Why is it so difficult to resolve intractable conflicts peacefully? Psychoanalytic perspectives

According to Adib Jarrar, the late Palestinian psychoanalyst,

“although we cannot draw symmetrical lines of ‘truth' concerning the two peoples, we can say that they are both psychologically imprisoned for different reasons by their own narratives, memories, recollections, losses, pain, fears, anger, and perceptions of this conflict. For Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), Arab countries and Palestinian Diaspora, the loss of Palestine, figuratively their own paradise, was both displacement and replacement by an invading hostile group; reversal of this traumatic reality is very difficult, and currently unattainable.”4

As Dr. Jarrar frames it, Palestinians see the loss of the land in a very personal way as their displacement and replacement by an invading hostile group. Many Palestinians, such as Rashid Khalidi and others, would call the group “settler-colonials.”5 According to Jarrar, Palestinians hold the image of Palestine as both the lost Paradise and a caring and loving mother.6 Palestinian and Arab poetry and novels refer to Palestine always with this kept image.7 In an effort to maintain “this kept image,” Palestinians in Israel, the OPT, and elsewhere have for many years marked the day of the Nakba, May 15, as an annual day of commemoration of the displacement of Palestinians that preceded and followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence in May 1948.

The Israeli process of erasing the memory of Palestinians’ existence on their own land is not limited to places, properties, mosques, and churches of the living but has expanded to include the dead through the destruction of many Muslim cemeteries. As exemplified in the vignette above, researchers have documented how Israelis carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing (or, from the Israeli Zionist perspective, national liberation). For example, in 1948, nearly 100,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev. Three years later, their numbers had dropped to 13,000.s In addition, many Israelis have attempted to this day to erase the memories of the Palestinians in their own country, on the land on which Palestinians have lived for millennia. Yet an

Israeli Jewish organization, Zochrot, founded in 2002, aims to promote acknowledgment and accountability for the ongoing injustices of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, and the reconceptualization of the Return as the imperative redress of the Nakba and a chance for a better life for all the country’s inhabitants.9

In contrast, Israeli Jews, and most Jews throughout the world, see the establishment of the State of Israel on the exact same land as, in part, a religious or secular fulfillment of the Land of Israel, inhabited by Jews for thousands of years. The biblical idea of “the promised land,” together with ongoing European anti-Semitism, gave birth to the Zionist movement at the end of the nineteenth century. However, to many Israeli Jews, the Holocaust, or Shoah, represents the primary event in the formation of Israel. The searing memory of this calamity had a profound impact on the Israeli body politic and how it looked out to the rest of the world. By the 1960s, every official diplomat visiting Israel was taken on a tour to the “Yad Vashem” Holocaust memorial, which was established in 1953. While tours to Yad Vashem are dutifully arranged and carried out, psychoanalysts have emphasized their own inability to fathom the emotional meanings of the Shoah.10 As the historian and psychoanalyst Peter Loewenberg recently stated: “As a totality and a concept, the Shoah is incomprehensible... . When confronting the Shoah we are in the presence of a ferocity of hatred and a welter of primitive feelings in the perpetrators and impotent rage in the victims which in turn releases primitive feelings in ourselves that make understanding difficult if not virtually impossible.”11 The reality is that the Shoah, while incomprehensible, has had and continues to have an ongoing effect on the Israeli Jewish collective psyche, and psychoanalytic techniques can help to plumb its ramifications.12

The late Palestinian psychoanalyst George Awad and other psychoanalysts such as Henri Parens posited that the attitude toward the “other” (the way Israeli Jews view Palestinians, and vice versa) begins with anxiety before shifting into acceptance or fear, the latter leading to xenophobia.1' Awad believed that accepting the “other” starts with anxiety, but that it can be grasped, albeit with difficulty, contributing added richness to one’s life. Alternatively, many individuals decide that the “other” is dangerous and thus should be hated, dominated, or even destroyed. Paraphrasing Freud, Awad states that individuals use three defense mechanisms to shunt aside difficult experiences:

The first is foreclosure or repudiation (Freud 1911) which refers to the capacity of the psyche to eject an experience from consciousness, but which is not then repressed and returns in the form of hallucinations or delusions. The second is negation, which Freud defined as saying that the “content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness, on condition that it is negative. The third is denial or disavowal which results in ego splitting which in turn is the ego’s response to unbearable external realities.14

This presence of two peoples, both suffering from significant emotional traumas illuminated by psychoanalytic insights, in the same land to which both feel deeply connected, and both demanding to live in it constitutes the conundrum that has led to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I now turn to socio-psychological research for additional insights into these same emotional traumas.

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