Are Jews like ostriches?

From biblical times to the present day, there are all too many examples of the dangers of leaving our heads in the sand


Front view of ostrich, Struthio camelus, looking at camera.

April 19, 2022 09:50

At the Seder, we ask four questions. The most famous – “Why is this night different from all other nights?” – resonates down the centuries. These beguilingly simple questions begin the evening’s festivities, where we reflect not simply on the age-old Jewish yearning for physical freedom without threat, but also on the importance of being free to question unencumbered, even when our questions seem nonsensical.

That is perhaps the greatest freedom of all: the freedom of the mind. Cutting across denominations, reaching out for this freedom in all its forms, is the tradition we pass on to our children. 

But here’s another question: Are Jews like ostriches? On the surface it might seem a ridiculous question. Yet it’s linked to the concept of freedom too. For that reason, I would argue it could even make a good fifth question for the Seder. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 

Psychologists speak of the “ostrich effect”. This concerns a behaviour where people, like ostriches that have a characteristic of burying their heads in the sand, ignore what’s going on around them. And if we ignore what’s going on around us important information is not taken into account and our decisions cannot be truly free.

The trouble is that despite our tradition talking about freedom and encouraging its development, Jewish history and experience is littered with examples of ostrich behaviour.

In biblical times, following the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt – as Pesach recalls – 12 spies were sent to scout out a new land. Bamidbar, Chapter 13, recounts the inability of ten of those spies to shake off the slave mentality and rise to the challenge of inhabiting the country destined for them. Though God Himself directed the people to the Land of Israel, even that divine support wasn’t enough to move these men to change their mindset. Ostrich behaviour means there is comfort in the familiar. And the spies’ failure to see that something better was achievable led, disastrously, to a whole nation wandering in a desert for 40 years. 

Fast forward to the Nazi era and the reluctance of Jews to leave Vienna, even after the Anschluss. Certainly, not everyone had the ability to leave. But of those who could, Sigmund Freud, notably, left it till it was almost too late to flee, writing in his diary: “We are determined to stick it out here to the last. Perhaps it may not come out too bad.” It is puzzling why a man of Freud’s intellect would seem blinkered about the severity of his situation. Clearly, something operates beyond intellect. 

The impact of Covid-19 on London’s Charedi community provides some perspective. In its 2021 study, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that this group had an infection rate of 64 per cent, compared to the national average of 7 per cent. One reason for this large disparity, unsurprisingly, concerns increased socialising (shul, weddings, shiurim, events, etc) compared to patterns for the broader population – or even to other Jewish denominations. That factor’s likely involvement in cross-infection seems clear. But what is less apparent is why, once this reason was known to that community, behaviour didn’t always change. 

For psychologists Thomas Webb and colleagues at the University of Sheffield, conflicting motives underlie ostrich behaviour. These cause avoidance of monitoring or being dismissive of one’s health, when rationally health should be foremost.

One source of conflicting motives in the Charedi community comes from the cultural values which dictate high interaction levels. Indeed, things like reciprocity and goodwill, earned through interaction – what sociologists term “social capital” – are a measure of the success members and their families enjoy in their communal lives; gains vital not only to preserve but enlarge.  

Some also view preventative health care as “playing God”. Israeli academic Anat Freund and her associates studied Charedi women’s perceptions about breast cancer screening. Their findings showed uncertainty about whether having advised tests “represented taking responsibility for one’s health, rather than overdoing it and thus a sign of lesser faith”.

In either case, powerful motives conflict with self-preservation – even overriding the halachic requirement to safeguard one’s wellbeing. The result: failure to adhere to healthcare advice or avoidance of getting tested.

Another stratagem of the human mind, edging people to alternate courses of action, is selective attention to what one wants to hear. Behavioural scientist George Lowenstein and his team looked at how investors’ decision-making is influenced by prior good market news versus adverse news. Investors, they find, monitor their portfolios more frequently in rising markets but less so when markets are flat or falling. Whether it’s financial information or information affecting the Jewish community, the ostrich effect applies equally: people use information that supports their position and tend to ignore it when it doesn’t.

Success, ironically, brings problems too. Those who’ve done well professionally, including overcoming obstacles, may believe their success transfers to other domains. Egotism aside, it might. Yet we all have a cognitive bias for avoiding physical or emotional pain; a mechanism operating automatically and fast, as highlighted by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. In taking communal leadership roles or, say, transferring from military to political roles, pain avoidance behaviour could manifest as forgetting or being in denial about personal struggles, along with failing to recognise deficiencies in one’s expertise. 

Leaders may therefore fail to empathise with people’s experiences, or to comprehend the problems they face, sometimes with major implications. 

As terrorism expert Dan Diker recently stressed in the JC, a special Israeli social media monitoring unit is urgently needed. Given current antisemitic threats, plus the need for strategic responses, this omission is ostrich behaviour of startling proportions. 

Perhaps the greatest promoter of ostrich behaviour is the societal-level factor in Western culture of individualism, where personal objectives are prioritised. A degree of self-interest is fine; the problem is when taken to extreme. Self-centredness develops; an unmindfulness shutting out the needs of others. As the Talmudic Sage Hillel stated: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” Indeed, Jewish tradition emphasises this ethical balance between individualism and collectivism. 

That said, many Jews nowadays strive for educational success. Nothing wrong in principle; it is done in the belief we live in a meritocratic society where any personal goal is attainable if an individual works hard.

But as philosopher Michael Sandel points out, achievement is skewed. Despite prioritising education, and irrespective of capability, a number fall through the gaps, unable to progress in their lives. Some around us suffer, yet we remain oblivious to meritocratic failings. 

Individualism also means that welfare, finding marriage partners, and jobs, are not the obligation of the community or wider family as they were historically. Instead, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, we “contract out”, with responsibility for  communal areas passed to other institutions.

Society, ostrich-like, then evades any anguish caused when people are unsuccessful in such areas by subtly messaging that the problem lies not with society (or community leadership) but with the person themselves. Failure thus becomes linked to mental illness. Having difficulty understanding and facing their resultant pain, again, in the manner of an ostrich, people attempt avoidance; and fall through the community’s gaps.  

Examples of Jewish ostrich behaviour are numerous. I have highlighted only a few. It could also be said there are situations where people rise above any such behaviour. But the ostrich effect is a real problem to be guarded against. Whether you’re a communal member or leader, questioning personal behaviour and behaviour observed in others is the start for determining if changes are needed to achieve true freedom.

As to whether we should be asking “Are Jews like ostriches?” on Seder night: well, that’s a question for you to decide. 

Dr Jonathan Myers is an organisational psychologist and director of Psychonomics

April 19, 2022 09:50

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