J.Onathan Glover’s new book, about the seemingly intractable nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, quotes George Orwell about the Spanish Civil War: “Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves those of their own camp without ever examining the evidence. »
This could have been written today, in a context of bipolar thinking and pressure to take sides, where people’s identification with facts may reflect their political predilections. Glover wrote most of his study before the recent horrors, although it is published with a foreword that addresses them. Unsurprisingly, it’s still deeply relevant. We have witnessed these tragic cycles of violence time and time again in the past; they continue today on an even more horrific scale. Glover is a philosopher and author of Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, which took him 10 years to write and required a careful examination of acts of human barbarity and the ethical questions surrounding them.
The way to put an end to it, he says, is to encourage dialogue of all kinds. Borrow Michael Oakeshott With the expression “conversation of humanity”, he hopes for a form of engagement free of “threats or other constraints”. He discusses reconciliation in South Africa and peacemaking in Northern Ireland, but stresses that the “conversation” could take many forms; non-violent protest can be a form of communication, as can cultural engagement, such as that of Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Above all, we must break down the barriers of denial – by accepting that “horrible things are being done alongside us as well as alongside them, by accepting that “they” also do good things”. Move away from blame and take responsibility.
With insight and understanding, Glover merges philosophy and psychology, arguing that atrocities are committed due to deeply ingrained human tendencies. Only by looking at the monsters within us can we hope to cage and tame them. Having spent the last two decades working on conflict resolution in the Middle East, I have seen firsthand how important it is to combine these two levels of analysis. The Israeli government and Hamas defend their people violently because they believe that is the only language the other side understands. Each “injury” 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 Jews were exterminated, unable to defend themselves against systematic state-sponsored murder. Each new attack on Israeli civilians reinforces the collision between the traumatic past and present, reigniting deep fears of annihilation.
For Israel, 1948 was the moment of independence. For the Palestinians, it was the Nakba (“Catastrophe”), when approximately 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their homeland. More than seven decades of increasingly repressive and violent occupation have continued to retraumatize Palestinians, erasing hope for a better and more peaceful future.
Glover highlights the need to acknowledge these traumatic pasts and then move beyond black and white thinking, creating dialogue in a grayer area of mutual understanding and shared values. People have been trapped in describing themselves only in opposition to each other, unable to express a vision of what they stand for and what a better future might entail.
This of course raises the problem of managing truly radical differences. My own experiences have taught me that even when there is dialogue, people rarely have empathy for each other or an appetite to find common ground. Representatives from the two camps often have completely different ways of describing their experiences, with little interest in their opponents’ interpretations. Their deep suffering makes them absorbed in their own experience, which makes the first step – recognizing the humanity of the other – particularly difficult.
What we do know is that the vast majority of people want to live in peace, take their children to school and spend time with friends and loved ones. Glover cites the Palestinian proverb: “do not curse the darkness, light a candle,” an acknowledgment that, as difficult as it may be to contemplate, without conversation there is only violence and war.
Gabrielle Rifkind is the director of Oxford Process and co-author of The Fog of Peace: How to Prevent War (Bloomsbury).