A future together will require not only painful concessions, but a willingness of each side to validate the other’s story. But when ordinary Palestinians and Israelis meet, that’s not what happens.
The sit-in was held at a pub in the Hadar neighborhood of Haifa, a common meeting place for Arabs and Jews. The issue at the top of the agenda was how to convey to the world at large that dialogue on the Israeli-Arab conflict still exists and both sides are equally frustrated with the status quo. The vibe in the room was positive, with attendees from both sides encouraged that what the rest of the world calls enemies could sit and drink and talk.
Then, without warning, a stranger intruded. An Arab man had apparently overheard the conversation. He approached the group shouting, “But first you have to let the refugees come home!” An Israeli organizer explained that the meeting wasn’t about solving the refugee crisis—it was about opposing inaction and stasis. But the man wouldn’t have it. Becoming increasingly agitated, he demanded that the issue be addressed. One of the Arab organizers, Mudar, tried to calm him down, telling him in Arabic, “We know it’s not right. We know that the only way is for the refugees to come home, but we aren’t talking about that now.”
The implication, of course, was that one day we will talk about it. In Mudar’s mind, not only will we talk about it, we will make it happen. Like so many of his peers, Mudar—a moderate involved in many coexistence initiatives—is a subscriber to the maximal position on the Palestinian right of return; a position that, if achieved, will effectively put an end to the Jewish state. But the maximal position is a symptom of a far deeper concern, one that is the driving force behind the current impasse in Arab-Israeli relations.
On a cognitive level, Mudar is capable of accepting the fact that it is impossible for Israel to agree to his maximal position. He knows that the return of Palestinian refugees will mean the end of the Jewish state. But Mudar almost certainly does not subscribe to the maximal position out of a desire to harm Israel’s Jewish character. In fact, it probably has little to do with Israel at all. Instead, Mudar is trapped in a psychological construct essential to his identity as a Palestinian—a collectivist identity that dominates the Palestinian mainstream.
One of the more tragic aspects of a collectivist identity is that it stifles those aspects of human behavior associated with the individual. These include critical thinking, accountability for one’s actions and the actions of other members of the collective, the ability to make personal choices, and empathy toward “the other”—particularly an adversarial other. As a result, Palestinian collectivist identity may be one of the most difficult obstacles on the path to peace.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Palestinian people is the development of their national identity. The need to unite the multiplicity of identities existing under the Ottoman Empire, and to deal with the non-starter of pan-Arab identity required no small amount of intellectual energy, cultural development, and carefully constructed theory in order to create the “collectivistic-oriented culture” examined by today’s identity theorists.
In both practical and psychological terms, the role played by Israel and Zionism is of paramount importance to Palestinian collectivism. In 1977, Zuheir Mohsen, leader of the pro-Syrian faction of the PLO, was explicit about this when he said:
For political reasons we carefully underwrite our Palestinian identity. Because it is of national interest for the Arabs to advocate the existence of Palestinians to balance Zionism. Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity exists only for tactical reasons. The establishment of a Palestinian state is a new tool to continue the fight against Israel and for Arab unity.
In the decades preceding Israel’s independence, Palestinian national identity was mostly concerned with factional politics based on tribalism and parochialism (internally, this is still largely the case). The rise of a unified national consciousness began in reaction to specific political events, such as the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nation’s acceptance of Jewish claims to the holy land. With Israel’s 1948’s Declaration of Independence—what the Palestinians call the naqba, or “catastrophe”—two paths were forged and two national identities crystallized.
One of the most important ingredients of a collective identity is the desire for unity, something expressed in article 12 of the PLO’s 1964 national covenant:
The Palestinian Arab people believe in Arab unity. In order to contribute their share toward the attainment of that objective, however, they must, at the present stage of their struggle, safeguard their Palestinian identity and develop their consciousness of that identity, oppose any plan that may dissolve or impair it.
After the Six Day War, however, when Israel gained control of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Palestinian identity became much stronger, with the “long period of Israeli occupation… sharpening the national element in Palestinian collectivism… and push[ing] the temporary Palestinian society toward a collectivist-oriented culture,” as one scholarly paper puts it.
That paper, authored by Palestinian psychologist Elia Awwad and three Israeli scholars from Ben-Gurion University, shows how successful this process has been. The paper, “Individualism and Collectivism in Two Conflicted Societies,” examined the constructs of collectivism and individualism through a 1997 study of over 3,000 Israeli and Palestinian high school students. They explored three issues: values, historical interests, and attitudes toward conflict resolution.
