Israel and Palestine: Mutually Reinforcing Victim Stories

by Benjamin Kuipers

The Israelis and the Palestinians each have a compelling (and largely true) story to tell about how vulnerable they are, and how terribly they are victimized by a group that poses an existential threat to their entire society. This dire threat then justifies extreme measures against the opponent.

The "opponent," however, is not a single responsible agent, but is a diverse population of men, women, and children, and the force of those extreme measures typically falls far more on the innocent than on the guilty. The injustice of this only reinforces the same "victim story" on the other side.

Therefore, these two victim stories, and the responses from each side against the other, simply reinforce the validity of each side's story to its own population. Leaders on both sides use the victim story to reinforce their own political power. Those leaders on both sides are effectively allies in keeping each other in power, however ferociously they talk against each other.

The true enemies of these leaders are the moderates on both sides, who threaten the stability of this horrible relationship by encouraging communication, mutual understanding, compromise, and the search for common cause leading to peace.

The point of this essay is not to assert an equivalence between the claims of the Israelis and the Palestinians. There are certainly many important differences, some favoring each side. The point is to observe that the two stories feed back on each other to create a single stable, self-perpetuating dynamical system. While at the system level, this abstract structure is stable, at the human level it consumes untold blood and treasure, producing endless insecurity, pain, and grief.

There are other stable relationships between people with fundamental differences. How do we pick a better one? How do we get there from here?

One of the drivers for the victim story is the unforgiveable assault. Each side can point back in its own history to a genuinely horrible assault on its own people. Its own side is the clear victim, and the other side is clearly responsible. The horror of the assault means that it can neither be forgiven nor forgotten. And each side has its own unforgiveable assault to reinforce its own victim story. There is no hope, it seems.

For similar reasons, there seemed to be no hope in Northern Ireland, in South Africa, and in the former Yugoslavia. But things have changed in those places. None of them has created Heaven on Earth, ruled by brotherly love. All of them still have serious problems. But they have significantly weakened the deadly embrace of pairs of interlocking victim stories. Somehow, they have found ways to begin to forgive the unforgiveable, and start learning to live together.

Is there a possibility that Israel and Palestine can do the same?

Written 25 August 2011.