Monday, September 6, 2010

Fiction vs Confirmation Bias

Oh, how we humans cling to our narratives, refusing to acknowledge that our stories about ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves, might be biased, even untrue. Psychologists call it confirmation bias. We ignore, deliberately and subconsciously, information that contradicts our hypotheses or preconceptions of the world.

Last night this was once again brought home to me in regards to the place I call home, Israel.

Where was I? An English language book club I belong too here in Tel Aviv comprised of women from the US, Canada, Australia, as well as native born Israelis and women from other countries who meet to read and discuss books in English. Last night we met to discuss Alon Hilu’s The House of Rajani. In attendance were about 25 people, primarily women, all of them Jewish with the exception of myself, as well as the author himself.

Translated into English from Hebrew, The House of Rajani tells a late nineteenth century tale of the relationship between a Russian-Jewish immigrant to Israel and a mentally disturbed Arab boy. Hilu uses fictitious diary entries written by both as a means to describe their relationship and provide insight into the two characters. The book has been wildly controversial in Israel because the Jewish man (married) begins an affair with the boy’s lonely mother (also married), and, as irreverent as the affair in that day and age and between a Jew and an Arab, more so is his single minded obsession to purchase/steal the Arab family’s land through fair means or foul. Thus ensues the suspicious death of the boy’s father, the decline into madness of the mother, the assumption of the land by the Jew, his eviction of the land’s long-time Arab tenant farmers. Coloring the goings on are the boy’s prophetic visions, which describe a future war between Jews and Arabs, fiery modern warfare, death to thousands, and the loss of the land including his own to the colonizing Jews.

Interestingly, Hilu attempts to mimic the early Hebrew and Arabic of the time (he reportedly spent a year reading newspapers from the late 1800s), and the translation attempts to replicate the slightly archaic feel of the language. Conversational and contemporary the book is not. But Hilu does capture, at least in my opinion, the smell and color of that turbulent time, and his primary characters are fully fleshed even if there is little to admire in any of them.

The House of Rajani is essentially telling one story of pre-Israel Palestine through the eyes of the ‘other.’ Hilu was vilified in one of Israel’s newspapers and stripped of a prize he had won (The Sapir Prize, which is one of Israel’s largest). Hilu believes the stripping of its prize, and its eventual return, was completely political. Hilu was called anti-Zionist, a self hating Jew, in the press and in the blogosphere. Several journalists, politicians, even academics criticized him publicly.

What is remarkable is not only the public drubbing an author received (in a democracy for God’s sake!) for writing a book of fiction, but the selective memory it represents on the part of Israel. There are innumerable books written, even by Israelis, documenting the thousands displaced by Israel’s War of Independence (the Palestinians call it Naqba, which means catastrophe in Arabic), that the displacement was at times voluntary, at others not, Israel’s destruction of Arab homes and confiscation of lands. There were atrocities, large and small, on both sides and Israel can certainly claim that they did not instigate the war. Moreover, as in all wars, to the victors go the spoils, but that Israel continues to deny its own participation seems, at least to me, at times ludicrous, at times immoral. Instead, the story of Israel, at least for the Jews, is that the Jews arrived to a land virtually empty and, in their hands, it flowered. Like many colonizers, the ‘natives’ were invisible, or rather they became invisible in history’s retelling.

I will say that the book club was civil if at times rancorous. Before Hilu arrived quite a few of the attendees admitted they were not political and in fact had little historical knowledge of what actually transpired. But even these women exhibited a willingness to listen to Hilu, even if they allowed it only as an imaginative work of fiction.

I suppose I draw more comfort that the book has sold 50K copies in Israel (amazing for a country of 7mm, not all of them reading Hebrew) and been translated into seven languages. People are reading it. In my opinion, acknowledging reality is the only way Israel can address the present. Perhaps literature will prove one way that the blindness associated with the country’s confirmation bias can be healed.

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