The Language Barrier by Gabrielle Rifkind

Language is the medium that allows us to understand the world. We see nature, society and human motives not as they are but as our language allows us to see.

As a psychotherapist I am keen to understand how hatred and suspicion have become so entrenched in the Palestine-Israel conflict. In my trade, I am trained to look at how individuals or families influence and react with one another. This can be equally true of the political process where history and experience accumulate over time, deeply influencing how nations behave and react to one another. Too often, stories are told – and this is particularly true of the Palestine-Israel conflict – without context and without understanding of the processes that have taken place between people and nations.

Recently I was invited to run a group within the London Jewish community. The aim of the group was to explore some of the deep tensions, scars and splits that have emerged in the community with regard to its relationship with Israel. The underlying thesis was that these splits were not only painful but were undermining effective support for the resolution of the conflict in the Middle East.

The Palestine-Israel conflict evokes such deep polarised emotions in the spirit of ‘for us or against us’ that this very emotion can become part of the problem itself. Loyalty is called on at any price and partisan alignment with one’s own side is perceived as essential. Whether it is within the state of Israel, among the Palestinians themselves or in the diaspora community, anything less than loyal runs the risk of being seen as an act of betrayal.

Media reports of violence in this conflict are unlikely to offer any analysis of the political context, the history and the meaning of the power imbalances in the conflict. Uncomfortable as it may be, we are unused to examining in depth what happens between groups and how their behaviour impacts on each other. Without this understanding, it will obfuscate how cycles of violence erupt and what can be done to contain the violence.

There were genuine attempts to move away from left-right alignments in search of a more respectful language and intellectual honesty. Group members expressed an appreciation of having a safe space to talk about their Jewish identity and their relationship with Israel. The commitment to the group was high with a very consistent level of attendance. Group members challenged each other to take responsibility for their own behaviour and to move away from a culture of blame and there was an authentic attempt to exchange ideas in a community-building process. However, some participants displayed immense difficulty in managing the profound differences which emerged, trying to convince other participants of the moral rightness of their position. There were coherent and sometimes strong voices in the group calling for calm and clarity but these were often overwhelmed by the emotion of  those threatened by the act of differentiation.

The aim of the group was not to change minds but to help participants find the capacity to tolerate a range of different views.

The moderate voices, who took a more complex, nuanced position on the conflict (seeing it as a cycle of violence with provocation on all sides) were usually drowned out by the more hard-line voices, an uneasy mirror of the political space between Palestine and Israel where hardline voices dominate even when they are a minority viewpoint.

Many people come into psychotherapy because they cannot manage conflict. Either they avoid it and suffer, or they behave in a way to escalate it and thereby make their world unsafe.  The idea that conflict can be managed, understood and communicated in a safe way is anathema to them. I had hoped that some of these ideas would reverberate in the group and there were genuine attempts by some members to explore this.

The need for an enemy is as clear on the micro level as it is on the international stage. It helps us to define ourselves and gives us security and certainty. The blurring of right and wrong and general uncertainty is distinctly uncomfortable to live with. But the rigid structure we have erected to increase our sense of certainty makes us ill-equipped to deal with conflict. Communities who have been involved in endless conflict find empathy and self-reflection difficult. A more comfortable position is one of a victim psychology in which we do not examine our own behaviour and place the blame with the other side. A resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict will demand not only political parameters offering justice and security for all parties involved, but it will also involve self-reflection and the very careful use of language, as this defines the conflict not as it is, but as we tell it.  In the words of George Mitchell, when he was appointed the US Middle East special envoy: ‘man creates and sustains conflict and only man can resolve it’.

Gabrielle Rifkind is a group analyst and specialist in conflict resolution. She leads the Middle East programme for Oxford Research Group

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