Objectivity & Bias in study of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict*

Objectivity & Bias in study of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict*

Making in-roads in the understanding of the human dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not an easy task. In my book “Planting Hatred, Sowing Pain: The Psychology of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” I argue that psychological factors, such as mistrust, fear, hatred and prejudice, are more important than the political issues of borders and refugees in solving the conflict. This is, however, a concept that generates a lot of controversy and not a little disagreement.

Among several positive reviews, I encountered an interesting paradox: Some reviewers characterized the book alternatively as too objective (Fox, 2007), biased towards the Israeli-Western perspective (Elbedour & Ferguson, 2008), or biased against Israel (Salamon, 2007) because it “overlook[s] the issue of [Islamic] fundamentalism” as the major cause of the conflict. The fact that it has been criticized from all sides is, in fact, a welcoming fact that shows it belongs in what I call, “the radical center.”

First, in his review, Fox argues, rather convincingly, that in order to understand this protracted conflict, we cannot avoid the politics behind it, and detach it from its historical perspective, and therefore the academic objectivity of the book is an obstacle to understanding of the conflict. Fox, however, misses the point of the book. The question is whether depoliticizing the conflict can help move towards a solution.

One of the main premises of the book is precisely that in order to solve the problem, there is no choice but to move away from the parallel, contradictory and irreconcilable political and historical contextual narratives, and into a human paradigm with an orientation to the future. Counseling psychologists have shown that you can only resolve a conflict when you are able to move beyond the past, and as long as we insist on focusing on who is to blame for the conflict, we will never be able to solve their problems.

Psychological phenomena such as self serving bias and cognitive distortions make it impossible to agree on past events, creating parallel narratives and an endless cycle of blaming the other. It is this fact, and not, as Dr. Fox argues, my own personal history as a progressive Zionist activist, that drives my deliberate attempt to separate the usually neglected social psychological dimension of the conflict from its historical and political contexts. Dr. Fox’s implication that the conflict must be seen as “an indication of injustice and oppression” is, in my opinion, an example of a “culpability orientation” that is focused on blame, and is precisely an obstacle to achieving peace.

Second, as Elbedour and Ferguson point out, the book is indeed skewed in its sources because it presents many more studies that analyze the conflict from a Western/Israeli perspective than from the Palestinian/Arab one. However, in this case, rather than it being the result of conscious or unconscious biases, it is the result of a methodology in which the content of the book was driven by the available literature, and a sad reality in which the majority of the research is done by Israeli or Western scholars. It would be great, for example, as Elbedour and Ferguson suggest, to use the more contemporary theories of prejudice, such as Stephan & Stephan “integrated threat theory.” However, once again, there is no research available directly and, although it would be tempting to hypothesize, I believe it would be a mistake to include such speculation in an empirically driven literature review.

Elbedour and Ferguson also explain that occupation and security are the main issues you would need to analyze, which is true if you are making a socio-political analysis. However, the point of the book is precisely to move beyond the political realm, and more in terms of the subjective experience; for example, occupation might be a reality, but hatred is the subjective result. Security might be a real concern, but fear is the underlying emotion.

In conclusion, I believe that the question one must ask to move beyond the past and into a future orientation, is not what is the historical and political context of the conflict, but rather: what is currently preventing the Israelis and Palestinians from reaching an agreement? I believe, as is the main point of the book, that psychological factors such as mistrust, hatred, fear, stereotypes, and prejudice– often overlooked– are as important as disagreements over borders, refugees, and settlements. The historical narratives only serve to maintain a perception of injustice on both sides that is not conducive to dialogue and reconciliation.

Dr. Fox asks if “reconciliation requires acknowledging past injustice.” And the psychological evidence would suggest it does. But as a process, it can come only after rapprochement, not as a precondition. Only after the sides stop hurting each other, agree to end the fighting, and begin to build trust, can violence and abuse be sincerely acknowledged, and only then can it be forgiven.

Dr. Fox’s contention that a substantial percentage of the population oppose “splitting the difference through decontextualized dialogue and then moving on” might in itself exemplify how both sides’ obsession over past atrocities, result in a culpability orientation because of a misguided quest for subjective justice. This is the main obstacle to a final and just solution to the conflict.

*This article is based on a version originally published at Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2009, pp. 341–343.

By | 2009-11-23T22:39:00-05:00 November 23rd, 2009|Blog|0 Comments

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