The lengths to which far too many people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict go to minimize or deny the humanity and suffering of people on the other side and to claim a monopoly of suffering and righteousness for their side are some of the main obstacles to peace and some of the main sources of tinder fueling the fires of conflict and violence that we see today.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse November 27, 2015
A version was later published by The Jerusalem Post as “Encountering Dehumanization” on January 6, 2016
AMMAN — Having just finished a nearly two week trip in Israel, and thinking about my other four trips to Israel, two of which included trips to Palestine, and thinking of my time in Jordan, where I have been living for a year and a half and where many Palestinians live, one thing I have grown to learn is that both Israelis and Palestinians are people who do a great job of winning you over while at the same time unintentionally showing you their glaring faults. Or, to put it another way, the more time you spend with Israelis and Palestinians, the more you come to love both peoples, the more you realize how crazy it is that there is not already peace and that peace is very much possible, and the more you also realize how hard—and why it is so hard—to reach that peace.
In getting an up-close and personal education as to why peace is so difficult, perhaps the most disturbing and even perhaps the most significant obstacle to peace is the level of dehumanization that each side engages in in respect to the other. I have made my views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict clear in my multiple authored articles, one eBook, and in several academic papers publicly available, as well as through social media interaction. I am both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian and for two states for two peoples. That does not mean I see both sides as equally deserving of blame in this conflict and that it is all 50-50. And I am not here to quantify the dehumanization and compare how each side engages in it and to what degree (that could be a whole separate enterprise). But when it comes to this issue of dehumanization, I am sad to say that far too many people on both sides engage in it, some actively, some more tacitly and/or passively, but it does happen frequently. There is a significant minority in Israel, bereft of political power, which stand up for the rights of Palestinians and fights against their dehumanization; I am sad, also, to say that I see far fewer Palestinians doing the same for Israelis but they do exist, though their smaller numbers give them even less influence on events than their Israeli counterparts, who, in turn, are also struggling mightily to shape events in the current political landscape.
Wissam Nassar/Xinhua Press/Corbis
The dehumanization is particularly tough for me to encounter because I have Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinians friends. When I have to sit and hear one group disparage the other en masse, I see the faces of my friends and am quick to correct their ignorance. And yet, almost all the people spewing the ignorance, often filled with blatant mythology as well as tinges of racism, fear, and paranoia, are just as quick to dismiss my examples as fringe anecdotes or suggest that these friends are not sharing their true beliefs with me (more often the first). I am told that I don’t know “the Arabs” or that I don’t know “the Jews” as if they are generally a monolithic, inhuman species. Also incredibly disturbing are many of their zero-sum mentalities: if I express any sympathy or empathy for the other side, it is a loss in a victimhood Olympics in which each side tries to claim a gold-medal monopoly on suffering, victimhood, and righteousness, where anything positive about “the enemy” is a loss for their own side and must be argued against and dismissed and cannot be tolerated, let alone acknowledged. Similarly, any criticism directed at a side in the eyes of far too many means you are against their side and a partisan of the other. When I ask “Do you think your side does anything wrong or deserves any blame whatsoever?”, I am very often told, without hesitation, “No” in a calm, matter-of-fact way, as if I had just denied that 2+2=4.
Such mentalities only breed more violence: it is much easier to kill people when you have reduced them to objects, utterly devoid of deserving any sympathy, who are always wrong, and who are never victims because that territory of victimhood exclusively belongs to your own side and cannot be shared. Much like far too many believe sovereignty and political power and control cannot be shared by both Jews and Arabs in these contested territories, but must be totally controlled by one side or another and the other side should pipe down and be grateful about whatever their adversary deigns to hand out to them; such is the mentality of Jews who would see Israel totally control the West Bank and expect Palestinians to settle for whatever limited rights Israelis are willing to grant them, such is the mentality of Palestinians who will brook no division either and want all Palestinian refugees to return in a single democratic state to be run by Palestinians. Such is the (un?)conscious mentality of people who advocate for policies that would make these the de facto situations on the ground even if not explicitly so. Palestinians who ask Israelis to simply not worry and accept a majority Arab rule over all of historic Palestine have not even made the most basic effort to understand Israeli Jews’ mentality or perspective at all; Israeli Jews who think that Palestinians would even consider being doled out more economic power over their situation while still ceding political and military control to Israel permanently or even just indefinitely similarly demonstrate an equal inability to understand what makes Palestinians tick on their most basic level. Yet this is the natural consequence of dehumanizing the other: they are simply enemies to be defeated, killed, and pushed aside, not fellow human beings to understand, respect, and accommodate.
Until far more Israelis and Palestinians each see the other as fellow humans who have suffered in this conflict, until each side can see their own side is far from blameless, expect little to change in this conflict except for the worse. This is obviously a difficult step, but that does not make it any less necessary.
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