Why Are Brits Who Know Little About Israel So Active Against It?

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A demonstrator with face painted in the colors of the Palestinian flag protests outside the Israeli Embassy in west London July 26, 2014.Credit: Reuters

Prof. Ali al-Nowaihi is an economics professor at the University of Leicester, in the UK, and a dear friend. Growing up in Cairo, amid the Muslim Brotherhood movement, his father was a pious Muslim and an international authority on the Koran. In the early 1970s, when Ali reached draft age and was slated to be sent to beef up the Egyptian force on the Suez Canal during the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition, he decided to seek a rather different path in life.

With help from his Muslim Brotherhood friends, he found himself outside of Egypt, as a mathematics student in Britain. A year later, his parents joined him – primarily, he says, in order to reveal to him a secret that could not be revealed in Egypt: His mother was a Jewish Holocaust survivor who married his father after World War II and joined him in Egypt.

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from Ali telling me that it had happened to him once again: In the campus bookstore, he was confronted by an Englishwoman who decided, from his accent and the way he looks, that he was an Israeli. Staring at him angrily, she immediately started to tongue-lash him for the war crimes and the genocide that were being perpetrated at that very moment in his name.

“The situation repeats itself in different places pretty much the same way,” Ali relates. On some occasions, he gapes at the human-rights paragon who’s scolding him, nods his head in shame and waits for the harangue to end. Then he lifts his head proudly and replies: “But I am actually an Egyptian.”

At this stage the revolutionary in question usually clasps Ali in a warm fraternal embrace and ramps up his diatribe against Israel – and, yes, also against the Jews. Ali, taking it in stride, again bows his head, scrutinizing the savior of the oppressed carefully, lest he miss his reaction, and continues his sincere confession: “But my mother is Jewish!”

What is the source of the hatred for Israel displayed by Britain’s “enlightened” types whenever hostilities flare up in our region? The right and the left in Israel are convinced that they have the one and only answer. The right: The Brits have always been anti-Semitic. The left: We Israelis are indeed quite wicked and deserve it.

I want to propose a different explanation: Anti-Israeli sentiment is one tool among many others that is used to position oneself socially. The background to this explanation lies in a famous experiment conducted by renowned psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the early 1980s.

Subjects in the experiment were told the following story: “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.”

The subjects were then asked one question: “Which of the following two statements is more probable?

1. Linda is a bank teller.

2. Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement.

Most of the respondents chose the second option. How come? After all, every time the second statement is correct, the first one also is. Hence, without knowing anything, the first statement bears a higher probability.

The source of the mistake made by most of the subjects stems from our tendency to think in terms of categories. The description of Linda does not fit the image of a bank teller but fits the image of a feminist activist very well. The respondents therefore focus on the second attribute and filter out the attribute that is less probable.

Our initial attitude toward a person is generated by placing him in a category. We always try to provide ourselves with salient attributes that will affiliate us with a category to which we wish to belong, thereby hoping to attract others like us. One way we do this, for instance, is by making certain choices concerning our clothing.

Mercedes vs. hybrids

Let’s take two examples of attire: a black designer shirt and pointed black shoes, versus a provocative jersey and sneakers. Everyone can guess (albeit not with complete certainty) which of the two outfits an insurance agent or a typical accountant will choose, and which an original figurative artist will prefer. We also tend to attribute different character traits to a man sporting a small nose ring, as opposed to one with a heavy gold chain around his neck and rings on his fingers. Our style of dress serves us in forming a social network, and we generally derive benefit from it.

In the article Igal Milchtaich of Bar-Ilan University and I published, we analyzed mathematically the game of attributes I described.

How is all this related to anti-Israeli sentiments? The connection is quite simple. Political positions and ideological principles are part of the external attributes we adopt for ourselves for the purpose of category affiliation. Let’s go back for a moment to the two men, one with a delicate ring in his nose, the other with the shiny gold necklace and rings on his fingers.

Suppose we are told that one of the two is a vegetarian, and we are asked which of them we think it is. Almost all of us will come up with the same answer, which will also be the “correct” one. The same applies if we are told that one of the two drives a Mercedes and the other a hybrid car, that one of them is a devoted fan of a soccer team and the other prefers classical music to soccer, that one supports the left, the other supports the right.

Obviously, there are many men with nose rings, who, for example, support the Torries and even some who would “kill” for Manchester United, but the statistics we have compiled in the course of our life will ensure a largely uniform answer to the above questions.

Being anti-Israeli, as many in the UK and Europe seem to be these days, is not so much about a world view as it is about an attribute that helps social networks. Just like style of dress, verbal intonation and the choice of slang, it is a strategy that allows those who use it to send a signal to their surroundings about who they are.

In Oxford last year, I came across a stand where people were invited to sign an anti-Israeli petition. A young man who immediately spotted the interest I evinced leaped at me with the document, asking: “Would you like to sign your support for the liquidation of the Zionist entity in Palestine?” Instead of replying, I struck up a conversation. The energetic young man (who, by the way, wore a glut of earrings) was a physics student at Oxford University who had grown up in a small town in Yorkshire. His complete ignorance about Israelis and Palestinians was revealed by his question: “Why won’t you agree to Hamas’ suggestion for Israeli and Palestinians to live together peacefully in one secular, democratic state?” He decided to participate in this political activity with a friend because they thought it was the kind of activity that young intellectuals at Oxford are suppose to engage with.

But why on earth did they choose Israel among all countries as a vehicle for sending signals to others about who they are? Because being anti-Israeli is part of a larger anti-establishment and anti-West attribute. That’s why it’s Israel and not Syria, Israel and not Russia.

Still, why take a stand against Israeli army actions in the Gaza Strip and not against American operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, which have taken many more innocent lives? Because a “cheap” attribute does the same work as an “expensive” one. Protesting against the United States, and even more so boycotting it, means adopting an excessively expensive attribute. Israel, on the other hand, can be boycotted without causing the boycotter inordinate damage.

The aggressive criticism in Europe of Israeli policy is neither anti-Semitism, nor is it a natural political reaction of people of conscience and sound morality. It is mainly a platform for people who are a good deal more interested in showing themselves than they are in showing the evils of the occupation.

The writer is the Silverzweig Professor 
of Economics at the Center for the Study 
of Rationality at the Hebrew University, 
and a professor of economics at the University of Leicester.

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