In recent weeks, two reactions from visitors during a dialogue in my living room reinforced the maxim, with the variation I coined, ”Don’t bother me with facts, my heart is made up.” The first reaction came from a woman who insisted on believing that the Gaza Strip remains today under military siege, thanks to Israel’s cruel and unwarranted embargo policy. The Gaza Strip is, she alleged employing a stock phrase used by human rights groups, an “open air prison”. My efforts to convince her that this depiction of life in Gaza lay far from the truth was to no avail. I could clearly tell by the look on her face that my assurance to her and the others gathered in the room that hundreds of trucks bring thousands of tons of food and supplies into Gaza each week, and that Gaza has crowded shopping malls and busy, modern hotels including beautiful swimming pools for guests, were not penetrating her consciousness.
In a similar vein, a second woman would not be satisfied hearing that the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem administers an affirmative action-type program in which Palestinian medical professionals, including physicians, nurses and technicians, work side-by-side with their Israeli counterparts treating both Israeli (Jews and Arabs) and Palestinian patients. In response, she reached back into the past to dredge up an anecdote involving one Palestinian doctor she once met in Colorado who complained to her about the difficulties he encountered then trying to enter Jerusalem. Touche?
When people are deeply invested in certain beliefs, the introduction of conflicting information typically engenders a process referred to as cognitive dissonance. Their minds immediately seek ways to reject or dissemble the disconcerting facts. In the former case, the woman simply refused to believe that what I was telling her was true. It hardly made any difference to her whether I was actually lying to her or, in spite of my personal integrity, I myself was deluded. In her mind Gaza was and must remain under siege.
In the second case, while the woman did not challenge my veracity or the accuracy of the facts, her need to hold on to the notion that Israel practices South African-type apartheid with respect to Palestinians caused her to ignore the importance of this revelation. Instead, she chose to promote as relevant an alleged single case in point from the past in an effort to point out Israel’s discriminatory policies. Just as for the other woman Gaza must be under siege, for this woman Israel must practice apartheid; it cannot be any other way. Unless…
Words alone are ineffective in dispelling strongly invested beliefs. The mind works to avert the psychological discomfort brought on by cognitive dissonance. The dissonance is simply purged through denial or rationalization.
What is effective is seeing, as opposed to only hearing, and even better, experiencing.
I would have, if I could have, taken that woman to see the Gaza Strip today. Perhaps we would have stopped into one of its malls for a cup of coffee. But that possibility does not exist, and not because of any blockade on the part of the state of Israel.
On the other hand, it is possible to visit the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem and not only witness, but speak to its Palestinian medical staff and learn of their experiences. Of course, just one such encounter would put paid to the unfounded allegation that Israel practices apartheid. Perhaps that is why the Hadassah Medical Center is never on the itinerary of the myriad international social justice groups that arrive each week at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Mere facts, be they from the podium, discussion circles, or PowerPoint presentations will go ignored when coming up against cognitive dissonance. To reach people’s hearts and minds people must see and experience; they must become engaged. No one understands this better than the human rights organizations and churches bringing tourists daily to the Palestinian Authority. It is about time that Israel understands this too.