Anti-Israel protest in Cairo, May 10, 2013
An anti-Israel protest held after the Friday noon prayer at Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, May 10, 2013. Photo by AP
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I am often jealous of true believers and ideological fanatics. I don't necessarily condone their actions, but I sometimes envy the lives that they lead, in black or in white. I admire their assurance, covet their certainty, yearn for their direct line to God.

In a world of conflicting claims and contradicting counterarguments, the thoughts of devoted disciples are untroubled, their words unequivocal, their convictions untarnished by doubt or misgiving.

I am far from being their only fan, of course, because their ranks seem to be swelling all the time, not only in deeply ideological or intensely religious countries, but over here, in America, and over there, in Israel, as well. As the middle ground gets increasingly muddled, people are being pushed to the edge and pulled to extremes, enticed by the self-righteousness of absolute beliefs and excited by the bloody battle against dissenting perspectives.

The Israeli-Palestinian divide has more than its fair share of such zealots: bigots and diehards, dogmatists and chauvinists, people for whom there is only one side of every story, and it is always theirs. They detest ambiguity, abhor criticism, despise self-doubt, view their opponents as fools or traitors or worse. Their credo is my way or the highway, or, in an ideal world, the gallows themselves.

On the one hand we have those who sincerely believe that Zionists are evil colonialists but Palestinians are indigenous saints; that the Nakba was horrendous but the Holocaust is way overblown; that IDF soldiers are latter day Nazis and Palestinians their latter-day Jude; that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are a crime against humanity but slaughtering innocent Jewish children is heroic resistance; that Israel is guilty a-priori and Arabs innocent by default; that Israel has no redeeming features and Palestinians no noticeable faults; that Israeli democracy is a sham but Palestinian internal violence and vigilante justice are just understandable reactions of a people under siege.

Israelis, in their eyes, are eternal perpetrators who can do no right and Palestinians, in their minds, are perpetual victims who can never do wrong.

But then there are those who see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil of Israel or its occupation ׀and who don't, in fact, recognize it as such; people who believe that Palestinians invented themselves, who turn a blind eye to the ruins of hundreds of Palestinian villages that still dot the Israeli landscape, who view the Arabs as an irredeemable species and Palestinians as lesser beings who should be grateful for anything they get; who whitewash the settlements and tsk tsk their price-taggers and pretend that roadblocks and closures are fun; who pretend that a "startup nation" can cleanse all their sins; who latch on to any Palestinian word that can be portrayed as incitement but downplay the rising tide of supremacist and xenophobic Israel and the parallel drowning of the liberal and democratic state that preceded it, warts and all.

These are the Jews who think that loving Israel means never having to say you're sorry about anything and they are the mirror images of Palestinians for whom self-criticism is a betrayal of the cause. These are the so-called lovers of Zion who know nothing but crude propaganda and they are the alter egos of those for whom even the most outlandish and ghoulish Palestinian claims are taken as gospel truth. These are the people who, disguise it as they may try, truly regard the Palestinians as inferior beings and they are a warped but nonetheless true reflection of those who think Jews are just evil and devious by nature.

And both are identical in the curious fact that their disgust and disdain and animosity reach fever pitch when they are directed not at their external enemies but against those in their own group who happen to believe otherwise.

Some are fanatic by religion or nature, others adapt to their surroundings, many are taken in by preachers and professors and politicians and pundits proclaiming to know it all from above. These are the people who exploit the extreme and feed off its fruit to curry favor with their peers and increase popularity with their consumers, to spike up their speakers' fees, drum up their book sales, increase their support in the party's Central Committee, get more donations from the appropriate lobby or from a dedicated billionaire, those who callously inflame their people just enough so that they come out to vote on their judgment day.

Much has been written about the contribution of modern technology, social media and the increasing one-sided partisanship of the mass media to this explosion of insular and doctrinaire and small-minded intolerance. Whatever its origins, it is gaining on us all, and the prognosis, unfortunately, is far from positive, as French philosopher Denis Diderot famously noted: From fanaticism to barbarism there is only one step.