it comes to these, it is the to Palestinians that justice is owed and it is Israel who has committed the injustice.

In short, to accuse an event on the I-P conflict as being one-sided simply because it shows only the Palestinian point of view (assuming for the sake of simplicity that there is only one such point of view) or features speakers representing only the Palestinian point of view should not be accepted at face-value. Much depends on the aim of the event and its context. One-sidedness is not only not always a bad thing, it is sometimes a good thing. For sometimes to show both sides is to commit a moral failure: to equivocate between sides when you should not equivocate; to fail to give others their due when you should not fail; to exhibit cowardice by not standing up and declaring who is in the right.

We should quit knee-jerk accusations of bias, lack of balance, and one-sidedness. We ought to pause, think, and decide whether such accusations are in order before we hurl them at others. After all, to accuse without thinking is also a moral failure.

* This historical view of what happened in 1948 is generally accepted by Israeli and non-Israeli historians of the I-P conflict (including Benny Morris, who morally justifies the ethnic cleansing; see his interview with Ari Shavit in "Haaretz," January 8, 2004). For some references, see Benny Morris, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949" (Cambridge University Press, 1988; second edition, 2003) and "Righteous Victims" (Vintage Books 2001); Ilan Pappe, "The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951" (I. B. Tauris, 1994); and Norman Finkelstein, "Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict" (Verso, 1995; second edition, 2003).