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Is an Israeli Jewish sense of victimization perpetuating the conflict with Palestinians?

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  • abe.hayeem
    Is an Israeli Jewish sense of victimization perpetuating the conflict with Palestinians? By Akiva Eldar 30 January 2009
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 30, 2009
      Is an Israeli Jewish sense of victimization perpetuating the conflict with

      By Akiva Eldar

      30 January 2009


      A new study of Jewish Israelis shows that most accept the 'official version'
      of the history of the conflict with the Palestinians. Is it any wonder,
      then, that the same public also buys the establishment explanation of the
      operation in Gaza?

      A pioneering research study dealing with Israeli Jews' memory of the
      conflict with the Arabs, from its inception to the present, came into the
      world together with the war in Gaza. The sweeping support for Operation Cast
      Lead confirmed the main diagnosis that arises from the study, conducted by
      Daniel Bar-Tal, one of the world's leading political psychologists, and Rafi
      Nets-Zehngut, a doctoral student: Israeli Jews' consciousness is
      characterized by a sense of victimization, a siege mentality, blind
      patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanization of the
      Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering. The fighting in Gaza
      dashed the little hope Bar-Tal had left - that this public would exchange
      the drums of war for the cooing of doves.

      "Most of the nation retains a simplistic collective memory of the conflict,
      a black-and-white memory that portrays us in a very positive light and the
      Arabs in a very negative one," says the professor from Tel Aviv University.
      This memory, along with the ethos of the conflict and collective emotions
      such as fear, hatred and anger, turns into a psycho-social infrastructure of
      the kind experienced by nations that have been involved in a long-term
      violent conflict. This infrastructure gives rise to the culture of conflict
      in which we and the Palestinians are deeply immersed, fanning the flames and
      preventing progress toward peace. Bar-Tal claims that in such a situation,
      it is hard even to imagine a possibility that the two nations will be
      capable of overcoming the psychological obstacles without outside help.
      Scholars the world over distinguish between two types of collective memory:
      popular collective memory - that is, representations of the past that have
      been adopted by the general public; and official collective memory, or
      representations of the past that have been adopted by the country's official
      institutions in the form of publications, books or textbooks.

      The idea for researching the popular collective memory of Israeli Jews was
      raised by Nets-Zehngut, a Tel Aviv lawyer who decided to return to the
      academic world. At present he is completing his doctoral thesis in the
      International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia
      University's Teachers College. The study, by him and Bar-Tal, entitled "The
      Israeli-Jewish Collective Memory of the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian Conflict,"
      examines how official collective memory in the State of Israel regarding the
      creation of the 1948 refugee problem has changed over time.

      Bar-Tal became enthusiastic about the idea and, with funding from the
      International Peace Research Association Foundation, he conducted a survey
      in the summer of 2008 among a representative sample of 500 Jewish Israeli
      adults. The study demonstrated that widespread support for the official
      memory testifies to a lower level of critical thinking, as well as belief in
      traditional values, high identification with Jewish identity, a tendency to
      delegitimize the Arabs, and support for taking aggressive steps against the

      In a telephone interview from New York, Nets-Zehngut says it is very clear
      that those with a "Zionist memory" see Israel and the Jews as the victims in
      the conflict, and do not tend to support agreements or compromises with the
      enemy in order to achieve peace. This finding, he explains, demonstrates the
      importance of changing the collective memory of conflicts, making it less
      biased and more objective - on condition, of course, that there is a factual
      basis for such a change.

      Bar-Tal, who has won international awards for his scientific work,
      immigrated to Israel from Poland as a child in the 1950s.

      "I grew up in a society that for the most part did not accept the reality
      that the authorities tried to portray, and fought for a different future,"
      he says. "I have melancholy thoughts about nations where there is an almost
      total identity between the agents of a conflict, on the one hand, who
      nurture the siege mentality and the existential fear, and various parts of
      society, on the other. Nations that respond so easily to battle cries and
      hesitate to enlist in favor of peace do not leave room for building a better

      Bar-Tal emphasizes that the Israeli awareness of reality was also forged in
      the context of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens, but relies
      primarily on prolonged indoctrination that is based on ignorance and even
      nurtures it. In his opinion, an analysis of the present situation indicates
      that with the exception of a small minority, which is capable of looking at
      the past with an open mind, the general public is not interested in knowing
      what Israel did in Gaza for many years; how the disengagement was carried
      out and why, or what its outcome was for the Palestinians; why Hamas came to
      power in democratic elections; how many people were killed in Gaza from the
      disengagement until the start of the recent war; and whether it was possible
      to extend the recent cease-fire or even who violated it first.

      "Although there are accessible sources, where it is possible to find the
      answers to those questions, the public practices self-censorship and accepts
      the establishment version, out of an unwillingness to open up to alternative
      information - they don't want to be confused with the facts. We are a nation
      that lives in the past, suffused with anxiety and suffering from chronic
      closed-mindedness," charges Bar-Tal.

      That describes the state of mind in 2000, when most of the pubic accepted
      the simplistic version of then-prime minister Ehud Barak regarding the
      failure of the Camp David summit and the outbreak of the second intifada,
      and reached what seemed like the obvious conclusion that "there is no
      partner" with whom to negotiate.

