Of Divestment, Israel and First Impressions

This past Wednesday, hundreds of Portland residents filed into the Portland Building auditorium to attend an open session of the city’s Human Rights Commission (HRC). This gangbuster attendance was in response to a recent decision of the HRC recommending that the city of Portland and its Socially Responsible Investment Committee divest its holdings in four companies doing business in Israel, and which the HRC had concluded were guilty of human rights violations.

A large contingent of Jewish leadership were there, arguing against this move; unsurprisingly, many individuals were there to vociferously support the HRC’s statement and to condemn Israel. If you have attended these sorts of contentious hearings before, you would not have been surprised by the circus, which included vituperative catcalls and threats to escort people off the premises.

Some of the disheartening surprises? Two of the commissioners confessed that they had voted for divestment without reading the supplied materials. And, as soon as Rabbi Tzvi Fischer, one of our Orthodox rabbis who customarily dresses in black, stood up to speak during his turn, a number of people in the crowd tried to shout him down. He had not even begun to speak, and so it was clear that the angry tones of hatred were based merely on his appearance and not on the message he had not yet delivered.

Many thoughts and concerns have plagued me since. Most notably, while the HRC claims they had a careful process by which they reached their decision, at no time during the hearing, nor anywhere on their website, could this concerned citizen learn about this purported process, nor locate the materials about the four companies by which they made their determination. Nor had they reached out to the Jewish community during their deliberations.

So it is to the catcalls and abuse flung at Rabbi Fischer that I wish to return.

First Impressions

The December 2015 issue of Psychology Today has an interesting article about the science of first impressions. Among the striking findings is an argument that we humans have only developed the tools to “read people” over the last 13,000 years. Before the advent of agriculture and larger human settlements, we all lived in smaller tribal units where everyone was known. We were judged, and judged others, therefore, based on reputation. In higher population areas that was no longer possible, and so we developed the still crude tool of reading people from our first impressions of them. According to what we know, those first impressions are correct only 30% of the time–less than a random coin flip. In high stake issues (mate selection, peace process), this first impression, which we all feel so strongly to be true, is even less useful.

Most disturbing, given how our initial read of others is so inaccurate, is how we go about changing those impressions in light of new information. Psychologist Melissa Ferguson of Cornell designed an experiment to uncover just that. Our good instant impression of someone, even if it is reinforced by a history of good deeds by them, only needs one bad impression to flip. Yet if we first developed an instantaneously negative impression of someone, even a great many positive experiences of the person rarely will change our minds. Only if we discover that we were drastically mistaken about our first impression are we likely to reassess the individual.

Impressions at the Well

In this week’s parashah of Hayyei Sarah, Abraham charges his chief household servant (some think it was Eliezer) to find a wife for Isaac. The servant’s criteria are for someone who is kind and hospitable to a desert crosser, someone who will provide water for himself, but also for the ten camels who travel with him. He makes, in other words, a rational judgment about what is important in a mate before he meets a potential wife for Isaac. By what we know of camels, and the jugs used to carry water, we know that Eliezer had hours to watch Rebecca haul hundreds of gallons of water on top of her head. He could discern, beyond an instantaneous first impression, that her kindness was not just a nice emotion to a stranger, but was expressed through long hours of physical labor. He waited to determine her character before deciding that she would be a proper spouse for Isaac.

Moving Beyond First Impressions

If our current science of first impressions is correct–if we are wrong 70% of the time, and change our minds to the better only reluctantly, and to ill rather easily–what can we do? Clearly, we can not rely on our intuitions, despite how attached we are to them. I am reminded of an old Jewish maxim and my maternal grandmother.

In Pirkei Avot, a collection of wisdom sayings in the Mishnah, we read “Dan kol adam l’khaf zechut.” Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. The very phrasing of this teaches us that we need to actively oppose our first impressions by training ourselves to find extenuating circumstances that explain what we don’t like in another. It implies as well that our first nature is not to give people the benefit of the doubt. In the same way, American law had to legislate that we are innocent until proven guilty, because our instincts are quick to judge and slow to forgive.

On the surface, most of us will gladly ascribe to the sentiments of the Mishnah and to American jurisprudence. Our current science indicates, however, that we don’t operate that way. The finest example I know of someone who trained herself out of first impressions was my Nana Pauline. She always sought out the good in others, and because she did, she became one of the kindest and most loving of people. A beloved and amusing family favorite concerns the birth of my brother. It is a story we can only tell because he is now a very good looking man. But when he was born, he was not. He came out so smushed that even my mother declared him an ugly baby. They warned Nana Pauline. When she finally saw him for the first time, there was a long silence. Finally, she declared, “he’s not as bad as you said!”

Our brains may jump to make impressions that normally are wrong. Yet our minds and our souls can work to overcome those initial thoughts. I’d like to imagine that if more of us could do this, there would probably be less hatred in the world.


Rav D

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