I have something in common with both Winston Churchill and Oliver Sacks.   Yes I know I am neither a great politician nor an esteemed neurologist known for my brilliant essays written for the lay public.   However, all three of us suffer from a condition known as prosopagnosia, or “brain blindness”.   People suffering from this diagnosis have a malfunction of the fusiform gyrus, the specialised area of the brain which determines facial recognition.   This disorder puts us at a serious disadvantage in social situations and I have often been accused of being a snob, by the person I do not recognise.   I bit more understanding would be appreciated!

My niece, living in Canada, drew my attention to a mind engaging article by Robert Sapolsky entitled “The biology of Us and Them,” which highlights a further important function of the fusiform gyrus.  Because of the role that his small area of the brain plays in facial recognition, it, in turn, plays a role in the formation of social prejudice. We feel more positive towards people who look like us, as have a natural tendency to be more favourably disposed to those who have similar behaviour patterns as ourselves, as well as those who have a comparable appearance

As Sapolsky points out in his analysis, both humans and animals favour those of our species who are most like ourselves in their physical appearance.   Despite the fact that today many of us who live in big cities live in culturally diverse environments, most people will have more friends who bear a physical likeness to themselves, than those who differ in appearance.   No doubt education and familiarity helps us to minimise these barriers of physical appearance, but the gut reaction of the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for our unconscious reactions, will demonstrate during an experiment in an MRI machine, a definite preferential reaction to photographs of similar faces to the subject and those which differ in physical qualities.   There will be an instantaneous negative reaction to a physiognomy which differs from our own.   This reaction may be adapted when the subject allows cultural influences to overcome his initial prejudice.

From this theoretical understanding of an inherent bias which we possess for a preference to people who are both physically and culturally similar to us, I am going to introduce a contemporary controversy which has elicited heated debate.   Being a secular Jew the current events of the nation of Israel are of particular interest to me.   One of the most prominent political divides in politics in that country is around the treatment of the Arab citizens within the state of Israel. Such a controversy has erupted over the past few days.

With the elections coming up in next month, Netanyahu who has been the right wing president of the state for the past 14 years is being seriously challenged by a centrist party which is forming a coalition with some of the Arab political parties.   This has resulted in the prime minister supporting his colleague who has made some statements around the danger of the Israeli Arab Parties, with which his opponent intends to form a coalition.  Netanyahu feeling insecure about his political future has pointed out the danger of having Arab political parties as members of the ruling party.

Netanyahu was responding to comments on social media by Israeli TV presenter Rotem Sela who wrote on Instagram on Saturday, “When the hell will someone in this government broadcast to the public that Israel is a country of all its citizens? And the Arabs, God have mercy, are also human beings. So are the Druze, so are homosexuals and by the way so are lesbians….and, shockingly, the left.”   Both Gal Gadot, international star of the film Wonder Woman, and the President of Israel have support Sela

Netanyahu supports his comments by quoting the contents of the new Nation-State Law which was passed in Israel a few months ago and similar sensitivities were aroused.  This controversial law states that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. This is our state, the state of the Jews. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to cast doubt on this, and so to undercut the foundations of our existence and our rights. Today we etched in the stone of law: This is our state, this is our language, this is our anthem, and this is our flag.”

An unfairly brief background excursion into the historical background may help the reader understand this gut reaction of the Prime Minister.     The Jews have a 2000 year history of being discriminated against and have suffered, and fought long and hard for the Jewish state.   A sad reflection is that there needed to be a Holocaust and the murder of 6 million Jews to give the motivation for the UN to create the conditions for the creation of this Jewish Nation State.

I think that the amygdala of Jews has become super activated because of this difficult history.  There is an unconscious reaction when a Jewish person’s insecurity is threatened.   It is all due to so many years of being a nation of outsiders.     So whilst I can agree with Galot, Siler and the President for their support of universal human rights, the rights of Arab citizens within the state of Israel, I can also understand the biological basis of the gut reaction of Israelis who feel that their culture and lifestyle is being threatened by giving political power to the Arab parties.


1 reply
  1. Nikki Viljoen
    Nikki Viljoen says:

    It certainly is a complicated situation and I personally think that many of the ‘outsiders’, myself included also have a gut reaction and more often than not, without the knowledge and understanding of the situation. I’m very pro Israel and the Jewish nation and that’s purely from the standpoint that I have many Jewish friends who I love dearly. Muslims, not so much, again from personal experience where I have been treated very badly by Muslim customers simply because I am an infidel. That said I also have been treated very well by a Muslim customer, but the bitter pill that I had to swallow had a lasting effect on me. Sad that . . .

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