October 14, 2007
Elaine McArdle was lobbied by the Israel Lobby. Of course, this is not exactly unusual, nor is it illegal. Indeed, it is standard practice among lobbyists of all kinds. As she notes, AIPAC provided first-class, all-expenses-paid trips to Israel for 40 US congressmen just last summer. Journalists are eager to participate as well, although it appears that this is viewed as less than ethical by at least some mainstream news organizations.
Still, there are probably very few congressmen of any longevity who haven’t participated, and, as she notes, most journalists have only one question about whether to participate: “Where do I sign up?” Free trips to Israel for US military personnel and politicians are also a standard policy of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. And Birthright Israel annually organizes trips to Israel for 20,000 young Jews in an effort to deepen their Jewish commitment.
What stands out about McArdle is that she is very self-conscious about the psychological processes involved. She is quite aware that persuasion often works at an unconscious level. Giving someone a gift taps into a reciprocity norm that is doubtless a remnant of our evolved psychology. People who don’t reciprocate did not make good allies or friends, and this happened over a sufficiently long period to result in specialized brain mechanisms designed to detect reciprocators and cheaters. As McArdle notes, this is true the world over. For the non-sociopaths among us, when we receive something from someone else, we feel a need to reciprocate or at least have positive feelings toward that person.
Since I am engaged in trying to understand Jewish influence in general, McArdle’s article gets one thinking of what other psychological processes are involved in various sorts of Jewish influence. Of course, none of these processes are unique to Jewish influence. It’s just that Jews are a very good at the influence game. The Israel Lobby and its influence on US foreign policy are Exhibit A for this perspective. So it’s reasonable to suppose that one aspect of their success is being better than most at tuning in to people’s psychological tendencies and to use them to further their perceived interests.
At a basic level, going on a trip in a group makes the person a member of an ingroup. Psychologists have found that being a member of an ingroup results in positive attitudes toward other members of the ingroup. Even though there is no explicit quid pro quo going on, the norms of the ingroup are molded by the tour guides and even by the itinerary itself.
In effect, the people on the tour are being inculcated into a Jewish world view—one in which Jews are the quintessential victims. McArdle’s group was shepherded to an Israeli family that had been in the area hit by Hezbollah rockets last summer. There is a palpable sense of fear “Children today, we were told, still wet their beds in fear. … I wondered how long I … could tolerate the omnipresence of danger.”
They are also taken to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Museum. Similarly, the Birthright Israel trips for Jewish youth start with Holocaust seminars in New York, then proceed to Poland to visit Auschwitz, and then to Israel where participants visit historical sites intended to instill strong Zionist feelings. Especially important are border outposts “where the ongoing threat to Israel’s security is palpable” (Woocher, 1986; p. 150). Among these Jewish visitors, the result is a sense of dread: A participant in Birthright Israel says, “I never felt unsafe [in Poland], but I couldn’t wait to get to Israel where I knew that we would be wanted and accepted.”
Indeed, as I noted in A People That Shall Dwell Alone (see Chapter 7), “a permanent sense of imminent threat appears to be common among Jews. … [F]or Jewish families a ‘sense of persecution (or its imminence) is part of a cultural heritage and is usually assumed with pride. Suffering is even a form of sharing with one’s fellow-Jews. It binds Jews with their heritage—with the suffering of Jews throughout history.’”
There is also a sense of psychological bonding with Israelis at a person-to-person level. McArdle refers to her experience as “an unforgettable and emotionally charged week with warm, likable people — generous hosts and tour guides whom I worried about after returning to the safety of life in Massachusetts.”
She experiences empathy for these Israelis as fellow ingroup members who are living in danger, and she worries about their safety. But she never gets to experience empathy with the Palestinians on the other side of the wall—the ones living in Bantustan-like concentration camps in the apartheid West Bank.
McArdle also mentions that the experience was “emotionally charged.” A great deal of psychological research shows that experiences that have intense emotional overtones are much more likely to be remembered and to have a long term influence. As McArdle is well aware, people need not be consciously aware of these memories to be influenced by them.
Another psychological aspect of Jewish influence is that Jewish intellectual and political movements are promulgated from highly prestigious sources. An important feature of our evolved psychology is a greater proneness to adopt cultural messages deriving from people with high social status. This was certainly true of all the movements discussed in The Culture of Critique, and there is no doubt that the Israel Lobby is intimately entwined with elite media, elite universities, and well-funded think tanks.
And finally, it’s not only journalists like McArdle who have to worry about the possibility of unconscious bias. We all do. Movements such as the Israel Lobby have typically presented themselves not as furthering Jewish interests but as furthering the interests of the society as a whole. Neocons such as Richard Perle typically phrase their policy recommendations as aimed at benefiting the US. He does this despite evidence that he has a strong Jewish identity and despite the fact that he has typical Jewish concerns, such as anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the welfare of Israel. Perle poses as an American patriot despite credible charges of spying for Israel, writing reports for Israeli think tanks and op-eds for the Jerusalem Post, and all the while having close personal relationships with Israeli leaders.
This was also true of all the movements I described in The Culture of Critique: The Jewish commitments and motivations of the main players were never a subject of discussion, and the movements themselves were presented as scientifically sound and morally superior to the traditional culture of the West. As a result, non-Jews are invited to see these Jewish activists as disinterested social scientists, or, in the case of the neocons, as patriotic fellow Americans — as “just like themselves.” We are invited to view these Jewish activists as part of our ingroup, with all that that entails psychologically.
In my ideal world, Jonah Goldberg’s op-eds and Paul Wolfowitz’s advice to presidents and defense secretaries should be accompanied by a disclaimer: “You should be cautious in following my advice or even believing what I say about Israel. Deception and manipulation are very common tactics in ethnic conflict, so that my pose as an American patriot should be taken with a grain of salt. And even if I am entirely sincere in what I say, the fact is that I have a deep psychological and ethnic commitment to Israel and Judaism. Psychologists have shown that this sort of deep commitment is likely to bias my perceptions of any policy that could possibly affect Israel even though I am not aware of it.”
As I noted in The Culture of Critique, “many of the Jews involved in the movements reviewed here may sincerely believe that these movements are really divorced from specifically Jewish interests or are in the best interests of other groups as well as Jews. … But, as [evolutionary theorist Robert] Trivers (1985) notes, the best deceivers are those who are self-deceived."