Times of Israel reporter Avi Issacharoff reported on Friday that he had been attacked by a Palestinian lynch mob as he was covering Nakba Day protests in the West Bank town of Beitunia. Issacharoff claims he was "seconds away from being beaten to death" and only the fast action of two Palestinian Authority security personel saved him. Read his report now.
Now read this account about Noa Schaindlinger, an Israeli Jew who was an eyewitness to the event and you get a very different picture. She notes that the crowd was already agitated because the Israeli Defense Force had killed two Palestinian protestors the previous day in practically the same place--a fact that Issacharoff did not mention in his reporting. In addition, Issacharoff was accompanied by a photographer who she claimed was taking pictures of the protestors' faces. This alarmed them because the IDF uses such pictures to target Palestinians for arrest in night raids. Schaindlinger notes that Israeli journalists who normally cover these protests have an understanding with the protestors not to take pictures or videos of their faces or to pixelate out their faces before publishing videos. Presumably, Issacharoff was not aware of these unofficial rules of the road (or at least the protestors assumed he was unaware of, or in complete disregard of these rules.) And most importantly, Schaindlinger claims that though Issahcaroff was caught in a crowd with pushing and shouting, and though some protestors had kicked the car he was in, he was never in any danger.
Looking at Schaindlinger's twitter account between May 16 and May 18, it is obvious that she is very strongly pro-Palestinian and wants to see Israel replaced by a state that won't give Jews special treatment. She also flat-out accuses Issacharoff of lying.
So who is telling the truth? Was Issacharoff's life in danger, or is he a liar? I suspect neither.
First, I don't believe Issacharoff was in any real danger. Schaindlinger noted that there were three other Israeli journalists at the demonstration (Yisrael Putterman, David Reeb, and Haim Schwarczenberg) and none of them reported anything unusual.
Second, I believe Issacharoff was genuinely afraid during this incident. Even Schaindlinger, while emphasizing the point that most in the crowd were trying to protect him, admitted that some wanted to harm him.
Third, undoubtedly Issacharoff's adrenaline was flowing during this chaotic and tumultuous incident. He was definitely being jostled. He was probably kicked from behind. He was on high alert for threats, and in this state of heightened alert he may have paid more attention to those voices calling for his harm than those calling for him to be saved--even if the latter was louder and more numerous than the former.
Fourth--and this is most important--even the most well intentioned people under the best of circumstances are prone to misinterpreting their environment. We see things that aren't real (the moon isn't larger on the horizon than it is in the sky.) Or we don't see things that are in plain sight. Check out this short video by University of Illinois psychologist Daniel Simons.
Even trained professionals can overlook something that is obviously wrong if they are not expecting it. Trafton Drew, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, superimposed an image of a man in a gorilla suit onto a series of slides and asked radiologists who had scanned the slides for cancer nodules if they had noticed anything unusual. Eighty-three percent of the radiologists didn't notice the gorilla.
Simons gave a fascinating Ted Talk in which he discussed how selective attention, faulty memory and other related phenomena can mislead us in our perception of the world. I highly encourage you to watch it and the other videos featured on Simons' YouTube channel to learn more about these surprising and often amusing phenomena.
Most importantly, watch Simons' second Ted Talk and pay close attention to what he says starting around 5:08. When we are witnessing an event, we assume we are all seeing the same thing, but this is a faulty assumption. Simons says that illusions affect "the way we think, the way we remember, [and] the way we reason."
I believe Issacharoff when he says he felt like his life was in danger. He is describing the situation as he perceived it, even if his perception does not reflect objective reality. I also believe Schaindlinger and Couzinet watched the same event and came away with a sincere belief that Issacharoff was not in any danger, even though their perceptions might not reflect objective reality. And I can easily understand why Schainling would assume Issacharoff was a liar, especially if she was not aware that selective perception could have led Issacharoff astray. Whose perception comes closest to objective reality? Was Issacharoff in real danger? I can't say for sure, but if I had to bet I would bet that Schaindlinger's and Couzinet's accounts are more accurate. First, they corroborate each other. But more importantly, Issacharoff's attention would have been narrowly focused upon the threat and less likely to be attuned to evidence indicating the threat was minimal.
Issacharoff issued several tweets a couple of days after the incident explaining that the incident was caused by a misunderstanding--the protestors thought he was someone from Shin Bet and they would not bother him again.
This is all well and good, but Issacharoff's description of the incident as an attempted lynching was red meat to those who view Palestinians as savages. It could easily be used as an excuse by right wing Israeli extremists to carry out a price tag attack against the Palestinians. Issacharoff has a moral obligation to write another column in which he covers the following points
- Tensions were already high amongst the protestors before he arrived because two Palestinians had been killed by the IDF in nearly the same spot the previous day.
- There were two eyewitnesses who believed he was exaggerating.
- Human perceptions are often misleading--especially in a high-pressure situation. Two people can witness the exact same thing and come away with very different perceptions. The work of Daniel Simons and others prove that objective reality and subjective reality can be very different things.
- He may have misperceived the situation and he could have unintentionally overstated the danger he was in. He may have believed he was in danger at the time, and he still may believe he was in danger, but there is at least a possibility that he could be wrong.
- Since it is possible he could be wrong his readers should avoid jumping to harsh conclusions about the protestors. They certainly shouldn't use it as an excuse to denigrate them or launch a price tag attack.
This entire incident could have a silver lining if people on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict learn about the frailties of human perception and cut each other a little more slack.