Historical Experiences and Perception in the Israeli-Arab Conflict


Part three in the series about the psychological dimension of the conflict.

— by Dr. Alon Ben-Meir

Underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the scars that each side carries from their respective traumatic pasts. Their perceptions of each other were engendered by their independent religious traditions as well as their historical experiences as they related to one another. Unfolding events — violence, mutual recrimination etc. — between Israelis and Palestinians over the past seven decades, however, have made it virtually impossible for them to settle their differences. Maintaining an adversarial mindset toward each other has thus provided the justification and rationale to perpetuate their historical grievances through constant rancorous public narratives, placing the blame for the continuing discord on the other.

More after the jump.
The Jewish experience throughout the Diaspora was one filled with discrimination, persecution, anti-Semitism, and expulsion culminating in the Holocaust. The genocide perpetrated during the Holocaust was surely something new in history: never before had a powerful state turned its immense resources to the industrialized manufacturing of corpses; never before had the extermination of an entire people been carried out with the swiftness of an assembly-line. The fact that many Jews were prevented from avoiding death camps by immigrating to Palestine added yet another layer to the horrific experiences of the Jewish people. The Jews have carried the scars of this past with them and still hold to the view that it can happen again unless they remain vigilant and relentless in protecting themselves at any cost. With this past in mind, the establishment of the state of Israel was seen not only as the last refuge to provide protection for the Jewish people but also the realization and hope of both secular Zionism and biblical prophecy (i.e. the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland). Thus, religious and non-observant Jews believe this trust must be guarded with absolute and unwavering zeal.

Yet, this historical sense of victimization and injustice has served to nurture the allegiance that each Israeli feels towards the state and each other with naturally-engendered, negative emotional sentiments towards the enemy. From the Israeli perspective, the establishment of Israel on the heels of the Holocaust was seen (and continues to be viewed) as the last chance to create a refuge; they must therefore remain on guard to protect Jews’ welfare and wellbeing wherever they may live and at whatever cost. This sense of being victimized resulted from an intentional infliction of harm in the past, universally viewed as utterly unjust and immoral. Yet, it has led to a lack of empathy towards perceived enemies; for example, it manifested itself in Israel shirking responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem and violating human rights, all the while promoting self-righteousness.

Compounded, these conditions inherently endure, particularly when accompanied by extensive and continuing violence against Israel and growing concerns over national security. They are further strengthened by the Palestinians’ public narrative, which openly promotes the rejection of the very existence of the state. The Palestinians, for their part, have hardly made any serious effort to comprehend and appreciate the psychological implications of the Jews’ historical experience of religious persecution. Instead of understanding the Israeli mindset that was formed by the horrific past, the Palestinians have either denied the Holocaust altogether, or bemoaned that it did happen. It is not that the Palestinians should be held responsible for the Jews’ historic tragedy, but they failed at a minimum to appreciate the Israelis’ mindset in effectively dealing with the conflict.

For the Palestinians, the experience of the Nakba (the catastrophe), precipitated by the 1948 war, was no less calamitous. From their perspective, they were living in their own land, albeit for centuries under Ottoman rule and then under British Mandatory authority. They are absolutely convinced that during the 1948 war they were forced out of their homes by Israelis (in fact, many were encouraged to leave by their Arab brethren and return “following the defeat of Israel” for the spoil.)


Arabs leaving Haifa following Jewish forces’ entrance to the city, 1948

Either way, over 700,000 Palestinians found themselves as refugees, an experience that has lasted for decades and continues to endure, leaving an indelible impression on their psyche; currently, nearly 5 million Palestinians are refugees. This traumatic experience served to bind Palestinians together in the same way that the Jews coalesced following the Holocaust, with each side believing their tragic historical experiences are unparalleled in scope and magnitude. The fact that the Arab states manipulated the Palestinian refugee problem over many decades to their advantage does not change the reality on the ground; it did not alter the Palestinians’ mindset, their perception of what the Israelis have done, or their sentiment and disposition about their plight.

Subsequent and frequent violent encounters between the two sides, especially after the 1967 war, further aggravated the Palestinian refugee problem. This war not only created another wave of refugees, but also set the stage for a bloody confrontation, during which many thousands lost their lives on both sides. The Israeli settlement project provided daily blows to Palestinian pride while demonstrating the futility of their efforts to stem Israeli encroachment on their territory, especially in the West Bank. The occupation and the repeated humiliation of the Palestinians further deepened their resolve to oppose the Israelis at whatever cost, but all was to no avail. The Israelis have proven to be a formidable foe and the Palestinians’ resentment, hatred and animosity have naturally only increased.

