Why Might some people choose this as a new approach to peace?
]Written by: Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, University of Cambridge
First published at the Empathy Neuroscience Conference, Rome, October 15th 2017
Some of us met at the UN in Vienna, in early October to discuss an alternative empathy-based approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is now 100 years old. In my paper today, I summarise some of my speech at the UN, and ask: Under what conditions might some Israelis and Palestinians who previously believed in using armed weapons to resolve the conflict turn to an empathy-based approach? I’m going to argue that there are at least four (4) different conditions under which someone might choose the empathy route.
First, shared grief, that is, realizing that the grief you are feeling is the identical grief the enemy is feeling. The second is personal ethical discomfort, that is, feeling uncomfortable at treating a person as someone potentially dangerous or as someone who must be subjugated or attacked. The third is a rational approach to building a more inclusive society. And the fourth is a reflective phase of questioning after bitter experience of seeing how armed conflict has failed. We will look at examples that embody each of these in turn, which demonstrate these approaches can work, and how urgent it is that these are scaled up.
But before we do, I want to anticipate my conclusion. I’m going to argue that for an empathy-based approach to lead to a lasting peace, Israeli will have to take the initiative, for three (3) reasons: First, because of the power-imbalance (Israel controls the West Bank and Gaza and Israel has deprived Palestinians of many basic human rights in the process); Second, because if the Palestinians feel they are the occupied and Israel is the occupier, even if Israel tries to use clever legal arguments to avoid calling it an occupation, if Palestinians feel occupied, that’s what needs to be addressed; and finally, because one cannot reasonably expect someone who feels occupied to empathize with the occupier. As one Palestinian friend said to me “It’s hard to empathize with someone when you are looking up the barrel of their gun.”
But let’s start with definitions from empathy neuroscience. We know a lot about the brain basis of empathy, which includes at least 10 brain areas, and we know about the different components of empathy, which involve at least two major ones: cognitive and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to imagine and recognize another person’s state of mind, whilst affective empathy is the drive to respond to their state of mind with an appropriate emotion. We also know about both the genetic and the environmental contributors to empathy. This conference seeks to translate our scientific knowledge about empathy into practical domains like conflict resolution.
This empathy-based approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict builds on an assumption, which is that during a conflict, whether between two individuals or two communities, both parties can lose their empathy for the person or community they feel attacked by. And when you lose your empathy, the result is that you can act towards them with at best disinterest or self-interest, and at worst cruelty. Under conditions of conflict, each side de-humanises the other.
When you feel threatened or disrespected, fear, anger, hate, and revenge blocks one’s empathy for the other person, so that you no longer see the other person as a person with feelings. You can become blind to the fact that the other person is just like you, a person with the same desires for safety and security and for a life without stress. You don’t see the young man as a 22 year old called David or Ahmad, somebody’s son and brother, with his own vulnerability and dreams. Instead, he becomes the oppressor, he is demonized as the enemy, and can be treated with prejudice, as less important than your own group. This happens in many conflict zones, and has happened in Israel and Palestine: Two peoples, living in fear and hatred, who have lost their empathy for one another, locked into a cycle of violence. Empathy-based approaches have to ‘treat’ this psychological state by re-humanizing the other.
Let’s look at some examples of grass roots projects that are trying to restore empathy in Israel and Palestine, and keep in mind my main question: under what conditions might some people turn to an empathy-based approach instead of an armed conflict?
One project is The Parents Circle. I met two women, Siham and Robbie, when they came to Cambridge, where I live. Siham is a Palestinian, and her brother was killed by an Israeli bullet. Robbie is an Israeli, and her son was killed by a Palestinian bullet. Both women could have reacted to their grief with the primitive emotions of anger and a desire for revenge. They could have become ethnically prejudiced against the other community from whom the murderer came, and called for retaliation, wanting to kill others from the other community who had killed their loved one. But instead both women took the brave and unexpected step of forming a friendship across the political divide, through the support of the charity The Parents Circle.
This charity is one example of a project that is trying to foster greater empathy in each community for those in the other community. They connect individuals in each community and encourage those who are bereaved by the conflict to meet and to be reminded that those in the other community are no different to them. Robbie phoned Siham, a complete stranger, and said “You lost your brother. I lost my son. We are both the same. We are both victims. We both feel the same awful pain of loss. I just wanted to say how sorry I am that you are suffering. I sympathise with you. Let’s meet.” The two women cried together, talked, listened, learned to trust one another and share a platform together, and are showing how empathy can break the cycle of violence. They also had to endure the anger of some within their own community, for daring to speak to the enemy, being accused of disloyalty in talking to, and even worse befriending, the enemy.
