“And we will see Palestinians on our way to Jerusalem,” he digressed, flicking his hand toward a gold-domed mosque. “The city we are going to, they want it back. But no one wants them.”
A small, steady quiet ensued whilst a tempest of thoughts raged in my mind.
“What do you think of the problem between Israel and Palestine? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“There will never be peace.”
The words paralyzed the air with sudden gravity.
“They do not want, we do not want. They want to destroy us.”
Summed up in ten minutes, the entire history of a land and its peoples was tucked into one tidy tale.
For a narrative spun in abridged, simplified, prejudiced, and arcane renditions, all versions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often miss the point. The fact that there is no single, ultimate story. The fact that the very nature of the fray exists as a war of histories, of identities, of truths.
Throughout my time in the breeding ground of the Abrahamic religions, the prefacing anecdote to this article would grow familiar. They may share a god. A holyland. A tapestry of prophets stitching together the potential for a shared narrative. Yet, thousands of casualties later, the Israeli-Palestinian fissure tremors as the epicenter to a morass of tensions beyond the world’s comprehension. Much of the international forum conceptualizes the Middle East as a desolate tale of once-golden lands now dull in their luster. Mired in the clashing of tribal swords. Plagued with the refugee crises of Yemen and Syria. Robbed by the conspicuous and unabashed corruption of despots. Terrors harvesting terrors in al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS. Homemade rockets stifling the flame of civilian life. As the barrage roars on, we are left to grapple with the question of how global society let it happen.
Scrambling to reckon with disinformation campaigns, farcical facts, unsubstantiated notions, and confirmation bias, the West is floundering in the corrosive conditions that have haunted Israelis and Palestinians for decades. Now puncturing mainstream Western dialogue, identity politics is an ancient accoutrement of life here. Rhapsodizing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem as an elixir to the broader Middle Eastern discord thus ignores just how deep and existential the rifts run. Amassed from myriad perspectives, the fabrics of truth are disparate and polar. How can we weave peace when the very realities lived are of mismatched threads?
Passed by the Knesset mere weeks ago, the “Jewish nation-state law” elucidates the severe contrast between the Israeli and Palestinian mindsets. The measure deems self-determination in Israel as a unique right to the Jewish people. Rationale oft invoked by Israel is security, for the minute country is surrounded by potential threats on all sides — a Jewish haven in an Arab-dominated region. For a nation spawned out of the horrors of the Holocaust, perpetually existing as if the next genocide looms around the corner, the defensive reflex is seared into muscle memory. Yet, for minorities such as Palestinians and Bedouins, the law officially degrades them to the tier of second-class citizens, thereby manifesting what human rights activists have long argued is an apartheid state. Once again, the global debate stage simmers with largely hollow rhetoric. Truths are marred, distilled, simplified. A paucity of information plagues policymakers and bodypoliticks alike. Then, when the curtains close and the spotlights frenzy around the next crisis, a fractured region remains fractured. Sisyphus continues to roll the proverbial border up the hills of Hell. And yet we lament the lack of peace.
A sage of mine once advised: “Take every statement and put a question mark at the end of it. Including everything I say.”
Salient in the supposed “post-truth era”, this aphorism is especially applicable to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Underneath every monolithic label, factions fight for mass and megaphones, from the Likud versus Labour parties to Fatah versus Hamas to generational divides to interfaith frictions. While a littering of voices vie for the right to speak, a collective truth and identity dissipate into an increasingly quixotic future. There is no consensus on the present or the past. However, to try to begin to assemble any understanding requires some historical insight.
Although beginnings in all histories are difficult to punctuate, the genesis of today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict began in the late nineteenth century with a surge of Jewish and Arab nationalism. The tension grew lethal some time in the 1920s, when the first death is estimated to have occurred. However, it was not until the United Nations’ 1947 Partition Plan drew the curtain on the British Mandate period that the issue intensified. “Resolution 181”, as it was officially called, sliced Palestine into two states each comprised of half the territory with Jerusalem under international municipal status. Due to Arab rejection, this two-state portioning of the former colony failed to come to fruition. In their minds, Israel was theirs first. Of course, the Jews also claim original-settler status. The argument of true pioneership, in an array of frivolous rhetoric, merely asphyxiates change-worthy debate.
