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Israel: Slowly Beating Back the Persecution Psyche

Analysis by Daan Bauwens

TEL AVIV - A new study shows that Israelis are moving towards an understanding of the Palestinian position on the conflict, even though a vast number still hold on to simplistic notions about good Israelis and bad Arabs.

Israeli soldiers prepare their tank near the Israel-Gaza border, January 2009. A new study points to important positive elements that keep hope for peace alive, as biased and victimised narratives begin to make room for critical, unbiased perspectives. (AFP/File/Jack Guez) Political psychologist Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal at Tel Aviv University together with researcher Rafi Nets-Zehngut examined formal and popular collective memory in Israel. Formal collective memory is representations of the past in official government documents, books and textbooks; it is the 'official' explanation of events. Popular collective memory is the repertoire of memory, representations and narratives of events people carry with them.

The study points to important positive elements that keep hope for peace alive, as biased and victimised narratives begin to make room for critical, unbiased perspectives.

The study was conducted in the summer of 2008 and collected information among a representative sample of 500 Jewish Israeli adults. In the survey 47 percent believed that refugees were expelled in 1948, which is more than the 40.8 percent who believe the old Zionist version that the refugees left on their own initiative. Apparently the Nakba, the Palestinian word to describe expulsion from what is now Israel, is beginning to be recognised by more and more Israeli Jews.

Jewish history books and even some local schoolbooks provide up to date information on the subject. 'Tekuma', a television programme about Israel's first 50 years, even featured the expulsion of the Arabs.

Also, 46 percent of those surveyed thought that responsibility for the conflict is more or less evenly divided between Jews and Arabs, while 43 percent thought Palestinians are mainly to blame, and 4.3 percent that the Jews are mainly to blame.

Rafi Nets-Zehngut stresses the progress Jewish society has made. "We are moving away from a Zionist, biased version of the facts, which according to me is the most important finding of the study," he told IPS. "It is surprising: societies mostly change their biased version of the facts only after the conflict is solved. We are already changing our perspective, Israel's Jews are moving in the direction of critical versions and therefore peace, although we are still in the middle of the conflict."

"The conflict today isn't any more what it was 30 years ago," Prof. Bar-Tal told IPS. "We did not move enough in order to have an agreement. And the majority of Israeli Jews still hold on to a simplistic version of the facts. But there is a substantial critical minority in Israel that is able to look in the mirror and see the other side of history."

Old notions, however, remain strong among many. Asked the reasons for the failure of peace negotiations in 2000 between then prime minister Ehud Barak and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, 56.6 percent agreed with a view that "Barak offered Arafat a very generous peace agreement, but Arafat declined because he did not want peace." Only 25.4 percent believed both parties were responsible for the failure, and 3 percent said Barak was not forthcoming enough in meeting the needs of Palestinians. Sixteen percent said they did not know the answer.

About 45 percent of Israeli Jews believe the second Intifadah, the Palestinian uprising, broke out in 2000 because Arafat had planned a conflict in advance. Only 25 percent thought the Intifadah broke out as a consequence of popular protest, even though this was the viewpoint of the Israeli National Security Service Shin Bet.

Forty percent of the polled Jewish Israelis did not know that at the end of the 19th century Arabs were an absolute majority among the inhabitants of Israel. According to Prof. Bar-Tal, the results show a general unwillingness among large sections of the Israeli Jewish public to open up to alternative information even though such information is easily available.

But neither these findings, nor an approval rate of 81 percent for the Gaza war are surprising, Prof. Bar-Tal told IPS. "Ask the Belgians what happened in Congo, the Americans what happened to the Indians, the French about Algeria or the British what they did in Kenya. It usually takes people lots of years to face reality."

Prof. Bar-Tal says the simplistic view most Jewish Israelis hold is a consequence of living daily in the face of ongoing violent conflict. A socio- psychological infrastructure is developed for the sake of self-preservation that on the one hand is functional in coping with the conflict, but on the other hand feeds it.

Many Israelis do not want to acknowledge or recognise their own misdeeds or atrocities, says Bar-Tal. "They prefer not to admit facts that put them in a negative light. Therefore the collective memory becomes a black-and-white story, made up to glorify their own side and to blame and de-legitimise the other side."

The result is the acceptance of an 'ethos of war', low level of critical thinking, belief in traditional values, high identification with a Jewish identity, and support for aggressive steps towards Palestinians.

The Jewish sense of victimisation is an additional source of violence, says Bar-Tal. "This strong feeling runs very deeply in Jewish culture and tradition. It begins with a thousand years of diaspora. Obviously the Holocaust added a very important part to the Jewish identity, based on victimhood. And now, in this conflict we are again presented as victims, which plays a very important role in the Israeli psyche. It leads to a siege mentality, lack of trust towards the outside world, the fear of vengeance, focusing on your own suffering and neglecting the suffering of others."

Together, the ethos of war and the Jewish sense of victimisation feed a vicious circle of violence. Israelis as well as Palestinians are psychologically so deeply immersed in the culture of conflict that it might be impossible to overcome the psychological obstacles to peace without help from the outside world, the study suggests.

"The world absolutely has to engage more actively in the peace process," says Bar-Tal. "After the last war in Gaza, mistrust and hatred have grown tremendously. Ironically enough, this is one of the only achievements of the war. I personally think it is very difficult, if not impossible, for us to reach an agreement on our own. I don't see how anyone at this time can evacuate settlers, how anyone among us can convince the Israeli or Palestinian public the other side is honest and trustworthy."

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