By Ken Stein
In two books written sixty years apart, When Prophecy Fails, 1957 (Festinger, Riecken and Schachter) and The Influential Mind, 2017 (Sharot, an Israeli neuroscientist), the conclusions were the same.
A composite of their findings: facts and evidence don’t matter if you believe something deeply enough.
Show a person facts and figures and they will question your sources. Present undeniable and unequivocal evidence that goes against one’s deeply held beliefs, and what will happen? Often, the smarter the person is, the greater his or her ability to rationalize discordant information will be. In other words, the person will question your facts and sources, emerging not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of their beliefs than ever before.
How might this apply to the future of learning about Israel’s origins?
Some years ago, I presented to a group of two dozen educators at a conference on Israel education. I offered evidence, facts and figures that pertained to the thirty years before Israel was established in 1948. The items, which came from census reports, as well as various Arabic, Hebrew, and English documents, provided overwhelmingly evident conclusions: The Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine were radically different in sociological make-up, financial solvency, political organization, and concern for one another.
The audience unfurled the meaning of the evidence before them; the gap on many socio-economic-political categories between the communities was huge. An organizational, demographic, and physical outline for a Jewish state was rapidly evolving before Hitler invaded Poland in 1939; the Palestinian Arab political community was dysfunctional and the rural economy was collapsing. Arab sources acknowledged those realities.
However, that was not the conclusion that one leading teacher in Israel education made. According to him and to others in the room, the evidence still made Israel primarily responsible for Palestinian social disintegration in the 1947-1949 period. This teacher and others were not persuaded when I showed them conclusions written by well-known Palestinian Arab historians that suggested internal Palestinian social disintegration was self-inflicted.
Supposing you hold the belief, as many do, that Israel came into being primarily because of what happened in Europe between 1939-1945. Many non-Jews and Arabs too take the view that Palestine was delivered to the Jews as compensation for the loss of one-third of the world Jewish population in the holocaust. The Egyptian President’s special adviser, Usamah al-Baz said in May 2002, “Had not the Nazi crimes been committed against Jews during WWII, the Jewish state would never have come true.” Amira Hass wrote in Haaretz in April 2001, “had it not been for the Holocaust, the founding of a state for the Jewish people [would not have occurred].”
What if both al-Baz and Hass were exposed to the same documentary source data as the Israeli educators were about what happened in the thirty years prior to 1948? Would they have changed their respective views about what happened to Palestine or the Palestinians in the 1947-1949 period? Would they acknowledge any accountability or responsibility for the demise of Palestinian Arab society?
Scientific evidence and scholarship shows that before we were in an age of the internet, videos, and infographics, the human condition did not want to let the facts get in the way of beliefs. Add to this fake news, apathy, and daily promotion of parochial political outlooks.
Unless we all take steps to remedy a distrust of history and evidence, the forecast for the future of learning about Israel’s origins does not appear to be a good one.
A prescription for those interested in sustaining Israel’s future lies in knowing and owning Israel’s story, not the one on the left or the right, but the story.
Ken Stein is President of the Center for Israel Education.