More Reader Comments On Israel and Intractable Identity Conflicts more Broadly



Newsletter #201 — January 25, 2024

Israel/Hamas Discussion Banner

Part of the BI Israel/Hamas War Discussion

Guy and I keep on saying that we want to return to our focus on U.S. hyper-polarization, but our readers are continuing to send their thoughts on the Israel situation, and sometimes we feel a need to respond, so this conversation seems to keep going.  The following is a compendium of several conversations we have been having lately.  Some of these are focused on Israel, and others are on intractable identity conflicts more widely. 


SAVE THE DATE!!! Also, for those who were interested in Ashok Panikkar's post on Growing Strawberries on Coconut trees, in addition to an upcoming newsletter that will be sharing responses to that post, we and Ashok are going to be entertaining those and related issues in a live video conversation, to be held on Sunday February 4, 2024. We invite all our readers to submit questions and to attend.  More information, and (later) the link, can be found here.


On Israel:

First, a couple of corrections and clarifications:

One person, who asked to remain anonymous, pointed out that we erred when we wrote in Newsletter 198 that "it is worth noting that a major reason why Jews, throughout history, have always been so vulnerable, is that they have always been a small religion. With their over 3000 year history of having lived continuously in the area, they have a credible claim to be the most indigenous of all indigenous peoples. Jews lived there long before Islam we founded. The fact that Palestinians and the larger Muslim world are contesting this claim is, of course, a big part of what makes this conflict so intractable."

One reader pointed out that Jews are far more than a religion, they are a people.  The notion that they are simply a religion is used, the reader pointed out, to challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish state.  

We agree but want to clarify.  Jews are, indeed, "a people," a "culture" and an "identity group" quite apart from their religion, as is evidenced by the number of people who strongly identify as "Jews," but who are not religious. But we disagree with the notion that this distinction should have any bearing on the legitimacy of Israel's right to exist. This is a moot point, of course, because they are a people. But even if they weren't, Islam is the state religion of a great many nations. Why, we ask, can't Jews have one tiny sliver of land to call their own on religious grounds? 

This reader also questioned our statement in Newsletter 198 that said "In Israel, the Jews are simply trying to find a corner of the world in which refugees who have been driven from most of the world's other countries (including, especially, the Arab world) can live in peace and security." This reader observed that this used to be (and for many still is) true — the majority of Israelis would be willing to withdraw from the "territories" tomorrow in exchange for true security. However, the reader also observed that recent years have seen increased support within Israeli society for a right-wing expansionist ideology that is defended both in the name of "security" and upholding Jewish heritage.  The reader disagreed strongly with these goals and expressed the belief that they were taking making it harder to defend Israel against the charges of "settler colonialism" and being an "apartheid state." 

We agree, some Israelis, including Netanyahu and many of his supporters on the far right, are advocating for such positions, which makes defending Israel in the court of world opinion much harder. The view that only Jews belong in the land between "the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea" is no more acceptable than the position that Israel must be wiped from the map.  But how many Israelis and Jews more broadly really believe that?  It is hard to say, because people likely don't report their true beliefs. Also, shock and fear from October 7 has probably encouraged some people to think that way, at least temporarily, because they are so shell-shocked and may no longer believe that there will ever be a time when Palestinians are not trying to destroy them, or that their government will be able to protect them. So it is understandable why they might decide that, if coexistence is an impossible dream, the only answer is to get rid of "their enemy" entirely.  After all, they think (with good reason if you believe Hamas's statements) that that is what the Palestinians are trying to do to them.

For years, we have been explaining to people that one of the central goals of the conflict resolution and peacebuilding movements has been to provide a collaborative, power-with alternative to the "I'll fight you for it" system of social organization that has dominated almost all of human history. This system gets its name from Carl Sandberg's famous poem:

Get off this estate.
    What for?
Because it's mine.
    Where did you get it?
From my father.
    Where did he get it?
From his father.
    And where did he get it?
He fought for it.
    Well, I'll fight you for it. 

What we find so immensely sad about the ongoing Israel/Hamas war, our hyper-polarized politics, the larger Mideast conflict, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the world's countless other flashpoints, is that they make it clear how badly we have failed in our efforts to repeal these rules and how much pain and suffering is going to result from this failure.  We simply have to figure out how to do better. Otherwise, we face a future too terrible to contemplate.

