Zionism and righteous minds

I just started reading Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.” It is probably the most gripping book about moral philosophy and psychology that I’ve ever read, and that isn’t an oxymoron.

His ideas go a long way toward answering the question, “why is the pro-Israel side doing so poorly in the information war and how can we fix it?”

One of Haidt’s important insights is that judgments of right and wrong are based on intuition and only later justified by rational argument. The moral intuitions of different cultures — and different social groups within a culture — place different emphases on principles like avoiding harm or suffering, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. The latter three are almost entirely not operative in liberal Western cultures, but very important, even predominant, in others.

If we accept his view, two things follow:

  1. Different groups take pro- or anti-Israel positions because of pre-rational cognitions — intuitions — that they may not verbalize, and indeed may be different from their ‘official’ reasoning.
  2. Appeals to logic will be ineffective, unless there is also an appeal to the intuitive ‘triggers’ that control  moral perceptions.

For example, most Arab Muslims — probably most Muslims — intuitively find the idea of Jewish sovereignty in the Mideast repugnant. It represents a usurpation of the natural order of things, wrong. We are not going to reason them out of this intuition, which is deeply embedded in their culture, by arguing that they would be better off economically if they accepted the existence of the Jewish state and cooperated with it.

Now let’s consider an American that would call herself ‘progressive’. Her most powerful moral intuitions are based on fairness and avoidance of harm. She may have a visceral dislike of ‘militarism’ and an automatic sympathy for the underdog. She will not be persuaded by arguments that the Jews have the right to settle anywhere in the land of Israel by international law, and even less so by saying that the Jews have a biblical mandate to the land (interestingly, the latter is considered persuasive by Muslims, which is why they work so hard to refute it by denying Jewish history).

Our progressive is very affected by stories about the IDF harming civilians (especially children) and might say something about Israel’s military might being brought to bear on the weak and miserable Palestinian people.

If I were trying to change her mind, I would explain that the conflict is accurately described not as Israel oppressing the weak Palestinians, but rather as the powerful Arab world and Iran trying to destroy Israel. I would explain how the Palestinians have been exploited by the Arabs as their most effective weapon against Israel. And I would refute atrocity stories against the IDF, like the Mohammad Dura libel.

I would stress that Israel is not a militaristic society and that it is not interested in conquest (and indeed has given up most of the territory conquered in 1967).

I think that there is a possibility to reach the liberal or progressive community this way.

One group for which there is no hope is those whose anti-Zionism grows out of simple antisemitism. The antisemite finds Jews intuitively repugnant, and therefore even more so a Jewish state. There are more of these out there than you may think, especially in Europe.

What about those Jews who place themselves in the forefront of the anti-Zionist movement? The Max Blumenfelds, the M. J. Rosenbergs? They too have a reflexive intuition that drives their judgments, possibly an Oslo Syndrome reaction based on the internalization of antisemitic attitudes and subconscious fear of becoming a target themselves. I don’t have an idea of how to reach them, short of intensive psychotherapy.

I don’t want to try to carry out this analysis in detail until I have finished Haidt’s book. But I think the idea of the non-rational, intuitive basis for moral, and therefore political, judgments is tremendously fruitful for understanding political behavior and how to influence it.

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One Response to “Zionism and righteous minds”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    We all seek out confirming examples of our own ideology and prejudice.