Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: (Re)Imagining Negative Mental Representations of ‘Other’
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Potential for Peace: (Re)Imagining Negative Mental Representations of the ‘Other’
Israelis recently headed to the polls, resulting in the re-election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party. This came as a surprise to many who thought that the majority of the Israeli populace would seek to bring change to the country. With a newly formed coalition, it is unknown what Netanyahu will accomplish in his fourth term as Prime Minister. Regardless of the party in power, it is unfortunately overly optimistic to assume that permanent and long-lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is within reach.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is undoubtedly rife with many complex factors and objective conditions that cannot easily be reconciled – conflicting claims over land for decades has led to broken promises, failed attempts at treaties, and even the involvement of third parties. Furthermore, years of war and trauma have left deep physical and psychological wounds that are not easily healed. While physical injuries may heal at a quicker pace, the psychological effects of the conflict are more enduring as they are transmitted from one generation to the next.
Thus, the true cost of the conflict is intangible and difficult to measure. For those living in the region and experiencing ongoing suffering in their daily lives, the emotional pain is very real. Understandably, many people find it difficult to contemplate how the violence can continue between Israelis and Palestinians as part of a vicious cycle that has claimed the lives of men, women, and children of all ages. It is tragic that the fundamental disagreements between both groups are entrenched to the extent that it prevents them from living in peace as neighbours.
In my doctoral research, I am exploring how negative mental representations of the ‘Other’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are established and perpetuated. In addition, I am investigating the possibility of altering negative mental representations through institutional reform. Both Israelis and Palestinians are guilty of engaging in ‘Othering’, whereby the other side is portrayed as different and even inferior (Krumer-Nevo and Sidi, 2012). ‘Othering’ is evidently an evolutionary trait that has allowed human beings to protect themselves against perceived outsiders who might be dangerous or pose a threat. However, this process is not always useful, leading instead to the creation of stark divisions between individuals, which in this case have proven deadly.
‘Othering’ is primarily a mental process and is largely learned from one’s environment. For example, children are often told by their parents not to speak or come in contact with those who are unfamiliar. In the case of Israelis and Palestinians, a fundamental part of the process of ‘Othering’ is through the transmission of negative mental representations, which occurs in ministry regulated schools. These ministries approve of the curriculum and textbooks that are taught to children in state schools. In addition, teachers on both sides are expected to reinforce the ministries’ narratives, which are a reflection of the wider societies’ prevailing perspectives. From a young age, learning to recognize the other side as a danger enables the conflict to persist.
A number of studies have been conducted on representations of the ‘Other’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically through educational sources. The most notable project consisted of a joint team of Israeli and Palestinian researchers, supervised by Professor Bruce Wexler, which extensively analyzed textbooks in Israeli and Palestinian schools. One of their primary findings was that both sides represent the ‘Other’ in a negative and harmful manner through the use of unilateral national narratives (“Victims of Our Own Narratives” 2013). However, throughout all of these studies, there remains a fundamental gap as to how realistic change in the perceptions of the ‘Other’ can occur.
Mental representations are constructed in the brain and help us make sense of the world. If educational sources are one method through which individuals develop mental representations of their perceived reality, then we can surmise that there is a possibility for altering these representations through institutional reform. This task is easier said than done. The creation and use of textbooks that advance the cause of peace will not immediately solve deep-rooted animosity between two groups that have endured years of unimaginable agony. Regardless, the possibility of altering mental representations allows us to think more positively about the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Israeli-Palestinian impasse has carried on far too long. As scholars we lack the power to implement viable change on the ground. Therefore, we must equip those experiencing the daily threat of conflict with the tools necessary to seek change and promote meaningful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Dana Gold is a PhD Candidate at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.
Krumer-Nevo, Michal, and Mirit Sidi. “Writing Against Othering.” Quantitative Inquiry 18.4 (2012): 299-309.
““Victims of Our Own Narratives?”: Portrayal of the “Other” in Israeli and Palestinian School Books.” Council of Religions Institutions of the Holy Land (2013): 1-57.