In relation to values, students were asked to rate the importance of such concepts as family, friends, democracy, peace at any cost, etc. The study concluded, “The strong collective consciousness of a new nationalism was clearly reflected in the answers of the Palestinian group…Whereas the Palestinian group expressed a coherent collectivist value system, including nationalism and other in-group elements, in the Israeli group, the values map is more mixed and ambiguous.”
While Palestinian identity concretized into the group, Israeli identity, in contrast, moved in the opposite direction. Over the past three decades, Israel has undergone a process of rapid individualization. This process has fragmented what was once a unified national culture into various social groups defined by indifference, opposition, and support for a collective national identity. This new, individualized society was able to encompass a host of new, modern identities, such as entrepreneur, capitalist, and technological pioneer. There was also room for negative phenomena to emerge, such as nihilism, defeatism, and, in some cases, an apathy verging on hedonism. This phenomenon appears in microcosm during coexistence initiatives like the one in Haifa, which are attended by Israelis from across the political and social spectrum.
As a result of this process of individualization, Israel has had some success in changing the concept of the “Arab enemy” and accommodating the Palestinian individual—the “other” beloved of the media and academy—and his personal suffering. The Israeli mainstream empathizes with this suffering and is eager to relieve it; partly because out of guilt and partly because of the desire to move on with their (individual) lives.
An extreme example of the individualized Israeli is Ayelet, a self-described radical leftist who regularly participates in various resistance projects, including the Sheikh Jarrah protests in Jerusalem. Though Israeli sympathizers with the Palestinians are not uncommon, Ayelet’s attitude toward the Arabs is unusual. “I hate everything about Arab culture,” she says, because she sees it as misogynistic and homophobic. For Ayelet, however, this does not conflict with her belief that “Israel is an aggressor state that denies Palestinians basic human rights.”
On the other end of the political spectrum is Reuben, a settler from the Gush Etzion settlement bloc of the West Bank who, through a coexistence initiative, was able to express remorse and even accountability for the challenges Palestinians face on a daily basis. Reuben wrote in an email that Israelis and Palestinians
need joint projects to lower the fears on both sides, the end of political violence of any kind, the end of incitement and the recognition that we are all human beings who deserve dignity, freedom and economic prosperity. All of these elements have been kept hostage to a political agreement which is unlikely to happen in the near future because the maximum each side can offer is less than the minimum they can accept. It’s time to move ahead on the mutual humanization front.
On the Palestinian side, however, this is not the case. Unable to entirely divest themselves of their “in-group” identity, Palestinians often cannot distinguish between Israeli suffering and their own. As a result, rather than empathizing with the Israeli side of the situation to think why Israelis take the positions they do and why certain Palestinian positions are unfeasible to them, the Palestinians approach the situation with quid-pro-quo sentiments. Thus, the notion of reconciliation effective in Palestinian society is not based on humanizing the other in order to make deep and painful concessions but on a concept known as sulha, or an agreement in which an offended party receives compensation for the wrong he perceived was done.
In a Haaretz article, for example, a Palestinian PhD student from the University of Pennsylvania is quoted as saying that the issue of Jewish refugees from Muslim countries might be the key to reconciliation.
Full reconciliation is reflected in the sulha ceremony where the payment is made. Now I understand that those Jews already paid for the sulha, when they lost all their property and were forced to disperse, just like us Palestinians. The conditions of the sulha have already been fulfilled. If the Israeli government publicizes that, the two nations will be able to progress to a process of true peace. We won’t feel that we are the only underdog, because the Jews from the Arab countries were victims. You also experienced a catastrophe, and the time has come to engage in a sulha and to stop killing one another.”
In this case, the Palestinian student (educated and moderate by any measure) was able to find reconciliation not with Israel or Israelis, but with her own understanding of the situation. For her the refugee “debt” had been paid and the books balanced. But, crucially, the maximal position of permitting Palestinian refugees to return to all of Israel remains in place for her. As an integral part of her identity as a Palestinian, it could be no other way.
The pioneering social psychologist Kurt Lewin’s celebrated theory of group identity may go a long way toward explaining Palestinian collectivism. “It is not similarity or dissimilarity of individuals that constitutes a group,” Lewin observed, “but interdependence of fate.” In other words, because the individual’s fate depends on that of the group as a whole, collective unity precludes individual desires, while simultaneously enhancing the individual’s self-esteem and sense of meaning. Paradoxically, an individual living in a collectivist culture can be extremely proud of his identity and almost obliterated by it.
This is apparent on almost every level of Palestinian national society. More often than not, national and cultural events in the Palestinian territories are entirely concentrated on collective goals. Whereas an American national event, like a State of the Union address, is just as likely to focus on individuals’ ability to pursue their dreams as on issues like secure borders, in the Palestinian territories even the most personal sphere—the spiritual—is routinely transformed into a collective political issue.
