These questions will change your relationship with Israel.
Four questions that might make you see Israel, Zionism, and Israelis in an entirely different light.
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Growing up as a Jew in Los Angeles, I knew next-to-nothing about Israel.
This was before social media and the Internet as we know it, and we rarely talked about Israel in our Jewish home. The only thing I remember learning about Israel in Hebrew school is that she’s the size of New Jersey.
Every now and again, I would see something about Israelis and Palestinians in the news, which only painted a meager picture. But then, on a trip to the Jewish country, I “woke up” to Israel, Zionism, and Israelis. Suddenly I felt tremendous joy about these subjects — and I realized just how distorted, even perverted, they were across the world.
If only people would ask more questions about Israel, Zionism, and Israelis, they would see them in an entirely different light. Questions like:
1) Is it true?
Are you aware that so much of what we tell ourselves is just assumptions? One assumption leads to another; we jump to conclusions; and we take our assumptions so very seriously, and so very personally. Then we start gossiping to help us justify our assumptions, and a contorted concept becomes increasingly more contorted.
Now, think about the assumptions we make about Israel, Zionism, and Israelis:
Assumptions about Israeli Jews (e.g. Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, religious and secular, liberal and conservative)
Assumptions about Israeli history
Assumptions about Israeli minorities
Assumptions about Israel and the Holocaust
Assumptions about the Israel Defense Forces
Assumptions about the Israel-Hamas War
Assumptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Assumptions about a two-state solution
Assumptions about Palestinians and the Middle East
Here’s a story for you: When Jewish survivors of the Holocaust arrived in Israel, many of them were shamed by Jews already living in Israel during this atrocity. “Why didn’t you fight back?” and “How could you let them do that to you?” the locals would say to them. True story. All these shaming Jews knew was what they read in the newspapers, heard on the radio, and perhaps some hear-say.
Instead of asking survivors what really happened, they jumped to conclusions based on quite minimal information. And it’s not like these survivors landed in Israel happy-happy-joy-joy, eager to pour out their unimaginable traumas to anyone who would lend an ear or two.
Today, Holocaust survivors are universally celebrated in Israel, with initiatives to preserve their stories and organizations dedicated to supporting the diminishing group of them.
So, what exactly changed in Israel? Survivors started talking about their stories, and the rest started listening with a real intent to learn, to understand, to come together.
If we would just ask more questions to people “on the ground” — with a real intent to learn, to understand, to come together — we could rather quickly fan the flames of this pressing desire that results in knee-jerk assumption-making.
Dr. Warren Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, calls this “making space for each other” which means “transcending our ego, rising above ourselves, and developing the capacity to show understanding, forgiveness, and compassion to those around us.”1
2) Can you absolutely know it’s true?
It’s easy to make generalizations, and that’s where this second question comes in. Sure, on the surface, something might be partially true, but is it absolutely true?
The answer, in most cases, is no — because life is filled with nuance. For example, if you’ve never lived in Israel, or had an intimate relationship with an Israeli, it can be hard to understand the dissent that many Israelis feel toward Arabs (i.e. Arab Israelis, the Palestinians, and Middle Eastern Arabs in general).
Yet the thousands of Israelis I’ve met were not born this way; nor were they instructed by their families from an early age to feel unfavorably about Israelis; nor were they educated as such in school.
Instead, they’ve been scarred and traumatized by the wars, violence, military operations, and terror attacks — all involving Arabs and celebrated by many Arabs. Just look at the October 7th massacre: A poll done by Bir Zeit University in Ramallah found that more than 75 percent of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza support Hamas and what they perpetrated on October 7th.
When I moved to Israel in 2013, I couldn’t understand these scars and traumas. I would argue with Israelis, claiming that “not all Arabs are the same” and “it’s just a loud minority.” Both of which can be true in certain cases.
But what’s also true is that Israelis have endured so much emotional, psychological, and — for some — physical pain because of Arabs. And one doesn’t cancel out the other out.
This is why I have tremendous empathy for Israelis, and I understand why many of them are single-issue voters (security). I too have become more conservative in my voting since 2013 as I increasingly understand the complex reality on the ground here in Israel and across the Middle East.
But I also believe we should try, in good faith, to achieve peace with the Palestinians, and better engage Israeli Arabs in Israeli society, while not making the same mistakes we’ve made before (such as unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and enabling tremendous Palestinian corruption).
