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Can Social Psychology Depoliticize
the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Dennis Fox

Book Review of

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

This is an electronic version of an article published (2007) in
Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy
(ASAP),
the online journal of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI).

This review brings together several themes addressed in other essays on Israel/Palestine, especially on my blog. The critique reflects my sense of critical psychology and the complex relationship between psychology, law and justice as well as my personal/political history.

See related 2011 article: Competing Narratives about Competing Narratives: Psychology and Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.

 

 
Citation
Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy
(OnlineEarly Articles).
doi:10.1111/j.1530-2415.2007.00130.x

Moises F. Salinas seeks in Planting Hatred, Sowing Pain: The Psychology of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict to outline "some of the social and psychological factors that are central to the conflict and its resolution." The author deserves credit for bringing this sensitive subject to an undergraduate psychology audience. Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a complex conflict, though, this brief book promises somewhat more than it delivers.

After a useful introductory overview emphasizing competing historical narratives, the book's four main chapters review research findings demonstrating the impact of stereotypes and prejudice, hate (extremism, dehumanization, and violence), pain (trauma), and hope (reconciliation and the psychology of peace). Some of the summarized research is particularly revealing of Israeli and Palestinian attitudes and perceptions, and the level is appropriate to the target audience in social psychology, Middle East studies, and similar courses. Each chapter ends with two illustrative interview transcripts, one of a Jewish Israeli, one of a Palestinian from either Israel, Gaza, or the West Bank. A brief epilogue reiterates the book's main point: "the obstacles to achieving peace are more psychological than political."

Despite its helpful literature review, Planting Hatred, Sowing Pain has several perplexing omissions. At the methodological level, Salinas tells us almost nothing about his "dramatic ethnographic interviews" (p. xxv). Instead of an extended description of what must have been a challenging enterprise, a single paragraph notes the "innovative methodology" and the help of "250 Palestinian and Jewish Israeli student interviewers." Eight transcripts, varying widely in scope, method, and style, appear after the relevant chapter without explanation or assessment of interviewees' statements, some of which are confusing, disjointed, and even shocking. Student readers accustomed to standard research reports will wonder about many details, such as whether the interviewers received course credit and what their instructions were. The author does not explain how he used these interviews to help identify his themes or whether instead they merely illustrate the traditional social psychological points he intended to make anyway. I could find no citation to a more extensive research report.

Also left hanging is the 32-page appendix, which presents the full text of the Geneva Accord, a peace agreement proposed in 2003 by prominent Palestinian and Israeli political figures without official authorization. Salinas explains that the proposal parallels similar efforts supported by "the majority of both peoples [who] agree (or at least are resigned) on the broad parameters" of "a two-state solution with borders approximating the pre-1967 armistice lines; compensation to all 1948 and 1967 Palestinian refugees, while only a smaller group of them would be allowed to return to Israel proper; [and] a joint solution for Jerusalem that will allow both sides to claim some sovereignty" (p. xiii). Instead of using this document's many controversial specifics and omissions to demonstrate how a future reconciliation process might fare, however, Salinas does little more than point to the proposal as the basis for a solution.

A more substantive concern is that the book's even-handed tone studiously avoids the politics behind its analysis. Some will consider this an advantage, required by academic norms demanding at least the appearance of objectivity. Sometimes, though, avowed neutrality deflects the gaze from much that is relevant. Readers should always wonder how an author's background and commitments affect choices about what evidence to credit and what lessons to draw.

In this case, the author's insistence that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is social psychological rather than political and that "perception is more important than reality" may reflect more than just straightforward reading of the research and traditional academic awareness of complexity. Indeed, the best clue to Salinas's own views comes not in his endorsement of the Geneva Accord but in the book's concluding "About the Author" page. Here we learn that the Mexican-born Salinas, who lived in Israel for several years and took part in left-Zionist peace activities before moving to the United States, was "one of fourteen young Zionist leaders worldwide to be honored with the first Herzl Awards from the World Zionist Organization [in 2004 ] ... for his contributions to the Zionist movement." At the risk of impoliteness, it is worth asking if this personal history might affect the book's structure and conclusions. Salinas doesn't say.

One example is the book's shunting aside Middle East history after the brief introduction. That makes sense if one considers all perceptions equally valid or even equally invalid, or if conflict is defined as a technical problem rather than an indication of injustice and oppression, or if the proposed ahistorical process leads to a politically preferred result. It might make less sense to Ibrahim, one of Salinas's interviewees, who says the only "really unlikely" alternative to permanent total war is that "the large countries will force Israel to sign and agree with international law."

Salinas doesn't tell us if Ibrahim's appeal to an external legal standard should matter. Instead, the chapter on reconciliation emphasizes relevant but incomplete subjects: paying more attention to different negotiation and communication styles, creating more effective procedures, providing alternative cultural and educational settings, and so on. Although Salinas notes Israel's superior negotiating power, he does not address a central issue: whether meaningful reconciliation requires acknowledging past injustice and committing one's side to end it. It is not just the violent extremists the author criticizes who reject splitting the difference through decontextualized dialogue and then moving on.

What form reconciliation might take is particularly touchy now that Israel's Arab citizens increasingly define themselves as Palestinian and insist that their country become a "state for all its citizens" rather than a state for the worldwide Jewish people, while Palestinian society in Gaza and the West Bank continues to fragment. Which assumptions are up for grabs? Which aren't? A text designed to help students understand complexity should broaden exploration rather than narrow it.

The problem is not that Salinas is a Zionist activist. The problem rather is that he does not consider how his own political identity might shape his argument, a possibility very relevant to the book's discussion of negotiation complications. Knowledgeable readers on both sides, thus, are likely to find the author's approach frustratingly off the mark. More troubling, those less knowledgeable won't be able to dissect Planting Hatred, Sowing Pain's ideological underpinnings unless their instructors also assign more varied supplemental readings. Those supplements might help students recognize that Moises Salinas may be his own best example of how preexisting assumptions can shape both political and social scientific analysis.


DENNIS FOX is emeritus associate professor of legal studies and psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield. In 2006 he was a Fulbright Senior Specialist in Peace and Conflict Resolution at Ben Gurion University, Israel, and a consultant in Law and Society at Birzeit University, West Bank.


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