Israel needs a combination of liberal and conservative thinking

Liberal thinking is open to change but often does not reflect the real world.

The Knesset Assembly Hall, June 30, 2022. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
The Knesset Assembly Hall, June 30, 2022. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Simcha Chesner
Simcha Chesner

Liberals are quite intelligent. This has been empirically proven by numerous studies that show higher IQs correlate with liberal political ideologies. Anecdotal evidence backs it up. Several months ago, a dear non-political friend of mine commented that, despite her conservative leanings, her most intelligent friends were of a liberal bent. She said, “It frightens me because I cannot imagine such smart people being wrong on such important issues.”

How is it possible for such intelligent people to promote patently self-destructive policies? Those of a conservative bent deal with this question via numerous defenses such as denial or what Freud called “reaction-formation,” in which one’s conscious experience diametrically contrasts with external reality. Thus, my Facebook scroll is replete with derogatory references to liberals as “lib-tards.” Such defamation is rooted in ignorance regarding the nature of intelligence.

Intelligence or IQ is a construct created by humans to serve societal purposes. What exactly is measured by IQ is a subject of intense debate. A widely accepted academic stance promoted by evolutionary psychologists such as Professor Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science holds that intelligence is a measure of one’s ability to solve novel, non-recurring problems. IQ measures one’s ability to adapt to a changing environment and cope with new problems that are unlikely to recur. Research indicates that this skill is overrepresented in liberal as opposed to conservative thinkers.

On the other hand, there is a considerable amount of research indicating that conservatives enjoy some significant advantages. Life happiness and marital satisfaction studies indicate that conservatives score higher than liberals on each of these measures. It appears that, although they are not quite as intelligent as their liberal peers, conservatives tend to make better practical life choices that lead to happiness and contentment.

Several conclusions can be drawn from this. First, we need to make a distinction between what my father used to call “life smarts” as opposed to “book smarts.” My father emigrated from Russia to the United States at the age of 12. I am uncertain if he ever saw the inside of a classroom. Yet he deeply respected higher education and encouraged his children to pursue it.

After I received my Ph.D. in psychology, I took him on a tour of the graduate school and medical libraries. He was awed by the number of books and scholarly writings. He said afterward, “You know Simchale, there is a lot of wisdom in all of these books and I see that you have learned many of them. But you know, there are life smarts and book smarts. You have book smarts. I don’t think any of these books teach a thing about life smarts.”

I took this to mean that conceptual-abstract thinking is not equivalent to common sense. In many circumstances, the intricacies of an abstract system may only slightly correlate with concrete reality. One can construct a theoretical system that is internally coherent but completely divorced from the real world.

Were we to base political or military decisions on such a conceptual model, the results would likely be disastrous. On the other hand, the creativity necessary to imagine abstract possibilities may be a significant advantage, in that it involves an openness to change characteristic of liberal policies.

The bottom line is reflected in the rabbinic statement, “All of Israel shares collective responsibility” and in Jacob’s final words of wisdom to his children. We can only make appropriate and intelligent decisions by using the collective strength of the entire people of Israel. Intellectual acumen is one factor that contributes to optimum decision-making, but abstract theory does not necessarily translate into sound policy.

Over hundreds of years of Talmudic debate, two schools of thought dominated: the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel. The Talmud notes that, although the students of Shammai were sharper in their analytical powers than the students of Hillel, the applied practice of law follows the school of Hillel. The rabbis of the Talmud understood that theoretical analysis does not always reflect the real world.

On the other hand, the Talmud informs us that, in the world to come, the law will be according to the school of Shammai. Although Shammai’s views are not acceptable as policy in our current reality, they are respected and legitimate and will be applied in a future reality.

In the recent Israeli elections, the majority of the Israeli public voted for what could be described as a neoconservative government. Liberal intellectuals and artists have vocally proclaimed the demise of Israel as a Western liberal democracy. This reflects an instinctual fear response. However, by rejecting change, this apocalyptic reaction betrays those same liberal values upon which liberalism itself is based.

On the other hand, the synergistic possibilities present in combining conservative and liberal thinking offer the possibility of intelligent policy. Of course, the ability to actualize this depends upon intelligent as opposed to impetuous decision-making. Unfortunately, experience indicates that in the world of realpolitik, intelligence is subservient to other interests. Let’s partner in creating an electoral climate that demands intelligent action on the part of our elected representatives.

Simcha Chesner received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Case Western Reserve University and has lived in Israel for the past 32 years. He is the founder and director of the Jacob’s Ladder schools and clinic for families coping with ADHD and associated disorders and a senior lecturer of psychology and education at Orot Teachers College.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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