Signs of closed minds

COLUMN

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein reportedly remarked: “Condemnation before investigation is the height of ignorance.” Einstein died in 1955, but had he been alive today he might just as well have had in mind a recent letter writer to The Herald, when he described Bob Hughes’s as a “sandal-wearing, tree-hugging, bike-pedalling, anti-Israeli, anti-American”.

In the interests of free speech, however, The Herald occasionally publishes letters from people who can’t be bothered to get informed. That is how it should be; in a democracy, all citizens have a right to express their feelings, no matter how irrational and uninformed they may be.

People betray their tunnel vision in a number of ways. One of the most easily recognisable is the ad hominem attack by the use of derogatory labels. It is so much easier on the brain to put a label on someone whose views you don’t like than it is to marshal evidence in support of a coherent argument to refute those views. Even relatively commonplace labels such as “right-wing” and “left-wing” are poor substitutes for an analysis of what the person is actually saying. If one disagrees with an opinion, one should be able to give reasons and, if one can’t, then perhaps it’s time to reconsider.

Two particularly vacuous labels used in religious politics are “Islamophobic” and “anti-Semitic”. To some people, any criticism of Israel is by definition anti-Semitic. On the other side of the divide, in parts of Europe, Canada and Australia, to criticise as 7th century barbarism the practice of stoning for adultery, or amputation for theft, can elicit the accusation of “racism” or even worse — shock horror — “Islamophobia”.

Another sign of a closed mind is the cherry-picking of data that support a particular view, while conveniently ignoring, or failing to look for, evidence to the contrary. This is especially true of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which fair and balanced reporting in the media is often elusive.

Someone who is trying to set the record straight is American journalist Alison Weir, who is not a Muslim and is neither Jewish nor Palestinian. Until autumn 2000, she was as uninformed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as most Americans. That was until she started to look more deeply into media reporting, in Israel as well as in America.

One particular account in an Israeli newspaper struck her as the kind of reporting that is not seen in America. It stated that the Israelis tried not to kill too many Palestinians at one time, because that would have attracted international odium. This cynical exercise of restraint for political rather than moral reasons gave her the impetus to find out for herself by travelling to Gaza and the West Bank in February 2001. What she found shocked her. She saw plantations of date palms and olive trees that had been flattened by Israelis, depriving the local people of their livelihood.

This deliberate creation of poverty is completely unknown to the average American, and stimulated Weir to investigate the role of the American media in creating this lack of awareness. As her starting point, she examined media reporting of childrens’ deaths in both populations between September 29, 2000 and September 28, 2001. Using an Israeli source, she found that during that period 131 Palestinian children had been killed, compared with 28 Israeli children. She then went on to examine how this was covered by prime-time American network news channels such as CBS, ABC and NBC. She found that Israeli deaths were reported at rates between 13 and 14 times greater than Palestinian deaths.

The same disregard for truth permeates American newspapers. Between October 2002 and March 2003, 121 Israeli and 384 Palestinians were killed, but this was not how it was reported. To take just one example, the San Jose Mercury News stated that the number of deaths was 85 Israelis and 14 Palestinians — a complete reverse of the truth.

No doubt some will say Weir is biased and her data must therefore be suspect. But her source was the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. Founded in 1989 by a group of academics, lawyers, journalists and Knesset members, B’Tselem is independent and funded by contributions from human rights organisations in Europe and North America, and by private individuals in Israel and abroad. Its aim is to document human rights violations in the Occupied Territories and thus to educate the Israeli public and policymakers and help to combat a culture of denial in Israel. In 1989 B’Tselem received the Carter-Menil Prize for Human Rights, established by former US president Jimmy Carter and US philanthropist Dominique de Menil to “promote the protection of human rights throughout the world”.