Following her performance on stage, for example, the singer at last year’s Christmas show in Bethlehem delivered a heartfelt thank-you in Arabic and English. The Arabic speech ended with the words, “By next Christmas, the state of Palestine will be ours.” This statement was notably absent from the English translation.
The same phenomenon was apparent in the PA press office’s YouTube Christmas message. Called “From Palestine on Christmas,” the first shot shows a teenager with a kaffiyeh lighting candles, presumably in a church, before cutting to images of Christmas lights and Santa Claus. Then the music changes and the footage turns grey as the same boy is shown cycling along the security fence. Images of IDF watch towers and barbed wire are accompanied by a haunting melody before the video cuts back to the bustle of pre-Christmas Bethlehem.
It is well documented by social psychologists that trauma enhances collectivist identities. Connecting identity to an event in which a particular people has been victimized is often essential to nation building. Thus, the trauma and suffering Palestinians feel at the hands of Israel serves as a unifying factor and reinforces their collective identity. Much the same was the case with Israeli identity and the Holocaust.
Reconciliation in Palestinian society is not based on humanizing the other in order to make painful concessions, but on a concept known as sulha, in which an offended party receives compensation for the wrong he perceived was done.
As a result, Palestinian identity is inextricably connected to the naqba. Israeli independence and the resulting war is the seminal event of the Palestinian narrative, turning a group of local tribes, clans, and houses into a nation of refugees. “Palestinian identity is strongly influenced by a sense of victimization, which is evident by displacement and manifested as a collective nationalistic identity,” says University of Nebraska anthropologist Michaela Clemens. Whereas other cultures might see refugee concerns as a temporary issue, the Palestinians’ self-image as refugees creates and molds their identity and, by extension, the conflict itself. Consequently, the right of return has come to be seen as an inalienable right akin to the right to exist.
The extent to which this influences the conflict is pointed out by Phillip Hammack, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Hammack examines identity and politics by studying adolescent participants in Palestinian-Israeli coexistence initiatives like Seeds of Peace and Hands of Peace. According to Hammack, the young people who struggled to integrate the experience of coexistence into their life stories experienced an identity crisis. “Palestinian youth,” he observed, “identify with [an] ideology of struggle and victimhood, providing a sense of solidarity and meaning.” This identity is inextricably connected to their political extremism. “Nearly all of my Palestinian interviewees,” Hammack says, “endorsed the practice of suicide bombing as a legitimate form of resistance against the Israeli occupation, identifying bombers as ‘freedom fighters.’”
Paraphrasing Herbert Kelman, a professor of social ethics at Harvard’s department of psychology, Hammack concluded that “large-scale shifts in collective identity may be necessary prior to any serious curtailment of the conflict, as the conflict relies on the reproduction of negatively interdependent collective narratives.”
In theory, coexistence initiatives enable participants to forego ideological differences by allowing individuals to humanize each other and interact with mutual understanding. My experience at these encounters, however, has been that, while mutual humanization has varying degrees of success, mutual understanding is mostly one-sided. Without surrendering their national identity, individual Israeli participants are able to momentarily cast aside “zero-sum identities” and their own sense of victimization. As a result, Israelis are able to ask questions without feeling that their own identities were threatened. These questions, asked out of politeness, guilt, and curiosity, often with apologetic overtones, are necessary in order to give a voice to the other. The individualized Israeli can listen to a Palestinian without negating his or her sense of self.
At the closing session of a history and heritage tour which took Palestinians and Israelis to Bethlehem, one Israeli participant named Ben remarked that he was sorry he had served as a soldier in Bethlehem a decade earlier. Though heartfelt, Ben’s “apology” was completely misconstrued by the Palestinian participants, who saw it as an endorsement of insubordination. They fit Ben’s apology into their own narrative, in which the IDF and its actions are wholly illegitimate. In their eyes, Ben was simply coming to terms with this fact.
But this was not at all the case. Encountering Palestinian individuals, Ben was able to internalize the impact his actions had on Palestinians lives, but still felt that these actions were justified. Seeing how his Palestinian counterparts interpreted his statement, Ben felt obliged to clarify himself in a series of Facebook posts. Although he was sorry that the situation had forced him to serve in the West Bank, he wrote, he was not sorry for protecting the citizens of Israel from potential violence. Ben was able to express remorse over the negative implications of his army service without surrendering his belief in Israel’s right to self-defense.
