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Academic Objectivity, Political Neutrality, and Other Barriers to Israeli-Palestinian Reconciliation

Dennis Fox

First International Academic Conference on the
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Pathways to Peace

New Britain, Connecticut
March 2008

In M. F. Salinas & H. Abu Rabi (Eds.), (2009)
Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Perspectives on the Peace Process
. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.

About the conference (blog entry)

This paper is also posted on my blog,
where you can make comments.

Portions of this paper have been incorporated into a 2011 paper, Competing Narratives about Competing Narratives: Psychology and Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.

More on Israel/Palestine

Main Point

Despite this conference's underlying assumptions, it is not likely that academic research and even-handed mediation and negotiation approaches will help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A traditional academic stance promises more than it delivers. Conventional norms highlight approaches adaptable to status quo requirements while relegating to the sidelines scholarship that challenges underlying assumptions. Efforts to extend boundaries are dismissed as impractical or irrelevant.

So long as academic research, negotiation, and dialogue assume equality of perception and split-the-difference compromise, reconciliation is impossible. Knowing that even-handedness strengthens both Israeli resistance to justice-based reconciliation and Palestinian suspicion that the process is a sham, we should assess the conflict based on universal principles of justice, equality, and human rights. We should facilitate a process that mandates accepting responsibility and making amends for past injustice. And we should encourage the flexibility that we hope will arise on both sides once past wrongs have been acknowledged. The intellectually justifiable stance, in other words, is not to be "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine," or "pro-two-state-solution" or "pro-one-state solution," but "pro-justice."


The declared goal of this conference is to "highlight the contribution that social scientific and humanistic research and scholarship can bring towards peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians" in order to achieve a "just and equitable solution." That sounds pretty good. Unfortunately, I come here today skeptical that traditional academic research and scholarship will bring a lasting solution that is also just and equitable. Before turning to Israel and Palestine, though, I want to make three brief points about the relevance of academic assumptions and practices to political issues more generally, and then a word about underlying assumptions in conflict resolution.

Academic Assumptions and Practices

First, academic research is not as objective and value-free as traditionally imagined. Even in the hard sciences, our personal, professional, and political biases inevitably come into play, from the choice of theoretical model and framing of research questions to the scramble for funding and selection of methodology to the analysis and presentation of findings and policy recommendations (Rein, 1976). Most significantly, the pose of objectivity and ethical neutrality that often masks personal preferences and institutional inertia favors the powerful at the expense of others. This point may seem obvious to those of you in disciplines where critical approaches have received significant attention, such as sociology (Levine, 2004) and anthropology (Gupta & Ferguson, 1997), law (Kairys, 1998; Unger, 1986), pedagogy (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1985; Freire, 1970; Illich, 1971), and maybe even geography (Mitchell, 2000). But in my own field of psychology, which is central to much of this conference, endorsement of traditional values, assumptions, and practices remains particularly strong despite abundant activist, feminist, radical, and postmodern critiques (Brown, 1973; Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997; Fox, Prilleltensky, & Austin, 2009; Martín-Baró, 1994; Sarason, 1981; Tolman, 1994; Wilkinson, 1986).

My second point is this: Despite academic norms, people still care about things. However, mandating the appearance of objectivity masks, and often dampens, the passion that initially drives many academics into contentious fields to begin with. Many of us entered academia because we thought enhancing knowledge would do some good. We often learned in graduate school, though, that impact is not the first priority. In any professional field, advanced training transforms would-be do-gooders into careful professionals who internalize the field's substantive, social, and political limits (Schmidt, 2000). It reshapes initial impulses, teaching us what is legitimate and what is not. It directs young scholars toward easily manageable research projects, often trivial variations of past work more likely to pad the curriculum vita and justify new funding requests than to advance either scientific knowledge or social justice. In the end, our research too often buries relevant values and allegiances beneath a deceptive patina of substantive neutrality and emotional distance.

