Children of Abraham v sons of Ibrahim

On a visit to human rights groups in Israel and the West Bank, Sigrid Rausing senses a growing tensi

There is silence on the scrubby hills overlooking Bethlehem. The hills are dotted with cylindrical Israeli guard towers, looking down into the valleys. Tiny fields of olive trees line the roads; the disputed areas, here at least, are so small. We are just above the wall dividing Israel from the West Bank. It is deceptively peaceful, almost somnolent. Sparrows dive in and out of the glittering razor wire on top. From the hill you can see how close it is to the Palestinian homes of Bethlehem, how comfortably distant from Israeli homes.

Most of the land in Israel is owned by the state. The uneven distribution of facilities, from sewerage to education, remains a problem. In addition to communal disadvantages, the privileges that flow from army service, such as subsidised education and housing, are also denied to individual Palestinians, who do not serve in the army. Hebrew remains the language of teaching in the universities, which affects Palestinian students. And yet many Palestinians in Israel fear that, in the eventual peace deal, their villages will be traded for land in the West Bank with Jewish settlements, depriving them of Israeli citizenship.

Persecution, the tragedy of exile and the wish to return to the land of the forefathers are part of the DNA of Jewish culture. These are now clashing with another strand of the culture which is about social revolution, human rights, equality and secularism. The conflict is no longer simply about Palestinians v Jews, nor about the ultra-Orthodox v the secular; it is also a bitter cultural civil war between beleaguered human rights organisations - the remnants of the Israeli left - and the secular right.

This is not about Zionism. If you are a Jew living in Israel you are, for better or worse, a Zionist. But human rights activists, along with many Israelis, remember the original dream of Israel as a refuge for all Jews and a democracy where no one is discriminated against on the grounds of race or religion. They remember the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which states that Israel

will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

They believe in keeping Israel accountable to its origins and ideals, even in the face of war and terrorism.

People on the right are concerned with security, listen to the anti-Semitism of the Muslim world and take seriously the openly anti-Semitic charter of Hamas. Liberals, by contrast, listen to Palestinian narratives of oppression and discrimination. Conservatives believe that the forces that want to destroy Israel and drive the Jews into the sea may prevail; liberals believe that peaceful coexistence is possible. Conservatives believe that liberals co-operate with the forces that conspire to bring about Israel's destruction; liberals believe that conservatives exploit Israel's exceptionalism, particularly the memory of the Holocaust, in the name of security. Liberals abhor racism and oppression, while many conservatives, especially supporters of Avigdor Lieberman, now believe in permanent separation. For conservatives, external criticism of Israeli policies is always a sign of anti-Semitism or self-hatred. They also increasingly argue that internal criticism of Israel delegitimises the nation, undermining Israel's very right to exist.

I am here to visit the Israeli grantees of my charitable foundation. Israeli human rights organisations are almost entirely funded from abroad. To a greater or lesser extent, that is true of all Israeli institutions, and the country does indeed have an affluent sheen about it that speaks of generous grants from funding bodies. For the human rights organisations, however, foreign funding has led to a certain disconnection from Israelis themselves. Advocates are turning towards the international audience rather than the domestic one, to English rather than Hebrew. As a result, they have become somewhat isolated within Israel.

Yet they have achieved results. Palestinian detainees are no longer hooded or put into stress positions, or threatened with the arrest and maltreatment of relatives. Their shackles now have to be at least 50cm long, rather than 30cm. Detainee maltreatment is carefully monitored by NGOs.

The Supreme Court, too, has helped with many favourable rulings in cases brought by human rights groups. The ban on torture and the improvements to detainee conditions are sometimes used as arguments against human rights organisations, on the grounds that they are "unnecessary". The internal debate is combative, mirroring in many ways the American debate on torture in the Bush era. Many Israeli hawks are American-born (though, now, probably more of them are Russian), and many American hawks are deeply engaged in Israel.

We visit Hebron with one of the organisations we support. In Kiryat Arba, the settler suburb, we stop off at the Meir Kahane Memorial Park. There is the tomb of Baruch Goldstein, who killed dozens of unarmed Palestinians in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, in 1994. Israeli soldiers looked on, bewildered and motionless, until finally he was killed by members of the public.

Goldstein, born in Brooklyn, joined the ultra-nationalist Kahane's Jewish Defence League and lived in the Hebron settlement. The Hebrew inscription on his tomb states:

Here lies buried the holy one Dr Baruch Kappel Goldstein . . .
He gave his soul for the people of Israel, for the Torah and for the land. Clean of hand and pure of heart. Murdered while protecting the Nation of God.

There is a shoddy bus shelter next to the little park. The streets are empty.

