Who decides what you think?

“A recent interaction with a friend of mine, regarding the Israel-Palestine situation, led me to write this feature in the hope of raising awareness — for ourselves and others — of how important it is to be well informed and to seek fact-based information on which to form our own opinions. The alternative, of being passive receivers of information and allowing others to influence/decide what we think, is really not an option.” Sarah Baron writes.

Who decides what you think?

Picture if you will a beach-side café in the south of Spain, where four friends are sitting around a table awaiting the delights of freshly grilled fish and refreshing glasses of cold white wine… the sun is shining and there is a gentle breeze coming in off the sea. Idyllic right?

I was one of the four friends and can confirm that it was! Until, that is, one of the four began to tell a story about his friends’ recent trip to Tel Aviv. In my experience (and believe me — at the ripe old age of 51  there have been many), nothing kills an idyllic, relaxed lunch more than someone raising the topic of Israel… especially if that someone also happens to declare themselves a pro-Israel fan!

So, what to do? Do you let them tell their story, nod in all the right places, and change the subject as soon as is politely possible? Well, if you’re me  the answer to that that little conundrum is ABSOLUTELY NOT! (To give myself a little credit, I did manage to hold my tongue until the wine arrived!)

‘I looked it all up,’ the friend continued. ‘I’d definitely say I’m pro-Israel.’

‘You looked it ALL up?’ I asked, smiling sweetly.

‘All about Tel Aviv — yes, I did. It’s the ultimate LGBTQ travel destination — they’re so open-minded and progressive there. You know it’s one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world?’ he’s starting to sound like a travel guide!

‘OK. I can see why you might have formed a favourable opinion of Tel Aviv, given that they support the LGBTQ community that you strongly identify with… fair enough. But it’s quite a big leap to state you’re pro-Israel because of that one piece of information… What about gay Palestinians? Are they welcome in Tel Aviv too — as it’s so open-minded and progressive?’ I asked. Eye-rolls around the table!

‘Oh, I’m not sure about that… but you know you can book flights and hotels on the internet, so I guess anyone can go.’

‘Right. I think if you researched it a bit more, you’d find Palestinians (gay or otherwise) are not allowed to travel to Tel Aviv — at all. * And, a significant proportion of Israelis are in strong opposition to LGBTQ rights. Have you considered that, maybe, it’s more of a strategic attempt by Israel to market itself to the West…? They spend around $3million a year on LGBTQ tourism alone…’.

‘Oh.’ Long silence. ‘I don’t know about that. But I do know they’re strong on gay rights.’

‘Yes, perhaps they are — for some people. I’m just curious if you think it’s OK to be pro-Israel because they are “pro-you” and what matters to you — regardless of how they treat everybody else? I thought you believed in equal rights for everyone?’ 

‘I do. Of course I do!’ 

‘But how can you believe that and be pro-Israel? Do you know anything about the history of Israel, how it established itself, the ethnic cleansing, the countless Israeli violations against international law — the most obvious being the abuses of Palestinian rights…?’ Here I did pause for breath, but held my palm up to signal I was not yet finished!

This is a photo caption:

‘… And what about the rights of children? There’s endless violence towards Palestinian children. Last year alone Israeli forces injured 2,700 Palestinian children, killed 56 and detained 220. Children as young as six are arrested and held in state prisons without access to their family or lawyers… I could go on…’. 

‘Please don’t!’ wasn’t spoken aloud, but was very much felt! I decided to rein myself in and concluded…

‘Can you really ignore the fact that Israel has been proven to not give equal rights to everyone… when one of your core values is equal rights for everyone?’

Equal rights for others, does not mean fewer rights for you.
It’s not pie!

To the relief of at least three people at the table, the food arrived and the subject was changed to something far less volatile and far less interesting!

What fascinated me about this interaction was how little my friend knew about Israel and Palestine, yet how easily he’d formed a positive opinion of Israel. How eager he was to share and defend his viewpoint without any concrete information to support it. It didn’t even align with his own beliefs and values. Nothing is more infuriating (to me), than a good person holding a biased, uneducated or irrational belief! 

Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably why so few engage in it. Henry Ford

Perhaps this is an unfair judgment on my part. As a writer, I’m trained to research everything really well, to fact check, source check and use critical thinking to reach an educated, informed opinion.

For example, when I first became aware of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I did A LOT of research using A LOT of sources. It is such a challenging issue, with such a convoluted and complex history that I still found it very difficult to form a solid opinion that I felt aligned with my core values. I decided I needed to go further — which is when I got in touch with Amos Trust and signed up for their Home Rebuild trip. What better way to fact-check than to actually visit Israel and Palestine and speak directly with people affected on both ‘sides’? It was the best thing I ever did and I can thoroughly recommend it.