The year was 1948. Jubilation and despair spiraled through the land of Israel as Jews celebrated and Palestinians wallowed in sorrow. For one, May 8th of that year marked independence from British imperialism and the actualization of the Jewish-state “moral imperative” for a people who had endured mass slaughter. For the other, the day was branded as the “Nakba” or “catastrophe” as thousands of Palestinians fled in forced exodus from their homeland.
Fast forward to 1967 for a week of regional jousting. Responding to an Egyptian naval blockade, Israel struck the foe’s air force on June 5th. In the Yom Kippur War, Israel raged on against a joint force of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and supporters. Fifteen thousand to 25,000 casualties later, Israel reaped the spoils of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. A pinnacle moment in the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, the war illustrated the small state’s indefatigable ability to survive surrounded by enemies. It also kindled Israeli resentment and objection to Palestinian statehood, for the Arab miscreant inside its borders left the nascent nation exposed and vulnerable.
Despite Israel’s victory, the notorious Green Line or pre-1967 borders grew as an unconditional desire of the Palestinians in peace accords. In 1988, the Palestinian Liberation Organization accepted the UN Security Council’s “Resolution 242”, which demanded a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian territories. Currently, the West Bank is segmented into Areas A, B, and C with varying degrees of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) authority from absolute to shared to absent. Gaza is under a blockade so severe the UN estimates the strip will be uninhabitable by 2020.
The last few decades of the twentieth century oscillated between augmenting violence and peace negotiations. The juxtaposition of the First and Second Intifadas against both regional and international talks amplified the spotlight cast on the Israeli-Palestinian stage. From the 1973 Geneva Conference ending the Yom Kippur War to the empty promises of the 1993 Oslo Accords to stalled efforts under the Obama Administration in 2014, meetings of party principals contrasted against a backdrop of seeming perpetual violence. As leaders bickered over terms of thinking about thinking of peace, people on both sides of the wall grew exhausted. Sons and daughters murdered. Dreams deferred. Identities lost in oblivion. Pastorality exposed to festering tension.
With each wave of fire kites sailing across the Gazan fence or IDF strike or Knesset legislation yet again delegitimizing Arabs, pundits fustle over two-state or one-state. The Quartet of Russia, the US, the EU, and the UN ponder potential negotiations. The global populace bemoans the status quo of perennial destruction.
Akin to other grotesque simplifications by today’s cable news and election-perverted politicians, callow dialogue obstructs vigorous understanding. After all, what do you do when one party’s day of independence is the other’s catastrophe? Where are the conditions for peace when one’s lie is another’s truth? When a collective memory or common narrative never existed, leaving ground for consensus dry and barren? How much hope can be harboured when an Israeli and a Palestinian both demand: “Where is our partner for such peace?”
Burdened with the curse of Sisyphus, today’s intractable conflict must be placed within the broader scope of time, for just as the present cannot be understood without the past, it also cannot defy hopelessness without addressing the future. Thus, with a history of sparring facts, the Israelis and Palestinians must stretch into the horizon pining for a shared future. The current conflict carries the albatross of past atrocities, and while each people cherish ancestral identity, the moral imperative of collective peace demands a transposition toward future identity. In making oneself out of a potential.
Seemingly permanent synonyms, the Middle East and tension must be challenged by changing the stories we tell ourselves, the discussions we delve into, the people we neglect to hear. Revolutions are glaciers, not fires. Wasting away lives with the pouring of capital into new versions of old methodologies revolving around principal meetings, international coalitions, and top-down accords often bearing foisted signatures is a crime against the ordinary humans so often forgotten. In an era witnessing the rising significance of non-state actors and bottom-up responses to transboundary issues from climate change to refugee crises, why not turn to those most afflicted by entrenched violence: Israelis and Palestinians themselves? Myriad NGOs across the world are already pursuing such endeavours, stimulating shifts within their own communities. The efficaciousness of education-based youth initiatives, however, is catching the eye of global peacemakers.
