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Israelis and Palestinians : Victims versus Victims

Ph.D., London School of Economics and Political Science, Member of®
Today's Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the latest manifestation of a protracted and bitter dispute that has taken various shapes over the past 120 years. Several elements have, however, remained constant during the entire span of this still unresolved dispute:- e.g.,
  1. two peoples are competing for possession and control of a single land; and
  2. the original, local conflict does not exist in isolation, but brings with it varying degrees of involvement of outside parties.
Any attempt to understand the depth and longevity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires us to focus more on myths and stereotypes than on "facts." Each side is quick to interpret episodes in its national history as reinforcing its deep sense of grievance and victimhood at the hands of the other. This is evident in Benny Morris' aptly-titled historical survey of the conflict since 1881: Righteous Victims. 1 Each side sincerely and righteously believes that it is the sole victim of the other side's aggression and evil intentions.

These parallel, but mutually exclusive, perceptions of themselves as victims have existed since the very beginnings of the conflict.

Early Zionists were imbued with a sense of mission that they were correcting the injustices and afflictions the Jews had endured for centuries as dispersed and despised victims of religious persecution. The Zionist pioneers also carried with them cultural prejudices about their inherent superiority as Europeans facing primitive "natives" who were in need of political stability and the social and economic progress they, the Zionists, would be bringing with them into western Asia.

Early Zionists saw the Arabs as an underdeveloped people not particularly attached to any particular territory; a people who respected only force and who would bow to superior authority. Zionist plans for and assumptions about Palestine were captured in the slogan, "a land without a people for a people without a land."

The conspiracy theory

For their part, the Muslim and Christian Arab population of the future Palestine/Israel believed that the new Jewish arrivals were a mysterious people bent on world domination, convinced of this (like many people of the period) by the forgery known as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

According to this conspiracy theory, the Jews controlled the banks and the press of the world. This made it easy to demonize Zionism as a powerful imperialist force with secret connections in all the world's capitals, whose aim was to dispossess the Arabs of their homeland. Nationalist spokesmen inspired their followers with calls to resist foreign domination by this unwanted Jewish intruder who was first labelled as a "colonialist" (and later as a "communist") threat.

These mutually unflattering images and feelings of being the "victim" further increased during the Mandate period, which corresponded with the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism in Europe and with the gradual growth of self-government in all the neighbouring Arab lands except Palestine.

The growing realization that Hitler was conducting a systematic program of mass murder of all the Jews of Europe injected an element of desperation into the calculations of Jewish and Zionist leaders. Gaining control over Palestine as a refuge for victimized Jews became, for them, a matter of life or death.

By the mid-1940s, an international consensus was growing in favour of the creation of Israel, based on the need to find refuge for hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust.

Arabs, for their part, protested against Palestine being the only Middle Eastern country denied its independence in accordance with the wishes of the (Arab) majority of its inhabitants. Many also argued that allowing the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine would make the Palestinians into "the victims of the victims" of the Holocaust and World War II.

The 1947-49 war became known to Israelis as the "War of Independence" and to the Palestinians as al-nakba, "the Catastrophe." Israel's military victory brought statehood, while the Arabs' defeat meant the loss of Palestinian land, loss of a potential nation-state and the creation of a sizeable refugee population scattered throughout the region and beyond. Palestinians asked why they, the victims of Israel's military superiority in the war, should now have to "pay for" the crimes of Europe. This feeling has remained deeply rooted among many Palestinians until today.

Prior to its lightning victory in June 1967, Israel's image in the western world and its perception of itself was that of little "David" facing the Arab giant "Goliath." As in the Bible story, the underdog David slays the mighty Goliath because he uses his small size, agility, and cleverness to advantage against his slow-moving, dim-witted, rival.

This stereotypical treatment of the conflict may seem less relevant in recent years, given the obvious superiority of the Israel Defense Forces on the battlefield and the narrowing technological and demographic gaps between Israel and the Arabs. But the smallness and isolation of the Jewish state and the vulnerability of its citizens still fuel many Israelis' self-image as both underdog and victim faced with both international condemnation and unrelenting Palestinian kamikaze terrorism.

