How to Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, According to Psychology Research

Both Israelis and Palestinians are in competition over the victim role. A new study may have the key to breaking the impasse

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Palestinians and Israelis clash during demonstrations on Jerusalem Day, 2018.
Palestinians and Israelis clash during demonstrations on Jerusalem Day, 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

To be the victim in a conflict is no less significant in terms of impact than being the victor, according to a recent study conducted at Tel Aviv University. Indeed, for many people it is the main goal – whether the conflict is an argument between two private individuals or a national dispute.

“It’s a human trait,” explains Prof. Nurit Shnabel of the university’s psychology department, who led the study. “The suffering we have undergone remains with us longer than the suffering we caused. Even if I understand at the rational level that my side can be perceived as victim and aggressor at the same time – emotionally it’s different. I can’t feel them both simultaneously. And it’s easier to be the victim.”

An experiment conducted by Shnabel and her colleagues sought to reveal some of the general principles that characterize the dynamics of the relationship between aggressors and victims. The participants, who were divided into pairs, were each given an identical amount of money – a “resource,” in the language of the study – that each person was requested to distribute in private, between himself and his partner (without the partner knowing how much the other person gave himself), as they saw fit.

After doing so, and with no connection to how the money was actually divided up, the researchers gave each subject positive or negative feedback about the way he and his partner distributed the money. The feedback, about whether the money was fairly or unfairly divided up, was given in a totally arbitrary way – something the subjects were not told – and covered all eventualities. That is, some pairs of partners were both told they had been fair, others were both told they’d been unfair, and others were told they had been fair/unfair and their partners got the opposite feedback. The feedback was intended to generate a good or bad feeling in each subject about his behavior, vis-à-vis both himself and his partner.

In the next stage, the participants were asked to distribute the money again, between themselves and their partner, this time as payment for having taken part in the experiment. Those who felt hurt by their partner’s behavior in the previous round, though they thought that they themselves had behaved fairly, tended to behave vengefully and withheld some of the money. Participants who felt they were hurtful to a partner who had behaved fairly, were more generous. But the most interesting conclusion was drawn from the last group – of those who were told that both they and their partner had behaved unfairly – that is, each had been both the perpetrator and the victim.

The researchers’ initial hypothesis was that vengefulness and generosity would offset each other, but in practice the opposite happened: the participants in the last group displayed a degree of vengefulness similar to those who were only victimized, with no connection to their own behavior.

“They seemingly forgot that they too didn’t do right by the other, and remembered only that the other didn’t do right by them,” Shnabel says. “This pattern of behavior shows that people have a heightened sensitivity toward situations in which they are victimized, and reduced sensitivity for situations in which they are the perpetrators.”

The research team then decided to check the validity of this conclusion in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli and Palestinian participants in the experiment were given articles to read about instances of violence related to the conflict. The results were similar: The participants on both sides expressed readiness to come to the aid of the other one if they felt that they alone had been hurtful, but when the victimization was mutual, they related only to the harm they themselves suffered.

“The psychological experience of victimhood is far more powerful than the experience of being the one who hurts someone else,” observes Shnabel.

'We're not unique'

Shnabel is one of the speakers this month in the “Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?” – an event that is taking place for the second year in Tel Aviv, Haifa and the Eshkol Regional Council, adjacent to the Gaza Strip. (The Tel Aviv session was held this week and drew a large audience.) In each venue, seven speakers put forward ideas and optimistic approaches for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For her part, Shnabel opens her talk at the sessions by mentioning two facts: Hundreds of Palestinian villages were destroyed in Israel’s War of Independence and their residents became refugees and never returned; and the separation barrier, whose construction began in 2002, has inflicted tremendous damage on hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

She then asks what is going through the heads of her Jewish Israeli listeners. Some will likely feel guilt and shame, others will want to “kill the messenger” and will challenge the truth or relevance of what she said. Some will probably present counterclaims about the harm inflicted by the Palestinians – including their rejection of the 1947 United Nations partition resolution and participation in the wave of terrorist attacks during the second intifada – which, though true, do not invalidate the arguments about the suffering caused by Israel, says Shnabel.

“It’s easy for us to remember the brutal attacks we have suffered, and it’s hard for us even to hear about Palestinian suffering,” she explains. “But we are not unique in this. The same mechanism exists in every conflict. Certain characteristics are found in almost every conflict, whether it involves neighbors, siblings, a couple or groups and peoples. The emotional needs are identical, even if each situation is unique.”

The phenomenon that’s been identified in this context by Shnabel and her colleagues is called “competitive victimhood,” which she explains thus: “When two children fight and the parents try to figure out what happened, both children will say, ‘But he/she started it!’ In research conducted by my students on parents and children over the issue of the child’s coming out of the closet, both sides see themselves as victims of the situation.”

One possible key to breaking out of this cycle was suggested by a study conducted by Dr. Johanna Vollhardt, a psychologist from Clark University in Massachusetts. Her concept of “inclusive victimhood” allows both sides in a conflict to see themselves as its victims and reduces competition over that title. In short, Vollhardt found that if both sides recognize the possibility that the feeling of victimhood is not a zero-sum game, the chances of conciliation increase.