Getting stuck in: A group of Amos Trust volunteers working on a community project in a West Bank refugee camp.

Anyway, I digress! The reason I felt compelled to write this feature, following the interaction with my friend, was really to try to raise awareness  for ourselves and others  on how important it is to have fact-based information on which to form our opinions, alongside ensuring they align with our own personal beliefs and values. We need to be well-informed ourselves, before we can effectively engage with and influence others. 

Now, more than ever, we need to be so mindful of where we are getting our information from  quality over quantity! With the explosion of the internet and fake news (the ratio is currently 3:1 for fake news versus truth on Twitter), it really is vital that we question a lot more and really think for ourselves. We are susceptible as humans to believing what we are told, being socially influenced and to thinking we know a lot more than we actually do! (Read about Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment if you don’t believe me!)

If we are not prepared to think for ourselves, and to make the effort to learn how to do this well, we will always be in danger of becoming slaves to the ideas and values of others due to our own ignorance. William Hughes

It really is our responsibility to distinguish between what is ‘fact’ and ‘fake’ in the news we receive daily through the media (TV, newspapers, radio, internet), social media, social groups, popular culture, family, peers, etc. It can be easy to lose ourselves in the details or to only read things that confirm/support the views we already hold, resulting in poor decision-making and the formation of shitty opinions! Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter really turbo-charge this phenomena — and are still unregulated.

So, for those of you needing a nudge, here are my six quick tips to cultivate critical thinking skills and reach better, well-informed opinions of our own:

  1. Use (social) media with discretion  don’t let it use you! Decide what details matter to you and what you want to see. Don’t get bogged down or distracted by online debates about preferences for ice-cream flavour or which cat wore it best — no mindless scrolling please.

  2. Look at the sources of the information and who might benefit from you believing it — i.e. what is the motivation behind the piece, who might benefit from the statements made and who funds the source? Is there a hidden agenda? 

    A good example is a recent BBC article about the dangers of being a vegan  which, if you looked at the small print, was mostly made up with quotes from ‘experts’ with financial links to the meat industry. 

  3. Search for more than one source of information. Of course every source is biased in some way, so triangulate your sources to make sure you’re getting a good range of viewpoints and perspectives  before making up your own mind.

  4. Engage more with others  open up conversations with people that have different opinions from you. Think about opposing views and counter-arguments from yours. Express your opinions but also be open to the idea that you have some false beliefs in your own thinking and understanding.

  5. Look out for qualifying phrases  politicians are masters of these  which are red flags (most of the information following these phrases is untrue). Examples include: ‘To tell you the truth…’, ‘As far as I know…’, ‘To be perfectly honest…’, ‘I’m not racist, but…’.

  6. Keep an open mind and be aware of, and challenge, your own biases — we all have them!

And my bonus tip:
Please let’s not become part of the problem. Only share information with others once we have thoroughly researched it. The narrative being pushed by mainstream media and many social media outlets about Israel-Palestine is mostly fictitious, biased and misleading  and many people have no idea of the truth  we can change that, collectively and responsibly.

Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think. Albert Einstein

I am delighted to report that my friend from the earlier debate has since emailed me several times with updates about his latest research on the Israel-Palestine situation  he is curious and seeking guidance on where to find specific information. By engaging with him in a relaxed environment, he was at ease and open to hearing some information that has since allowed him to challenge his beliefs and change his mind. 

Come and see: What better way to fact-check than to actually visit Israel and Palestine and speak directly to the local community?

Perhaps it’s time that we all take an ‘MOT’ of our beliefs and values concerning Israel-Palestine (to make sure they still hold true for us)  in addition to practising critical thinking more often when we are taking in new information and reviewing our opinions. There are many ways to do this and Amos Trust is a great place to start  whether you want to find fact-based information, take a trip yourself, or meet up socially at one of their educational events.

I really believe it is possible that, together, we can raise awareness mindfully, truthfully and bring about a positive change to the collective societal beliefs towards Palestine. Let’s all keep learning, debating, engaging and influencing  for a just peace and full equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis.

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* This does not include the Palestinians currently living in Israel, either as citizens or permanent residents — classified by the Israeli government as ‘Arab-Israelis’. In theory, this group has the same rights as ‘Jewish Israelis’ but in practice, they have long faced institutional discrimination, which is rarely given visibility and discussion in the media. In particular, their Palestinian identity is discriminated against in many ways and, even within Israel’s 67 borders, these citizens/residents are not treated equally.

Sarah Baron, writer (and Amos Trust home rebuilder).

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