THE LONG ROAD AHEAD

November 16th, 2023

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As the war in Gaza against Hamas rages on, and as we all recoil from the explosion of antisemitism and hate crimes against Jews and Jewish targets around the world, it is vital for us to consider what happens “the day after” the war is over.

So much water has passed under the bridge – and it continues to flow in a raging torrent – that it is almost impossible to think in terms of what the world will look like once the war comes to an end. But come to an end it will, and at that point resolving the Palestinian issue will come into sharp focus, not just in Gaza but in Judea and Samaria as well.

In 2014, researchers uncovered a key reason why seemingly intractable disputes, like the long-standing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, seem impossible to resolve. It turns out that the human brain is wired in a way that skews how we perceive “us” versus “them.”

We are all inclined to believe that our group’s actions are motivated by love and positivity towards our own, while we view the other side’s actions against us as driven by negativity and hate. This simple yet profound cognitive bias fuels ongoing conflicts, making us less willing to negotiate a solution or to see any way out of the endless animosity that dominates the present.

One of the study’s authors, Professor Jeremy Ginges of The London School of Economics, explains it thus: “Hatred is an intractable emotion – it’s not like anger. If I’m angry at you, I’m angry at something that you’ve done. But if I hate you, I hate you as a person. There’s something that’s unchangeable about that.”

In other words, anger can be – and often is – legitimate; hatred is not just illegitimate, it is thoroughly unproductive.

The study was based on interviews with 995 Israelis and 1,266 Palestinians. The interviews uncovered a significant bias in how each group perceives their own and the other’s motives for aggression. Israelis explained their support for military actions against Gaza as being an expression of their love for Israel as opposed to hatred for Palestinians.

Remarkably, Palestinians justified their support for violence against Israel and Jews as being the result of their affection for Palestine rather than any animosity towards Israel. Most notably, both groups believed that the other side was primarily motivated by hate.

The current war has offered up ample examples of this stubborn phenomenon. Take this week’s IDF siege and takeover of Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. On the Israeli side, this controversial action was vigorously defended as a necessary measure for national security, totally rooted in Israeli love for their homeland as opposed to hatred for Gazans.

Conversely, the other side has presented Israel’s targeting of Al Shifa as an outright act of aggression, driven purely by hatred of Palestinians. This mirror image misperception is precisely what was highlighted by Dr. Ginges’ research.

But here’s a twist: a parallel study carried out by the research team demonstrated that when people are rewarded for being accurate in their judgments about the other side, the “motive bias” diminishes.

This discovery isn’t just a fascinating peek into our brains – it’s a potential game-changer for resolving all conflicts that seem unsolvable. In terms of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, if applied correctly, this method could be the key to a workable model of coexistence in the future.

If we can understand and address the “motive attribution” bias which leaves no room for cooperation, we might just find a way to bridge the divide that has long seemed unbridgeable.

What is certain is this: no “peace process” or indeed any other kind of imposed solution will ever create the conditions where either side will trust the other. For decades, all we have heard is that the solution to the conflict is a “two-state solution.”

President Biden – who has been steadfast in his support for Israel during the current war – said on Wednesday that “the endpoint of the Israel-Hamas conflict has to be a Palestinian state that is ‘real,’ existing alongside an Israeli one.” Without giving details, he added that “he and his aides have been negotiating with Arab nations on next steps.”

To say that such talk is premature misses the point entirely. At its core, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is based on competing narratives that leave scant room for coexistence, and, particularly on the Palestinian side – stoked by hate peddlers and promoters of violence as the only tool of self-identity and national pride – the portrayal of Jews as evil actors bent on genocide has led to the type of atrocities we saw on October 7th.

Tragically, money provided by the international community that should have been spent on creating leverage to reverse the effects of “motive attribution” among the Palestinian population was instead endlessly used to arm terrorists and fund those who thrive on violent mayhem.

Whatever the ultimate resolution turns out to be, it will need to be based on a solid foundation of reeducation, not only for Palestinians, but also for their useful-idiot supporters abroad – who prefer ripping down posters of kidnapped hostages to considering the pain of families suffering in uncertainty since their family members were abducted by Hamas.

Interestingly, this modern dilemma finds echoes in Parshat Toldot. The narrative of Esau and Jacob, two brothers embroiled in a struggle, offers timeless insights into conflict and perception. Esau never tried to understand his brother; instead, he perceived Jacob’s actions as deceitful and hostile, confirming his “motive attribution” bias and leading to deep-seated animosity.

Enraged, he vowed to kill his brother, forcing Jacob to flee. Years later they met up after Jacob returned to Canaan with his family and flocks – and it dawned on Esau, who originally intended to kill Jacob – that his brother had never hated him, and all he wanted was to live alongside him in peace and tranquility.

As we reflect on this lesson from Parshat Toldot while considering Dr. Ginges’ research, it is clear that no one should be embarking headlong on the unrealistic “two-state solution” journey. The path forward will only begin when Palestinians and their supporters recognize and then overcome their deep-seated biases against Israel and Jews, much like Esau eventually realized that Jacob was not out to get him.

Only through achieving such understanding, and finding the ability to see beyond entrenched narratives of hate, can there ever be a future where coexistence is not just a distant dream, but a tangible reality.

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