When I was a young woman, my favourite film was Rouge Baiser, Vera Belmont’s 1985 coming of age film about a teenage communist living in a working class Jewish neighbourhood of Paris. The movie pushed every button a girl like me longed for: strong willed and fearless, Nadia attends political protests by day and at night slips out her bedroom window to hit Saint Germain’s smoky jazz clubs. She discovers she’s been adopted by the man she believes is her father, the biological one having emigrated to the Soviet utopia that animates her dreams. She falls out with her communist comrades and falls in love with Stephane, a sexy Paris-Match photographer twice her age, whose soul appears to reside in his camera, not his body. They split – and Nadia’s romantic illusions are shattered – when her adoptive father threatens rape charges. Fin.

Rouge Baiser arrived in Canada in 1986 just as my own black and white teenage outlook was making way for the (slightly) more complex world view that took hold in my early twenties. Although three decades have passed since I first saw it, I think of that film often for it had a significant impact on my thinking. In fact, it came to me again just a couple of days ago when I spotted a short piece on Mondoweiss about a Facebook post by a young Israeli studying and living in France. Of his trip home to Israel for the holidays, Yoav Shemer Kunz writes, ‘Had I only known less, I surely would have enjoyed myself more here. Perhaps I would have lived here. That’s their secret here – knowing less.’

His post made me think of a pivotal scene in Rouge Baiser, the climax of a subplot to which esteemed critics like Vincent Canby of The New York Times gave short shrift in their so-so reviews, but which struck me like a sucker punch the first time I watched it, and has stayed with me ever since. Returning to France from the Soviet Union, a nation French Jews believed had helped save them from the Nazis, Nadia’s biological father breaks the news to the fervent communists he had left behind that Stalin’s Russia is no utopia for Jews. He tells them about his stay in a Siberian prison. He describes the country’s anti-Semitism and its pogroms. They call him a liar, and cast him out.

Nowadays we call this response ‘confirmation bias‘: the tendency to embrace and remember facts that support our existing beliefs, and to dismiss those that challenge them. In fact, American researchers have discovered that bringing forward precise data that irrefutably contradict a person’s views on an issue makes virtually no dent in their opinion. On the contrary, the investigators found that self-described ‘conservatives’ actually tend to dig their heels in further when the facts contradict their view of a topic, and that those with least knowledge of an issue often have the strongest views. And before you get too smug, ‘liberals’ aren’t much better: they might not dig in, but they are no more likely than those on the right to change their opinion in light of new information.

A critical factor in determining the extent of confirmation bias is ‘salience’, or how strongly one feels about a topic. Unsurprisingly, people who cared most had the fiercest backlash against information that challenged their view. As Yoav Shemer Kunz discovered, this resistance often takes the form of wilfully refusing knowledge.

Many years ago now, I read an article in Haaretz by the remarkable Amira Hass about the impact on an Israeli agricultural concern of a checkpoint that was built nearby. The business employed many Palestinian labourers, and its Israeli owner said they were worked hard and got on well together. Things changed, however, when a checkpoint was put in place on the road most of the men used to get to work.

Suddenly, the owner began getting calls most days from the checkpoint, where the workers he’d known and trusted for years had been detained for no apparent reason. He would arrive to find that the men had been forced to kneel with their hands above their heads in the baking summer heat for hours at a time while their papers were checked and they waited for him to arrive. The employer despaired about the impact of these constant disruptions on his business, and how the routine humiliation was demoralising the men and souring their working relationship.

Back then, I already knew enough about the operation of Israeli checkpoints to be unsurprised by this story, but its narrative has stayed with me because of one detail: the Israeli business owner told Hass that when he recounted these events to his friends in Tel Aviv, they didn’t believe him. His story simply could not be true, they said, because their government could not be responsible for these acts. This refusal of knowledge that would surely rattle deeply held beliefs gave the Israeli an unwelcome insight into the operation of his countrymen’s psyche, the denials and contortions required to sustain a fantasy increasingly at odds with facts on the ground, which he did not have the luxury of avoiding.

These contortions have proved particularly useful over the past few months, as Palestinian children have been rounded up and arrested, Israel’s policy of collective punishment has continued apace, and young Palestinians have been shot with live ammunition while attending their friends’ funerals.

For me they were especially vivid when I learned that Mahdia Hammad, a 40 year-old Palestinian mother of four, was killed in her car near Ramallah on Christmas Day, when Israeli Border Police say she tried to mow down a group of soldiers. All of the eyewitnesses interviewed by Haaretz, which conducted its own investigation with the human rights group B’Tselem, say that after the car stopped in a hail of bullets that had undoubtedly left Hammad dead, an Israeli policeman opened the door and shot another volley at her head. The Border Police then stopped an ambulance at gunpoint from reaching Hammad, and removed her body from the scene.

The fact no one refutes in this tale is that Hammad did not stop at the checkpoint, despite a warning shot being fired. But all of the eyewitnesses interviewed by Haaretz insist that she was travelling slowly and did not appear to be headed for the soldiers. Her sister, to whom she’d brought some firewood, said Hammad had left in a hurry because she was anxious to get home to her 10 month-old baby. Her husband confirmed that she was due home to feed their son, and said she was a nervous driver who hadn’t gotten behind the wheel since her youngest child was born.

For their part, Israel’s Border Police allege Hammad was accelerating towards them and they merely fired at the car to stop her from hitting them. They also claim that they stopped firing as soon as ‘the danger had passed.’

Needless to say, many of the social media comments on this story were saturated with revolting glee at the elimination of yet another so-called ‘terrorist’. Looking at these remarks through the lens of confirmation bias, it’s chilling to think of the racist force behind the visceral, salience-driven backlash that imagines a middle-aged Palestinian woman would stop to kill a few Israeli soldiers on her way home to feed her baby.

At the same time, responses like these explain Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to expedite Mark Regev, a pathological bias spinner of exceptional virtuosity, to speak for Israel as its new ambassador to the UK.  Call him a human shield, protecting at all costs the deep-seated biases inside and outside Israel that have long protected his country from pesky facts that might derail its support, and expose its decayed moral underpinnings.

Over the holidays in Canada, we stayed with my sister Leilani, a tireless human rights lawyer with an expertise in housing. Chatting about politics one day, she and I sat down to watch the YouTube video of ‘We teach life, sir’, a powerful poem written and performed by the Palestinian Rafeef Ziadah. It went viral a few years ago and reverberates as loudly today, in the bloody aftermath of Protective Edge and Ali Dawabshe and Fadi Alloun and many many others. (In fact, the title of this post comes from Ziadah’s poem.)

In it, Ziadah rails at both the claim that it is Palestinians who teach their children to hate, and at journalists’ demand that her people should singlehandedly upend the prejudice against them, erasing in a sound-bite an intractable confirmation bias – a prejudice that remains mostly untroubled by facts, and is nonetheless parroted by every major Western leader and English-language media outlet – against a largely voiceless and vilified people. The video is embedded below, and those who’d like to read the text can click here.

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