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Chalav U'Dvash

Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought
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Volume 0, Number 0

Diagnosing the Conflict


Can Psychology Cure Intractable Conflict?

By Sara Ronis


Lasting peace in the Middle East requires a binding peace agreement, true partners for peace, cessation of violence, and... a dramatic shift in intergroup psychological outlooks? So argue Daniel Bar-Tal and Yona Teichman in their new book Stereotypes and Prejudice in Conflict: Representations of Arabs in Israeli Jewish Society (Cambridge University Press, 2005). The authors, Israeli professors of psychology at Tel Aviv University, attempt to understand one of the little-examined consequences of intractable conflict—a negative psychological intergroup repertoire, essentially an "us vs. them" mentality in which the "them" is perceived as a threatening mass associated with a multitude of negative stereotypes.

In a dense scholarly work, the authors set out to document the acquisition, evolution, and nature of stereotypes held by Israeli Jews about Arabs as a whole and as individual nations. In a series of innovative research experiments in their Tel Aviv laboratory using participants' freehand drawings, Bar-Tal and Teichman attempted to chart the prejudices of Israeli Jews of every age. Their findings are unsurprising. As a result of living in intense and unceasing conflict with many of their Arab neighbors within and without territorial Israel, over the past one hundred years Israeli Jews have developed an ethos of conflict as a method of coping with this stressful situation. This ethos is made up of eight societal beliefs: the justness of one's own goals, security, patriotism, unity, peace, one's own victimization, positive in-group (i.e. Israeli Jews) image, and the adversary's negative image.a These beliefs translate into perceptions of the other group as the enemy, malevolent, vicious, inhuman, untrustworthy, etc.

These prejudices and stereotypes develop in Israeli Jews early—the studies they report show that strong aversive tendencies towards Arabs already manifest themselves in preschoolers. Many would ask, so what? But according to the authors, these childhood-acquired prejudices live beyond leaders who become more open to new views and even beyond the conflicts themselves, serving

as fuel to the maintenance of the conflict and to the continuation of violence. The ethos of conflict ... becomes a prism through which society members construe their reality, collect new information, interpret their experiences, and then make decisions about their course of action.b

Bar-Tal and Teichman have come under fire for this book's emphasis only on the stereotypes of Jewish Israelis, and not on those of the other participants in this particular intractable conflict. Most damning to the Right is the charge that the Palestine Liberation Organization's official website praises the book and the authors for proving how racist Israelis are.c However, the authors have not written a racist book. Though it could be more greatly emphasized, the authors repeatedly assert that representation of Arabs by Israeli Jews and Israeli-Jewish society are a mirror image of those held by Arabs to represent Israeli Jews. The scope of their work makes it impossible to examine both societies and maintain the scientific thoroughness with which they examine both old and new studies.

However, there are several real weaknesses to this work which contribute to its being somewhat falsely perceived as radical Far-Leftist. True, the authors conclusively show that Israeli Jews have created stereotypes of Arabs as a whole and of individual Arab nations specifically. What the authors fail to address in any explicit or meaningful fashion is the relationships between stereotypes and prejudices and the very real experience of the participants of the conflict. Their disconnect between stereotype and reality is true on both the affective and effective levels. Israeli Jews perceive Arabs as supporters of terrorism. A May 2005 Jerusalem Media and Communication Center poll shows that 49.7 percent of Palestinians support suicide bombing, 48 percent oppose such acts, and the other 2.3 percent are somewhere in the middle. While these numbers are encouraging as the percentage of Palestinians supporting suicide bombing decreases, the majority of Palestinians do not oppose the use of suicide bombers against civilian targets.d Where are we to draw the lines between unfair stereotypes and facts that stem from a scientific reality? Can participants in a conflict be faulted as inhibiting the peace process for drawing the conclusions that stem naturally from their experiences? When is stereotype also truth and when is it an exaggeration or inaccurate portrayal? The authors fail to address these questions which are very relevant to the current "attribution of blame" game that is being played internationally on the subject of the conflict in the Middle East. Furthermore, and most interestingly perhaps, Bar-Tal and Teichman fail to prove any connection between stereotypes and prejudices and real actions taken by governments and people. Generally, people are much more likely to talk or think big than they are to act big. Dislike and prejudice do not directly correspond to action; Jewish civilian violence against Arabs is rare and harshly criticized by Israel. It may seem an obvious assumption that mental prejudices lead to prejudicial actions but without explicitly proving and discussing the connection and the directness of its manifestation, Stereotypes and Prejudice in Conflict becomes a scholarly exercise in abstract psychology without any real connection to practical and tangible events and actions in the Middle East. Psychology, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "the scientific study of the human mind and its functions,"e is only important when it directly corresponds to observable behaviors. The greatest weakness of this book overall is its failure to connect to actual events and practical evaluations.

Bar-Tal and Teichman set out the elements they see as necessary to reduce and eradicate the negative stereotypes and prejudices on all sides of the conflict: a cessation of violence and a peaceful resolution of the conflict that is satisfactory to both parties; a strong national leadership involved in peacemaking with well-defined and well-planned goals and policies; complementary and conciliatory acts of goodwill by both parties; grassroots activism across the range of society's political, social, cultural, religious, and educational leadership; the mobilization of society's formal institutions to support the reconciliation process; and finally, international facilitation and concrete assistance throughout the reconciliation process.f For the authors, the trust which must be the foundation of these elements can only come about in meaningful, publicized, face-to-face interactions, new forms of education, the involvement of NGOs and the media, and the creation and re-creation of a new collective history which both Arabs and Jews can accept.g Nice ideas, but as with the book, I wonder what the correlation with reality can be.

Works Cited

Bar-Tal, David, and Yona Teichman. Stereotypes and Prejudice in Conflict: Representations of Arabs in Israeli Jewish Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

"Israeli Textbooks and Children's Literature Promote Racism and Hatred toward Palestinians and Arabs." Palestinian National Authority. Accessed 11 Jul. 2005.

"No. 54 On Palestinian Attitudes Towards the Palestinian Political Issues—May, 2005." Jerusalem Media & Communication Center. <http://www.jmcc.org/publicpoll/results/2005/no54.pdf>. Accessed 3 Mar. 2006.

"Psychology." Oxford English Dictionary Online. <http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/psychology?view=uk>. Accessed 3 Mar. 2006.

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Chalav U'Dvash: Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought (Print ISSN 1559-1069, Online ISSN 1559-1077) is an independent forum for discussion relating to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish People and is a recognized club by the Brandeis Student Union. We publish a journal twice per semester, and copies are available free-of-charge to Brandeis students. Contact us to request copies.

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