This is my favorite page on Wikipedia.
It’s a called List of Cognitive Biases, and besides showing what a nerd I am, it basically maps out all the ways in which our brain, on a daily basis, screws up how we perceive the world. These aren’t vague ideas, or suggestions – for the most part, they’re laboratory-tested, easily repeatable things that all of our brains do wrong. Some of them are familiar: the Gambler’s Fallacy (“If I just got three heads in a row, the next flip MUST be tails!”); Hindsight Bias (“Oh, yeah, I KNEW she was going to do that.”); and, getting into sinister territory, the Just-World Hypothesis (“Wow, look at that prisoner. He must’ve done something AWFUL! Fuck him.”).
There are well over a hundred of these biases, just listed on the one Wikipedia page; and, as amazing as it is to go through that page and just “click!” “Oh, I do that!” “click!” “Oh my God, that too!” it’s still a tiny amount. We’re juuuuuust starting to understand ourselves. Philosophers posited the atom in India and Greece in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, and the physical world has been studied for as long as we’ve been a species, if not longer. But the social survey didn’t exist until around the 1000′s; many people consider the 14th-century Arab Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun as the first sociologist; and the term sociology wasn’t even defined until 1780, in an unpublished manuscript by French essayist Emmanuel-Joseph Saiyes.
Our very own Sigismund Schlomo Freud didn’t start hypothesizing about what makes individual human beings tick until the late 1800s, and the first social psychology experiment, fusing the social with the psychological, wasn’t published until 1898, when Nathan Triplett wrote down his findings of Social Facilitation, the idea that people do better on simple tasks with other people around. The machine gun, the telephone, the automobile and aspirin are all older than the scientific field of social psychology.
I’ll come out and say it: fear for your security from a persecuted minority group is bullshit. Anyone who hasn’t lived in India or South Africa or the Antebellum South or Nazi Germany can just rent a copy of District 9. I think you’ll get the point pretty quickly.
Does that mean that persecuted minority groups don’t act out? Um… what do you want them to do, exactly? We build aggressively on their land; we withhold their duly paid taxes; we actually argue in public that they don’t exist, and oppose their efforts to build a separate, democratic country. We subscribe to the doctrine of collective responsibility, blaming Palestinians who grew up in exile for an invasion from an entirely separate set of brown people in 1948. And we deny, to this very day, that we even gently encouraged people who had lived for generations, in what is now Israeli land, to leave. As if we became a majority overnight, by magic.
I needed to go to this conference to be shaken out of my complacency; I thought this was an issue of religion. I really did. At times, I vocally supported a one-secular-state solution, as I am first and foremost an American, and I believe that mixing government and religion causes trouble ten times out of ten.
But if you are a liberal, modern Jew, you have to confront two realities. One is that the State of Israel is a fundamentally well-intentioned thing which has done much good. The second is that it is a modern, blindingly obvious imperial power with a particular interest in its next-door neighbor, a la Ireland under England. The question of who got there first is irrelevant. The question of who attacked whom first is irrelevant. The question of who is “more civilized” – again, irrelevant.
Ninety minutes to go before the Gala Reception, “a Ticketed Event.” I’ve spent the day puzzling, processing and arguing, a workout my brain hasn’t gotten in years. An event like this carries risk. You come here passionate, and your world views can be challenged. More than that: they will be challenged, try though you might to keep that part of your brain closed.
That’s partly because of the issue. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of history’s deepest mucks, and the two-state solution (which J Street does its best to promote, envision and implement) is a pair of quality all-weather shoes, but it is by no means a magic pair of shoes. It does not make the muck go away.
Everywhere we go is muck. We come here, a generation of high-energy, high-technology know-it-alls; we who elected a black President and invented Facebook and fought selflessly in Iraq and Afghanistan; and we pile over one another to get in the door and puzzle over this quagmire. For well over one hundred fifty years, two peoples have been nudging each other across a land, then being bought, carved up and turned violently against each other by Western empires, and finally making noises about trying to annihilate each other. We high-energy Millenials halfway around the world want nothing more than to make this problem go away, and we’re tenacious bastards.
But we’ve found ourselves trying to balance identity with justice, and that’s quite the Jewish conundrum. Kids my age like solutions, which is why we try so hard – we’re not used to failing with effort. The Jew in us wants to find the right away, and the Millenial in us JUST WANTS TO GO THERE GODDAMN NOW. Neither side will rest until it’s done.
Amos Oz is a wise older man. He appears to be the spiritual father of our movement (hey, I’m new here). He’s also a refreshing, crisp speaker. It’s maddening taking notes from a professional writer and orator; it makes you wish your fingers were phonograph needles and the paper was spinning vinyl. Tonight, he outlined for us idealistic youth the reasons Israel and Palestine need to go to their separate corners and cool down, eventually meeting back in the middle to shake and be okay. Or, as Oz put it: “Make peace, not love.” Oz was the keynote speaker for the first night of J Street 2012, which is how I came to hear him talk divorce for Israel and Palestine, a divorce in which, he notes, “we’ll still have to share the same house.”
Oz started his two-state career by preaching peace and a Palestinian state to skeptical Jewish audiences here and in Eretz Yisrael. Back then, he says, he was marginalized from the right. Now, he comes to J Street – “Thank you, J Street; I have been waiting for you my entire adult life” – and he tells an audience of college students, activists and uber-activists that we are working for a slow, painful separation for Israel and Palestine. Rivals throughout history, he notes, don’t embrace each other and then achieve peace. They make peace through “clenched teeth,” and then, over the course of generations, hostilities subside.
It’s a compelling message. But it’s a hard message to swallow for a roomful of kids who have gone to school with Muslims and Arabs and who know them as friends, engineers, doctors, confidantes, sometimes romantic partners, and can’t understand how their parents can see these human beings as the Other. It’s a tricky thing to refocus on when, speaking for myself, I can’t help but see the failure of peace as a failure to understand each other’s humanity. I have to think about this one really carefully.
I came to find out where Judaism went. I keep reading about this “New Judaism,” with its Joe Liebermans and its Bibi Netanyahus and its Eric Cantors. I keep meeting young Jews who explain to me that I just don’t understand; Israel deserves special rules for how it treats minorities, because it’s always threatened, and… and… and towelheads. I keep hearing the American House Majority Leader, a Jew – you know, the ones who “make money like Presbyterians and vote like Puerto Ricans” – I keep hearing him talk about how we can only clean up after tornadoes if we slash the welfare budget.
And then I go back to my memory banks and there’s my rabbi, talking about the imperative to do the right thing even when it’s hard… the imperative to overcome fear and reach across the aisle and bring out the better angels of our nature. About understanding the person who you, at first, think is demented, who you think is trying to hurt you. We’re all fallible creatures, but we, the People of Israel, were Chosen. God chose us to have stewardship over the Earth, not so that we could subjugate it, but so we could have true power: the power to overcome the basest human instincts. The power to set free the captive, to clothe the naked, to give bread to the poor. The power to change things from bad to good.
Then I turn on my computer, and there’s Bibi… oh, Bibi. ”Israel Mulls the Possibility of an Iran Strike Without US Support.”