Israelis have never fully understood the significance of what the Palestinians have been enduring, how this has impacted their psychological dispositions, and why they have shown no desire to reconcile their differences with Israel. Israelis often argue that since nearly 800,000 Jews left their homes (or as many believe, were forced out) across the Arab Middle East and North Africa and largely settled in Israel, the Palestinian refugees must be considered a de-facto swap with the Jewish refugees. This view not only dismisses the historic trauma experienced by the Palestinians, but also disregards their national aspirations to establish a homeland of their own, especially in light of the 1947 UN resolution (known as the Partition Plan) which called for separate Jewish and Palestinian states. This psychological fixation, reinforced by public narratives and education in schools, has prevented either side from coming to grips with the inevitability of peaceful coexistence.

Understanding the Israeli and the Palestinian mindsets from the historical perspective is central to appreciating their respective resistances to change, which is detrimentally empowered by their historical experiences, especially if they continue to harbor political agendas that overshoot what they can realistically attain. That is, will their historical experiences, bequeathing a sense of mutual victimhood, be mitigated by the changing reality, or will they hold onto it until they achieve their objectives, however illusionary they may be? Indeed, do the Jewish people’s and the Palestinians’ unprecedented historical suffering — although they do not fall into the same category — somehow ontologically elevate them from “victims” to “Victims,” guaranteeing them, and by extension contemporary Israelis and Palestinians, an unconditional status of moral untouchability?

The French philosopher Alain Badiou is right to suggest that we need to question the presumption “that, like an inverted original sin, the grace of having been an incomparable victim can be passed down not only to descendants and to the descendants of descendants but to all who come under the predicate in question, be they heads of state or armies engaging in the severe oppression of those whose lands they have confiscated” (Polemics, 2012). Indeed, the victim mentality has become a political tool in the hands of those who seek to promote their interests at the expense of the opposing political parties, not to mention the enemy.

The Palestinian culture of victimhood, on the other hand, was equally divisive in that it perpetuates the refugee problem by promoting popular refusal of permanent resettlement. Palestinian leaders have also used it as a tool for public indoctrination, ensuring that the Palestinian plight remains central to any political and social discourse. Palestinians and their leaders have carefully and systematically ingrained their victim mentality in the minds of one generation after another through the media, schools and places of worship.

Israelis and Palestinians alike (especially those who, like Hamas, seek the destruction of Israel) must become more self-critical in their use of victimhood; both sides need to realize that neither has a monopoly on the position of “the victim,” and neither is granted a morally unimpeachable status as a consequence of their historical experiences or the shifting realities on the ground. The effect of adverse historical interaction, however, can be mitigated over time or reconciled through dialogue, eventually leading to changes in perception.

Notwithstanding their traumatic historical experiences, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can or should use history to foreshadow the present requirements to make peace. Historical experiences can be both instructive and destructive; a student of history must learn from past experiences but not emulate them and thus obscure a contemporary reality that can no longer be mitigated short of a catastrophe, in particular Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. The Palestinians have every right to demand the immediate end to the occupation and live with dignity; Israel has equal rights to satisfy its legitimate national security concerns. These two requirements are absolutely compatible and provide the only basis on which to build a structure of peaceful coexistence.

Without denying the Jews’ and Palestinians’ sense of victimhood, perpetuating their conflict ironically creates new generations of victims, robbing them of their future only because their elders want to cling to the past.

The Role of Psychological Resistance in the Israeli-Arab Conflict

Part two in the series about the psychological dimension of the conflict.


City of Ariel in Samaria

— by Dr. Alon Ben-Meir

On the surface, the deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seems illogical and unsettling. After all, a majority of Israelis and Palestinians realize the inevitability of coexistence and presumably understand the general parameters of a negotiated peace agreement: a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with some land swaps, Jerusalem would remain a united city (but a capital of two states), and the vast majority of Palestinian refugees would be compensated or resettled in the newly-created Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These fundamental imperatives, coupled with appropriate security guarantees for Israel, represent what was on the negotiating table, in 2000 at Camp David and in 2008/2009 in Jerusalem and Ramallah, with each round coming closer to finalizing an agreement yet ultimately failing to do so.

