Adjust size of text


Follow us and continue the conversation

Your saved articles

You haven't saved any articles

What are you looking for?

Brain Science and Communal Politics

Robin Margo
Print this

Published: 6 April 2015

Last updated: 4 March 2024

In the Australian Jewish world, as elsewhere, some people are more conservative and others more liberal in political orientation.  The reasons for those differences may include more than our upbringing or which school or youth camp we attended. There is now considerable research correlating differences in particular brain structures with conservative or liberal political orientations (e.g. US Republican or Democrat), although the data does not enable firm conclusions about causality. MRI studies in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere have shown that the right amygdala tends to be larger in subjects with more conservative views (the “amygdalites”), whereas the insula and anterior cingulate cortex tend to have more grey matter in liberal subjects (the “ACCs”). The amygdala is involved with our emotions, particularly those related to security and survival (e.g. fear and anger > fight or flight), and also determines what memories are stored and where, probably on the basis of the intensity of the emotional response evoked by an experience.  The insula and ACC, on the other hand, are brain structures associated with monitoring uncertainty and managing conflicting information, so ACCs have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views.

The amygdala is a more primitive part of our brains but don’t jump from that to any superior/inferior ranking of political types; scientists say the fact that both types have survived through evolution must mean that both are necessary and advantageous for the survival and perpetuation of human groups. Indeed, some expressed the hope, naïve perhaps, that recognition of that fact might lead conservatives and liberals to treat each other with more respect in future.

There have been some attempts to encourage such respect in the Jewish world.  For example, some communities in the USA have developed programmes to counter personal abuse and foster more civil discourse about Israel. And after the Tel-Aviv based Reut Institute published its influential 2010 report on how the global BDS movement seeks to delegitimise Israel, its founder and CEO, Gidi Grinstein, stressed that in order to counter delegitimisers effectively, Jewish conservatives have to stop relying on simplistic, black-and-white narratives that have little room for nuance or shades of grey, and work collaboratively with communal groups and individuals who have what he regards as a more sophisticated engagement with Israel and its critics, who may criticise policies of Israel but will fight any assault on its fundamental legitimacy; in other words, that Jewish amygdalites and ACCs need to work together to be fully effective against delegitimisation.

For some years the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (“ECAJ”) followed the Reut CEO’s advice with good results.  For example, although opposed to all forms of BDS, the ECAJ issued guidelines for engagement with visiting speakers that distinguish between speakers who support global BDS (central aims of which are inconsistent with the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state) and speakers who do not question Israel’s fundamental legitimacy, but oppose the settlement project and support the boycott of settlement goods.  The guidelines enabled conversations over a period of years that persuaded many trade unions either to reject BDS entirely or to confine any boycott to settlement goods, while affirming Israel’s legitimacy at the same time.

Experience in New South Wales has been more mixed. In 2012 a significant number of Executive members of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (“NSWJBD”), and both its rabbinical advisers, recommended that the Board initiate a community discussion based on the American “civil discourse” experience. But dominant individuals in the leadership opposed even discussing such a matter and the move was quashed.  On the other hand, despite opposition from amygdalites, the NSWJBD did become an active and influential founding member of the Sydney Alliance, reaching out to sections of the population with which the Jewish community had not previously had much meaningful contact.

In recent years, however, there has been a very noticeable retreat from such forward-thinking initiatives.  As the world becomes ever more uncertain, especially but not only in the Middle East, and influenced perhaps by the increasing power and intolerance of ultranationalists in Israel itself, amygdalites in the Australian community have become much more assertive, stepping up attacks on ACCs in the community. And leaders have tended to accommodate them instead of supporting more tolerant and sophisticated strategies.  For example, the important distinction re BDS captured in the ECAJ’s guidelines is now largely ignored, replaced by strident rhetoric that insists repeatedly (contrary to fact and the ECAJ’s own beneficial work and experience) that all forms of BDS are the same and must be treated exactly the same.

Other examples of increased assertiveness by amygdalites have occurred in the state sphere. One was an unprecedented campaign against perceived “left-wingers” at recent Deputy, Executive and ECAJ representative elections of the NSWJBD, although many of those excluded as a result had given years of valuable service in different areas of the Board’s work, without anyone ever previously seeking to label them. Another example has been a steady retreat from truly relational, as opposed to merely transactional, engagement through the Sydney Alliance.  Alliance contacts have been used where they suited the interests of the Jewish community (e.g. in the successful campaign to retain s18C of the federal Racial Discrimination Act) but the Board has made little effort in recent times to influence and contribute to development of the Alliance.  Some of the reasons for that have nothing to do with any amygdalite/ACC divide (they include e.g. structural developments within the Alliance that disadvantage smaller communities with less geographic spread) but amygdalite antipathy to the Alliance has certainly been a factor.

The downgrading of the NSW Jewish community’s public commitment to the common civic good represented by the Alliance is regrettable, first, because the NSWJBD was one of the active founders of the Alliance and the real benefits of its engagement had previously been grudgingly recognised even by some staunch amygdalites and, secondly, because it represents a return to pursuit of bilateral relationships on the basis of a much narrower and more inward-looking definition of our community’s interests (what the French describe, with disapproval, as “communalisme”).

There have also been aggressive attempts to restrict public conversation in the community. Most egregious have been attacks on Limmud-Oz in both Sydney and Melbourne for allowing speakers or discussion about Israel that amygdalites consider beyond the pale. Limmud in the UK regularly allows, indeed encourages, much wider latitude and conversation.  The perception of increased restrictiveness in communal discourse has been emphatically confirmed by focus groups and other consultations conducted in both Sydney and Melbourne over a 6-month period last year, involving many members of the community, with wide communal experience between them and drawn from all age groups. Without exception, the participants complained of a narrowing of public conversation in the community.  One younger participant said: “When we were in Israel, there was nothing that could not be discussed. We had heated agreements and disagreements but I never felt, like I do here, that difficult subjects could not be openly discussed.”

The +61J website will hopefully broaden our community’s public conversation by drawing attention to voices and views that are a part of everyday public conversation in Israel and in Jewish communities in the United States and the United Kingdom, but seldom heard in the Australian Jewish community, strengthening our community and opening possibilities for positive change.

About the author

Robin Margo

Robin was a senior barrister and has served in many Jewish leadership roles, including as president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and as a vice-president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. He was a foundation director of The Sydney Alliance, inaugural president of NIF Australia, and founding editor of Plus61J.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

Enter site