The Vicious Circle of Rightfulness, Power, and Loss of Compassion

Israelis have internalized the sense of "victimhood" and have thus become blind to the suffering of their adversaries, writes Israeli psychologist Dan Bar-On

Israeli Soldiers in Haifa (photo: AP)
Dan Bar-On: "Now we are the ones who refuse to conduct a dialogue, less out of political wisdom, but out of feeling of superiority and power-orientation, writes"

​​In the film "Paradise Now" one of the Palestinian potential suicide bombers tells his girlfriend: "The Israelis took ownership on both the rightfulness of being victims and on the total powerfulness. They have left us no choice but to do the same." I wish to add to this important sentence, that when both sides take ownership on both rightfulness and powerfulness, there is no space left for compassion.

When rockets fall on the northern and southern parts of Israel, the Israeli Jewish people shrink back into their primary sense of victimhood: we are a small people, threatened by many external forces that should be confronted with determinism and powerfulness. This primary sense of victimhood is based on the assumption of the rightfulness of the weak (‘When someone tries to kill you, kill him first’).

The rightfulness of the victim

We have experienced this sense of victimhood many times during the last decades so that it has become like a second nature to us. It gives us the feeling of togetherness and authorizes our government in our name to shoot at the enemy, including their civilians, as they shoot at ours; as in war, like in war.

We are well trained in this scenario and possibly prefer it to all other possible scenarios of this region.

The consciousness of many of our people rotates around this rightfulness of the victim. It is not a coincidence that we are much less aware of our power and strength and its negative effects on the others who suffer from our powerful acts.

The victims have an advantage over the perpetrators: They do not have to take responsibility for their own actions, as these are only a reaction to the evil acts of the others. Therefore, we should perhaps be reminded in these harsh days of bombs and fighting in Gaza and Lebanon, that it was our power-oriented behavior in Lebanon and in the occupied territories that contributed to the creation of both Hizbuallah in Lebanon and the Hamas in the territories.

These militant organizations were created partially as a reaction to our excessive use of power. After these organizations grew to a magnitude which threatens us, we complain and again see ourselves as their victims, and them as terrorists with whom one cannot talk…

Hizbuallah and Hamas

Israeli tank near Beit Hanoun in the northern area of the Gaza Stripe (photo: ap)
Israeli tank near Beit Hanoun in the northern area of the Gaza Stripe

​​Though we tend to put all our ‘enemies’ in one basket, I want to draw a clear line differentiating between the Hizbuallah and the Hamas. The first is a terrorist organization which acts violently against Israel in spite of international law, thereby also endangering the safety of the Lebanese government and people. It is motivated by the regional interests of Iran and Syria and should be taken care of by the international community, as it endangers not only Israel but also the region as a whole.

The Israeli government is right in its efforts to weaken this organization and the only open question is whether the current military action in Lebanon will actually contribute to achieving this goal or whether it will strengthen the Hizbuallah in the end.

Unlike the Hizbuallah, the Hamas government was elected through democratic elections by the Palestinian people, mainly as a reaction of the latter to the previous corrupt government and less because of its policy toward Israel.

In the last months we have seen a bitter struggle within the Hamas, pressured by the Europeans, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), and delegates from Egypt and Jordan, between the moderate part of the Hamas, led by Ismail Haniya, and the military part, led by Haled Mashal.

The prisoners' document that was signed between Marwan Barguti and the leaders of the Hamas in the Israeli prison could be a basis for a dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian authority. Now we are the ones who refuse to conduct such a dialogue, less out of political wisdom, but out of feeling of superiority and power-orientation.

It was our military reaction to the abduction of Gilad Shalit that actually gave strength to the extremists of the Hamas in their struggle with the moderate part, instead of doing the opposite. Where is the logic for this deed?

A compromise – painful but necessary

Dan Bar-On (picture:
"A compromise can be achieved only through dialogue," writes Dan Bar-On

​​With the Palestinian people we have to reach a painful but necessary compromise of dividing this land. A compromise can be achieved only through dialogue. We are the only people in the world, ridden by an intractable conflict with another people, who refuse to understand that a compromise will be reached only through an open dialogue. Almost every child in Israel and Palestine knows the nature of this compromise by heart:

Return to the borders of 1967, with slight changes, two states with their capitols in Jerusalem, and a systematic step-wise solution to the resettlement of the Palestinian refugees, including Israel’s recognition of its share in the creation of that difficult issue.

That was agreed upon in Taba in 2001, it was suggested by the Arab League in 2002, and was also the basis for the prisoners’ document. By reaching a compromise, the Palestinians will be pulled out from the threatening balance of power in our region, as they are not an essential part of that balance but rather suffer from it just like us.

The Israeli government – capable of negotiation?

It could happen that when the military operation will be over, we will be faced with a Palestinian government that will be ready to enter negotiations with the Israeli government based on this compromise. The question then will be: Is there an Israeli government capable of entering such a process of negotiations? Right now it does not seem that the Israeli government has a mandate to carry out such a compromise with the Palestinian people.

By moving out of Lebanon and Gaza, Israel tried to retrieve an internal consensus of rightfulness, which was hampered by the long occupation of lands which were not ours in the first place. The fact that Israel returned every inch of these territories, according to international law, made us again rightful, in our own eyes and those of the international community.

The need to talk with one another

We loved that feeling so much that we wanted to apply it also to the West Bank, cutting ourselves off behind an eight meter wall. This was the mandate the Kadima party got from the Israeli people in the last elections. The Prime Minister even proclaimed that when this will be accomplished Israel will be a state in which it will be "fun to live", perhaps aiming at the full accomplishment of internal consensus and feeling of rightfulness, by giving up most of the occupied territories.

A Palastinian boy in the Gaza Stripe (photo: AP)
Dan Bar-On: "In this whole 'clean' process someone forgot that there is also another people, with their own needs, pains and feeling of rightfulness and powerfulness"

​​But in this whole 'clean' process someone forgot that there is also another people, with their own needs, pains and feeling of rightfulness and powerfulness. In this whole process we played chess with ourselves, without letting the other party have a say, as "there is no one to talk to" and they "understand only power" anyway.

In that sense the Kassam missles on Shderot and Ashkelon were unpleasant reminders of another people who suffer and needs a way to express itself. Whoever does not want to talk with them will get missiles and abducted soldiers.

Therefore, my recommendation to the Israeli government, which promised with its inception a new public agenda to a public tired of empty promises, is: weaken the Hisbuallah as much as you can, including by military means if it can serve that goal, but give up the new plan for disengagement that throws sand in our eyes and start talking to the Palestinians on the painful compromise between them and us, a solution both our people need so badly.

Remember, a compromise is not based on either absolute rightfulness or absolute powerfulness. It is based on compassion: Compassion for the people who suffer, who were killed, compassion for their family members, compassion for a public that is tired of just and successful wars.

Dan Bar-On

© Dan Bar-On 2006

Dan Bar-On is professor of psychology at Israel's Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Together with the Palestinian educationalist Sami Adwan he founded the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME).

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