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).


  • I have never thought of this before. Perhaps I have been socialized to believe that arguments must present their counter in order to be fair and valid. In fact, my generation seems to play this philosophy out in their every day affairs. God forbid that someone actually draw a line in the sand.

    By Blogger workerbea, at 11:55 AM  

  • I think that there is such a thing as being bias in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You are saying that just because someone may just have a Palestinian representative does not mean that it is bias, and I disagree. I think that in order to have an arguement that is valid, you must have someone else that questions you. How else would you know that you are making a good point? You can't just say your side without someone against you because this makes you back up your side with more than just opinions; it gives you facts.
    It would not be fair to allow someone to speak about the Palestinian without an Israeli because you would only be getting one side. It might give someone who doesn't know about he situation one-side. and they might take up that side without knowing anything about the other. There is a bias on both side because like everywhere else, each side has been taught different point-of-views and different perspectives.

    By Anonymous Linda, at 11:48 AM  

  • Where did this idea of "objectivity" as "balance" come from?

    It is often (characteristically?) used when people don't like what is being said. People don't seem as anxious to demand time for "the other side" when it is their side which is speaking.

    It is certainly good for the classroom, and I like situations in which I can hear debate--but the principle is used to further marginalize dissent.

    By Blogger Arminius1945, at 7:14 PM  

  • I really do think Raja has an interesting point in his essay. Taking the side of something that is right doesn't necessarily mean bias; however I am not sure that I totally agree with him on the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think that there are situations that are clearly black and white issues-one side is clearly in the wrong and one side is clearly right-but I think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still a very gray issue. Perhaps the grayness of the situation is the reason that there are so many debates on the topic. While in some specific instances, one party may be more clearly associated with the right side, the actuality is that both sides have been wronged. I do believe in the possibility to take sides without bias, but I think this only occurs when one has heard from an opposing party why one should not take that position. Only with a fair presentation of factual information regarding the situation as a whole can one truely take sides without bias. We need the arguments involving the views of both sides as much as we need people who can listen to these views and take a side.

    By Anonymous Natalie, at 7:45 PM  

  • Valid poits are made through this blog but I don't completely agree with all that was said. As far as representing issues unbiased, this in my opionion is a resaonable way to go about things. But I believe that to be unbiased about the issues you have to have an outsiders views. Yes, you can represent an issue with an insiders views one sidedly but it will eventually become biased just because we are dealing with human nature. To present a one sided view you cannot have any emotional attachment to the issue if you plan on presenting it without bias. I believe, if you are to present the issue, present the whole issue not just part of the issue. How can people make logical opinions based on one side and a someone biased opinion?

    By Anonymous Amanda Cioca, at 8:13 AM  

  • This is a very interesting subject to think about, and I agree with some of it, but I also think that it is a dangerous stance to take. I agree that for historical reasons both sides should be represented in the I-P conflict and when people are taught about it then they should hear from both sides. This historical side to the situation is not as much about taking the side of one group or another, but learning the problems behind the conflict. I also think for philosophical reasons it is important for teachers to let their students know about both sides of the issue. I also understand that when teaching about moral lessons, there really is no side, there is really just what is moral and immoral. What I do think, that differs with Raja, is that a teacher who actually takes a side in a situation like this is a bad teacher. I don't think that teaching is about forcing ideas on to students, I think it's about giving students the facts and letting them decide what side they're on. I think it's dangerous for teachers to teach one-sidedly and I respect a teacher much more when they point out that they are going to try to teach in an unbiased way and not let their own views get in the way of letting individuals create their own ideas. As for a lecture type scenario, I think that if one side is truely the morally correct one, than that will show through when giving both both sides of a situation or, even better, when having a debate type situation. From personal experience I can say that when I am at a debate I come out with a better idea of whose side I'm on than if I just sat and listened to some person talk about their own views of a situation, with no differing view given. That situation just seems fake and unfair, especially in a situation like I-P where things are still happening and everything seems so chaotic and unclear to most people.

