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Farewell to a Psychologist Who Brought Israelis and Palestinians Together

Herbert C. Kelman, who died this week, stressed that for each of us certain values are nonnegotiable – and we're ready to die and kill for them

Ofer Zalzberg
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Prof. Herbert Kelman in 2016 giving an online talk on conflict resolution.
Prof. Herbert Kelman in 2016 giving an online talk on conflict resolution.Credit: The Brainwaves Video Anthology/YouTube
Ofer Zalzberg

Herbert C. Kelman, a social psychologist who pioneered the fields of peace studies and conflict resolution, holding dozens of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue workshops over the last 40 years, died this week at 94.

Prof. Kelman was born in Vienna, where already as a boy he studied Hebrew language and literature. He was active in a Zionist youth group affiliated with the Religious Kibbutz Movement.

He fled Austria with his family roughly a year after Nazi Germany’s 1938 annexation, eventually launching a new chapter of his life in New York. His deep interest in social psychology was shaped by the traumatic events of World War II and the Holocaust.

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Kelman – with whom I exchanged ideas and didn’t always agree was a towering figure in the area of conflict studies stressing that human beings are not infinitely malleable. Rather, they hold on to certain nonnegotiables for which they are ready to die and kill.

One cannot, it follows, compel people to embrace certain values or behaviors, even when the price is incredibly high. Indeed, efforts to negotiate resolution solely based on interests fail in conflicts involving such nonnegotiables. Worse, they risk escalating them.

Kelman consequently posited that addressing conflict requires structured interaction between the parties so that they adequately appreciate their adversaries’ profound human needs, as well as their own.

Durable accommodation can be achieved only after such carefully facilitated encounters. Repeated foreign-policy failures seeking to subdue people into positions they cannot embrace have underlined the relevance of Kelman’s scholarship.

Herb began his work with influential Israelis and Palestinians in the late 1970s when, much like today, political prospects for a peace agreement seemed dim. Still, he sought avenues for achieving progress despite the reputational risks of tackling core-conflict issues with decision-makers on both sides. The very fact of his meetings with Yasser Arafat in Beirut in the early ‘80s was both groundbreaking and controversial.

So was his convening of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to explore ways to move toward mutual recognition and address core-conflict issues. During and between workshops his wife, Rose Brousman Kelman, indefatigably assisted him.

Legions of scholars speak of Herb as their mentor, confiding deep appreciation of his transformative contribution to their personal development. While I did not study under him, I did experience this caring quality of his.

I sometimes differed with his approach on significant issues, such as advocating conflict transformation rather than conflict resolution, while working mostly in the local offices and homes of the parties to the conflict rather than in workshops abroad. Plus I called for moves beyond liberal peacemaking so as to include non-liberal worldviews, notably religious ones. But even when I differed with his approach, he continued to generously support my professional and academic growth.

Kelman became one of the most influential scholars and educators in social psychology and conflict studies, securing senior positions at Harvard, training numerous academics and authoring a raft of groundbreaking books and articles. His CV suggests that he won every possible academic award for research, yet he was clearly most moved when he gained increasing recognition in his Austrian homeland over the last two decades.

Herb recounted how tears came to his eyes when he read a request by a prominent Vienna-based organization for conflict transformation: It was renaming the institute after him. The institute’s Austrian leaders, Wilfried Graf and Gudrun Kramer, who lived in Jerusalem at the time, saw this as a way to continue Herb’s work between Vienna and Jerusalem – under new conditions and in new forms. They noted that this was also symbolic acknowledgment of Austria’s wrongdoing against the Jews and a re-welcoming of Herb’s thoughtful academic contribution by the nation that chased him away.

I feel fortunate to have known him, to have exchanged views with him both theoretically and politically, and to currently work at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute for Interactive Conflict Transformation. He was a truly kind man, of utmost integrity, with incredible sensitivity to people’s human needs, whatever their origins. A real mensch.

Ofer Zalzberg is the Middle East program director at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute for Interactive Conflict Transformation.

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