The point is, there’s a ton of nuance involved in mainstream Israeli society, in Arab Israeli society, among the Palestinians and their factions, et cetera. The bedrock of this nuance is history, and in our histories, we have countless scars and traumas, many of which dictate how people think, feel, act, and behave today.
I don’t think most of us are truly evil; I just think we’re incredibly scarred and traumatized, and we haven’t learned how to properly resolve these scars and traumas, so that we can truly put them behind us. (I’m talking about people in general here, not just Israelis.)
Instead, we profusely attack, prosecute, and label people without trying to understand their life experiences — their scars and traumas. Is this an effective approach to bringing about positive solutions? Or does it just make people dig further and further into their holes, thus pushing us further away from collaboration and cooperation?
3) How do you react when you believe your biases?
Does believing your unexamined thoughts about Israel, Zionism, or Israelis make the situation better or worse? Does it help or hurt?
Are you resentful, bitter, caustic, or closed off? Do these behaviors make you appreciate Israel more or less? Do your behaviors help you get the validation you want?
Confirmation bias — the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports our preexisting beliefs or values — is powerful.
Take, for example, instantaneous reactions to the bombing of Al-Ahli Hospital by prominent media outlets and public figures. Instead of waiting for investigations on how the bombing occurred, people such as U.S. congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and “respected” outlets like The New York Times rushed to proclaim Israel as the culprit.
In spite of the extensive evidence supporting that it was a Hamas rocket that exploded, they continued to blame Israel for it. No amount of analysis and evidence could sway them, as the false narrative better corroborates with their preconceived bias that the State of Israel aims to indiscriminately kill civilians.
“When people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true,” said economics expert Shahram Heshmat. “They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views or prejudices one would like to be true.”2
The “framing effect” is another cognitive bias in which our choices are influenced by the way they are wrapped around different wordings, settings, and situations. It is a powerful communication tool used to convince people to take an action based on their emotional response, rather than on facts, nuance, and context.
For example, one influencer I know decided to promote a fundraiser for Palestinian children immediately after the Israel-Hamas war broke out. In and of itself, it’s hard to argue against anything that has to deal with children, but this is exactly what the Palestinians are after: When they wrap their suffering around “children,” it immediately creates an emotional response.
But if we were to understand why there are so many children in Gaza, and if we were to dig deeper into the reality that so many “humanitarian” organizations are used to embezzle money for Palestinian terrorism3 and enriching their leaders, we might think differently about “Palestinian children” the next time an influencer or media outlet emphasizes this term.
4) Who or what would you be without your biases?
When people only seek information that confirms their existing beliefs, they may ignore or dismiss information that contradicts those beliefs. Additionally, echo chambers — emboldened by social media algorithms — can create a culture where dissenting views are discouraged or dismissed, and bias only leads to more bias.
Thus, the simplest way to avoid confirmation bias is to look at a belief you hold and search out ways in which it might be wrong, rather than the ways in which it is right. Diversify your news sources, engage with more people “on the ground,” favor long-form content over short-form varieties and, most importantly, be aware of what organizational psychologist Adam Grant calls “the story in your head.”
“Confirmation bias is twisting the facts to fit your beliefs. Critical thinking is bending your beliefs to fit the facts,” said Grant. “Seeking the truth is not about validating the story in your head. It’s about rigorously vetting and accepting the story that matches the reality in the world.”
One of the easiest critical thinking tricks is to practice an opposite sentence of information in front of you. For example: “Israel’s war on Gaza deadliest in modern history for journalists” becomes “Israel’s war on Gaza safest in modern history for journalists.”
Turns out, the “turnaround” is actually correct: According to an annual report of the organization Reporters Without Borders, this year 45 journalists were killed around the world doing their work — including 17 during the Israel-Hamas war — the lowest figure since 2002.
“I am a lover of what is,” said author Byron Katie, “not because I’m a spiritual person, but because it hurts when I argue with reality.”
“Striving for unity among the Jewish people is a practical undertaking.” The Jerusalem Post.
“Overcoming Confirmation Bias.” Forbes.
“Shin Bet: Hamas stealing Gaza aid from Turkish charities.” The Times of Israel.