Psychological Context of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Psychological Context of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

While the Security Council concentrates on Iraq, the agencies continue their daily work. The psychological context of the Middle East conflict is a major concern.

Question–does the sight of fresh-faced Israeli and Palestinian teenagers embracing each other in a video project inspire hope or rage? The video “Seeds of Peace” introduced an unusual event – a briefing on the topic: Prejudice: A Psychoanalytical Perspective on Arab-Israeli Relations.” Psychoanalysts from a variety of backgrounds spoke from their personal experience to reflect on the psychological sources of the present difficult political climate. All the speakers emphasized that their discussion was based on feelings, to be viewed separately from politics.

One speaker, a Belgian Jew who had spent time in a German concentration camp, and had lost his family in Auschwitz, began with the memory of Sale Juif – Dirty Jew – shouted at him. He traced malignant prejudice back to a natural source, beginning with the infant’s attachment to the mother, continuing as a preference for the like and the familiar.

Repeated experience of hurtful events creates the demonizing–essentially dehumanized image of the outsider, the Other. Hate and fear produce internal stress that promotes illness and extremes of behavior. This self-destructive violence is instilling terror in the Israeli public and inflaming Arab-Israeli relations.

A Palestinian Arab analyst described himself as an outsider in a Moslem world because he was raised as a Christian. Now his beliefs are secular, and he views his multiple identities as a blessing. But his parents still prefer to live in the familiar Moslem section of west Beirut, rather than the more modern Christian section of east Beirut. The younger members of his family do not share his secular outlook. Still, as a Palestinian, he is able to interpret the Palestinian perspective.

He explained that Palestinians feel they were forced to pay for the crimes of Europe. As a stateless people they existed outside of the protections of international law. While negotiations for a solution of the conflict continue, new settlements arise, destroying belief in the possibility of a fair outcome. The U.S., posing as an honest broker, bullies the United Nations. This was the Palestinian perspective.

Another speaker, a former Zionist and left-winger, acknowledged that he had once hoped for a bi-national state with Arabs and Jews living together under conditions of equality. He has abandoned this dream as an obvious impossibility. He believes both peoples still cling to images of ancient glories; Palestinians wish for a renewal of the past when Islam triumphed over the West. Both societies must acknowledge and mourn the loss of the dream before they can move forward. For the present, Palestinians, in a male-dominated culture suffer from the experience of being constantly harassed at Israeli checkpoints, creating a feeling of demasculinization, rage, and the determination to have revenge.

For both sides rage and terror are humiliating and traumatizing feelings. The need to protect the image of the self as good, creates the separation of good and evil, with all evil projected onto the Other, intensifying the basis for malignant prejudice.

The Palestinian analyst also observed that the fear and rage created by traumatization also creates the desire to be equal in suffering. For the Jew, their history of suffering has been more in the past, while that of the Palestinians is more recent history. Since the intifada, Israelis are feeling the day-to-day effects of violence.

Malignant prejudice caused by stress is only one of the many avenues leading to violence. A recent World Health Organization report (WHO) from the Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention shows the magnitude of violence and its devastating effects in the world. An estimated 1.6 million people lost their lives to violence in 2000. Amazingly, about half were suicides, one third were homicides and one-fifth were casualties of armed conflict. Besides the toll of misery, violence enacts social and economic costs. This report provides specific approaches to preventing and coping with violence.

To return to the briefing on the psychological context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, all the analysts stressed the value and impact of positive interventions. Particularly in the media, honest and accurate information on past and present events can reduce tension. Political leadership can be very powerful. As a dramatic example, a peaceful transition for change in the government of South Africa came about, because President De Klerk arranged secret meetings with Nelson Mandela taking him out of jail to negotiate in order for the Union of South Africa to relinquish the white supremacist role without civil war. Perhaps this happened because of a balance of fear. Yet it could never have happened without wise leadership and understanding of the psychological context of both sides by both leaders. The panel made it clear that reducing the traumatic effects of violence is a prerequisite for progress. Dialogue can become possible when the subjectivity of each side is a mutually acknowledged reality.

Sylvain and Phyllis Ehrenfeld
IHEU and the AEU’s National Service Conference Representatives to the UN

One Comment

  1. The question of whheter the relationship between Israel and Palestinians is one of oppression or one of conflict, is a critical question.There is no question in my mind that there are elements of both. To declare that the relationship is only an oppression is to misrepresent what is going on there.There are two ways the issue is not simplistic.One is that as Ralph referred, there is a long long long history of one stimuli (say from 1920), evoking a response (in 1921), which then evokes another response the other way in 1922, etc. ad infinitum, hotter at some times, quieter at others. Everyone says that the other started it.In a circle.The second is of the geography. If one looks at only one scale, Palestine is surrounded by Israel. There are only borders with Israel and Jordan, and Israel jointly controls the Jordan boundaries.But, at a slightly larger scale, Israel is surrounded by Arab states. Until 1979, they were entirely surrounded, and with a great deal of animosity. Now that there are treaties in place with Jordan and Egypt, and cooperation on security with the PA, that logic is diminished. But, at the same time, the experience of Iraq firing missiles at Tel Aviv in the fist Gulf War, even though Israel was not a party to the conflict, adds weight to the importance of Iran being able to repeat that (with either active nuclear missiles in the future, or merely with nuclear waste now)., multiplied by their near-proxy relationship with Hezbollah possessing tens of thousands of large rockets all aimed at Israeli cities as a hostage.The statement that Israel surrounds Palestine is partially true. Not perfectly true, not perfectly false, and the statement that Israel oppresses Palestine is also partially true, not perfectly true, and not perfectly false.How does one change a conflict? (Maybe with intervention to get everyone’s attention, but ultimately with mediation, not with revolution.)

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