Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Public Perceptions

There is a legendary story about the General Motors marketing department in the 1950s. They conducted a survey of ordinary car buyers, unveiling two designs, one simple and Fordy, and another loaded with style and chrome. Then the survey asked two shrewd questions: "Which do you like?" and "Which do you think your neighbors would like?" Most said they liked the simple design, but that their neighbors would like the opulent one. General Motors produced the opulent one. They sold a lot of cars.

A few days ago, I mentioned in this blog a reported study on Israeli attitudes by the Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership at Harvard, conducted by Prof. Todd Pittinsky. I just read the full report and you can here. The survey asks two shrewd questions, in effect, the flip of the GM study: "How many Jewish citizens do you think have positive attitudes about Arab citizens?" and, in effect, "What do you think of Arab citizens?" (The study also asked Arabs about Jews in the same way.) The results are telling: 64% of Jews said they had positive feelings about Arabs, but only 13% said they thought other Jews had positive feelings. The Arab side was essentially similar: 68% had positive feelings, but only 33% said that other Arabs had positive feelings.

How to interpret such findings? Some will jump to assume that, again, people are projecting what they really feel onto some majority of others. I think that would be a mistake. There is no public censure in Israel for expressing doubts about the Arab minority. Quite the contrary, to say that you like Arabs makes you somewhat nonconformist, even eccentric. It is a little like admitting that you like the chrome. At the same time, when you say that most Jews have negative feelings, you are stating what seems a public expectation, even imperative--like the need for the frugality of a Ford.

So the survey is actually teaching us that most Israeli Jews actually like the real Arab citizens in their midst, but feel they have to deny this for reasons of state and out of respect for the stereotypes. It is much the same with Arabs with respect to Jews.

ALL OF THIS means that the opportunities for integration and coexistence in Israel are at hand and growing. What gets in the way are public, quasi-official ways of supporting clannish behaviors that reinforce conformist attitudes. The wars do not help. And I have published a great deal about the legal and institutional confusions of the state apparatus.

But sometimes officially sanctioned behavior is just plain obnoxious--and easily preventable. Take this program in Kiryat Gat schools to warn girls not to date Bedouin boys. The minister of education is philosophy professor, and Peace Now founder, Yuli Tamir. Where is she?

By the way, most of these Bedouin boys will serve in the Israeli army. And Kiryat Gat is not some weird little ghetto. It is a booming town of 50,000 where Intel is investing $4.5 billion to build among the largest and most sophisticated chip fabrication facilities in the world. Should the Intel board not say something as well?

Watch the film, if you can stomach it. The pudgy teacher--obviously a Shas "welfare official"--is telling the girls that the danger of an Arab boy is comparable to the danger of speeding cars in the street and strong currents at the beach. Dating an Arab would be a "deviant event," he says; the Arab boys are merely out "to exploit" them for sex. As if Jewish boys are not.