My third point: Academic norms reinforce political timidity. The phrase ending so many reports - "more research needs to be done" - too often implies no question can ever be resolved because, after all, we don't yet have enough data. Ironically, analyses replete with "on the one hand, on the other hand" qualifications bring respect and admiration. We pride ourselves on our cognitive complexity. But if years of investigation and analysis eventually lead to tentative conclusions that favor one side more than the other, we draw accusations that we don't understand the situation's complexity or that we are unforgivably biased. Only confusion is legitimate.

This emphasis on data rather than conflicting values and imbalance of power leads in conventional rather than system-challenging directions. Ideologically convenient norms favor the status quo while marginalizing more challenging scholarship. Professional status and job demands, policy preferences of granting agencies, external political pressures and commitments, and the hope that policy makers will actually pay attention to our research channel us away from topics and conclusions that might shake things up.

Conflict Resolution

These concerns about academia also apply to other institutions claiming objectivity and neutrality, such as journalism and education. Somewhat closer to today's focus, they apply to mediation, dialogue groups, and other forms of alternative dispute resolution. Approaching issues as a neutral can help a newcomer, a mediator, a helping professional discover how each side frames important issues. It can help make sense of complexity and prevent premature judgment. And it can help resolve differences, especially in ongoing, relatively equal relationships where outcomes can be tailored to the parties' individual circumstances. Under these conditions, mediated dispute resolution can be more effective and satisfying than rigid application of external rules.

In larger conflicts, reconciliation requires resolving grievances and transforming institutions. Unlike those who talk peace to mask oppression and injustice, serious peace advocates know that simply putting down weapons is not a plan. Mutual hostility, fear, and dehumanization stand in the way, as our primary conference organizer, Moises Salinas (2007), outlines in his book Planting Hatred, Sowing Pain: The Psychology of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Like Salinas, peace advocates use research in social psychology and other fields to encourage adversaries to get past their conflicting perspectives. They suggest structures and procedures suited to both side's cultural norms. If people know each other as individuals, the thinking goes, increased empathy makes violence more difficult.

This approach's central insight is important. Dialogue and self-disclosure can generate powerful emotions and personal change, increasing interaction and even friendship. Unfortunately, this happy outcome is not inevitable. Greater understanding can create more knowledgeable and effective warriors. And while empathy may make it harder to kill, it does not reliably enough motivate a commitment to end institutional injustices linked to favored values.

Key conflict-resolution assumptions, thus, are not appropriate when the opposing parties have unequal access to power, or when reasonable external standards such as universal principles of justice or generally accepted law overwhelmingly support the weaker side. One of my own biases, therefore, is suspicion of a rigid determination to remain in the middle, to pretend that all perceptions are not only equally relevant but equally valid, to compromise down the middle just to reach the end. By rendering victim and victimizer equally responsible, neutral mediation de-legitimizes crucial concerns, rewards the more powerful side's stubbornness, and institutionalizes existing power imbalances.

Israelis and Palestinians

In applying these general concerns to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, I rely of course on my own academic, political, and personal history - as do we all. My focus today builds especially on my most recent of four visits to Israel and the West Bank, in 2006. During that ten-week stay I taught a seminar on Psychology, Law, and Justice at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva and explored the same topics with researchers in law and society at Birzeit University in Ramallah. In these settings and others I was especially curious about justifications for different ways of framing historical narratives and the meaning of reconciliation.

One highlight was a day spent near Bethlehem observing a group of Israeli and Palestinian high school teachers working on a dual-narrative history project. Directed by Sami Adwan and Dan Bar-On of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME), the teachers had already produced a series of short texts on key historical events; the Israeli narrative runs down the left side of each page, the Palestinians' down the right (PRIME, 2003). The teachers were inspiring, seeking mutual understanding despite opposition, especially on the Palestinian side. Israeli checkpoints made getting to the meetings difficult, but it was the disapproval of other Palestinians that led more of the Palestinian teachers to withdraw from the project.

One thing initially struck me as curious: PRIME did not envision working toward a single historical narrative that both sides might accept. Integrating the conflicting perspectives, I was told, if such a task could even be accomplished, would likely make using the material in either Palestinian or Israeli schools impossible.