The question is: Why?

More after the jump.
The answer lies far beyond the political concessions on the ground and is deeply embedded in the psychological dimension of the conflict, which impacts every conflicting issue between the two parties. This dimension is at play here: biased and selective perceptions, reinforced by historical experience, religion and incompatible ideologies, have locked both sides into immobile positions. The factors that maintain and enhance these patterns include emotions such as fear, distrust and insecurity; the psychological outcome is mutual denial of the narrative of the other and mutual delegitimization. Put together, the operative result is stagnation and polarization. What is therefore needed is a consensus-oriented dialogue at the leadership level, by both officials and non-officials, to resolve the issues of perception — a tall order given the current environment that buttresses rather than ameliorates perceptions.

There are certain psychological concepts which are relevant to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the concept of illusion is an essential one. In The Future of an Illusion (1927), Freud offers the following definition:

We call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by its verification.

An illusion then is not necessarily an error, unlike a delusion — that is, illusions “need not necessarily be false… unrealizable or in contradiction to reality.” What is characteristic of illusions is that:

  1. They are derived from deep human wishes.
  2. The belief is held (or would be held) in the absence of any compelling evidence, or good rational grounds, in its behalf.

It is impossible to deny that both Israelis and Palestinians are in the grip of very powerful illusions which only serve to prolong the conflict and prevent any mutual understanding. What are some of these illusions, or pipe-dreams, as the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill would call them? Following O’Neill, we can distinguish between pipe-dreams of yesterday and pipe-dreams of tomorrow. For example, the belief shared by many Israelis that they have a biblical right to the land (the ancient biblical lands of Judea and Samaria) and that God gave the Jews this land for all time is undoubtedly an illusion or a pipe-dream of yesterday. It is not affirmed because there is any real evidence for it, but because it satisfies a deep-seated psychological need for a God-given Jewish homeland. The belief that by expanding the settlements Israel will augment its national security is a pipe-dream of tomorrow. It is important to note how these illusions sustain and reinforce one another, and constitute a psychological barrier which is that much more impervious to critical reflection. Israel’s illusions have served to create the logic for occupation, ultimately perpetuating the dehumanization of the Palestinians.

The Palestinians, for their part, are not without their own illusions. They believe, for example, that God has reserved the land for them, and appeal to the fact that they had inhabited the land for centuries. The presence of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem attest to their unmitigated historical and religious affinity to the Holy City. They also cling to the idea that they will someday return to the land of their forebears, as they have and continue to insist on the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, even though this has become a virtual impossibility. The Palestinians cling to their pipe-dreams of yesterday and tomorrow just as blindly and desperately as the Israelis, which leads to resistance to and fear of change.    

This has contributed to making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both chronic and intractable, as the various illusions are continuously and consciously nurtured by the daily encounters between the two sides. It would thus appear that the psychological concept of resistance to change is extremely relevant as well. First, a distinction is needed between resistance to persuasion, which is conscious and deliberate, and inner unconscious resistance to change. In his essay, “The Psychological Dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: the Role of Psychological Resistance,” David Rabinowitz, one of Israel’s leading psychiatrists, observes that an important function of unconscious resistance is that it is protective in nature. In seeking bridging concepts that could link between the domains of psychology and politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it could be proposed that a collective mutual resistance to change protects a vulnerable identity. Compared to the stable and mature political identities of the American, British and French nations, the political identities of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples are, in a way, in their adolescence. Identities in this setting are more vulnerable, and the protagonists are naturally more defensive and resistant to change. By its very nature, the players must find it difficult (if not impossible) to articulate this publically, as to do so is to admit to this vulnerability.

The concept of psychological resistance to change may well affect the political setting in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular; it is closely connected to perceptions at many levels. Indeed, the psychological resistance provides protection for vulnerable identity formation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is this mindset, strengthened by historical experiences, which transcends the more than nine decades since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began. The individuals and groups, Israelis and Palestinians alike, have and continue to interpret the nature of the discord between them as “you versus me” in a prejudiced and selective way. In turn, this has stifled any new information and enabled the continuing resistance to change, which could shed new light on the nature and the substance of the conflict and help advance the peace process.

