Israelis and Palestinians by Jonathan Glover review – the psychology of conflict | Politics books

Israelis and Palestinians by Jonathan Glover review – the psychology of conflict | Politics books

Jonathan Glover’s new book, on the seemingly intractable nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict, quotes George Orwell on the Spanish civil war: “Everybody believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side without ever examining the evidence.”

This could have been written today, amid bipolar thinking and pressure to take sides, where people’s identification with the facts can reflect their political predilections. Glover wrote the bulk of his study before the recent horrors, though it is published with a foreword addressing them. Not surprisingly, it is still deeply relevant. We have seen these tragic cycles of violence again and again in the past; they continue on an even more horrific scale today. Glover is a philosopher and author of Humanity: a Moral History of the Twentieth Century, which took him 10 years to write and involved careful scrutiny of acts of human barbarism and the ethical questions surrounding them.

The way to end them, he believes, is to foster dialogue of all kinds. Borrowing from Michael Oakeshott the phrase “conversation of mankind”, he hopes for a form of engagement free from “threats or other coercion”. He invokes reconciliation in South Africa and peace-making in Northern Ireland, but points out that the “conversation” might take many forms; non-violent protest can be a form of communication, as can cultural engagement, such as Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Crucially, it must involve breaking down barriers of denial – accepting that “horrible things are done by ‘our’ side as well as theirs, accepting that ‘they’ too do good things”. Moving away from blame alone, and taking responsibility.

With insight and understanding, Glover merges philosophy with psychology, arguing that atrocities are committed because of deeply embedded human tendencies. It is only by looking at the monsters within us that we can hope to cage and tame them. As someone who has spent the last two decades working in conflict resolution in the Middle East I have seen how important it is to combine these two levels of analysis. The Israeli government and Hamas defend their people with violence as they believe it is the only language that the other side understands. Every “wound” is followed by a “backlash”. But this reciprocity compounds the trauma, making peace even more difficult.

Israel was founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jewish people were exterminated, unable to defend themselves against systematic, state-sponsored murder. Each fresh attack against Israeli civilians reinforces the collision of the traumatic past and present, reviving deep fears of annihilation.

For Israel, 1948 was the moment of independence. For Palestinians it was the Nakba (“Catastrophe”), when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from or fled their homeland. More than seven decades of increasingly repressive and violent occupation has continually retraumatised Palestinians, erasing hopes for a better, more peaceful future.

Glover emphasises the need to recognise these traumatic pasts, and then to move beyond black-and-white thinking, creating dialogue in a greyer zone of mutual understanding and shared values. People have been trapped into describing themselves only in opposition to each other, unable to articulate a vision of what they stand for and what a better future might entail.

This, of course, raises the problem of managing really radical differences. My own experiences have taught me that even when there is dialogue, people seldom have empathy for the other or an appetite to find common ground. Representatives of each side often have completely different ways of describing their experiences, with little interest in their adversaries’ interpretations. Their deep suffering makes them consumed with their own experience, making the first step – recognising the others’ humanity – particularly difficult.

What we do know is that the vast majority of the people want to live in peace, take their children to school and spend time with their friends and loved ones. Glover quotes the Palestinian proverb: “don’t curse the darkness, light a candle”, a recognition that however hard it can be to contemplate, without conversation there is only violence and war.

Gabrielle Rifkind is the director of the Oxford Process and co-author of The Fog of Peace: How to Prevent War (Bloomsbury).

Israelis and Palestinians: From the Cycle of Violence to the Conversation of Mankind by Jonathan Glover is published by Polity (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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