After the recent violence in Israel/Palestine, social media is again full of condemnations of the Israeli government, and counter-condemnations accusing the Israeli government’s critics of antisemitism. The Israeli government’s critics claim that their position is rooted in moral outrage over mistreatment of Palestinians. But the counter-critics claim that such outrage emanates from antisemitic hatred instead.
Reports to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of antisemitic incidents have risen dramatically in the past few weeks, although interpretations of such reports differ. This comes not long after 2019 saw the highest level of reported antisemitic incidents since the ADL began tracking them in 1979. Likewise, criticism of Israeli government policies has become more prominent, and media coverage in the US has shifted toward presenting more of the Palestinian side of the conflict. Might these be two sides of the same coin? Might antisemitic prejudice be increasing, leading to more widespread criticism of the Israeli government as antisemites conflate the Jewish people with the state of Israel? Are the actions of the Israeli government conversely spurring the rise of antisemitism? Or are the phenomena unrelated?
THE CURSE OF KNOWLEDGE
The so-called “curse of knowledge” was first discovered in an economic experiment. Subjects in this experiment proved unable to use the knowledge that they had, but others did not, to profit in a one-off stock market exercise. That is, even though subjects knew that they had unique information their counterparts did not, they still acted as though their counterparts shared the same knowledge – and lost money as a direct result. Hence the “curse of knowledge”: once we know something, our brains unconsciously assume that everyone else shares our knowledge, even when we know, or should know, that they do not.
Related to the curse of knowledge is “naïve realism”. Naïve realism is ubiquitous in political discourse. It consists of a belief that “I see entities and events as they are in objective reality,” and my political opinions come from “a relatively dispassionate, unbiased, and essentially ‘unmediated’ apprehension of the information or evidence at hand.” Others are presumed to do the same. But then how does the naïve realist explain the existence of disagreement with another person, who is like them, interpreting an objective reality without bias? There are three possibilities. The first is that the other person was exposed to different information. The second is that the other person is lazy or irrational. The third is that the other person is biased by ideology or self-interest. The first is less likely given the curse of knowledge, our default, unconscious assumption that what we know is known by everyone. In any case, the naïve realist would quickly move on to the second or third options, after all, merely sharing information with another person who disagrees with us rarely results in instant conversion. Hence naïve realists – most, if not all of us – would posit laziness, irrationality, or bias as the most likely explanation for someone else disagreeing with us.
KNOWLEDGE, IGNORANCE AND ISRAEL
In a study I conducted in 2015, I tried to uncover the relative contributions of antisemitism, ignorance/knowledge and ideology to opposition to Israeli government policies. I used the ADL’s antisemitism scale and a scale of opinions critical of the Israeli government — and, for comparison, an Islamophobia scale and a scale of opinions critical of the Saudi government. What I found matched previous research in Europe and Canada. Of those agreeing with up to half of the criticisms of the Israeli government, very few respondents, only around one in ten, qualified as antisemitic by the criteria of the ADL.
Of those agreeing with up to half of the criticisms of the Israeli government, very few respondents, only around one in ten, qualified as antisemitic by the criteria of the ADL.
Improving upon prior research, the scale of opinions critical of the Israeli government was divided between “moderate” (e.g., “Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinian refugees a right of return to their homes is immoral”), and “extreme” (e.g., “In its treatment of Palestinians, Israel today is the modern moral equivalent of Nazi Germany”) statements. It would be expected that those harboring prejudice against Jewish people would also hate Israel, but the purpose here was to distinguish those critical of the Israeli government’s policies for pacifist or human rights motivations from those whose hatred of Jewish people would lead them to dislike the Jewish state. The results showed that agreement with the “extreme” statements were much more strongly correlated with anti-Jewish prejudice, compared to the “moderate” statements. Using a statistical technique to disentangle the contributions of multiple factors, antisemitism was a far stronger predictor of agreement with “extreme” than “moderate” statements, holding knowledge of Israel, knowledge of other violent conflicts, ideology, human rights orientation, pacifism, and demographic variables constant. Interestingly, Islamophobia was roughly as strong a predictor of disagreement with criticism of Israeli government policies, as antisemitism predicted agreement with the “moderate” criticisms of the Israeli government. Empirically, therefore, one would be as well founded in accusing a critic of the Israeli government of antisemitism as one would be in accusing a supporter of the Israeli government of Islamophobia. (That is, not very well founded at all.)
What light does all of this shine? Only for a small minority is opposition to the Israeli government caused by antisemitism. For the majority of critics, their opposition is rooted elsewhere: in a commitment to protecting human rights, pacifism, and/or a desire to protect the weak from the strong. The disproportionality of US activists’ focus — more on Israel-Palestine than Kashmir or Yemen, for example — is more likely the result of disproportionality in media coverage.
Moreover, it suggests that most of the accusations of antisemitism against critics of the Israeli government are not cynical, but in ignorant earnest. Just as the critic must have a significant amount of knowledge about Israeli government crimes to become a critic in the first place, the supporter must have a significant amount of knowledge about Israeli government virtues. More importantly, the supporter is likely to be ignorant of Israeli government crimes — not knowledgeable-but-malicious. As George Orwell observed nearly a century ago, “[T]he nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” Likewise, the supporter likely has knowledge the critic lacks: information on Jewish and Israeli history, and its incorporation into an explanatory narrative, comprising a siege mentality. If this conflict is to be other than intractable, we must start with a better understanding of knowledge and ignorance.
It is simply untenable to consider all critics of the Israeli government antisemites. This flies in the face of the empirical evidence, and is just as inexcusable as labeling all supporters of the Israeli government Islamophobes. This fact does not mean that those who make such accusations are cynically using slander to advance their political objectives. Rather, it’s far more likely that the majority of those making such accusations earnestly believe that antisemitism must motivate criticism of the Israeli government — given the knowledge they have, and the knowledge they lack, this explanation seems convincing. Just as there is a minority of Israeli government critics whose position does arise from prejudice against Jewish people, there is likely a minority of counter-critics who know that most of the Israeli government’s critics are not antisemites, but slander them as such out of political cynicism. Let’s leave these two minority groups aside. When dealing with the majority — most critics and supporters of the Israeli government — we should recognize the curse of knowledge. Instead of assuming that we all share the same information base, we should focus on what we know that others don’t — and vice versa.
Peter Beattie is an assistant professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on political psychology, particularly on the relationship between the news media and public opinion. His work can be found at www.beatt.ie.