So this first example of a grass roots project offering an empathy-based approach building on the conditions of shared grief. A second example was discussed by film director Stephen Akron who was on the UN panel in Vienna. He described his film Disturbing the Peace, which is a documentary focusing on the peace movement called Combatants for Peace. These comprise Israeli soldiers who have decided for personal ethical reasons that they no longer feel comfortable to be a part of an army of occupation or oppression. These Israeli soldiers decide that instead of their only contact with Palestinians being as suspects at check points, assumed to be dangerous until proven otherwise, they actually want to see Palestinians as ordinary people who have their own families and needs, no different to their own. The turning point is humanizing the other. They meet a Palestinian who was active in the first Intifada, and get to know the real person who threw rocks at Israeli tanks. Isn’t it relevant that his brother was shot by the Israeli army? Combatants for Peace is made up of both Israelis and Palestinians who have made the step of humanizing the other, and come to the realisation that violence just breeds more violence, and that connecting with the enemy’s humanity is the only route to a real peace.
These peace-seeking combatants meet, speak truthfully about the violence they have been involved in, and for the first time get to know each other with a genuine open-mindedness and curiosity: who is the person behind the Israeli tank driver or check point guard? What is their personal story? And what is their historical context? How did they end up in the Israeli army? In Stephen Akron’s film, the Palestinian man decides to find out more about the history of Zionism, learning that it is not just the shorthand for the enemy occupier, but that it was borne among the thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe who moved to Palestine in the 1890s to start a new life, and carried by millions of Jewish refugees during the 1930s who fled the Holocaust. This is a sign of a Palestinian who is open to seeing Israelis in terms of their context, as victims, not just as dehumanized oppressors but as ordinary people, with their own history of persecution.
So this second example of a grass roots project that offers an empathy- based approach to Israelis feeling ethically uncomfortable with continuing the Occupation, and to Palestinians responding to Israelis taking the initiative of wanting to be honest about what has happened, and wanting to build bridges between the communities and to humanize the other.
A third grass roots project is Hand in Hand, in Israel, who run schools in which Jewish and Arab children learn together, form friendships based on trust, respect, and empathy, and get to know their friend’s different history, and different experiences. They teach in both languages, learn each other’s histories, and discover different perspectives. This third example of an empathy-based grass roots approach is based on liberal educators and parents choosing a social experiment that they believe will create a more tolerant and less divisive society.
My final example is of people like Avraham Bourg, former interim President of Israel, Miko Peled, author of The General’s Son, or Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land, Israelis who have served in the army but through a lifetime of experience have realized military approaches lead to more violence, and gravitate to empathy-based approaches to peace. So this fourth set of conditions follows a reflective phase of questioning Israel’s policies and seeking peace movements based on mutual respect.
Empathy has great potential for conflict resolution, because empathy can do 3 things. First, empathy allows each side to listen to the other, to hear what the causes of the conflict are, from the other side’s point of view, so that the causes are acknowledged and can be addressed. If deep hurts and resentments are not heard or acknowledged, they fester as low-level seething anger, or explode as high-level hate and fury. Second, empathy means that apologies can be offered to those who have been hurt. And finally, empathy means that each side stops dehumanizing the other side, and instead starts to get to know the person in the other community as a person, starts to treat the other party with respect for their feelings and aspirations, and creates the opportunity for friendship, not conflict.
We need hundreds of these grass roots projects, to offer an empathy base approach under different conditions, as a choice when people are ready to turn away from violence. What all of these empathy-based grass roots projects share is they bring the two communities together, and it is harder to commit acts of violence towards a community when you have made friends with individuals in that community. The out-group is no longer the out-group, but has become part of your own group.
Knowing the other community’s history plays an important role. Some Israelis are starting to acknowledge that when the UN created Israel this displaced 700,000 Palestinians. Eventually all Israelis will need to face up to this fact as one of the first causes of this long and painful conflict. They will also need to face up to the fact that after the Six Day War in 1967, Israel took control of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and that the international community regard this as an illegal occupation, even if the Israeli Supreme Court calls it “belligerant occupation” and “disputed territory”.
Some Palestinians are starting to acknowledge that as long ago as 1936, the national Arab leadership was inciting violence against the Jews in Palestine, and that most Israeli families have lost a relative in the conflict. Eventually the Palestinians will need to face up to this as another cause of this long and painful conflict.
Empathy is a key necessary step for truth and reconciliation, which will ultimately be needed for peace, and to enable trust to be rebuilt, so that other difficult steps can follow in peace talks: most importantly, the discussion about mutual security for both Israel and Palestine. If we recognize that finding peace will require empathy, we should do all we can to accelerate this process.
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.