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"The whole world is against us"

A feeling that "the whole world is against us" is a recurrent theme in Israeli and Jewish minds, resurfacing especially in violent times as we are now experiencing. Few Israelis perceive of this Palestinian anger and violence as legitimate expressions of their resistance to occupation.

Winning a series of wars without winning true peace has fostered among many Israelis a sense of despair and cynicism. People start to convince themselves that "there is no one to talk to" on the other side. The Arabs, for their part, feel that recent history proves that Israeli leaders are really interested in expanding borders and have no genuine desire to exchange "land for peace" -- that all their expressions of a desire for peace are deception.

It is an understatement to comment that, given such a mutual lack of trust, negotiations in search of compromise are almost doomed before they can begin. Each side's self-perception as the sole and righteous victim is a serious obstacle to its ability to acknowledge the legitimacy, rights, and humanity of the other.

Likewise it is futile, and often counter-productive, to try to establish which side has suffered "more" -- as though it were possible to arrive at a mutually accepted hierarchy of degrees of suffering, or that this could ever lead to rectification of past wrongs and open the door to reconciliation.

Studies of attitudes on both sides have shown that many Israeli Jews view Arabs as "primitive and exotic," more emotional than rational in decision-making. Arabs are perceived as people who understand only the language of force and who are hardened and unmoved by the loss of human life. Arabs, for their part, perceive Israelis as "alien and aloof," "arrogant," deceitful, and a dangerous "cancer" which must be dealt with by eradication, not accommodation. 2

These complementary images of the adversary have a self-fulfilling and self-defeating quality, and contribute their fair share to the vicious cycle of simmering hatred that erupts periodically into violent conflict.

The worst by-product of this protracted and almost insoluble conflict is the transmission, from generation to generation, of ingrained, dehumanized and dehumanizing stereotypes on both sides. This is the ugly legacy of righteously-held hatreds that make it easier for "nice," upright, and decent people to participate willingly in future killing and wars.

It is sad to witness the best minds on both sides still enlisted in the cause of boosting morale and scoring propaganda points against "the enemy" rather than thinking "outside the box".

In their enthusiasm and patriotism, opinion leaders are guilty of perpetuating the same old destructive myths and poisonous stereotypes that only pave the way for more death and destruction.

It may be too much to expect Israelis and Palestinians to break away from their respective mind-sets that have been formed by so many years of unabated fear, mistrust and thirst for revenge. It may be too much to ask people to bypass or ignore their history, or to change their righteous self-images as the conflict's unique victims.

Can we, amid this distressing scenario, permit ourselves any reason to be hopeful? Maybe the British pop singer, Sting, had it right when he wrote:

Without freedom from the past, things can only get worse ... Sooner or later just like the world's first day
Sooner or later we learn to throw the past away
History will teach us nothing. 3

Maybe young people, rebelling against the self-righteous and negative mind-sets of their elders, can find ways to "de-condition" themselves from these attitudes, myths and stereotypes. Maybe the next cohort of Israeli and Palestinian leaders will find ways to liberate themselves from the grip of victimhood, and to act as though they really believed these wise words:

"There is no escape from peace. The only question is whether we accept it now, or after thousands more of our children have been sacrificed at the altar of unrealistic ambitions." 4

1 Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999 (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.)

2 These descriptions are taken from discussions with Israelis and Palestinians in the late 1980s by American journalist David Shipler. See his Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, revised & updated edition (New York: Penguin, 2002).

3 "History will teach us nothing," from the album "Nothing Like the Sun" (A & M Records, January 1987).

4 These words, addressed in February 1990 by P.L.O. Chairman Yasir Arafat to the World Jewish Leadership Peace Conference meeting in Jerusalem (New Outlook, March 1990, p.46), might well have been composed by Israeli and/or Palestinian members of the then-taboo "peace camp." Their significance lies not in who said them, but rather in the fact that they reflect the conclusions of those Israelis and Palestinians -- then as now -- who have dedicated themselves to rapprochement based on a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine impasse.

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Caplan, Neil
By Neil Caplan

A native of Montreal, Neil Caplan received an MA in Canadian Studies from Carleton University, Ottawa, and a Ph.D. in Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London). Since retiring from teaching in 2008 he has... (Read next)

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