Academics investigating the entrenchment of conflict indicate the critical period of youth due to their still-developing, malleable minds. When postured in a sociopsychological frame, intergenerational ire is suddenly far more comprehensive. After all, Israelis grow up with the image of the vilified Other as a suicide bomber. Palestinians grow up only knowing Israelis as IDF soldiers wielding guns. When this is the climate in which you are raised, when the supposed peace partner brandishes weapons, when your neighbour is more monster than fellow human, what else can you expect than a galvanizing call to arms?
In the ivory towers of Tel Aviv University, political psychologist Daniel Bar-Tal seeks to puzzle together a foundation for understanding the human mind under such circumstances. According to Bar-Tal’s work, cognitive, emotional, and motivational processes contribute to a barricade of sociopsychological activators contributing to an individual’s ingrained perception of threats. Essentially, a person living in a less-than-stable environment under duress is socialized with a group-think mentality conditioned for conflict. Paired with preexisting beliefs and selective information processing, the conflict-imprinted notions of the individual wire one with a neural network against the Other.
When this mindset is isolated to the individual, it makes for a fear-infused and defensive identity. When this mindset reaches a critical mass and grips an entire society, the culture itself lies victim to terror crafted by bona fide and self-perceived threats. Bar-Tal’s “conflict culture” is fueled by both the individual and his or her group. Based at Yale Law School, the Cultural Cognition Project hosts scholars investigating this very idea. “Cultural cognition” refers to an individual’s tendency to conform his or her beliefs about disputed matters of fact to the values defining their culture’s identities. Thus, when Israelis and Palestinians argue over the merits of a moment in history or the charting of maps, they are each predisposed to accept different facts stemming from warring cultural selves. The intertwining of one’s own identity with that of the larger culture inflames cultural cognition as the individual and the society contribute to each other’s sense of self. When that identity is in part premised on the negation of an enemy, it transcends into conflict culture.
In a 2015 article, Bar-Tal and his fellow authors illustrate the extent to which conflict culture can erode any potential path of peace. Once cultivated, this culture impedes the permeation of new information into an individual’s cognitive processing, inhibiting the societal identity to forge amended truth from new stimuli. Thus, when PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin embraced hands under President Bill Clinton’s watch in 1994, a hopeful world failed to fathom the magnitude of underlying sociopsychological forces dedicated to vilifying the Other. The individual’s and the society’s cognitive infrastructure is constructed “as major obstacles to beginning negotiations for a solution, to maintaining these negotiations, to achieving an agreement, and later to engaging in a process of reconciliation.”
Bar-Tal further elucidates societal mechanisms as barriers to peace at the macro-level. His modeling echoes the earlier theory of French philosopher Louis Althusser who in 1969 launched into his marquee thesis of the Ideological State Apparatus. The state, Althusser posits, simultaneously defends and bolsters itself by disseminating its ideology through systems penetrating its populace. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, one such avenue is the Educational Ideological State Apparatus, which indoctrinates youth inadvertently or otherwise with materials suggestive of conflict culture. A study of both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks by Dr. Arnon Groiss evinces maligning of the Other in subjects as obvious as history to as shocking as chemistry. New editions of Palestinian Authority textbooks, for example, replaced references to “Israel” with the label “Zionist occupation”. While Israeli textbooks ostracize to a smaller degree, the privilege of being an established state mitigates the need to egregiously disparage the Palestinians (whose statehood stands unrecognized by fifty-seven UN member states, including the entire G7).
Althusser’s theory transcends identity founded in conflict from the individual to the society to the state enterprise. As these factors feed off of each other’s kindling, the fluid exchange of perceptions and information between individual, society, and state coalesce into what Bar-Tal deems the collective “official memory”. To the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one more offense, however marginal, is not merely a one-off incident. It is part of a system eclipsing temporal and cognitive bounds, engulfing the region in the expectation, the normalization, the wiring of war.
With peoples and cultures poised for perpetual tension, talks of peace can be easily scoffed at as a quixotic notion. However, by identifying the catalysts of such conflict, authors like Bar-Tal illuminate entry points for change. Through scrupulous exploration, this work has divulged possibilities for reconciliation and coexistence.