      Bar-Tal: "After the bitter experience of the Second Lebanon War, during
      which the memory of the war was taken out of their hands and allowed to be
      formed freely, the country's leaders learned their lesson, and decided that
      they wouldn't let that happen again. They were not satisfied with attempts
      to inculcate Palestinian awareness and tried to influence Jewish awareness
      in Israel as well. For that purpose, heavy censorship and monitoring of
      information were imposed" during the Gaza campaign.

      The professor believes that politicians would not have been successful in
      formulating the collective memory of such a large public without the willing
      enlistment of the media. Almost all the media focused only on the sense of
      victimization of the residents of the so-called "Gaza envelope" and the
      south. They did not provide the broader context of the military operation
      and almost completely ignored - before and during the fighting - the
      situation of the residents of besieged Gaza. The human stories from Sderot
      and the dehumanization of Hamas and the Palestinians provided the motivation
      for striking at Gaza with full force.

      Nets-Zehngut and Bar-Tal find a close connection between the collective
      memory and the memory of "past persecutions of Jews" ("the whole world is
      against us," and the Holocaust). The more significant the memory of
      persecution, the stronger the tendency to adopt Zionist narratives. From
      this we can understand the finding that adults, the religious public and
      those with more right-wing political views tend to adopt the Zionist version
      of the conflict, while young people, the secular public and those with
      left-wing views tend more to adopt critical narratives.

      The atmosphere in the street and in the media during the weeks of the Gaza
      war seems to have confirmed the central finding of the study: "The ethos of
      the conflict is deeply implanted in Jewish society in Israel. It is a
      strongly rooted ideology that justifies the goals of the Jews, adopts their
      version, presents them in a very positive light and rejects the legitimacy
      of the Arabs, and primarily of the Palestinians," notes Bar-Tal.

      For example, when asked the question, "What were the reasons for the failure
      of the negotiations between [Ehud] Barak and [Yasser] Arafat in summer
      2000?" 55.6 percent of the respondents selected the following answer: "Barak
      offered Arafat a very generous peace agreement, but Arafat declined mainly
      because he did not want peace." Another 25.4 percent believed that both
      parties were responsible for the failure, and about 3 percent replied that
      Arafat did want peace, but Barak was not forthcoming enough in meeting the
      needs of the Palestinians. (Sixteen percent replied that they didn't know
      the answer.)

      Over 45 percent of Israeli Jews have imprinted on their memories the version
      that the second intifada broke out only, or principally, because Arafat
      planned the conflict in advance. Only 15 percent of them believe the
      viewpoint presented by three heads of the Shin Bet security services: that
      the intifada was mainly the eruption of a popular protest. Over half those
      polled hold the Palestinians responsible for the failure of the Oslo
      process, 6 percent hold Israel responsible, and 28.4 percent said both sides
      were equally responsible.

      Among the same Jewish public, 40 percent are unaware that at the end of the
      19th century, the Arabs were an absolute majority among the inhabitants of
      the Land of Israel. Over half of respondents replied that in the United
      Nations partition plan, which was rejected by the Arabs, the Arabs received
      an equal or larger part of the territory of the Land of Israel, relative to
      their numbers; 26.6 percent did not know that the plan offered the 1.3
      million Arabs a smaller part of the territory (44 percent) than was offered
      to 600,000 Jews (55 percent).

      Bar-Tal claims that this distortion of memory is no coincidence. He says
      that the details of the plan do not appear in any textbook, and this is a
      deliberate omission. "Knowledge of how the land was divided could arouse
      questions regarding the reason why the Arabs rejected the plan and make it
      possible to question the simplistic version: We accepted the partition plan,
      they didn't."

      However, his study shows that a larger percentage of the Jewish population
      in Israel believes that in 1948, the refugees were expelled (47.2 percent of
      respondents), than those who still retain the old Zionist version (40.8
      percent), according to which the refugees left on their own initiative. On
      this point, not only do almost all the history books provide up-to-date
      information, but some local school textbooks do as well. Even on the
      television program "Tekuma" ("Rebirth," a 1998 documentary series about
      Israel's first 50 years), the expulsion of the Arabs was mentioned.

      Nets-Zehngut also finds a degree of self-criticism in the answers relating
      to the question of overall responsibility for the conflict. Of those
      surveyed, 46 percent think that the responsibility is more or less evenly
      divided between Jews and Arabs, 4.3 percent think that the Jews are mainly
      to blame, and 43 percent think that the Arabs and the Palestinians are
      mainly to blame for the outbreak and continuation of the conflict. It turns
      out, therefore, that when the country's education system and media are
      willing to deal with distorted narratives, even a collective memory that has
      been etched into people's minds for years can be changed.

      Bar-Tal says he takes no comfort in the knowledge that Palestinian
      collective memory suffers from similar ills, and that it is also in need of
      a profound change - a change that would help future generations on both
      sides to regard one another in a more balanced, and mainly a more humane
      manner. This process took many decades for the French and the Germans, and
      for the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland. When will it
      finally begin here, too?
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