Seeing past polarization

I can’t often point to a singular experience that informed a moment of clarity in my life, but when my sister FaceTimed me as she packed up her dorm room after finishing her last final of her freshman year in college, she told me a story that did exactly that.

Sitting on a bare mattress, she picked up a square white box with a glossy black top from the pile of cardboard on her floor and held it up to her camera.

Before showing me what was inside, she rested her hand across the top, as if questioning whether she should allow me to see or keep it to herself. She looked down at her fingers gripping the box’s edge and then back up at the camera. Her eyes were wide, the corners of her lips pointed up toward her cheeks in a smile, and I could tell that what she was about to show me was important to her.

She pulled out a gold menorah from Jerusalem that her Palestinian friend had given her the night before. He lived on her floor, and although they were never very close, he messaged her that night asking her to come back to the hall so he could give her a gift. She rushed past the common room, catching a glimpse of the headline on the T.V.: “Israel Kills Dozens at Gaza Border as US Embassy Opens in Jerusalem.”

 

In the wake of so much violence and turmoil, she never expected that he, a Palestinian, would offer her, a Jewish girl from Los Angeles, a gesture of goodwill.

She was surprised and moved by his kindness.

It took courage for him to put himself in a vulnerable position by opening himself up to a different perspective and inviting those around him to do the same.

As she told me this, I found myself in a state of near disbelief, not because I thought it was impossible, but because everything I had read and watched that day showed unresolved conflict, blind hatred without an effort to understand the other side and violence without compassion.

Following the conflict, I read a lot of editorials. Most more or less explained how one side was right and the other was wrong. Some said that the protests were not peaceful and that Hamas, a terrorist organization, was deliberately manipulating the situation for their public relations benefit. Others said that the Israeli Defense Force was unjustly preying upon peaceful protestors who objected to the U.S. embassy’s move to Jerusalem.

Initially, I found myself looking to choose one side, searching for clarity as to who was right and who was wrong. In reality, the conflict is so nuanced that it’s hard to label an opinion with just one word or associate with just one side.

In this polarization perpetuated by the media, the middle ground disappeared. No one placed emphasis on those who sought to understand all sides of the issue. No one talked about the neighbors who exchange conversation or the college friends who exchange gifts.

With issues that are loaded and confusing, it’s easy to sort opinions into black and white boxes. We glaze over the more complex aspects of the issue just so we can categorize them into our predetermined conceptions of right and wrong.

Instead of viewing conflict as black and white, we should allow ourselves to take the lid off of the box, welcoming those around us to understand our perspectives and share their own. Only then can we forge an environment that is better suited to address complex issues.

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