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What Do We Mean When We Say "It's Complicated"?

What Do We Mean When We Say "It's Complicated"?

Wooden sign pointing on two directions that read SIMPLE and COMPLICATED

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven's name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven's name -- it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven's name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven's name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation (Pirke Avot 5:17).

In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Korachwe read of a major argument within the Israelite tribe between Korach and Moses. In this fight, God makes a clear judgment regarding who is right and who is wrong and metes out a severe punishment that removes Korach and his followers from the community. Though we find the violence of this story horrifying, in the increasingly polarized world in which we live, many people appear to embrace the definite and immutable judgment displayed in the text.

No issue is debated more within our community than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Firebrands on all sides can be uncompromising and absolute in their views. The vast majority of people, though, engage with this issue knowing that is it complicated. In fact, on a recent ARZA mission trip to Israel, “it’s complicated” was a popular refrain that was uttered with such frequency that it became almost comical.

But what do we mean when we say, “It’s complicated”? It is, in fact, a true statement, but tone and intention and context can lead these two little words to have many meanings.

“It’s complicated” can be said to express the fact that the greatest minds of several generations have tried to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have failed. Diplomats, academics, think tanks, and politicians have dedicated their careers to solving this bloody conflict. Speeches have been given, books and articles have been written, and yet we do not appear to be anywhere near the end of the conflict - nor is there an obvious path to this endpoint that so many desire.

“It’s complicated” can be an invitation to learn, to engage deeply with complex issues and multiple narratives. Read the Torah and the Koran, memorize major and minor historical dates and figures, dive into specific issues like borders, refugees, settlements, Jerusalem, water, security concerns, and ideologies. Understand where compromise is possible and what the general public on both sides is willing to accept.

Yet sometimes “it’s complicated” is not used to express any of these nuances.

To those with absolutist views, this phrase can be used to placate and dismiss those with whom they disagree. There is no intention of diving into the complications, and these two words are a polite-sounding way to say, “be quiet, you just don’t understand” or put more bluntly, “shut up, you’re wrong.” Still others mean, “you’re not able to comprehend what is going on, and I don’t have the patience to enter into a debate with you.” When used in these ways, “it’s complicated” become words that lead to alienation, creating ruptures in the community like those seen in this week’s parashah.

Let us be clear, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is indeed complicated. Serious Israel education must involve a deep dive into the complexity of the conflict, the current reality in Israel/Palestine, and the geo-politics of the broader Middle East. It must also involve an intricate reading and internalizing of multiple narratives. It must assume that the learner has capacity and commitment to engage with complexity in ways that are age appropriate, expanding and adding more each year.

As with any argument for the sake of heaven, let us approach this with passion and conviction in our positions, and a genuine thirst for knowledge. Let us also approach this with a desire to understand how our partners in conversation are approaching the issue, because, after all, it is quite complicated.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is president of ARZA, the Zionist wing of the Reform Jewish Movement.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg
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