This article by Dr.Gerstenfeld was originally published in the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) and republished here with the author’s consent.
CONFIRMATION BIAS SHEDS ADDITIONAL LIGHT ON ANTISEMITISM
Sometimes the introduction of a new expression enables one to shed additional light on practices that have been on-going for centuries. One example of this, is the phrase ‘confirmation bias‘, which was coined 60 years ago. It means that people are more receptive to additional information that confirms their previous opinions.
Looking through the lens of confirmation bias is helpful to better understand a number of aspects of antisemitism over the centuries. Christian theologians have repeatedly stereotyped Jews as evil. They claimed that all Jews were responsible throughout the generations for the death of Jesus, the alleged son of G-d. Those who had accepted these prejudices had no difficulty finding confirmation in the opinions regularly fed to them by clergymen. Whether or not the confirmation bias of the parochialists was intentional or not is hardly relevant.
Major scholar of early Christianity, Pieter van der Horst, explains how the confirmation bias functioned, even though the antisemitism initially had to be brought into Christianity. “If one reviews the writings of the church fathers from the second to the sixth centuries, almost all are anti-Jewish. This discourse has become part and parcel of the doctrine of mainstream Christianity.” 1
Confirmation bias not only continues, but is far more prominent today partly due to the dissemination of personal opinions–mainly via social media platforms. Anti-Defamation League (ADL) studies show that even today many Westerners believe the false claim that Jews are responsible for Jesus’s death, respectively 22% in Europe,2 26% in the US,3 and 22% in Argentina.4 This despite the fact that the major historical promoter of eternal guilt of Jews, the Catholic Church, has taken this opinion back in its now more than 50 years old document Nostra Aetate.5
Newer anti-Jewish hate motifs are also often repeated by antisemites of various plumage. Hate speech confirms the bias of those who already believe it. One of these newer motifs is that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the country they are citizens of.6 Yet there are easy examples of double loyalty in democratic European societies. Large numbers of Turkish immigrants living in Western countries vote in favor of Erdogan’s anti-democratic measures in Turkey using their dual citizenship.7 Contrary to this, Jews abroad only rarely have Israeli nationality.
There are many other antisemitic prejudices which are kept alive by confirmation bias, particularly in the Arab world. As Rafael Israeli has illustrated, the centuries old blood libel and the Jew as poisoner motifs occur frequently in contemporary Arab texts.8 These outrageous prejudices appear also sometimes in new forms in the Western world. There the mutated claim is that Israel kills Palestinians to harvest their organs.9 The largest Swedish paper, the socialist Aftonbladet, published an article by Donald Boström in 2009 stating this. Rutgers Associate Professor Jasbir Puar was invited to talk at Vassar College in 2016 where she accused Israel of “extracting organs from Palestinians for medical research.”10
Had there not been the lengthy history of the antisemitic blood libels, these two disparate accusations and a few more similar ones would hardly have any relevance. Yet, due to the established history of this antisemitic motif, confirmation bias enables easier reception for the contemporary mutation.
The worst example of the impact of confirmation bias in Jew-hatred — based on mutations over the century — is the more than 1500 year old core antisemitic motif that Jews are absolute evil. All that changed over the centuries was the content of what such evil represents. For Christians, killing the alleged son of God was the most evil act thinkable. For the Nazis, Jews being as they said ‘subhuman’, ‘vermin’ or ‘bacteria’ were the worst evil. They turned it into a justification for genocide. Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth state in a lengthy article about Nazi Germany: “Where schooling could tap into preexisting prejudices, indoctrination was particularly strong. This suggests that confirmation bias may play an important role in intensifying attitudes toward minorities.“11
Nowadays being like the Nazis or committing genocide is the symbol of absolute evil. One hundred fifty million adult EU citizens out of 400 million believe that Israel intends to exterminate the Palestinians.12 Christians created an infrastructure for this hate perception. The Germans intensified it into the Holocaust, helped by many in Europe for whom the Nazi positions confirmed the Christian bias. The absurd widespread current belief that Israel wants to exterminate the Palestinians could not have reached its enormous impact without the confirmation bias of those who already believed that Jews are evil.
As an aside: A few hundred years ago Catholic priests in Rome were aware that one had to repeat opposite messages very frequently if one hoped to change people’s opinions. Thus Jews were forced to listen to regular conversion sermons in Roman churches.13
There are other related topics on which new light can be shed by looking through the lens of confirmation bias. There are a few philosophers and others, who claim that the Holocaust was not unique, but rather a genocide like others. Once one understands the force of confirmation bias, one sees how perverse these positions are. No other genocide was based on prejudices, which have been repeated so often for so many centuries. The Armenian, Cambodian or Rwandan genocides were horrifying. Yet they were not based on a more than millennium old prejudice.
There are other aspects of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. The existence of long- lasting strong prejudices against Jews enabled the Germans to round up, transport and murder Jews in an industrialized operation. However cruel the Turks were to the Armenians, that genocide lacked the industrial character. The same is true for Rwanda. The Germans were intending to seek and wipe out Jews everywhere in the world. There was nothing similar concerning the Armenians by the Turks nor among the Rwandan Hutis with respect to Tutsis elsewhere.
French leftist philosopher Alain Badiou, wrote: “If one wants to resolve the problem of the unlimited war of the Middle East, one has to arrive, I know it is something difficult – to forget the Holocaust.”14 In view of the history of antisemitism, clarified by the confirmation bias, one can see how appalling this statement is.
Throughout the long history of confirmation bias, one can also gain a clearer perspective on the major remedy promoted by so many against antisemitism: better education. Prejudices are irrational. Those who hold them and are accustomed to seeing them so often confirmed in the public domain cannot be easily educated with messages that run counter to their beliefs.
Social media has become an important tool of confirmation bias. Its users are often bombarded with antisemitic information, which they automatically accept with no inclination to verify. Therefore, confirmation bias through social media plays a major role in hate-promotion.
Many Westerners almost intentionally close their eyes to another major example of confirmation bias. In parts of the Arab and Muslim world the most vile antisemitic statements are frequently repeated. Thus, letting Muslims immigrate into Europe without vetting them for Jew-hating prejudices increases the percentage of antisemites and even more so the most extreme ones in Western countries.
In post-modern times, the antisemitism issue has been fragmented into many themes. It is even more confusing and opaque than in the past. Therefore, in analyzing it one has to make use of all tools available. Confirmation bias can help shedding additional light when analyzing antisemitism in the post-modern world.