Most Palestinians I worked with in the West Bank were less interested than PRIME's teachers and researchers in making understanding a priority. They were also skeptical of political negotiations that bypassed core historical and legal disputes or that seemed destined to resolve them in Israel's favor. They too wanted peace and even reconciliation, but they asked this: Where was justice? The academics and activists among them had little confidence in Israelis who were eager to talk and understand but unwilling to reassess their bottom line. As an organizer of Bil'in's weekly nonviolent protests against the Separation Barrier told me, there will be plenty of time for tea once the occupation ends.

I thought of these examples when I read our conference's Call for Proposals. Although it "encourage[s] researchers from all sides of the conflict" to submit proposals, the sponsors already have an end-point in mind: a two-state solution incorporating what they consider an international consensus in keeping with the Geneva Initiative. The Call suggests a number of topics:

  • Social and psychological factors
  • Historical, philosophical, and theological issues
  • Economic factors and cooperation
  • Demographic realities and solutions
  • Geographic obstacles
  • Negotiation models, perceptions and strategies

This list is long, but two things are missing: justice and law. From a traditional conflict-resolution perspective, these omissions make sense. Addressing justice and law would push the conversation closer to the Palestinian narrative and make an even-handed framework more jarring. The conference, as a result, is not designed to explore as a central question which side's perceptions more accurately reflect historical events and global standards of human rights, or even whether those events and standards are relevant. Although this avoidance may be reasonable for PRIME's teachers, who are trying to write textbooks usable under difficult circumstances, it seems less so for academics committed to truth and objectivity.

Not coincidentally, this avoidance also characterizes Moises Salinas's book. In reviewing Planting Hatred, Sowing Pain, I suggested that academics would appreciate its even-handed tone, which avoids the politics behind its analysis (Fox, 2007). By insisting the conflict is social psychological rather than political, though, and that "perception is more important than reality," the book shunts aside history and ignores relevant standards. This makes sense only if one considers all perceptions equally legitimate, a stance that, as most Palestinians see it, supports the Israeli narrative. Salman Elbedour (2008) makes a similar point in his own review:

Although [Salinas's] intent ... is to accept and empathize with both sides of the narrative, the Israeli voice and narrative is more pronounced. For example, the book may be biased by heavily relying on Israeli or Western researchers ... alien to the Palestinians' worldview, culture and experiences."

Whether Salinas's Israel-friendly analysis stems from objective reading of the relevant research or from his role as a left-Zionist Meretz organizer is a reasonable and relevant question.

Before ending I raise a complicating related issue: the role of unresolved conflicts within both Israeli and Palestinian societies.

In Israel, the essential dilemma arises from its claim to be both a Jewish state and a democratic state. Many Jewish Israelis resolve this logical and psychological inconsistency by distorting or making ambiguous both key terms, a common response to cognitive dissonance more generally. Despite widespread agreement that Israel should remain Jewish, thus, Israelis disagree about what this means beyond retaining a Jewish majority. Israel's conception of democracy is also weak, as shown by refusing to become a "state of all its citizens," as Arab citizens increasingly demand. Many Israeli Jews consider the failure to legislate full equality and even to enforce weaker legal protections for non-Jewish citizens intentional, necessary, and permanent. While this is consistent with the ideological framework that makes occupation preferable to equality, it is inconsistent with any reconciliation process that requires acknowledging past transgressions and dismantling the institutional frameworks that generated them.

In somewhat parallel fashion, Palestinians must resolve a dilemma of their own: how much to give up, and in exchange for what. My impression is that most know perfect justice is impossible. They will accept principled compromise that recognizes their primary victimization. On the other hand - and this is key - despite likely support for a fair two-state solution, they will reject leaders who sign agreements that minimize Israel's responsibility for injustice and leave Palestinians in a subordinate position. Palestinians disagree among themselves about what a "fair-enough" reconciliation of equals requires.

