Essays

Israel’s Right-Wingers Have Problems with Facts

Swedish protest against the Israeli attack on a ship to Gaza © Henrik Ström | Wikimedia Commons

Israel’s right-wingers never stop providing spectacular examples of the all-too-human tendency to avoid facts that contradict their worldview. Two weeks ago I showed how the Anti-Defamation League’s anti-Semitism survey demonstrates the falsity of Netanyahu & Co.’s favorite theory that anti-Semitism is the source of Israeli criticism. The ADL’s study shows the opposite: European criticism of Israel’s occupation is negatively correlated with anti-Semitic attitudes, i.e. that countries like Sweden and Britain, which are almost devoid of such attitudes, criticize Israel most strongly, whereas countries that Netanyahu & Co. consider as friends harbor high levels of anti-Semitism.

The ADL’s survey produced one result that, while not unexpected, certainly requires further thought and analysis: Arab countries have by far the highest rate, 74% of the population, of anti-Semitic attitudes. There seems to be a high correlation with Islam, because Malaysia, the country with the largest Muslim population on the planet, has a very high percentage, 61% (unfortunately there are no data for Pakistan). Within the Arab world Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza lead with a fairly staggering percentage of 93%.

A recent Haaretz editorial blasted Netanyahu for using these figures to argue that the Palestinian Authority is a hotbed of anti-Semitism that distorts and blindly attacks both Jews in general and Israel in particular. The editorial claims that the high incidence of anti-Semitism should be explained by 47 years of occupation, and that the government should act to lower this anti-Semitism rather than using it as a pretext to avoid reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.

While the editorial makes an important point, it does not address the much more complicated question of why the rest of the Arab world has such incredibly high proportions of anti-Semitic attitudes. Simply making Israel’s occupation of the West Bank responsible for this will not do. This requires much more complex analyses taking into account a multitude of factors, primarily the Arab world’s abysmal failure to adapt to modernity that Bernard Lewis pointed out long ago, and the failure of the Islamic world to develop viable political programs, as French sociologist Olivier Roy has shown in a series of books.

Israeli M.K. Professor Arie (Aryeh) Eldad © Segal | Wikimedia Commons

I therefore definitely think that the Haaretz editorial is not faultless. But Aryeh Eldad has graded the editorial with an F for logic on the following grounds: He claims that the editorial simply does not take into account 3,500 years of Jew-hatred. Eldad asks whether the Egyptian pharaohs’ injunction to kill all Jewish first-born and Haman’s anti-Semitic manifesto, which argues that there is a people that keeps to itself and doesn’t respect the kingdom’s custom and should therefore be eradicated, are also due to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, before continuing to quote other examples.

Prof. Eldad is professor of medicine, and I am told he has been a conscientious physician, researcher and teacher (to the best of my knowledge he is not currently practicing). I am sure that in medical research and treating patients, he made sure to follow scientific methodology carefully.

If he grades Haaretz with an F for logic, it is certainly justified to have a look at the cogency of his own argument. Has he checked whether the incidence of hatred toward Jews along history was higher than toward other minorities in similar conditions? He might do well to look at Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century and he will see that there is a powerful argument to the contrary.

Furthermore Prof. Eldad’s opening salvo suffers from a very simple problem. There is virtual unanimity among historians and archaeologists that the Jews were never enslaved in Egypt and the Exodus never took place. The story emerged most likely about 700 years later when the relevant portions of the Bible were written.

Book cover of The Bible Unearthed © Touchstone | Amazon.com

Prof. Eldad might do well to read Finkelstein and Silberman’s The Bible Unearthed and Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible for starters. Eldad doesn’t have to swallow these researchers’ conclusions, but he might do well to have a look at the vast literature they quote, and at this occasion he will find out that the overwhelming majority of scholars believe that the Book of Esther (from which the tale of Haman is derived) is a historical novella rather than a historical account.

Could Eldad therefore explain why he grades Haaretz with an F for logic when he doesn’t follow the most basic rules of ascertaining his facts before making use of them?

I do not take Jew-hatred in its many forms, including modern anti-Semitism (the term dates from the last third of the 19th century) lightly. And I find it deeply disturbing that the Islamic world has such horrendously high figures of anti-Jewish beliefs and attitudes. Trying to understand this phenomenon requires serious research combining a variety of disciplines. Developing policies to counteract the surge in anti-Semitism in the Islamic world requires looking at the facts carefully, weighing the evidence and making use of the most sophisticated armamentarium of extant theoretical approaches. I suggest Scott Atran’s Talking to the Enemy as an excellent starting point.

As to Prof. Eldad, I would suggest that he use his scientific training to make sure that his political commentary be informed by the absolute minimum of intellectual integrity. Before grading Haaretz with an F for logic, he should make sure that he doesn’t commit blunders unacceptable from a first-year student in any discipline, and that do certainly not befit a man of learning — even if he comes from Israel’s extreme right.

This article was originally published on May 28, 2014 in the author’s “Strenger than Fiction” blog at Haaretz.

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Carlo Strenger

Carlo Strenger