■ Alison Weir is the author of the book “Against our Better Judgement”. She describes how she became aware of the misreporting of the conflict in the YouTube video “Hidden History”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-UwcVP_k2Y

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein reportedly remarked: “Condemnation before investigation is the height of ignorance.” Einstein died in 1955, but had he been alive today he might just as well have had in mind a recent letter writer to The Herald, when he described Bob Hughes’s as a “sandal-wearing, tree-hugging, bike-pedalling, anti-Israeli, anti-American”.

In the interests of free speech, however, The Herald occasionally publishes letters from people who can’t be bothered to get informed. That is how it should be; in a democracy, all citizens have a right to express their feelings, no matter how irrational and uninformed they may be.

People betray their tunnel vision in a number of ways. One of the most easily recognisable is the ad hominem attack by the use of derogatory labels. It is so much easier on the brain to put a label on someone whose views you don’t like than it is to marshal evidence in support of a coherent argument to refute those views. Even relatively commonplace labels such as “right-wing” and “left-wing” are poor substitutes for an analysis of what the person is actually saying. If one disagrees with an opinion, one should be able to give reasons and, if one can’t, then perhaps it’s time to reconsider.

Two particularly vacuous labels used in religious politics are “Islamophobic” and “anti-Semitic”. To some people, any criticism of Israel is by definition anti-Semitic. On the other side of the divide, in parts of Europe, Canada and Australia, to criticise as 7th century barbarism the practice of stoning for adultery, or amputation for theft, can elicit the accusation of “racism” or even worse — shock horror — “Islamophobia”.

Another sign of a closed mind is the cherry-picking of data that support a particular view, while conveniently ignoring, or failing to look for, evidence to the contrary. This is especially true of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which fair and balanced reporting in the media is often elusive.

Someone who is trying to set the record straight is American journalist Alison Weir, who is not a Muslim and is neither Jewish nor Palestinian. Until autumn 2000, she was as uninformed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as most Americans. That was until she started to look more deeply into media reporting, in Israel as well as in America.

One particular account in an Israeli newspaper struck her as the kind of reporting that is not seen in America. It stated that the Israelis tried not to kill too many Palestinians at one time, because that would have attracted international odium. This cynical exercise of restraint for political rather than moral reasons gave her the impetus to find out for herself by travelling to Gaza and the West Bank in February 2001. What she found shocked her. She saw plantations of date palms and olive trees that had been flattened by Israelis, depriving the local people of their livelihood.

This deliberate creation of poverty is completely unknown to the average American, and stimulated Weir to investigate the role of the American media in creating this lack of awareness. As her starting point, she examined media reporting of childrens’ deaths in both populations between September 29, 2000 and September 28, 2001. Using an Israeli source, she found that during that period 131 Palestinian children had been killed, compared with 28 Israeli children. She then went on to examine how this was covered by prime-time American network news channels such as CBS, ABC and NBC. She found that Israeli deaths were reported at rates between 13 and 14 times greater than Palestinian deaths.

The same disregard for truth permeates American newspapers. Between October 2002 and March 2003, 121 Israeli and 384 Palestinians were killed, but this was not how it was reported. To take just one example, the San Jose Mercury News stated that the number of deaths was 85 Israelis and 14 Palestinians — a complete reverse of the truth.

No doubt some will say Weir is biased and her data must therefore be suspect. But her source was the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. Founded in 1989 by a group of academics, lawyers, journalists and Knesset members, B’Tselem is independent and funded by contributions from human rights organisations in Europe and North America, and by private individuals in Israel and abroad. Its aim is to document human rights violations in the Occupied Territories and thus to educate the Israeli public and policymakers and help to combat a culture of denial in Israel. In 1989 B’Tselem received the Carter-Menil Prize for Human Rights, established by former US president Jimmy Carter and US philanthropist Dominique de Menil to “promote the protection of human rights throughout the world”.

■ Alison Weir is the author of the book “Against our Better Judgement”. She describes how she became aware of the misreporting of the conflict in the YouTube video “Hidden History”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-UwcVP_k2Y

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