    By Blogger Ethan, at 3:11 PM  



    By Anonymous GREENBALLS17, at 8:19 PM  

  • no matter what we deal with in life, conversation, politics and social issue, bias is inevitable to happen. People, in any case of the state of mind, come into a conversation or thought with preconceptions of that issue. Whether the preconceptions be that of ignorance about the subject or knowledge only about one side or, at times this could be the worse, extreme zeal and passion about another side. What makse life interesting and worth living IS the grey area.. not the black and white! Nothing in life lacks the complexity of right and wrong, black or white, good or bad. Yes, there are certain things in history, especially the political kind that deal with such horrid things as Isreal and Palestine, to open the mind to such disgusting atrocities being committed... HOWEVER, wouldn't listening to an arguement with a deaf ear and looking at a picture of life with a blind eye ignorant in and of itself? I agree with Raja Halwani and am upset with some of the responses in the blog... many of us are misunderstanding Raja's point. Persons that want to truly understand a situation can do the research on their own... if someone would like to present an issue that is completely on the side of the Palestinians and it enpassions them to talk about what heats them up and try to share it with others... then it is their right. Bias or no- bias, they do not have to present a fair and valid arguement for the sake of those that want it. That is the beauty of debate... if you want a different point of view because it satisfies you... then create it or go out there and find it. Life is about the investigation of it not the presentation of it to you on a silver platter.

    By Blogger shabdiece, at 8:34 PM  

  • I whole-heartedly agree that the Palestinians have suffered immensely as a direct result of the creation of an Israeli state and actions on behalf of (some) Israeli people following. I think there is no denying that the hardships of the Palestinians need to be discussed and presented in college and other settings more often. This said; I do not think that Israeli ideas and motives should not also be explored, nor do I believe there is an instance
    (at this point in history) where they should be discounted. In order to be well educated on the I-P conflict both sides must be studied equally; in fact in doing so one may come to understand other elements of the conflict that may not otherwise be seen if the pro-Palestinian position is the only one explored. Comprehensive understanding allows for unique and informed opinions, which are influenced by thought and discussion, rather then an emotional reaction to a specific event or string of events presented by one side.

    By Anonymous Kirsten, at 9:47 PM  

  • What is going on here? most of these responses are completely missing the point that Raja made about bias. The point is not whether someone has an opinion, but whether it's right or wrong, whether it is based on fact or not based on fact.

    Reread his blog and pay attention to what he is saying and his examples!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:06 PM  

  • A quick comment on all the comments: I agree with the last one to date: please read carefully what I have written. I do not deny that people need to hear both sides of an issue to form their opinions; I do not advocate that teachers "force" on their students one point of view (Heaven forbid!); I have never said that it is NEVER fair to present both sides of an argument (really, people!). So please read my remarks carefully!

    By Anonymous Raja Halwani, at 6:43 AM  

  • Both sides need to not only be throughly discussed but also represented. In making an argument your point becomes even more valid if you are able to hear your opponents position then intelligently refute it.

    The I-P conflict is such a touchy subject, that not offending either party is next ot impossible. If anything those that are "neutral" or support both causes are the most hated.

    By Blogger maya, at 9:05 AM  

  • I agree with the fact that one must stand for what they believe is right. To back down from a moral position is indeed failing to represent the aims of the speaker (or whomever it may be) that they belive to be wholly right. it is the very same case in the I-P conlict. If you believe the Palesinian point of view is in the right then it would be detrimental to any argument you might make to also show the Isreali point of view, because more likely than not it would, at least partially, nullify your point.

    By Anonymous Neb, at 10:43 AM  

  • I think that to fully understand any conflict or situation both sides of the story must be though about. How can someone pick a side or formulate an opinion without knowing the full story. You give an example about two girls and the theft of a coat, I believe that even in such a small matter, without hearing what both girls have to say about theft (or why the one girl took the coat, it could have been a simple mistake) taking a side is bais, and wrong.

    By Blogger Porter, at 10:52 AM  

  • Interesting point, thought provocking. As to taking sides on an issue there's some quote (that i can recall word for word) about how it is a greater sin to not take sides at. Too many people are afraid to make an informed opinion of their own because of other peoples.

    Kate B.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:51 PM  

  • This issue of bias is an interesting phenomenon that trickles down to us from American journalism. Tune in to any of the political news shows on CNN, MSNBC, or FOX and you will see that the American media assumes as a basic premise, the very fallacy that Raja is talking about. Namely that good journalism needs to be "objective". According to this model, all that is needed to achieve this objectvity is a representation of two sides of an issue. Liberal-Conservative, Republican-Democratic and of course, Israeli-Palestinian. The problem, of course, is that for a serious treatment of an important topic, it is necessary to have more than just two morons talking about a given subject (for an example of good American journalism that does not make this mistake, see "Meet the Press"-NBC).