Tom Dunne

Tom wrote recently that "In 2019 a report was issued by over 300 retired Israeli Generals and senior security leaders that I find remarkably wise and hopeful in assessing the "big picture" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in recommending a strategy for achieving lasting peace between the two parties. It was, of course, ignored — but I believe it is even more relevant today, since October 7. I  have put together a short summary of the report which I will be happy to send to you if you would like. Thank you for your sustained, calm courage in the midst of this current donnybrook!"

We took Tom up on his offer, and have posted his summary here.  

Guy has been interested in the work of this group (Commanders for Israel’s Security) since he first heard about their work in an in-depth (and highly recommended), Ezra Klein interview with a member of the group's executive committee, Nimrod Novik. The interview describes an alternative to the policies pursued by the Netanyahu government — a series of steps that the group believes that Israel could have taken in the years prior to October 7 to protect Israel's security, while simultaneously limiting the number of flashpoints between Israelis and Palestinians. Their goal was to strengthen responsible Palestinian self-governance, and separate Israeli from Palestinian society in ways that would, over time, lay the groundwork for eventually allowing the two peoples to peacefully coexist with one another under some sort of two-state arrangement.  What we find impressive about this effort is that is that, unlike the often naïve ideas that originate in the peace movement, this comes from the highest levels of Israel's security establishment. It is an approach that does not wish away security threats. Instead, it tries to combine security considerations with the application of a lot of the core ideas of the peacebuilding field. 

Obviously, the October 7 attack and the war that is followed greatly complicates the situation in ways that will require major modifications to the Commander's ideas.  Still, if there is a path to be found out of this work, it seems likely that it will be because of the work of groups like this.

Ashok Panikkar

Ashok Panikkar responded to Deborah Laufer's Article in Newsletter 193 by writing:

Thanks to you, I am starting to appreciate the conditions of ordinary people in Israel. Your piece is also an eloquent and poignant reminder of the hope and optimism that underpinned the peacebuilder's vision for a more humane world. 

This stood out for me. "One can study peace, politics, law, conflict, economics, education, psychology and trauma and we have — with so many other nuanced subjects — yet we need to learn history, perspective, culture, and all the spaces in between." 

Alas, this has been woefully ignored in the modern educational system whether it be at Harvard or elsewhere. 

In my work on culture and democracy I have come to the realization that one of the worst consequences of modernity is specialization. Throughout history societies depended on wise and mature people- who were, by default, generalists- people with a robust grasp of the realities of their world (both universal and particular). The increasing complexity of the industrial and post-industrial world has reduced us to becoming experts in narrow domains. I fear that peacebuilding too, as nuanced as it might seem to practitioners and academics, has been proven to be entirely unequal to appreciating the world as it is (reality) let alone the extraordinarily transformative shifts that are taking place in the world. 

Perhaps future generations of peacebuilders will not come out of doctoral programs in peacebuilding, but will be found by searching for the wisest amongst us. Because only those who can be trusted to recognize what is real can be trusted to repair it. 

Fred Golder and Katja Reiger

Fred and Katja echoed each other in their responses. Fred wrote "thank you for the brilliant insights into this seemingly intractable conflict. I just finished reading Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann  in Jerusalem.” Her last words, “banality of evil,” resonate in today’s world. In Ireland, it was the “troubles.” In today’s world it is the “horrors.”

But even intractable conflicts are solvable. They just take more time and effort. We need to teach our children to recognize bias, prejudice, stereotyping. In-group bias, confirmation bias, and the bandwagon effect are fueling the polarization. Being mindful of this is a step in the right direction. Learn to base your opinion on reliable facts.

Katja, responding to our Israel coverage and the responses to it wrote, "I believe we need to start teaching dialogue in kindergarten in every country. And we need to advocate that we still see the other person -  regardless how different our opinions and even our values - in our common humanity."

And On Identity Conflicts More Broadly:

Fred's and Katja's comments relate equally well to other intractable identity conflicts too, including the hyper-polarization conflicts we are facing in the United States and elsewhere in Western democracies. In addition we got the following submission from Gordon Yanchyn on that broader theme.

Gordon Yanchyshyn on Vamik Volkan’s theory of Large Group Identity

I very much appreciate your thorough and thoughtful “Beyond Intractability” newsletters. However, one aspect you have not addressed is the psychological factor of a “large group identity” in each of us. What makes this so important is that we are often not aware of it in our everyday lives. For example, I am a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst born, raised and working in Canada. But when Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, I was surprised to feel a surge of patriotic outrage, though I have no known living relatives there.

