We see what we want to see.
(Those 7 small words explain everything.)
Whether it’s the Pope’s Encyclical on Care for Our Common Home, or the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision about Same-Sex Marriage, or the Report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict, we read them with our own biases and expectations, finding exactly what we thought we would find in each.
The psychologists call it confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.
Pope Francis is either meddling in politics, or he’s the best thing since sliced bread. Justice Kennedy and four of his breathren on the bench who ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry, have either dealt a blow to our Constitution or they’ve advanced liberty and equality in our country.
And how was the U.N. Independent Commission’s Report received?
If people read all 217 pages (I did), they will find alot of substance (summarized in a follow-up blog post). However, the swift reactions to the report were nearly as telling as the evidence gathered by the U.N. Commission. There were those who condemned it, others praised it, and a few wished to ignore it. But everyone found what they were looking for.
- Israeli officials tried to preempt the U.N. Commission’s Report by releasing their own report a few days earlier. “Israel predicts the new report from the United Nations will be a hatchet job. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that anyone who wants to read ‘the truth’ should download the Israeli report. ‘Whoever wants to automatically — and without foundation — blame Israel, let them waste their time with the U.N. Human Rights Council report,’ he said.” Netanyahu probably didn’t appreciate the irony in his words — automatically jumping to conclusions, as he was, without seeing the U.N. Report. (Israel says war in Gaza was moral and deaths are the fault of Hamas, Washington Post, June 14, 2015, William Booth).
- When the U.N. Report was released, Israeli officials appeared “particularly stung by its lumping together of the Israeli army with its arch enemy, Hamas.” … “Any fair inquiry into armed conflict must always draw a distinction between the aggressor and the side asserting its right to self-defense,” Dore Gold, director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said in an interview. “The fact that the United Nations report fails to distinguish between Israel and Hamas is one of its most central flaws.” (U.N. report on Gaza: Israel, Hamas may both have committed war crimes, The Washington Post, June 22, 2015, William Booth and Ruth Eglash)
- The New York Times highlighted the pains that the U.N. Commission took to be “evenhanded” when it found evidence that both sides might be guilty of war crimes. (U.N. Report on Gaza Finds Evidence of War Crimes by Israel and by Palestinian Militants, The New York Times, June 22, 2015, Jodi Rudoren and Somini Sengupta)
- The Washington Post summarized the “United Nations’ rather even-handed approach,” including links to other reports and opinions, but ended with a cautionary note that the U.N. Report would likely be added to the “growing case file at the International Criminal Court” which could place Israeli leaders alongside heinous fugitive war criminals such as Uganda guerrilla Joseph Kony, further deepening Israel’s growing international isolation. (The U.N. report on Israel’s Gaza War: What you need to know, Washington Post, June 22, 2015, Ishaan Tharoor)
- The Guardian was a bit more direct, writing that the “hard-hitting report commissioned by the UN human rights council lays most of the blame for Israel’s suspected violations at the feet of the country’s political and military leadership.” (UN accuses of Israel and Hamas of possible war crimes during 2014 Gaza conflict, The Guardian, June 22, 2015)
- What was the official U.S. government position? Predictably, we echoed our good friend, Israel, and concluded the U.N. Report was biased from the start. Asked during a press conference if the State Department is reading the report, John Kirby, the State Dept. spokesperson responded: “Certainly we’re reading it. But as I also said yesterday, we challenge the very mechanism which created it. And so we’re not going to have a readout of this. We’re not going to have a rebuttal to it. We’re certainly going to read it, as we read all UN reports. But we challenge the very foundation upon which this report was written, and we don’t believe that there’s a call or a need for any further Security Council work on this.” (John Kirby, Spokesperson, Daily Press Briefing, Washington, DC, June 23, 2015)
- An opinion piece in The Guardian castigated the U.N. Commission’s Report for failure to establish the context of the conflict. Naturally, the context the author wanted to see was his own version of history. (The U.N. is preserving the Israeli occupation, The Guardian, June 26, 2015, Ari Shavit opinion)
- The New York Times published an opinion piece by a retired British Army colonel who warned that the U.N. Report is “flawed and dangerous” and will “provoke further violence and loss of life.” (The U.N.’s Gaza Report is Flawed and Dangerous, The New York Times, June 25, 2015, Richard Kemp opinion). The author had earlier testified before the U.N. Independent Commission of Inquiry. Just to be even-handed, let’s see if The New York Times publishes an opinion piece by the parents of the four Bakr boys killed on the beach in Gaza.
- Norman Finkelstein, a controversial scholar and critic of the Israeli occupation, also found much to criticise in the U.N. Report. In an online Q&A, Finkelstein wrote: “A huge gap existed between the descriptions compiled in the report and the concomitant legal analysis in each section. The descriptions were graphic and compelling, but the legal analysis seemed to minimize Israel’s accountability. The reader senses that the person writing the legal analysis (probably [Judge Mary McGowan] Davis) was straining to be “fair,” to the point that it became unserious.” (UN report on Gaza war is ‘tepid,’ ‘unserious,’ and exhibits ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’. Mondoweiss, June 27, 2015)
- The New York Times Editorial Board concluded that “It’s unrealistic to expect Hamas to follow international law but Israel has a duty, and should have a desire, to adjust its military policies to avoid civilian casualties and hold those who failed to do so accountable.” (War Crimes and the Gaza War, The New York Times, June 23, 2015, The Editorial Board)
- The Guardian’s Editorial Board read the U.N. Report and saw the children.
In the report released on Monday by the UN commission of inquiry on the 2014 Gaza war, one passage stands out. “Palestinian and Israeli children were savagely affected by the events. Children on both sides suffered from bed-wetting, shaking at night, clinging to parents, nightmares and increased levels of aggressiveness.” Those words are a reminder that, in all the positioning and spinning that follows a report of this kind, the heart of the matter is the human cost, usually paid by the most vulnerable.
The death toll of last summer’s violence was lopsided – with more than 2,200 Palestinians and 73 Israelis killed – but the UN report strains to understand the Israeli as well as Palestinian narrative behind those numbers.
Both sides like to claim the moral advantage, even while locked in a vicious conflict. If they really believe that, then they must bring those accused of grave crimes to justice.
Some found the U.N. Report provocative, inciteful or perhaps insightful, destructive, courageous, newsworthy, or a waste of time —- but each found the truth he/she was looking for.
A summary of the U.N. Report and “my” conclusions
follow in the next blog post.