Ignorance: An extremists’ best friend

In January 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, while in London, I found myself in Hyde Park in the midst of an extremely anti-Israel demonstration. Realizing that the bulk of the crowd were wearing burkas and turbans, I subtly removed my kippah so as to blend in (yeah right!). Scanning the crowd I noticed a Caucasian woman shouting anti-Israel slurs on the sidelines, clearly eager to draw some attention. We began conversing and after just a few minutes she started to choke on her words as her activist-self-confidence began to dwindle and her ignorance began to show. What did I say to her? Well, I started with the facts. Almost everything I told her she was unaware of. She didn’t even know that there was a town in Israel called Sderot and that rockets had been falling heavily on Sderot for many months leading up to the Operation.

Confessions of an [opinionated] extremist…

More than once I have been regarded as as an extremist, however, I’m not sure as to how I feel about that characterization. Rather, I prefer to define myself as opinionated, maybe even highly opinionated. I am not an activist of any kind. In fact, I have yet to find a cause that has gotten me so riled up that I felt the need to take to the streets. However, I am embarrassed to say that for the most part, at least prior to my academic studies, my opinions were largely based – on nothing. Wait, I take that back. They weren’t based on nothing per se – rather, they were based on preconceived notions, society-generated stereotypes and media propaganda.

So, why am I telling you this? While my views haven’t changed all that much, I have at least developed a more open approach towards the views of others. This change is due largely to my exposure to new people. Interactions with Palestinians, secular jews, and anybody else who is slightly different than myself, has forced me to have an open mind and to at least hear-out the opinions of others before formulating my own views.

Before I met my wife I was an extremist (a.k.a. highly-opinionated-individual) who could be described as having a fondness for getting into heated arguments on issues I was completely ignorant of. Finally, when I got married, my wife began to call me out. She would hear me trying to argue a point and she would say: “Yitz, what are you saying? Do you hear yourself? You’re arguments are weak because they are based on nothing. If you really want to have these discussions, go do your homework. First check the facts, and then open your mouth”.

However, this phenomenon of extremism, or strong opinions based on ignorance, is not unique to me. Many of our social stereotypes, economic issues and even political conflicts, both domestically and internationally, can be attributed to ignorance on some level.

I can attest to this problem of ignorance even with regard to my own interactions with secular Jews. Having grown up in a religious yishuv (settlement), attended a religious all-boys high school, completed my army service as part of a Hesder-unit, my first real interaction with chilonim (secular Jews) was in academia, and it most certainly didn’t match the stereotype I had grown up on. The same can be said of chilonim, many of whom are often unaware of the differences between the different types of religious factions. For example, when applying for colleges I called to arrange a meeting with the admissions department at the College of Management. At some point in the conversation it came up that I was religious. “Oh, so you’re Chabad!” (a large Hasidic faction) the woman said. No, I am not Chabad, I tried to explain to her. But explaining was no good as it became clear to me that she didn’t really understand the difference anyway. To her, being religious meant being charedi (ultra-orthodox) and being charedi meant being Chabad.

Perhaps if my interaction with chilonim would have played out differently, say at an earlier stage, my views would have changed; and perhaps not. Either way, I would have been well informed to formulate an educated opinion.

This raises a whole new issue, characteristic of religious societies’ fear that too much “exposure” to opposing views, may involuntarily influence them and cause them to abandon their Jewish values and beliefs. It can be seen in the dati-leumi (national-religious) world but it is far more apparent amongst the charedi communities.

In the dati-leumi world it can be recognized among Hesder students, characterized by the ultimate dilemma of whether to go to meuravot (a unit mixed with both religious and non-religious soldiers) or to a machleket beinish (a unit solely made up of religious soldiers). The pros and cons of each are clear. On the one hand, going to meuravot you have an opportunity to meet new people slightly different than yourself and to be exposed to new world views. You might be able to influence others and change their perspectives; however, there is also a danger that they may “get the better of you”. On the other hand, going to a machleket beinish is the “safe” route, void of threats to your ideals and beliefs – a far more comfortable choice.

The way I see it there are at least two ways to acquire ignorance: by choice or by default. The ‘by choice method’, adopted primarily by the Charedi community and by those who choose to join a machleket beinish, is quite simply, to ostracize oneself from all aspects of modern society. By doing so, you will almost never be “tempted” or influenced by the ideas of others, thus your ideas and beliefs will remain largely unchanged. This approach has both positive and negative effects: On the one hand, you can effectively maintain your beliefs and principles, without the danger of being influenced by “threatening” views. On the other hand, this alludes to the possible weakness of your beliefs. Strong beliefs and values are those which have stood strong in the face of temptation and criticism. I’m not saying that one needs to subject themselves to temptation and/or criticism in order to be strong in their beliefs; nonetheless, I have no question that one who stood in the way of “temptation” and regardless remained strong, will be more secure in his beliefs.

Clarification: I am not saying that the “ignorance by choice” method is bad. On the contrary, I see many benefits in safeguarding your children in order to ensure that they are raised the way you see fit. Educating children is hard, even more so when it is you against the world. However, completely ostracizing them cannot be good either, because, at some point they will go off into the world and they will begin to wonder. Surely it is better for them to wonder whilst under your guidance rather than when they are already out of your control. You don’t want your children to resent the fact that you kept them in the dark. And so, I suggest finding some sort of a balance. Provide the information, don’t promote ignorance, but make your path very clear.  

The other approach is not adopted by choice, rather by default. As I said earlier, often people hear things or read them in the media and develop strong opinions based on little or no facts. In many cases, anti-Semitism or anti-Israel views are a result of this second approach, such as the example I brought at the beginning of the article, of the woman from Hyde Park. While this woman may be significantly more ignorant than the average anti-Israel bunch, I still posit that much of the strong feelings of hate towards Israel, at least among youth and those who are not involved in the goings-on of the Middle East on a day-to-day basis, are largely due to a lack of information.

It’s easy to posit ideas, especially those of an extreme nature, when you have no idea what you’re actually talking about. As soon as you’re met with facts, you are forced to deal with new information that doesn’t always coincide with your extreme ideas. Often those with extreme ideas don’t want to be informed, so that they may continue to exercise their privilege of remaining ignorant. It is our responsibility to provide the information, so as not to be ignorant ourselves and so that we may expose the “ignorant extremists”. 

About the Author
Yitz Hammer lives with his wife and two children in Netanya; He made aliyah from the U.S. in 2000, studied in Otniel Hesder Yeshiva and served in the Combat Engineering Corps; Yitzy is currently studying towards an LL.B. in Law and a B.A. in Government at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliah, where he works as a research assistant in the subject of Jewish Law; Yitz's interests include photography, history, international law, music and writing. Most recently, Yitzy has joined the ranks of StandWithUs, the pro-Israel education and advocacy organization, as a participant in their Israel Fellowship.