In his most influential theory, German psychologist Kurt Lewin painted his “Three Step Model” in which all societal evolutions must stem from cognitive change. To ripen a situation for resolution, Lewin argued an “unfreezing” of perceptions and beliefs must occur in order for an individual’s mind to accept replacement with a new idea. Provided the rigidity of confirmation bias, creating such preconditions is arduous, and so Sisyphus continues to trek uphill. But what if that new idea intercepted before old thinking could ossify?
“People underestimate education,” Mohammed Dajani, a Palestinian professor and peace activist, said in a presentation at Hebrew University. “When you have a peace-builder in the class as a teacher, that will have an extreme impact in day-to-day events.”
With the prevalence of cognition in the fostering of conflict culture, in addition to the impressionability of developing brains, education manifests as a port of entry for progress. Peace education, sanctioned by the UN and currently employed by institutions such as mixed Israeli-Arab schools, is already lauded by leaders and activists. However, mixed schools like the Hand in Hand Project face unrelenting backlash and the more conventional uninational school curriculum is slow to change, even if authorities wanted it to. After all, Althusser indicated education as a fundamental pillar in his Ideological State Apparatus designed to perpetuate state power and cognition through its pupils. How can we expect part of the problem to be part of the solution?
While traditional avenues of peace education ought not be abandoned as an instrument to revolutionize Israeli-Palestinian conflict culture, less conventional formulations should be duly recognized as more substantive agents of change. In a friction so often neglecting the aching of ordinary souls, solutions pioneered by people harbour augmenting potential. By designing educational interventions, local civil society organizations (CSOs) are most auspiciously equipped to craft change from the bottom-up in their own communities. These endeavours are niche, parochial, inclusive, creative, and adaptable. Actualizations exist in myriad forms. Roots, a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization dedicated to igniting dialogue between Israeli settlers and Palestinian refugees, offers summer camps to community children and adolescents. Mifalot facilitates Arab-Israeli relationships through soccer programs, socializing players for partnership rather than enmity. Heartbeat unites Israeli and Palestinian youth around the common axis of musical performances. In each of these atomized peregrinations, the intrepid communities are pouring the human element into a narrative which has lost its humanness.
The younger generations exposed to these initiatives are more likely to foster perceptions premised in collaboration rather than competition. Empowering youth to cultivate their own cultures of cooperation chisels a trajectory toward a future cohort of leaders socialized among heterogeneous groups. As beliefs and lenses of the Other evolve, so too will behavior as norms of friction fall and those of reconciliation rise. If capital currently allocated to redundant methods were funneled toward those daring to affect this transformation, the distant future could ebb closer. States, international organizations, businesses, NGOs, and citizens both in Israel and abroad can contribute by researching best practices and dedicating resources to grassroots youth education efforts.
When past and current truths are incongruent, people must stitch together a new collective story. When much of the dialogue is dedicated to the past, there is no space for tomorrow. In changing from the bottom-up and enabling everyday people, educational CSOs are bypassing the stagnation of higher-level negotiations to which they wouldn’t have been invited anyhow. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict transcends any single administration or leader or accord; upheaving the culture demands a popular will. Even if Abbas and Netanyahu stamped their approval to a piece of paper tomorrow, the individual and societal cognitions predisposed to conflict would not alter overnight. Such trickle-down peace processes have been tried and tested, haunted by outcomes which leave many to wonder what peace actually looks like. Revolutions are glaciers and hardly ever go according to plan. If the embers of hope are to be found, they lie within the tenacious courage of the people daring to find themselves in the Other. To forge new meaning. To build new identity. To coexist.
The rosy hills of Bethlehem twirled under the staining sun. Our car lurched across gravel and Yaman, my Palestinian tour guide, chronicled the history of his beloved home. Impassioned and gregarious, he had hardly taken a breath since we left East Jerusalem.
In a sudden decrescendo, as if terrified of speaking his hopes to life, he hesitated before saying softly: “We are all human. That is what I teach my children. This is what I believe.”