Written by: Dr Ahmad Abu-Akel, Research Fellow, Institute of Psychology, University of Lausanne, Switzerland.
First published at the UN International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, Vienna, October 5th, 2017
To answer this challenging question, I draw on insights from two different perspectives: 1) from personal experience as a Palestinian, citizen of Israel, and 2) from my professional perspective as an empathy researcher. From these two sources of information, I note four main aspects that, in my opinion, are important to making empathy an effective resource.
I was born in Hadera, and grew up in the Wadi Ara Region, in the village of Arara. As I was growing up in Israel, my interactions with Jews were mainly transactional, of the type one often experiences during goods and services exchange. A qualitative shift in the nature of these interactions occurred at age 15 when I started volunteer work at the Givaat-Haviva Center for Peace, hosting Jews from Israel and the diaspora in my region. This coincided with me making the unusual move of enrolling in a Jewish high school, three months before the eruption of the
first Intifada in 1987.
Being in these contexts, both as the observed and the observer, I had more opportunities for meaningful interactions. Consequently, in time, I was better able to see things from both perspectives and in particular to see the polarization that was and still tearing our communities apart: Israelis generalized through their perception of fundamentalists and militants; and Palestinians generalized through their perception of the military and settlers.
My own personal experiences are consistent with what we know from research. Research shows that intergroup interaction reduces fear perceptions of others, reduces dehumanization and diffuses tension between conflicting groups. Even in the event that these interactions do not amount to empathy, at a minimum, they often lead to ingroup censoring of hostility and provocations against outgroup members.
It is important to be aware that authority and/or institutional disapproval of these interactions may reduce or even reverse the benefits gained from these interactions. However, the effect of such disapproval can be mitigated through different means, for example:
The importance of taking into consideration power relations:
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is based on the fact that there is an occupier and an occupied. Palestinians, according to the conventional definition of power, are the weaker party. If Palestinian-Israeli relations are driven by power considerations, the use of empathy as a resource may be at risk, because power considerations are often modulated by what is known as a cost function.
In keeping such power disparity, no matter whether the party in power is receiving a concession or in fact making a concession, the ultimate end-result has been found to still be advantageous to the party in power. As you might expect, receiving concessions has often been found to promote dominance over the weaker party. But perhaps more unexpectedly, even when the party in power makes a concession, it may actually create a dependency relationship.
The lesson from this is that in order for empathy to be effective and bidirectional, the power differential needs to be addressed.
Bridging such a power differential in terms of military and economic means is challenging and a long-term task. So, where can we begin? One starting point that could effectively be influenced by empathy is truth and reconciliation efforts. Obviously, this is not a new concept, but what is important to recognize is that these efforts entail narratives that are difficult to talk about, and can be highly culturally specific. Empathy research can provide guidance on how the discussion of these narratives can be set up to be productive.
Research tells us that people process conflict-relevant information differently, depending on how the information is conveyed. One supposition is that mentioning the Holocaust and the Nakba in the same breath is enough to close many Israelis off, or to mention what Abba Eban famously said that “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss and opportunity” is enough to close many Palestinians off. On the other hand, finding common ground such as being bound by the grief of losing a loved one can transform animosity into friendship. One needs to only look at the example set by The Parents Circle. This is what we call a “point of entry”. In fact, ongoing work by Dr. Emile Bruneau is identifying such ‘points of entry’ specifically within the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The concept of empathic anger:
Empathizers often express feelings of sadness. However, an empathizer who is identifying with someone who is suffering can also express anger at either the situation or the perpetrator. Intriguingly, empathic-anger is often associated with more activism than empathic-sadness, leading to the allocation of more resources to relieve the victim’s distress; but it can also increase the likelihood to engage in punitive behavior against the perpetrator.
As a 15 year-old Palestinian in a Jewish high school in the height of the intifada, I had exactly this feeling of empathic anger and it was at its peak when my cousin Mohannad was killed by an Israeli bullet in his village just outside Tulkarem on his way to fetch medicine for his mother. What was frustrating for me is that my friends, classmates and even teachers perceived my feelings as expressions of disloyalty or being ungrateful. “We thought you were one us”, as one said.
Why do I share this and why do I think this concept is important? To fully understand the role of empathy in conflict resolution efforts, it is important to be aware of the range of emotions it invokes. This is important in at least two respects:
Thus far I have touched upon key ways to integrate the concept of empathy in conflict resolution efforts. But, a fair question is: how would we know if this is effective or not? This leads me to my fourth and final point, which is the importance of developing tools for tracking empathy.
By creating an empathy revolution, change will begin to happen. But what means are available to us to indicate that empathy is having an effect at the global level as well, and that it is leading to reduced tension, greater integration, cooperation, and so forth? In my research, I am working on developing what I call the “empathy index”. This is essentially an algorithm that utilizes evidence-based demographic, economic and socio-political variables known to be
predictive of empathic tendencies to outgroup members. These include, but not limited to, variables associated with degree of segregation within communities, cross-group employment, representation of outgroup members in certain industries, professions, and positions of power or influence. With tools such as this index, we can monitor factors that influence empathy, and whether interventions affecting these factors can restore or increase empathy.
A final thought
I have always thought of the Palestinians of Israel as a bridge for peace. In the early years of Israel, most Palestinians in Israel were granted citizenship, but were also subject to martial law between 1949-1966. We know that this and other choices, bit by bit, resulted in a costly and a severe rift between Palestinians and Israelis. Continuing onto this path will widen this rift.
Empathy is a precious resource that can help bridge this rift, and can also help us make choices that promote a sustainable peace. Together, we can identify what contributes to increase in empathy, what makes it effective, and what sustains it.