The American psychiatrist Dr. Vamik Volkan has worked with and written about large group identity for more than 40 years, including participation in unofficial diplomatic dialogues between influential representatives of warring groups and their political leaders (Arabs/Israelis; Americans/Soviets; Russians/Estonians; Serbs/Croats, and so on). Volkan notes that in peaceful times, our large group identity is like an invisible tent under which we live, maintaining a border between ‘Us’ and ‘the Others’. Belonging to this large group becomes crystallized and endures throughout a lifetime, and is interconnected with the individual’s core identity, though unconscious most of the time.

But when a group feels threatened, humiliated or helpless, that ‘tent’ is ripped open, and the attacked population becomes obsessed with repairing, protecting and maintaining their large group identity. Volkan has also helped us to better understand an internal “amplifier”: ethnic/racial; cultural/religious; or national/political intergenerational trauma. When the members of the group are unable to mourn their catastrophic losses and reverse their humiliation and helplessness, they pass on these psychological tasks to successive generations.

This defensive and often violent reaction closes down dialogue through what another writer has called a “failure of imagination,” an inability to consider alternative possibilities. The challenge is how to grow and transform this painful, highly emotional discourse. Citizen groups such as yours can continue to open a space for thought, interpreting some of the psychological blocks and devising possible concrete solutions to enable the groups to mourn past and present traumas. It also requires not only becoming able to see ourselves as dual—that is, to see ourselves in the Other; but also to see who we possibly could become, rather than only who we are.

A tall order! Thank you for allowing me to participate in the dialogue.

Heidi and Guy Burgess’s Response to Gordon:

Gordon, you may be right that we haven’t talked about this much in the newsletter, although we do in Beyond Intractability more broadly.  Instead of citing Volkan, though, we usually cite former diplomat and conflict resolution theorist, John Burton, who adapted Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the study of conflict and conflict resolution.  Burton, and his “human needs theory” colleagues said that three fundamental needs were particularly salient in what he called “deep-rooted conflict:” identity, security, and recognition. 

If one’s identity is not threatened, then he would likely agree, it kind of disappears, as we take it for granted.  But once one’s identity is threatened, or we have been grievously wronged in the past, he argued that conflict would ensue and would not be resolved until those needs of security, identity, and recognition are met.

When Burton first wrote about his human needs idea, I (Heidi) thought it was too narrow--there were lots of other things going on in what we called “intractable conflicts.” But over time, I have come to increasingly appreciate how very important these needs—particularly identity and security—have become. 

They are the center of the war now waging in Gaza.  Hamas, Iran, and many other Muslims deny Israel’s right to exist, and attack Jew’s sense of identity and security around the world. Israel has also humiliated and threatened the safety of Palestinians in the region for years.  The consequence is that both sides have long felt (in your words) “threatened, humiliated [and] helpless,” … and have become “obsessed with repairing, protecting and maintaining their largegroup identity.”

The same dynamic is happening in the United States, and indeed, in many other Western democracies.  Here in the U.S., racial minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ communities have long felt insecure, and as though they were seen as “lesser” identities than the dominant white cis-gendered community.  So, they have become “obsessed with repairing, protecting, and maintaining their large group identity,” but in so doing, they have threatened many American conservatives who then, themselves, became “obsessed with repairing protecting, and maintaining their identity as well.  Hence we have what we call (and have focused on in this newsletter) “hyper-polarization.

The tragic error in all of this, however, is that neither identity, nor security, are zero-sum qualities. (In other words, it is not true that the more their identity is valued, the less mine will be.)  Similarly, it is also not true that the more secure “they” are, the less secure I will be. 

Rather, the opposite is true.  If one side feels secure, it will not feel a need to attack the other side, therefore increasing the security of the other side as well.  Likewise, the more comfortable I feel with my own identity, the less I will feel a need to attack others’ identities.  So, identity and security are actually positive-sum qualities—the more one side has, the more the other side will have too.

We could solve a lot of problems if people would figure that out and act on it.  Unfortunately, Volkan and Burton were both right.  People tend not to recognize the win-win nature of identity and security, and engage in long-lasting, destructive, largely unnecessary and unsuccessful struggles to attain something they could have had much more easily without conflict.

And Gordon's Response to Us:

Thank you for doing this, Heidi.  And thank you for reminding me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory.  

In the final paragraph of your comment, you also describe very well the “failure of imagination” that often blinds us to the possibility of non-violent conflict resolution.  This is another reason that psychoanalysts are preoccupied with unconscious motivations!


Attribution for the lead graphic: Gaza Map – Source:; By: Ecrusized; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; Date Acquired: Nov 9, 2023  


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