The concept of unconscious resistance to change in this setting links well to the view of perceptions driving the polarization in the conflict. Historical experience, which formulates perceptions, serves among other things to enhance the sense of identity of “who we really are,” a formative collective assumption that sits at the bedrock of both key players and drives functional and dysfunctional behavior. As Rabinowitz puts it, “the central benefit of this powerful unconscious resistance to change provides is the protection of a relatively vulnerable core identity [primary gains]. Secondary gains, however, are essentially the side-effects of the chronic polarization of this conflict: powerful allies offering material and political support [the US’ support of Israel and moderate Palestinians versus Iran’s support for Palestinian militants such as Hamas], engaging in alluring narratives, public attention and useful alliances etc.” In principle, such a mindset prevents either side from entertaining new ideas that might lead to compromises for a peaceful solution. The paradox here is that majorities on both sides do seek and want peace, knowing full well that this would require significant concessions, but are unable to reconcile the required concessions with imbedded perceptions that have precluded these compromises as a result of resistance to change.  

Religious Conviction and Reality


Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat during the Oslo Accords in 1993

— by Dr. Alon Ben-Meir

The most puzzling aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be that after 65 years of violence, enmity and suffering, it remains unresolved when coexistence is inevitable and a two-state solution remains the only viable option. The Arab-Israeli conflict is generally viewed as a political and territorial conflict, yet the underlying religious component has created a certain mindset that further complicates the struggle and adds to its intransigence. Both Jews and Muslims alike have mystified the struggle, projecting cosmic significance and introducing national and religious pride into the equation.

More after the jump.
The Israeli’s own religious narrative is one that is based on the biblical connection of the Jewish people to the land of their forefathers. As Prime Minister Netanyahu reminded the US Congress in his May 24, 2011 address, “This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace.”

Most Israelis believe that no distortion of history can deny the religious component that has created a bond, spanning thousands of years, between the Jewish people and the biblical Jewish land. Since the ancient Hebrews are not historically the same thing as Jews — not culturally and not even religiously — the Hebraic tradition of 3000 years ago, having little similarity to modern Jewry, hardly means an inheritance in land for Jews. That said, and with religious faith requiring no evidence, for many Israelis it is simply unacceptable to completely relinquish control of the West Bank, known in ancient times as the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria.

From that perspective, it is inconceivable in particular for them to surrender their holiest shrine, especially the Wailing Wall (the outer wall of the Second Temple), allowing Jerusalem to be governed or fall under the jurisdiction of any other peoples or an international governing body. As a result, despite all Israelis happily accepting the 1947 UN partition plan, they have always held onto the dream of eventually repossessing all of Jerusalem, particularly the Old City.


Residents protest against the evacuation of the Israeli community Kfar Darom

This unique attachment and affinity to the holy city, which has for millennia symbolized the Jewish sense of redemption, created a powerful motivation to capture the city when it came within their grasp during the Six Day War in 1967. The fall of Jerusalem in the wake of the war remains an unmatched event and came to symbolize Jewish absolution. This historic development created a renewed awakening that vindicated the religious premise which was embedded in the Jewish psyche for centuries. The realization of what was believed to be a far-fetched dream under the most difficult of circumstances was now seen as the work of the Almighty that no force can alter. Considered in this light, we can understand or at least provide a framework for the zeal of those who are committed to keeping all of Jerusalem and much, if not all, of the West Bank under Israeli jurisdiction — they see that as the fulfillment not only of God’s promise but God’s very will.

What further explains the mindset of these believers is that no man can reason to the contrary of God’s plan. Regardless of the facts on the ground (the existence of the Palestinians and their claim to East Jerusalem), the Jews in and outside Israel consider it their obligation to do everything in their power to fulfill God’s will, which transcends humanity’s narrow perception of reality. This explains the position of many Israeli Jews who see no wrongdoing in building new and expanding existing settlements in the West Bank, particularly in East Jerusalem.

From the settlers’ perspective, they are merely fulfilling what God has ordained; for the Jews to earn the right to hold onto Jerusalem they must prove that they are worthy to repossess it, even if this includes the suppression of the Palestinians and defiance of the international community. For these reasons, regardless of how powerful the resistance of Palestinians, other Arab and Muslim states, and much of the international community to the Israeli position, the religious mandate trumps any and all opposition: the settlers view themselves as pursuing God’s mission and must demonstrate unshakable resolve, tenacity and willingness to make any sacrifice necessary before He once again grants them the Promised Land.

