Feb 22nd 2013

The Peril Of Mutual Delegitimization

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

Brief synopsis: The most puzzling aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be that after 65 years of violence, enmity and suffering, it remains unresolved when coexistence is inevitable and a two-state solution remains the only viable option. Although there are many contentious issues that must be specifically addressed, directly impacting every conflicting issue is the broader psychological dimension of the conflict making it increasingly intractable. To mitigate the conflict, we must first look into the elements that inform the psychological dimension and how to alleviate them as prerequisites to finding a solution.

Although a majority of Israelis and Palestinians realize that coexistence based on a two-state solution may well be inevitable, intractable voices on both sides simply refuse to accept this reality.

In Israel, a powerful right-of-center constituency rejects the notion that Palestinians constitute a nation with the right to establish an independent state of their own. Among Palestinians, powerful groups like Hamas likewise reject the premise that Jews comprise a nation with the right to have an independent state; even those Palestinians who concede this issue certainly do not feel the Jewish state should be erected on Palestinian land. To further propagate their respective positions, both Israeli and Palestinian rejectionists are engaged in mutual and systematic delegitimization of the other, including the denial of each other’s basic human rights. Although the 1993-1994 Oslo Accords presumably changed (at least to a certain degree) the nature of the relationship between the two sides through mutual recognition, they did not fundamentally mitigate the doubt each side held, or altered their predisposed perception of the other. That is, the mutually embedded rejectionist sentiment in their respective psyches creates insurmountable resistance to change, especially by inciting deliberate actions that further reinforce the rejection of the other.

In probing the psychological barriers to change, we must also pay close attention to the manner in which helplessness and radical vulnerability inhibit the positive transformation of the status quo. Helplessness arises when one’s relation to the self or to the world is systematically undone at the hands of another, “but undone so thoroughly and unconditionally that the victim loses any sense of being able to determine himself, his immediate environment, or, thus, his relations to the world in general: you experience yourself as in a state of existential helplessness” (Bernstein, 2012). While the sense of being exposed and constitutively vulnerable is doubtless more severe among Palestinians, we should not hastily assume that because Israel is an immensely powerful state, its citizens do not also share in this experience: constant concerns over personal security and chronic fear of change are more than enough to foster vulnerability of the self among Israelis.

The leadership on both sides have too often sought to instill public resentment by maligning public narratives, and denying the rights and humanity of the other. Palestinians, for example, blame Israel for the suffering caused by the refugee problem while Israel blames the Palestinians for the never-ending terrorism and violence, especially the Second Intifada that stunned Israelis and shattered any remaining residue of trust.

Refutations of the other’s public narratives, however, are not limited to statements or announcements made by officials. For example, Israelis view the Palestinian insistence on the refugees’ right of return as an effort to obliterate the Jewish identity of the state. Similarly, Palestinians consider Israel’s settlement building throughout the West Bank a gross encroachment on their land for the express purpose of denying them the opportunity to establish their own state. By insisting publicly only on their respective rights, both sides view the other’s actions merely as efforts to delegitimize and undermine the other.

The campaign of mutual delegitimization, not limited to the political and public domain, has developed into a culture that permeates all social strata, particularly education and the media. This aspect of delegitimization is more troubling than any other in that it not only denies each other’s rights in the eyes of the contemporary general public but also poisons the next generation of adults, who are indoctrinated in childhood to reject the other. Palestinian textbooks have and continue to distort the factual historical account of what actually happened between Israelis and Palestinians and how the current situation came to pass. Palestinian geography books fail to delineate Israel on maps, and teachers that express hostility seed in the minds of young students deep-rooted hatred for Jews, perpetuating the delegitimization of Israel and making it extremely difficult to mitigate the damage when Palestinian children come of age.

In Israel, new history textbooks were, in fact, published and introduced into Israeli junior and senior high schools in 1999 after the Oslo peace agreement was signed. While these new textbooks attempted to offer a more balanced account of the Israeli-Arab conflict than previous publications, they still presented a typical nationalistic narrative, which left little room for recognizing the legitimacy of the Palestinians. Thus, instead of using the classroom to promote each other’s rights and plights, schools on both sides of the border have become laboratories manufacturing perceptions useful in the delegitimization of the other. Of course, these perceptions are further and frequently reinforced by violent events, perpetuating cultures of hatred at home, at temple, and in the mosque.

