Peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem to remain forever in limbo, effectively leaving the Israeli and Palestinian people, and the generations to come, in limbo as well. Considering the recent escalation of tensions – for example, the stabbings in Jerusalem – the stalled talks are a tragedy waiting to happen, as more young people become galvanized into accepting prevailing narratives due to rage or despair. Alternatively, it may be an opportunity for something different to develop. Viewing this situation from a psycho-political angle could offer a perspective, perhaps even a methodology, which may be able to contribute to understanding and working differently with this and other intractable conflicts. The International Dialogue Initiative (IDI) was founded for the purpose of exploring this very question.
Established in 2008, the IDI is a nonprofit organization that brings together unofficial representatives from various parts of the world – Germany, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Russia, Turkey, the UK, and the U.S. It works toward developing a common language among psychoanalysts who have studied the psychology of ethnic, national, religious, or ideological groups, and professionals from other disciplines who are involved in diplomacy, politics, or other forms of societal study. The IDI also functions as a conceptual sounding board and support group for those members currently engaged in consulting with societal groups and governmental authorities. Among other topics, the IDI examines mounting tensions in Israel and Palestine.
Recently, three members of the IDI met informally with a senior American government official who was working with the Israel-Palestine negotiating team. One IDI member asked the official what happened in the formal negotiating conversation when people on either side talked about their fears. The American official seemed surprised. “We don’t speak of fear,” he said, adding that it did make sense to address fear during mediations, but that the negotiating group did not know how to do so.
How might we understand this? After all, fear is one of the emotions at the heart of the conflict: fear for one’s survival as a group, fear that another wants to harm one’s group, fear that the disasters of the past will happen again. One answer to this question is tactical: there is always a concern that the acknowledgment of fear weakens one’s bargaining position. From this perspective, a posture of strength, or even machismo, seems to promise better results.
One of the consequences of such posturing is that the other group might mirror it. In an environment where acknowledging fear is considered a weakness, ‘toughness’ becomes an attractive fallback position. Tit-for-tat positions magnify each other and risk escalation. But there are other consequences as well. This type of posturing conflates fear with weakness and closes the opportunity to connect with the fear of others at a more human level.
Israelis and Palestinians have suffered enormous trauma. The Holocaust for the Israelis and the Nakba for Palestinians are not only horrific historical experiences in their own right, they are also what we might think of as “chosen trauma.” That is, traumatic experiences that have come to represent and, more importantly, to organize the collective identities of these two large groups[i]. They characterize and distinguish each group of people as who they are, and they anchor those identities in a definition of the Other as the enemy. Negotiations that do not address fear may well reflect identities not only hardened by the collective memory of emotional trauma, but constructed by them as well. “Never again” meets “Never surrender” in crises through which leaders perpetuate mutually antagonistic narratives and, consciously or unconsciously, use them to tell their people who they are.
The concept of “chosen trauma” refers to a powerful psychological process shared by members of a large societal group and taking place over long periods of time. Devastating events at the hands of an “Other” in the history of any group must be mentally and emotionally processed over time. When members of the victimized group are unable to bear the humiliation, reverse their helplessness, or mourn their losses, they pass on to their children powerful, emotionally charged images of their injured selves. In this way, they bind the next generation to them. They also pass on psychologically restorative tasks that the next generation is implicitly charged with completing – for example, avenging humiliation, restoring pride, taking action at all costs, burying the dead with honor, and grieving their loss.
All these images and tasks contain references to the same historical event, and as decades pass, the representation of this event in the minds of thousands of people links them together, emerging especially in times of crisis. A “chosen trauma,” in a sense, reflects the “infection” of a group’s mourning process – an interference with efforts to come to terms with, and move beyond, the actual trauma. Its reactivation in times of crisis links group members to a shared, endangered sense of identity, which can be used by political leadership to promote new large group movements, some of which may turn deadly.
But answering the “Who are we?” question with a large group’s “chosen trauma” neglects another, and at times more pressing, question: “Who are we now?” There is evidence that the next generation on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict struggles with this question and does not fully buy into the “chosen trauma” scenarios. However, a less conscious element complicates the question of “who are we now?” Nation-states are born differently. Israel is what historian and psychoanalyst Peter Loewenberg calls a “synthetic nation”[ii]. Jewish people with different experiences, different investments in religion, and from different places – Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and Africa – came to Israel to live in relative peace and free from persecution. To do so, they needed to create a synthesis of their disparate influences. But the effort to unify distinct groups inevitably involves great internal strain, and differences within such a group begin to feel persecutory. This tends to increase the group’s need to externalize problematic narratives and project unacceptable ideas and feelings onto the Other. We use the word “unacceptable” in a double sense: not only may one Israeli group find the other Israeli group unacceptable in, for example, their particular religious practices, but they also may find their animosity toward that group unacceptable because it threatens a secure societal integration. For Israel, Palestine is not only the Other they hate, but also the Other they need as a target for these internal animosities, so that some semblance of internal peace can be maintained.
The same holds true for Palestine, which has become the flag bearer for the suffering of Arab peoples. Palestine not only has its own terrible problems to deal with, but it also has problems that stand for something to Palestinians and to others. Such an identity – for example, as a victimized people – is not “wanted” by the members of a society, at least at a surface level. Nor do Israelis want to think of themselves as victims or aggressors. But peaceful solutions – and dialogues with the other group – can feel like threats to the shared sense of who we are[iii]. Struggle actually supports identity. However, when the world’s eyes divert from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to other crises – and attention to ISIS is a good example of this – conflict erupts in Jerusalem and attention once again returns to and reinforces both groups’ fundamental understanding of who they are.
Where is the next generation in this process? One IDI member noted a pervasive fearfulness during a group exercise with younger Israelis. In this exercise, groups impulsively formed without a sense of identity or purpose, but with an overriding need for security. They preferred not to speak to other groups, and when they did, tensions related to conflicting aspects of Israeli identity erupted. For example, people who felt they represented what it meant to be a “chosen” people could not continue to speak to those who felt that they represented what it meant to be a “vulnerable” people; passions intensified, dialogue ceased, and participants fled the room. From another “next generation” perspective, an IDI member working with Palestinian youth noted pervasive despair and alienation from Palestinian leadership. The potential for action, neither focused nor coherent but desperate for some sense of agency and catharsis, is enormous.
At one IDI meeting, a visiting Israeli official quipped, “Once I was young and promising. Now I’m just promising.” Time has indeed passed, and undelivered promises have left the younger generation in both groups floundering. Meanwhile, the relentless, defensive insistence on making sure that history does not repeat itself gravitates frighteningly in that direction. Mutual defensiveness stimulates mutual hatred, which makes retributive justice appear reasonable. As many have noted, we either remember or repeat history, and one form of that repetition reverses roles of victim and aggressor.
“We don’t speak of fear,” nor, quite probably, of other emotions either. Powerful emotions drive group action and yet are dissociated from the conversations in which these groups are represented. The capacity to speak of feelings – a deceptively simple but quite difficult task in actuality – remains undeveloped. As human beings, we face many choices in life. A basic one, raised to a critical level in the midst of group conflict, is to speak or to act[iv]. At the very least, as the American official we met at the beginning of this article suggested, it would be good to know how to do the former.
[i] Volkan,V. (2013): Enemies on the Couch. Durham: Pitchstone
[ii] Loewenberg, P. (1995). Fantasy and Reality in History. London: Oxford University Press.
[iii] Volkan, V. (2013) ibid
[iv] Friedman, R. (2010). The Group and the Individual in Conflict and War. Group Analysis, Vol. 43, 3: pp. 281-300.