Many Israelis I've met understand this. Some on the Zionist left know that Israel's democracy is faulty. They march for peace, oppose the occupation, and help Palestinians harvest their grapes. They feel guilty. But they also know that changing the status quo requires replacing the bottom-line question -- Is it good for the Jews? - with something else: Is it right? This they are not prepared to do even when they feel they should.

What should we do? So long as academic research, negotiation, and dialogue assume equality of perception and split-the-difference compromise, reconciliation is impossible. Knowing that even-handedness strengthens both Israeli resistance to justice-based reconciliation and Palestinian suspicion that the process is a sham, we should assess the conflict based on universal principles of justice, equality, and human rights. We should facilitate a process that mandates accepting responsibility and making amends for past injustice. And we should encourage the flexibility that we hope will arise on both sides once past wrongs have been acknowledged. The intellectually justifiable stance, in other words, is not to be "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine," or "pro-two-state-solution" or "pro-one-state solution," but "pro-justice."

Some of you may think I have simply adopted the Palestinian perspective, making my account less relevant to peace and reconciliation than the more even-handed assumptions I have criticized. I know self-analysis can be unreliable, but I can only say this: I return to this issue of Israel and Palestine after years of avoidance. As a teenager and young adult I was a Zionist activist, fully conversant with the left-Zionist worldview I taught others and intent on living in Israel myself. During the three decades following my return to the United States, I focused academically and politically on a wide range of other issues related to war and peace, justice and democracy, power and resistance, and the use and abuse of both law and psychology. It is my resulting assessment of what justice requires elsewhere in the world that persuades me the Palestinian narrative is more accurate and more compelling than the Israeli.

The fact that applying general justice principles can be taken as proof of partisanship should itself indicate how far off-target a neutrality-based approach really is. More research does not need to be done.

References

Aronowitz, A., & Giroux, H. A. (1985). Education Under Siege: The Conservative, Liberal, and Radical Debate Over Schooling. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Brown, P. (Ed.). Radical Psychology. New York: Harper & Row.

Elbedour, S. (2008, in press). Social and Clinical Aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Summary and New Directions. [Review of the book Planting Hatred, Sowing Pain: The Psychology of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict by Moises F. Salinas]. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.

Fox, D. (2007). Can Social Psychology Depoliticize the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? [Review of the book Planting Hatred, Sowing Pain: The Psychology of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict by Moises F. Salinas]. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 7, 209-211. doi:10.1111/j.1530-2415.2007.00130.x.

Fox, D., & Prilleltensky, I. (Eds.). (1997). Critical Psychology: An Introduction. London: Sage.

Fox, D., Prilleltensky, I., & Austin, S. (Eds.). (2009). Critical Psychology: An Introduction (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury.

Gupta, A., & Ferguson, J. (Eds.). (1997). Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Kairys, D. (Ed.). (1998). The Politics of Law: A Progressive Critique (3rd ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Levine, R. F. (Ed.). (2004). Enriching the Sociological Imagination: How Radical Sociology Changed the Discipline. Boston, MA: Brill.

Martín-Baró, I. (1994). Writings for a Liberation Psychology. (A. Aron & S. Corne, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mitchell, D. (2000). Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction. Oxford/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

PRIME. (2003). Learning Each Other's Historical Narrative: Palestinians and Israelis. Beit Jallah, PNA: Peace Research Institute in the Middle East.

Rein, M. (1976). Social Science and Public Policy. New York: Penguin.

Salinas, M. F. (2007). Planting Hatred, Sowing Pain: The Psychology of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Sarason, S. B. (1981). Psychology Misdirected. New York: Free Press.

Schmidt, J. (2000). Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes their Lives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Tolman, W. (1994). Psychology, Society, and Subjectivity: An Introduction to German Critical Psychology. London: Routledge.

Unger, R. M. (1986). The Critical Legal Studies Movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilkinson, S. (Ed.). (1986). Feminist Social Psychology: Developing Theory and Practice. Philadelphia: Open University Press.


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