I don’t feel one needs to apologize for defending one’s family. We are stationed at checkpoints for a reason. The moment I or my friends who serve in reserve units decide not stand at checkpoints is the moment a suicide bomber turns up at Sbarro’s Pizza in Jerusalem or at a nightclub in Tel Aviv. [I offered this apology because] there is a risk that Palestinians will come to believe only refuseniks or insubordinates want peace. But I seek peace no less than the insubordinates.
The revised apology, with its inherent ambiguity, was less palatable to the Palestinians, and led to a heated discussion about the occupation. The point that Ben was trying to make, while not outright rejected, was simply ignored.
Khalid, a self-described “freedom fighter,” was 14 when he was arrested for seriously injuring an IDF soldier with a Molotov cocktail. He received a 15–year sentence, of which he served nine. Like many security prisoners, Khalid renounced terror in favor of dialogue, and is able to attribute this transformation to a specific moment. Khalid was in a roomful of high-profile prisoners when the guards gave them a movie to watch. It was Schindler’s List. By the end, Khalid says, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. He laughs as he recalls the sight of tears welling up in the eyes of hardened terrorists. It was difficult, he says, for them to face the guards when he returned. Khalid, like the vast majority of Palestinians, had no idea of the scale of the Holocaust. It marked a turning point for him. Suddenly, Khalid saw the “other” in a new light and, most importantly, he learned how to empathize with his enemy. He subsequently learned Hebrew and read voraciously about Jewish history.
Khalid is now a regular figure on the peace circuit. He remains optimistic and is convinced that the change he sees happening on a grassroots level will eventually bring about larger political change. But even he is unable to separate the act of terror he committed from the Palestinian collective narrative, and cannot accept responsibility for it. Apologizing would be an admission of guilt and, in the Palestinian collective, there is no room for such sentiments. Perhaps as a result, Khalid organizes an annual event in which Israelis and Palestinians gather to commemorate victims on both sides of the conflict and honor their families—including the families of suicide bombers.
Khalid is not alone in his sentiments. An Israeli once asked Ahmed Tibi, Israel’s most prominent Arab member of the Knesset, why the Holocaust is not taught in Palestinian schools. “Teaching Jewish history,” Tibi replied, “would erase the Palestinian people.” Tibi’s claim sounds harsh, even absurd, but given the realities of Palestinian identity, it is largely accurate.
Theorists often conclude that collectivist identity is overwhelmed by concepts of “us” and “them.” In the case of the Palestinians, the victimized “us” depends on maintaining a stable notion of “them” as a powerful and illegitimate oppressor. The idea that “they,” i.e., Israel, might have their own history (or reality) of victimhood, struggle, impotence, and legitimacy is incompatible with the Palestinian collective narrative. As Clemens noted in his study of refugee status and identity, “This nationalistic collective and individual identity of Palestinians may prove to be the strongest barrier to peace. The conflict is viewed in zero-sum terms…. Either we are a nation or they are. They can acquire national identity and rights only at the expense of our identity and rights.”
But even those Palestinians, like Khalid, who have accepted the existence and significance of the Holocaust—the most severe example of Jewish victimization—cannot separate it from the Palestinian collective narrative. An example of this occurred on a coexistence trip to Yad Vashem in September 2012, during which Palestinians from the West Bank were given a guided tour in Arabic. After recovering from the initial shock that such a thing as the Holocaust had occurred, the standard response was, “If they did it to you, how could you do it to us?” Even for them, the Holocaust was merely the precursor to the naqba. The naqba, was, in effect, the result of the Holocaust.
To Westerners, whose identity is so defined by individualism, such sentiments probably seem completely illogical. But, as Hammack found in his study, one of the major outcomes of collectivist identity is that pragmatic, realistic goals and perspectives are sacrificed in order to maintain the group’s ideology.
This holds true even on the tactical level. As mentioned above, suicide bombings, while not encouraged and often condemned by participants of peace movements, are nevertheless seen as a legitimate form of resistance to the Israeli occupation. In a collectivist society built on the idea of victimhood, struggle—rather than peace—is the ultimate motivating factor. Peace, moreover, may actually threaten collective identity: If struggle is a prerequisite for peace, then any action that serves the struggle, even terror and incitement, is likely to be perceived as legitimate. Peace is sacrificed to the collective.
Individualization, then, is essential to peace. Economic development, education, and democracy will hopefully contribute to a general change in Palestinian collective identity. But ultimately it is the task of the individual Palestinian to break free from the in-group, achieve psychological autonomy, and become an independent agent and master of his own fate. This is the most important step on the way to reconciliation.
All photos: Aviram Valdman/The Tower