With the recapture of Jerusalem and control asserted over the West Bank, what seemed to be destined to remain only a pipe-dream was suddenly transformed into a reality. This development was then strengthened by concerted efforts towards creating permanent anchors on the ground through building settlements and infrastructure needed to augment continuity. These efforts led to the gradual galvanization of intergroup factions, especially the settlement movement, which has gained tremendous political sway and uses it effectively to block any policy or action on the ground that could compromise the settlement enterprise. Indeed, successive Israeli governments, regardless of their ideological leaning, have bent to the settlers’ whims.

The expansion of the settlements, along with the prospect of building the young Jewish state on the entire mythological ancient homeland, has created this particular and most powerful psychological disposition. As this religious mindset has become even further embedded in the Israeli psyche, the nearly decisive power of the settlement movement has made it increasingly difficult to contemplate a return to the 1967 borders, with or without some land swaps.

Due to religious convictions tied to Islam’s third holiest shrines in Jerusalem — the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, or “Haram al-Sharif” — Muslim leaders, like their Jewish counterparts, will not compromise on Jerusalem or on recovering much of the West Bank’s land. Many Muslim scholars believe that Muhammad made his Journey from Mecca to the Al-Aqsa Masjid (literally, “furthest mosque”) in Jerusalem before he ascended to heaven. Although the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built long after the death of the prophet, Surah 17:1 states that Mohammad visited the site where the Al-Aqsa Mosque was subsequently erected. This belief is certainly not limited to the Palestinians but shared by all Muslims, further complicating any solution to the future of Jerusalem. Like the Israelis, the Palestinians too have shown absolutely no flexibility in this regard.

One other difficulty that adds to the psychological impediment in relation to Jerusalem is the Palestinians’ sense of ownership, which has been uninterrupted for centuries. Although Arabs have lived with Jews in relative peace, Jews were treated as second-class citizens, who in turn largely accepted subordination in order to maintain peaceful relations. Centuries of Arab perception of Jews as a subordinated minority make it nearly impossible for them to accept Jews as equals, not to mention as a superior power forcefully usurping land they consider their own. The Palestinians’ position in connection with Jerusalem and the entire West Bank must therefore be seen in this context as well.

Further consideration of the Arab view of Islam as the final revelation of the three monotheistic religions (including Judaism and Christianity) and of Muhammad as the last prophet accentuate Palestinian and Muslim unwillingness to compromise in what they believe to be their inherent religious duty to obey God’s final revelation. Here again, the psychological barrier embedded in religious precepts creates a mindset willing to defy reality. Yet, no one is permitted to challenge God’s decree and Muhammad’s edict.

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud made the claim that religious beliefs should be viewed as wish-fulfillments — or beliefs chiefly motivated by deep-seated human wishes, i.e. illusions. When we look without bias at the beliefs held by so many on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration, who could not help but agree with his assessment? Of course, an illusion could turn out to be true: the belief that the Jewish people would someday establish a mighty state on the very same land where their ancient ancestors once lived was certainly illusory only a hundred years ago. Even if we agree with Freud that religious beliefs are illusions, we cannot agree with his prediction that such illusions are likely to wither away any time soon.

In the final analysis, religion has been and will most likely continue to be the repository of our most deeply held wishes and beliefs, as it is for many Israelis and Palestinians alike. For believers on both sides, religion constitutes nothing less than the very substance of their lives, the core of their existence and world-view. The question is: can both parties be brought to reconcile their beliefs to the changed reality on the ground? Neither Israelis nor Palestinians can be expected to undermine their most cherished religious convictions, but if disappointments are unavoidable, the convictions recognized and honored by the other side and by the global community must be adapted and reinterpreted in light of new and undeniable conditions. To take a crucial example, while neither side can forsake Jerusalem without compromising their religion, they can begin to accommodate their aspirations to the prospect of Jerusalem as the dual-capital of two sovereign and independent states.

Perhaps then the historical and religious commitments of both sides can be respected. It is only through mutual realization of spiritual hopes and ideals that Israelis and Palestinians will reconcile and see the fulfillment of God’s promise of peace — and that is surely no mere pipe-dream.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.