Talking with: Dr. Ofer Grosbard, 59, clinical psychologist, writer and lecturer. Married, father of two. Lives in Haifa.
Wants to promote: His new book “Babylon A Guide to the East-West Encounter.”
When you say “cultural language,” what does that really mean? What is a cultural language?
“A cultural language is essentially the way in which we think. Up until 500 years ago, we were all part of traditional collective societies. The direction of thought was outward how I fit in the group, how sensitive I am to my surroundings. When man began to separate from the group, different psychological processes began to operate. He began to be directed to himself; he discovered that he has an inner world. Suddenly he has introspection, he deliberates over things. And thus the creativity, science and democracy of the new age began to develop, all three of which place man at the center. A scientist has to be a person who relies upon himself and not upon the group.
“Creativity clearly derives from the self, and democracy, too: I choose the leader and not vice-versa. A ‘cultural language’ is basically a thought paradigm.”
And in the book you’re trying to set the Western thought paradigm against the Eastern one. Can you briefly describe each of these?
“The Western thought paradigm – sometimes we’ll call it modern thinking – is individual. It has an inner focus of control.”
Is my motivation to satisfy myself, or to satisfy the group.
“Exactly. Do I think in terms of ‘I’ or ‘we’?”
And what about the Eastern thought paradigm?
“This is a traditional, collective way of thinking, with an outward focus of control the person thinks in terms of the group. In Arabic, they say not to use ‘I’ too much, because it’s condescending. In Chinese and Japanese, too, they omit the ‘I’ because it’s not respectable.”
And each of these paradigms has four guiding principles that reflect their essential differences.
“Yes. First of all, respect. In Eastern thinking, respect is very important. In the West, respect became self-admiration. I give myself the respect which once came from outside.
“The second thing involves identification versus empathy. In Eastern societies, identification is strong: I see the world through the eyes of the other. In the West, identification has become empathy.
“The third axis is authoritativeness versus firmness. Eastern society esteems authority. If you are my boss, you need to tell me what to do. If you don’t tell me what to do, you’re not doing your job. But firmness, the ability to stand up for oneself, is a Western invention.”
And the fourth axis pits social skills versus critical thinking.
“Yes. In traditional society, the child grows up in a clan. He learns to get along in a group. In a Westerner’s encounter with a traditional society, he will see me better than I see him, because I’m thinking about what I want to say and he’s thinking about me. That is, he will recognize me better than I recognize him, but I will recognize myself better than he recognizes himself.”
Isn’t this outlook tainted with Orientalism? Or paternalism? You’re trying to characterize Eastern thinking from the point of view of someone with Western thinking.
“I am thinking about it from a Western point of view, that is true. But let’s be practical for a minute: I can now teach a teacher in a classroom, a boss at work or our politicians how to build a bridge.”
After refining these two paradigms, you examined real cases in the political and diplomatic arenas. Your conclusion is fairly bleak. We don’t know how to talk to the other side.
“True. We make a lot of mistakes.”
What would you say was our biggest missed opportunity, in terms of dialogue?
“The Yom Kippur War, or what happened with Hezbollah. We’re always assuming that the other side won’t attack us because we’re stronger. This is a very Western way of thinking. In Western thinking I go to war in order to win, and if I don’t think that I will win, I won’t go for it. But in traditional collective thinking, the ‘other’ is more important than you are. So if I go to war to hurt you, it doesn’t matter what happens to me. Even if I’m weaker, I’ll go to war in order to hurt you. This is what the suicide bomber is thinking to himself.”
And what can we do?
“When we talk to them, we need to talk to them in a language of connection. We have evidence of what worked. How did [Jimmy] Carter succeed with [Anwar] Sadat? He said: ‘He is my twin brother.’ And when there was conflict, what did he do? He went to him and said: ‘Come and help me, I need your help.’ This is the language. [Benjamin] Netanyahu is very fond of saying, ‘I’ this and ‘I’ that, but this is a mistake. Traditional societies don’t tend to be awed by the individual. You have to integrate into the society.”
And self-regard is a form of turning one’s back.
“Precisely. You’re removing yourself from the group.”
But the norms of Israeli discourse are openness, informality, unmediated access. Doesn’t that help?
“It depends. Look, for example, in Arab society there are five times as many deaths from heart attacks than in Jewish society, because they don’t follow the doctor’s orders. If the Arab doctor tells the patient, ‘Take these pills so you’ll be healthy,’ it won’t help. If he tells him, ‘Take these pills for me, or for your family,’ he’ll take them right away. So, yes, there is something collective in the informality. On the other hand, you have to remember that our informality comes from a very individual place, because we are highly individual. Israeli creativity, our entrepreneurship, it’s all so individual.”
I’ve thought about this that we don’t use much formality. That we try to cut right to the chase.
“This no-nonsense approach is the height of individuality.”
I’m not sure I understand.
“Take Chinese society, for example. Say you’ve come to China to do some business. You’ve arrived. But you don’t start negotiating right away. First you spend an entire day just building the connection. Purposefulness is associated with Western society. Time is money. In Eastern societies, there is time. Time is generally circular; there’s nothing new under the sun.”
Which of our leaders over the years have understood this, intuitively at least?
“[Seventh President] Ezer Weizman. Which is why he succeeded. People loved him. For example, he formed a very close bond with Sadat. Sadat said that when he came [to Israel], Weizman was the first one to show up. He came in and told him, ‘I await your orders. Just tell me what you need.’ He gave him a lot of respect. He would embrace him, speak to him in Arabic, kiss him, say: ‘Wow, what nice cologne you have Aramis, eh?’ Physical closeness is so important in these societies. The embrace. In contrast, when [Yasser] Arafat went to the U.S. [Bill] Clinton developed special tactics of how to shake his hand so that he couldn’t get close enough to kiss him.”
I can understand that.
“Yes, but it’s not politically smart. Weizman gave Sadat a lot of encouragement. When he met him, the first thing he did was tell him: ‘Well done for surprising us the way you did.’”
Like the way you give a child positive reinforcement.
“Yes, exactly. He accompanied him to the airport, even though he was injured, and Sadat said to him: ‘I order you to go to the hospital.’ And he accepted that directive. You see what sort of relationship he was building here?”
Yes. And I don’t see, say, Ehud Barak behaving that way.
“Barak was the opposite. He was a failure when it came to this side of things.”
In his personality he truly represents an extreme of individualism and narcissism.
“He’s a symbol of Western narcissism. ‘I don’t need to meet with you,’ he said to Arafat. ‘We’ll meet when we need to sign.’”
And Netanyahu? Not that he ever intends to talk to them.
“Netanyahu offends them simply by not wanting to speak with them at all. In and of itself, this stance is very insulting in traditional society, where you meet with someone just for the sake of meeting; for the connection. You drink coffee. For no special reason. But Netanyahu doesn’t want to meet, and often speaks in a very insulting and humiliating way.”
“For example, in the talks with Clinton, he said to Arafat that he wanted to eliminate this or that person. In that kind of language. It’s as if Arafat would have said to Netanyahu, in a crude analogy: ‘I need you to eliminate some settlers for me.’ It’s a humiliating way of speaking to someone, of giving a command. Instead of saying to Arafat, ‘Look, we have a problem with this thing. It’s a problem for you and for us, too. Let’s see how you can help me.’ That’s respectful language. So there was an outburst. Arafat got up and left the room, and Clinton was very angry about speaking that way.”
From everything you’re saying, the bottom line seems to be that form is more important than content.
“Precisely. In collective societies, form is more important than content.”
In your book you talk about Arafat’s tactic of playing the victim.
“Arafat always tried to arouse the pity of the other side. He was an expert in conveying the feeling that you need to help him, and at inviting you to that place. Now, you as a Western person find this very confusing, because we’re very averse to pity.”
We see it as humiliation.
“Yes. But to him it’s not humiliation. By giving someone else respect, you’re not necessarily humiliating yourself.”
Can you imagine Netanyahu saying something like this?
“No. Netanyahu could learn from Ezer Weizman, who would come to Sadat and tell him: ‘We need your help.’”
It’s also a matter of personality. Ego.
“Sure, you’re right. But we want to teach them to overcome this a little.”
But is that really possible?
“A good question: How much can one truly overcome this? Speaking the language of the ‘other’ is like learning a new language. You must. It’s a matter of life and death sometimes. That is, I expect our leader to know how to speak to the other side. And if he doesn’t know how to do this, it’s a serious problem. Take, for example, the story of Netanyahu with Azam Azam [an Israeli-Druze businessman who spent eight years in an Egyptian jail for espionage, from 1996-2004].
“When the premier said to [then Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, ‘How could they have put Azam Azam in prison? I never heard of an innocent man being put in prison because of all sorts of excuses.’ And what does Mubarak answer? He doesn’t relate at all to Azam Azam’s innocence. That doesn’t interest him. He says, ‘You humiliated the Egyptian justice system, so how can I help you now?’ He puts the blame on Netanyahu and Netanyahu really is to blame.
“Afterward, Mubarak says in private to Danny Yatom and other [Israeli] advisers: ‘If only Netanyahu would have spoken differently, I would have obtained clemency for him, but he humiliated me in front of the Egyptian people.’
“The way one speaks is critical. With Iran, too, the manner of speech is critical. A war could break out due to such a lack of understanding.”
How would you advise Netanyahu to proceed on this issue?
“It’s tremendously complex, obviously, but specifically in regard to our communication with them, it needs to be completely different. When [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei was invited to [French President François] Mitterrand, he arrived and went up the steps to where Mitterrand was waiting for him above. And [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad said what a humiliation it was that he had to go up to him. Honor is so important there. I would speak in a way that shows a lot more respect to the Iranian people, to their culture, their tradition.”
Like: “Great job on the uranium enrichment! Fantastic!”
“I’d never say anything like that, of course. But I would give them respect. There’s no other way to create a relationship in traditional societies. It’s a society that is humiliated today, Arab society, and therefore this is even more important.”
Which leaders are afflicted with narcissism? Is Netanyahu a narcissist?
“Netanyahu is quite full of himself.”
How can we use these understandings to create a better discourse with collective societies in Israeli society, like, say, the ultra-Orthodox or settlers?
“One of the most important bits of advice that Nobel Prize in literature winner Naguib Mahfouz had for Israelis was: ‘When you want to come to us, talk about what we share, not about what’s different.’ This is great advice for anyone who wants to understand collective societies. So if I’m going to Gush Emunim, or to the settlers, or to any religious group, then I’ll tell them: ‘We are brothers, we’re together, we have the same interest.’ If I wanted, say, to be permitted to drive on Shabbat, I would say: ‘Listen, you need to help me. I did something for you, now do this for me.’ On the basis of connection, not on the basis of ‘I deserve this.’”
Presuming I don’t know just whom I’m facing, what’s a good diagnostic sort of question to ask?
“First you have to see who starts the conversation. In a collective society, they’ll let you begin. Do you know why?”
So they can get a handle on me. What did the Arab public hear in Yair Lapid’s comment about not pacting with “the Zuabis,” for instance?
“The Arab public heard humiliation, and it’s a shame. Instead, he could have won them over very simply. If only he’d have said: ‘I have great respect for her, for the way she speaks her mind and sticks up for her beliefs, and we need to think together.’ After that, he could do whatever he wanted.”
But first he should pay lip service.
“Yes. A statement like that would have become a big hit in the Arab world. He blew it big-time. And [Shimon] Peres, too, when he talked about a ‘new Middle East’ it was awful, because a new Middle East is the enemy of every collective society. He didn’t get that. What’s all this about re-inventing everything? It’s humiliating to them.”
So what’s the final conclusion? Is there any hope for dialogue?
“Yes. We often say about them, the Arab side, that they’re liars, that they don’t keep their commitments and so on. But we need to understand that the other side is not a liar. It doesn’t place the value of truth at the center. For it, the central value is connection, it’s the relationship. There is a desire to maintain group harmony.
“They’ll tell you: ‘The actual contract isn’t important, the relationship is important. If there’s a connection we’ll do it even without a contract.’ When you say ‘peace,’ you’re thinking about individual rights, self-fulfillment, an individualist society, freedom. In traditional society, when you think about peace, you think about brotherhood: I’m at peace with my brother. Okay? [Menachem] Begin understood this.
“Begin told the Palestinians: ‘I’m not extending to you a hand in peace, I’m extending to you a hand of brotherhood.’ That was a brilliant statement by Begin. He got it. Because he thought collectively. When Begin was asked who he was, he said: ‘I’m a Jew.’”
And that way he also was able to attract the Mizrahi Jews.
“Precisely, because he called them ‘my brothers and sisters.’ Every speech he gave began with the words, ‘My brothers and sisters.’ And then it didn’t matter what he said afterward, that was enough.”
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