Cognitive Bias in the Israeli-Palestenian Conflict

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Guest Post by Justin Kron

Normally when I visit the beach in Tel Aviv I expect to see and interact with Israelis, but the Lord had something else in store for a few of my group members and me on my eXperience Israel tour in July 2013. Instead of Israelis, it was a few Palestinian young men from Ramallah that we crossed paths with. I invited them to join us in a game of frisbee and they quickly accepted the offer, but one of them first wanted me to know that they were Palestinians. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was for the same reason newlyweds like to tell people they just got married, or maybe it was just because they wanted us to know that Palestinians and Frisbees don’t have a lot of experience with one another, as was evident in how clumsily they threw it. Regardless of the reason, it was a very pleasant interaction and I am grateful for what it was—guys having fun playing frisbee on a beach.

Now suppose I lived in a vacuum and this was my first and only interaction with Palestinians. And then suppose that someone later told me that Palestinians were engaged in a bitter struggle with the State of Israel and were responsible for shooting rockets at innocent civilians. I might seriously balk at that proposition, especially considering how pleasant of an experience I had, and even argue passionately against any proposition that painted Palestinians in a negative light (although I might concede that Palestinians stink at throwing a Frisbee).

So what’s my point?

My point is that it is impossible to remotely understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on limited interaction with one side, and more specifically, with one particular perspective on either side of the conflict.  Social Psychologists call this Cognitive Bias, which is:

…a pattern of deviation in judgment, whereby inferences of other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the input. An individual’s construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behavior in the social world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality (Wikipedia).

We all fall prey to cognitive bias.

In many cases, cognitive bias is harmless.  Such as the case when guys like me contend that Chicago deep dish pizza is the best pizza in the world. My New York friends might passionately disagree (But what do they know, they’re New Yorkers). If I try hard enough, I’m sure I could even bolster my position by finding a Pulitzer Prize winning food columnist from New York who agrees with me, thus proving that my view on the supremacy of Chicago style pizza is the most enlightened and rational one (I can hear the cheers from the Chicago readers right now and jeers from the New York ones).

Cognitive bias sounds funny when applied to pizza, but things get a bit more serious when it comes to politics. For example, if you’re a Democrat and you voted for Obama, then you’re far more likely going to view the tragedy at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi last year as the result of a minor lapse in judgment by the president, but if you’re a Republican and you didn’t vote for Obama, then this event further confirms to you that you made the right decision.

This is why we so often call for independent investigations into events like Benghazi, because people (usually the side that is wary of the information that has been disseminated) want to get to the truth.  And even when the truth (or a new version of the “truth”) comes out, it is not surprising to see people stay entrenched in their original position, which more closely aligns to their presuppositions and worldview.

Because let’s be honest with ourselves—we will often stay entrenched in our position because no one likes to be wrong, let alone admit it, especially if our social or economic status might be jeopardized. People inherently want to belong and be liked, and sometimes will even sacrifice sound judgment and critical analysis in order to do so. Raising questions that challenge the status quo can often kill relationships (or profitability), so we keep our mouths shut and continue to tow the party line.

Our cultural biases—when left unfettered and unchallenged—can have adverse and even devastating effects on others, and even ourselves, and this is why I have become increasingly judicious and inquisitive when it comes to the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I have to confess that for many years I was in a bit of a bubble within the Evangelical community, which treated Israel as if it was the only country worth paying attention to in the Middle East, largely fueled by excitement related to end-times prophecy and the fulfillment of God’s promises to restore the Jewish people to their ancient homeland. This is a perspective that I’m very sympathetic to, but at the same time the impression that I was getting and contributing to in this bubble was, “God bless Israel…God bless the United States…God bless me…and everyone else can take a flying leap.”

This “everyone else” was particularly aimed at anyone who wasn’t a fan of Israel or who held to a different theological perspective on Israel’s place in redemptive history—particularly toward Palestinian Arabs and anyone else who was sympathetic to their plight.

But in recent years I’ve come to realize that it’s unacceptable for me to turn a blind eye to the spiritual and physical needs of Palestinian Arabs, especially considering how often I pass through and spend time in their neighborhoods when I’m leading groups through the Holy Land. Not only did Jesus teach to love our neighbors—and our enemies—but I’ve discovered that it’s impossible to fully engage with the remarkable reestablishment of the State of Israel without also considering how its existence is understood or experienced by the people who neighbor it—even when I disagree with the conclusions they’ve arrived at.

Suffice to say, the feedback is not always positive. But there are a growing number of people today, including many within the Christian community, who are questioning the moral integrity of Israel’s policies related to their Palestinian neighbors. For example, the establishment or expansion of Israeli settlements in the disputed territories is seen by many as “eating the pizza before determining which slices of the pizza one gets to eat.” Some are also questioning if Israel can truly be a “Jewish democracy” when doing so requires policies that keep Jews in the majority and non-Jews in the minority. Related to this are the on the ground implications of Christian Zionism, which appears to some as elevating the value or importance of one ethnic group (the Jewish people) over another (Palestinian Arabs) when the Bible clearly teaches not to play favorites at the expense of others (James 2:8-9).

Questions like these are good and legitimate questions to raise and wrestle with, and they must be wrestled with. Those of us who sympathize with Israel’s right to exist must become more familiar with the criticisms and challenges it faces, as well as seek to genuinely understand and sympathize with the challenges that Arabs in the Palestinian territories are faced with, if for no other reason than the fact that Jesus died for them both, as well as the reality that they will continue to be each other’s neighbors for the unforeseeable future.

I believe we must continue to proclaim the redemptive gospel of Jesus in both word and deed, which paves the way to the only perfect solution for the moral mess our world is in—Jesus himself. But I also contend that we must pursue and encourage peaceful relations wherever and whenever possible. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). That is the path I am committed to being on.

I hope you (and your cognitive bias and a slice of Chicago deep dish pizza) will join me.

Justin Kron

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