Drawing on this idea, Shnabel conducted research in partnership with Dr. Samer Halabi, from the school of behavioral sciences at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yafo. Half of the participants, who included both Jews and Palestinians, were given fictitious academic articles to read in which historical proof was presented showing that both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict possess an aggressive identity and a victimhood identity. The other participants received a neutral text, which did not support the concept of inclusive, collective victimhood. The results did not surprise the researchers and in fact encouraged them.

Shnabel: “We saw that the shared victim-perpetrator identity increased the tendency to be generous and conciliatory toward the other side. A shared identity like this is the conceptual basis underlying such Israeli-Palestinian organizations such as the Bereaved Families Forum, where bereaved families from both sides meet and try to advance peace and understanding, which neutralizes the competition over the victim role and allows greater openness and generosity, or Combatants for Peace, in which ex-combatants/soldiers from both sides work together to promote an open dialogue between the two people, which creates an affinity on the basis of a shared identity of victimization.”

How can the cycle of competition over the victim’s title be broken?

Shnabel: “In one of our laboratory experiments, we gave Jews and Palestinians two different fictitious articles, which supposedly found that their side is suffering more in the conflict and has been wronged more. Intuition says that after being awarded the title of being the ‘real victim’ – each side would only entrench itself in its position, declaring, effectively, ‘It’s been scientifically proved that we have suffered more, so the other side has to compensate us.’ But the actual results ran counter to our intuition. We found that both Jews and Palestinians who read the fictitious article ‘proving’ that their side had suffered more, showed a greater willingness for conciliation with the other side. External recognition of the victimization of their group was a response to a strong need for their suffering to be seen and acknowledged.”

Isn’t this a forced symmetry, since in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there is a strong, occupying side and a weak, occupied side?

“The professional literature shows that the strong side, too, is vulnerable. The Israeli side possesses greater military, economic and political might, but because of the situation of mutual aggression, there is competition with Palestinians over the victim role. It is also evident in the arena of public diplomacy and the media, and at the interpersonal level. You see it in dialogue encounters we hold at the university. The Palestinians focus on the harm they are experiencing, such as from air force attacks on the Gaza Strip, and the Israelis focus on rocket attacks against communities bordering on Gaza.

“Each side in an asymmetrical conflict has a different psychological need,” Shnabel continues. “For the weak side, it’s important to achieve a sense of being in control of the situation, while the strong side wants to feel that it is behaving morally. This could be why we call the Israel Defense Forces ‘the most moral army in the world.’ The attempt to resolve the conflict must address the emotional needs of each side. The victimized side has to rehabilitate its sense of power, control and influence, while the perpetrator side wants to rehabilitate its moral image and feel accepted despite its actions. When everyone gets what they need – for example, if the latter side apologizes and acknowledges the wrong that was done – the victimized side will feel empowered, which makes it feel more generous. If those who have perpetrated aggressive acts succeed in rehabilitating their self-image of being moral and feel they are being accepted, they will be more charitable toward the victimized side.”

In another experiment, you discovered the deep need to listen: It’s enough to listen to the other side to open a window of conciliation.

“Both we and the Palestinians need to be listened to, and crave recognition, but they have a stronger need in this regard. It’s very important to them that we listen to the stories about how the conflict affects them at an everyday level – for instance, regarding what goes on at checkpoints. It’s hard for us to listen to those stories, but when we succeed in being momentarily empathetic, without going on the defensive, without explaining and without objecting, only listening, that has a deep, positive effect on the other side. The willingness to listen fulfills a deep psychological need on the other side and makes it possible to go on from there, especially in terms of the weaker side in the conflict.

“This is equally valid at the personal level,” Shabel continues. “When someone – a friend, a partner, a parent, a colleague or a child – tells you about something that is hurting them, wait a second before explaining how they contributed to the problem, or what they should do to rectify the situation. Just be there, attentively. When people feel that they are truly being listened to, something in them opens up, grows stronger and becomes more optimistic.”

Is there any point to these dialogue encounters, or do they not address the emotional needs of each side? Is that the point of what you’re saying?

“They can be useful if they are structured to satisfy both the need for empowerment and the need for acceptance. If the emphasis is only on creating an interpersonal connection, they will miss the point. Drawing people closer together is not enough: There must also be an exploration of identity, non-judgmental listening and a discussion of the social order. The conflict between the secular and religious publics in Israel is not about personal hatred, but about anger over the social order in the country. So a religious-secular encounter must also include a dialogue about the social order – for example, about whether there should be public transportation on Shabbat in Israel. Another example is women and men. Women and men have always lived side by side, and what feminism wants is not recognition of women as human beings or to draw the two groups closer, but a change of the social order, such that women would have the same opportunities as men.”

Are you optimistic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

“I don’t think peace will prevail tomorrow, but I do think that much can be done to improve the present situation. Long before any talk of concrete solutions, we need first of all to just listen to the other side and suppress for a moment our tendency to propose a solution, to assign blame, to go on the defensive or to make excuses.

“Listening is a major key toward improving relations. A disparity exists between the public image of the conflict, as being very intense and dramatic, and the everyday, where a respectful dialogue does take place between the sides, which does not slide into aggression and violence. I see it every day in the university and in the experiments we conduct. It’s important to remember that.”

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