In 1929, 67 Jews were killed in Hebron, ending Jewish life in the city. The settlers started to reoccupy Hebron in the late 1970s, house by house. Kiryat Arba now has some 600 inhabitants, guarded by 1,200 soldiers. Hebron itself is divided into two sectors - H1, home to about 180,000 Palestinians, and H2, the four square kilometres at the heart of city, which is under direct occupation.

There, on the narrow streets around Abraham's tomb, all shops are closed and sealed. People still live on the first and second floors. Every window is covered with a light metal mesh. The Palestinians' laws prevent them from selling their houses to the settlers, so the inhabitants of H2 are financially locked in. Houses are sometimes abandoned when owners die or move away. Settlers drape Israeli flags on them - another victory for Zionism, another (self-imposed) defeat for the Palestinians.

There are a few settler quarters in H2 as well. They are affluent and orderly, in contrast to the dismal Palestinian streets. On some streets, Israelis can drive and Palestinians cannot. In some places they have to walk on the other side of concrete barriers. Israeli soldiers, armed with machine-guns, complain only about the settlers, who often try to provoke fights with the Palestinians.

Our grantee has handed out video cameras to Palestinian families to record settler attacks, which are many and frequent. If there is a fight, the soldiers will step in - the post-Holocaust ideology of the Israeli state mandates that Jewish lives must always be protected. Without that protection, there would be guerrilla warfare in the West Bank.

We chat with a soldier in a watchtower. There is a bag of rubbish on the floor: chocolate wrappers, cans and paper, the detritus of the young. Outside, Breaking the Silence, a group dedicated to soldier testimony of abuse of Palestinians in the occupied territories, is taking a group of visitors around. Next to them is a conservative group, showing the settlements. The atmosphere is tense; the soldiers are watching in case they clash. I ask if the liberal groups ever attack the conservative ones, and our guide laughs and shakes his head.

Confrontation in Israel is now the domain of the right, like the young activists of the neo-Zionist Im Tirtzu who recently targeted the progressive New Israel Fund with posters depicting its Israeli director with a horn in her forehead. A few streets away, settlers have painted naive scenes of Jewish life on a wall, political graffiti minimising the oppressive force of the occupation. The captions are in English:

Living together
A pious community
Destruction 1929
Liberation, return, rebuilding 1967
“The children have returned to their own borders." cf Jer 31:17

We visit the tomb of Abraham and Sarah, where Isaac, Jacob and their wives are also interred. Herod built a memorial temple over the tombs.

Pieces of paper - prayers - are thrown into the sealed rooms of the tombs. Birds fly in and out; padlocks seal the doors. Children, tourists, Orthodox men and women talk comfortably, drifting from tomb to tomb. A man sleeps on a plastic chair. I look into Abraham's tomb. Diagonally across from me, a Palestinian woman simultaneously looks through the bars of her identical window; Abraham is locked in between the two sides.

Later, we visit the mayor of a Palestinian village on the sea. His family accounts for 40 per cent of the population. He seems a little sleepy, talking about education, culture and sports, but without any enthusiasm - those words represent grants, and, like with Potemkin façades, the reality behind them is uncertain. This is the poorest village in Israel, between Haifa and Tel Aviv, and next to the wealthy Jewish village of Caesarea, where Prime Minister Netanyahu has a weekend house. The inhabitants of Caesarea built a sand barrier between the two villages.

The mayor's dream is a €50m holiday home development on the beach, funded by the European Union, temporarily stopped because of ownership issues. I can't imagine a holiday resort on this littered beach, despite the blue sea. We stand there, deep in thought, when suddenly an Arab horse canters by, and then another - fleeting images of Palestinian freedom and defiance.

The saddest thing we saw was not Hebron, or the partly bulldozed Palestinian cemetery in the Mount Carmel National Park, or the barrier wall. It was a prison outside Tel Aviv that houses asylum-seekers. Most of the male detainees are Africans, lounging on narrow beds in fairly open conditions. Some have walked across the Egyptian border. There is a ping-pong table in the open-air common-room; a cockroach crawls along a wall.

The female detainees are Asian and eastern European. A Ukrainian woman is thought to have been trafficked, but can't be helped unless she says so herself - she was picked up from a brothel, and is not saying. Her grey, expressionless face and bleached hair are haunting. But the saddest thing is the children's ward. Two boys are locked in a cell. They look about 12; younger than that and they are detained in boarding schools. The locking up is, I believe, temporary, like the stench from the garbage that is being removed as we stand there. I don't know where they were from - Sudan, perhaps. But the sight of them, the same age as my own son, was indescribably sad.

Sigrid Rausing is the publisher of Granta and founder of the Sigrid Rausing Trust.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge