The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: an emotional perspective
Illustration credit: Sohaib Hassan (@postmod.renaissance)

‘I’m from Israel but I’m not an awful person.’

‘I’m from Israel but I don’t support its government.’

‘I’m from Israel but…’

Am I complicit in a racist system? How do I reconcile my Israeli privilege with my identity? How do I navigate a strong emotional response which has been ingrained within me to land and country while also understanding what is morally right? 

There is a deeply unsettling emotional complexity and systemic hierarchy here which is, in some ways, reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter movement (although of course any comparison is delicate and must not shadow the other’s struggles). 

On the 25th May 2020, George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. Just 5 days later, a 32-year-old autistic Palestinian man was shot by an Israeli police officer in occupied East Jerusalem.

In a system such as this, is there room for a ‘but’?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not condemn the killing until 7th June, has also said that American President Donald Trump, who is currently facing criticism over racial injustices in America, is the ‘greatest friend’ that Israel has ever had in the White House. Between them, Trump and Netanyahu boast an impressive six terms in office. Trump also happens to have an impeachment and 25 sexual misconduct allegations to his name! But Netanyahu puts up a good fight – he is the first Israeli prime minister to undergo a corruption trial while still in office.

Now, with the unveiling of Trump’s Middle Eastern peace plan, perhaps ironically titled, ‘Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People’, Benjamin Netanyahu (affectionately nicknamed Bibi in Israel) is planning on annexing up to 30% of the West Bank, an occupied Palestinian territory. The West Bank as a whole comprises cities such as Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho and eastern Jerusalem. This annexation would mean that parts of this territory, including the Jordan Valley and Jewish settlements, would be made into an integral part of the Israeli state. 

This is not good news for anybody – it has prompted an angry emotional response from almost everyone, even the right-wing Israeli settlers who fear this will lead to concessions for the Palestinians. And as a side note, annexation is also illegal under international law.

What do you do with this as a young British Israeli? It is emotionally upsetting to see your country behave so abhorrently. This is your family, your home, and your roots. In an ideal world, this should be a place that you love and instils you with pride. But this is a land that also belongs to someone else – a place that someone else should be able to call home. Is this something to be proud of?

But how can you be unpatriotic about a country whose defining factor is patriotism? Israel was founded on the belief of Zionism – a desire for a Jewish homeland; a land which was not plagued with anti-Semitism and racism. Yet is this not what Israel has become?

These are strikingly different names and emotional responses to the same day, but ultimately, it can remind us of our similarities.

If you said this to most Israelis living in Israel the response would be outrage – bringing those raw emotions to the forefront. This is a people who have suffered so much, so how can they be accused of being perpetrators of racism? It is almost impossible to have a conversation on the topic without an eruption of anger, real emotional trauma, or upset. 

In April/May each year, Israelis commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, a general Memorial Day and Independence Day all in the span of one week. At the same time that Israelis celebrate their Independence with street parties and kebabs, Palestinians remember the ‘Nakba’ (catastrophe) of 1948, when 700 000 Palestinians were forced to flee as a result of the Arab-Israeli war. These are strikingly different names and emotional responses to the same day, but ultimately, it can remind us of our similarities. We have both grown up in this system; we are both opposite and the same. Does that not mean we understand each other better than anyone else can?

Since the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, more than 1500 Israelis and 7000 Palestinians have been killed

Yes, it is not simple. Yes, the conflict cannot be solved overnight. Yes, it is so complex – but we are the ones who get it, we are the ones who feel it.

We should channel these emotionally intense experiences into the roots of mutual understanding and therefore, into empathy. This may sound naïve, and of course peaceful discussion is not always productive especially considering the violence of this conflict. The Oslo Accords of 1993 ended with the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and a wave of Hamas (a militant Palestinian group which Israel, the US, the UK, the EU and others deem to be a terrorist organisation) suicide bombers blowing up buses. Israelis feared for their personal security, partly spurred on by Netanyahu and his supporters at the time. Some felt there had been too many concessions; some thought there had not been enough. In 2000, further attempts of peace talks at the Camp David summit descended into yet more violence, called the second Intifada. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, more than 1500 Israelis and 7000 Palestinians have been killed– there is a fundamental fear and lack of trust on both sides.  

But research is on our side! Studies have suggested that the best way to achieve peace is still through empathy and discussion. In her article ‘The Neural bases for empathy’, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory says that, “empathy is the ability to recognize other people’s thoughts and feelings (‘cognitive empathy’) and respond to these with an appropriate emotion (‘affective empathy’)”, and with some effort, both sides can use this to understand each other and effectively move forward. 

We need to trust that our children can bear each other’s truths, and they can use these to lay the foundations for conflict resolution.

‘Empathy for Peace’ is a registered Canadian charity dedicated to the advancement of empathy through scientific research and education, with specific applications to evidence-based conflict resolution, peace, and reconciliation processes. In their article, ‘Empathy: An Invaluable Natural Resource for Peace’, published in September 2019, they state the necessity of “building a culture of peacemakers”. We must attempt to manipulate this intense culture of patriotism, in which emigrants are almost considered traitors, into an understanding that empathy is the only way to accomplish this mutual desire for a homeland, and for peace. This is a way in which we can use our collective emotional trauma for good. 

As with many societal issues, this can start with education: learning about the other’s language and culture; a change to the way history and politics are taught, with all complex truths uncovered; a school and home environment which fosters discussion and empathy. We need to trust that our children can bear each other’s truths, and they can use these to lay the foundations for conflict resolution.

Achieving peace is difficult but it is not impossible. Ten years before the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, no one could have dreamed that peace was possible in Ireland. Who knows, we could be ten years away from peace in Israel and Palestine.