    Having agreed with Raja's analysis of the core fallacy, I would like to raise an issue that was not covered in this essay. Namely, that although it is true that there are certain indisputable historical facts pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it is equally true that these facts place much of the moral burden for the conflict on the Israelis, these facts do not mean that anyone who claims to be on the side of the Palestinians is ipso facto of pure motive and above criticism. This, of course, does not in any way contradict the central point of the essay, but it is important to keep in mind that one can have other objections to events, speakers, or (heaven forbid!) teachers, that go beyond the objection of "bias" as it is elucidated here.

    By Blogger Nemo Vagus, at 3:02 PM  

  • Good points, Raja.
    I like to see people addressing argumentative ploys that are conversation stoppers and not much more. By accusing someone of having a bias whatever a given conversation quickly changes over to the task of proving ones innocence of the charge.
    I think that bias doesn't need defense, it's a given. A bias-free perspective is a mythical creature, and having a bias should not discount what someone has to say. Take Israelis and Palestinians, for example: a given person who has seen this conflict firsthand is likely to have a bias. And they are much more likely to have something of value to say on the I-P matter than anyone in America where we have the luxury of ignoring anything that would bias us one way or another.

    By Anonymous willcapellaro, at 4:22 PM  

  • I really liked your idea of taking sides. last year my english teacher had a quote courtesy of dante up on the wall of his room, it read "the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral." His grandfather was in a concentration camp during the holocaust, and it really made me see the point in taking sides, be it from one point of view or both, sometimes you need to be clear on your ideals. your article was very intriguing, nice job.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:05 PM  

  • You're saying that even though many people can agree on something it doesn't mean that the other side should not be presented, and presented by more than on person for accuracy....? Someone should play devil's advocate because in real life there are dictators and pacifists.
    I don't think that the use of the P-I conflict accurately displays whether or not BIAS or NON BIASED opinions from the same or different side should be included in presenting both sides of a case based on the facts, because these are facts that still have to be collected by people, who don't see the same thing based on their different upbringings.
    I agree that not taking any side shows lack of thought for the issue, and in this issue, I think you left out Israel's side (so why did they do what they did in the conflict?)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:58 AM  

  • This is a very difficult topic and interesting one, but on the issue of whose side is morally right, it is never going to be agreed upon by everyone that it is the Israelis are morally wrong, and the Palestinians are morally right. I am not saying that I am for the Israelis, but some are. To some people, what the Israelis did was right. Even the Apartheid in South Africa was the right thing for some people (or the only way of dealing with race conflicts at the time), if these people thought that it was morally wrong, it never would have taken effect in the first place. Most people don’t strive to do things that they think is morally wrong. Most people try to live by what they think is morally right. Some people may be racist and do and say things that others would consider wrong, but in their heads they are doing right to protect themselves or create a better world. For this reason, I think it is best to learn as much about both sides as possible. Instead of focusing on who’s right and who’s wrong, we should try to understand why each side has done what they have done. If we do this, we can possibly fix the situation by helping the two sides communicate with one another and we can possibly prevent future problems by opening the channel of communication between the two cultures or races.

    By Anonymous Brigitte Caine, at 8:10 AM  

  • I believe that when one supports their belief a good tactic can be to discribe the short comings of the opposing veiw. This does not mean that this tactic is nessesary when proving a point. If one has an strong opinion on any given subject matter they have the right to prove their belief in any way they can. I dont believe that inviting someone with opposing views to speak at a convention is nessesary in order to avoid bias but I do believe it is helpful to explain the opposing view so your listner can have a better understanding of the subject.

    Jessica P.
    Paul's class

    By Anonymous Jessica, at 8:42 PM  

  • Wouldn't your first paragraph show your bias? Why wouldn't your second example state something to the effect of a student panel supporting the Israelis? It will be tough to agree with your thought if you yourself show a bias.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:38 PM  

  • I love this post. Your analysis is too good!! Keep sharing!!

    This is Ibrahim from Israeli Uncensored News

    By Blogger Ibrahimblogs, at 12:10 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home