Encountering dehumanization

Until far more Israelis and Palestinians see each other as fellow humans who have suffered in this conflict and see their own side is far from blameless, expect little to change except for the worse

A joint prayer session was held in Gush Etzion, after the Duma arson attack (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A joint prayer session was held in Gush Etzion, after the Duma arson attack
After a nearly-two-week trip in Israel, and thinking about my other numerous trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories as well as the nearly two years I’ve been living in Jordan – where many Palestinians live – one thing I’ve learned is that both Israelis and Palestinians are people who do a great job of winning you over, while simultaneously, unintentionally showing you their glaring faults. Basically, the more time you spend with them, the more you both come to love them, but also realize why it’s so hard for them to make peace.
In my up close and personal education on this conflict, perhaps the most disturbing obstacle to peace is the level of dehumanization each side engages in with respect to the other. I’ve made my views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict clear in many published articles, an eBook, several academic papers and social media interaction: I’m pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, for two states for two peoples. That doesn’t mean I see both sides in this conflict as 50-50, equally suffering, or equally responsible, but I won’t try here to quantify the dehumanization and compare how each side engages in it and to what degree.
What I will say is that, sadly, far too many people on both sides frequently practice dehumanization, some actively, some more tacitly/passively. Yes, Israel has a minority that stands up for the rights of Palestinians and fights against their dehumanization, but it’s one that is bereft of power in the current political landscape.
There are far fewer Palestinians doing the same for Israelis, and though they exist, their smaller numbers give them even less influence than their weak Israeli counterparts.
THE DEHUMANIZATION is particularly tough for me to encounter because I have Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian friends. Hearing people from one side disparage the other en masse, I see the faces of my friends and am quick to correct their ignorance. And yet, almost all the people spewing ignorance, mythology, racism and paranoia are just as quick to dismiss my examples as fringe anecdotes or suggest that these friends aren’t sharing their true beliefs with me.
Also incredibly disturbing are many of their zero-sum mentalities: If I express any sympathy/empathy for the other side, it is a loss in a victimhood Olympics in which each side tries to claim a gold-medal monopoly on suffering and righteousness, where anything positive about “the enemy” is a loss for their own side and must be argued against and dismissed and cannot be tolerated, let alone acknowledged. Similarly, any criticism directed at their side in the eyes of far too many means you’re against their side and a partisan of the other. When I ask if their side does anything wrong or deserves any blame, I’m often calmly told “no” without hesitation.
I remember one series of conversations on a bus.
Sitting with a very pretty young woman sporting an army uniform and, only 20 years old, we began to chat. Eventually, politics came up (it always seems to).
She offered a simple explanation: “They hate us because we’re Jews, and no matter what we do, they’ll always want to kill us.”
She said this with a sadness in her eyes that went way beyond her years. When I asked her if she thought that there’s a possibility that large numbers of Palestinians engage in violence in reaction to the oppressive, decades- long occupation, “Maybe,” she said, then, looking away, “I dunno,” then, locking her eyes with mine, “but they don’t want peace.”
At this point, a man across from us jumped in: “Let me explain to you, we want peace. We want life, value life. They just want death. The Arabs would rather kill us than live.”
It’s always they, or the Arabs; rarely are the people specified as “Palestinians,” people with their own distinct identity/culture, discussed in human terms.
When I tried to suggest that I know plenty of Arabs who feel differently, I was told, “You don’t understand the Arabs because you are not from here,” as if they are generally a monolithic, inhuman species.
One young man with Rastafarian-like dreadlocks at a bar took great pains to explain to me that there’s no such people as “Palestinians,” that Jewish roots were far more real/valid than “Palestinian” ones, all within two minutes of meeting me.
WHEN I hear Arabs and Palestinians talk, too often, the words “Zionists,” “occupiers” and “enemies” are used to paint the picture of an entire people as soulless and heartless.
“All the Jews/Israelis want to do is take our land and kill our people,” I’m often told.
I remember debating several older men who were claiming, “The Zionists are trying to commit genocide against the Palestinians, they won’t rest until we are all gone or dead!” “They,” one added, “are baby-killers!” In a recent Facebook exchange with two young female Jordanian authors, I got an angry reaction for simply sharing my article calling for both Israeli and Palestinian civilian life to be inviolably sacred; for them, there were no Israeli civilians, just “Zionist occupiers.”
Israeli media all too often focus on Israeli suffering, but often won’t even name or show pictures of Palestinian civilians killed by Israel. Likewise, Palestinian media constantly show gruesome pictures of dead Palestinians, but Jewish suffering is never shown. Respective media cocoons reinforce a narrative of exclusivity of suffering that dehumanizes those on the other side, depriving them of acknowledgment of their suffering.
Such mentalities breed more violence: It’s much easier to kill people when you’ve reduced them to objects, devoid of deserving any sympathy, who are always wrong and are never victims because that territory of victimhood exclusively belongs to your own side and cannot be shared. Far too many believe sovereignty and political power/control cannot be shared by both Jews and Arabs in these contested territories, but that one side must be dominated by the other and should pipe down and be grateful for whatever their adversary deigns to hand out to them. Such is the mentality of Jews who would see Israel either annex or continue to occupy the West Bank; such is the mentality of Palestinians who will brook no division either and want all Palestinian refugees to return in a single democratic state to be run by Palestinians.
Such is the subconscious mentality of people who call for these policies, whether aware of, or admitting the end results, or not.
PALESTINIANS WHO ask Israelis to simply not worry and accept a majority-Arab rule over all of historic Palestine have not even made the most basic effort to understand Jewish Israelis’ mentality. Israeli Jews who think that Palestinians would even consider being doled out more economic/local power while still ceding most military/political control to Israel – indefinitely or permanently – similarly demonstrate an equal inability to understand Palestinians’ mentality.
Yet this is the natural consequence of dehumanizing the other: They’re simply enemies to be defeated, killed and pushed aside, not fellow human beings to understand, respect and accommodate.
Until far more Israelis and Palestinians see each other as fellow humans who have suffered in this conflict and see their own side is far from blameless, expect little to change except for the worse. Though clearly a difficult step, it is absolutely necessary. ■
The writer is a freelancer based in Amman, focusing on conflict, public policy, politics and history.