In Israel, where a largely free press is a given and both print and electronic media run the gamut from extreme-right to extreme-left, many news outlets openly criticize the government for its treatment of and policy toward the Palestinians. The same cannot at all be said about Palestinian media. This is particularly problematic because the criticism and condemnation of Israel, regardless of how justified it may be, becomes institutionalized, leading to the formation of a popular mindset that makes reconciliation with Israel all the more difficult. To be sure, conscious efforts toward delegitimizing the other not only cause suffering and harm to both sides but also permits and justifies continuing moral infractions against the opposing faction. Delegitimization sustains conflict, minimizes concessions made by both sides, and inadvertently leads to heightened resistance to change and renewed violence.

In weighing the psychological impediments to change, the significance of the process of socialization cannot be ignored, especially if we want to understand how both sides are able to justify moral infractions against the other. That is, we need to explore not only the forces that push people into performing violent and oppressive acts but also the psychological forces that contribute to the weakening of moral restraints that routinely check individuals against performing acts they would normally find reprehensible.

The recent documentary The Gatekeepers (2012), about the Shin Bet (Israel’s General Internal Security Service), is to be commended for raising precisely this issue, among others. At least three processes involved in socialization deserve to be mentioned. The first process is authorization. Rather than recognizing oneself as an independent moral agent, the individual feels that they are participating in a “transcendent mission,” one that relinquishes them of the responsibility to make their own moral choices. The second is routinization, the process through which an action is organized and divided among numerous individuals such that “there is no opportunity for raising moral questions and making moral decisions… Each individual carries out routine tasks without having to think of the overall product created by these tasks” (Kelman, 1993). What should be emphasized here is that the aura of professionalism permits the insider to perceive the process not as the brutal treatment of other human beings “but as the routine application of specialized knowledge and skills.” Finally, dehumanization, whereby the other is systematically excluded from the moral community to which one belongs; it becomes unnecessary for agents to regard their relationship to the other as ethically significant. In short, the victim of dehumanization is denied any moral consideration.

Ignoring grievances and suffering: Although a majority of Israelis seek a resolution to the conflict based on a two-state solution supported by many think tanks and a wide range of media outlets, a demeaning attitude toward the Palestinians signifying they do not deserve or cannot be treated as equals pervades the culture. In this way, Israelis have become complacent toward the occupation, and content to ignore the urgency to create a Palestinian state. Israeli indifference toward the Palestinian’s plight has become second nature, creating a mindset among Israelis that blames the Palestinians for their problems.

I believe that the category of “soul death” (originally proposed as a way of thinking about the social-psychological impact of slavery) is entirely relevant to understanding the suffering of the Palestinians. Applying this concept means coming to grips with the real and awful impact of being utterly overpowered by another, of having one’s home ransacked and one’s village arbitrarily divided by the building of fences (presumably to prevent terrorism), of having one’s house raided in the middle of the night, terrifying women and children, and of losing the sense of having any control over one’s life. Not unlike African-Americans under Jim Crow or South Africans under apartheid, the Palestinians have seen their humanity systematically denied by the forces of occupation. Yet, Israel continues to ignore the grievances and suffering of those whose lands it confiscated, the consequence of this state-sanctioned delegitimization being little short of soul death for Palestinians.

The ever-present possibility of terrible and unpredictable violence not only destroys the hope that the situation will someday be resolved but also increases the sense of shame, despondency and the will to retaliate to make the other suffer. The trauma suffered by the victim of deliberate violence lingers on in its aftermath as a part of the victim’s very sense of self, and “it is that which makes such helplessness existential and categorical.” The point here is that this sense of existential helplessness has and will continue to grow among the Palestinians (and Israelis) if the conflict is allowed to continue indefinitely.

Whether we are talking about the settler who will stop at nothing to maintain control of the land or the militant Palestinian who is sworn to the destruction of Israel, both see themselves as pursuing a divinely authorized mission, the fulfillment of which absolves them of any moral culpability. Categories of zealotry consistently and accurately apply to both Israelis and Palestinians, while blind refusal of reality by influential voices on both sides obscures the voices of those on the fringes seeking to reach a solution. This will only result in further alienation and perilous delegitimization of the other, and is certainly the recipe for “Mutually Assured Destruction.”

This is the fourth in a series of six articles: see links for the first, second, and third.

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