March 4, 2024

JOnathan Glover’s new book, about the seemingly intractable nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict, quotes George Orwell about the Spanish Civil War: “Everybody believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own without ever examine evidence.”

It could have been written today, amid bipolar thinking and pressure to take sides, where people’s identification with the facts may reflect their political preferences. Glover wrote most of his study before the recent horrors, although it is published with a preface addressing them. Not surprisingly, it is still deeply relevant. We have seen these tragic cycles of violence again and again in the past; they continue today on an even more horrific scale. Glover is a philosopher and author of Humanity: a Moral History of the Twentieth Century, which took him 10 years to write and involved careful examination of acts of human barbarism and the ethical questions surrounding them.

The way to end them, he believes, is to promote dialogue of all kinds. Borrow from Michael Oakeshott the phrase “conversation of humanity”, he hopes for a form of engagement free from “threats or other coercion”. He calls for reconciliation in South Africa and peacemaking in Northern Ireland, but points out that the “conversation” can take many forms; non-violent protest can be a form of communication, as can cultural engagement, such as Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Crucially, this must involve breaking down barriers of denial – accepting that “horrible things are being done by ‘us’ as well as theirs, and accepting that ‘they’ are doing good things too”. Move away from blame alone, and take responsibility.

With insight and understanding, Glover fuses philosophy with psychology, arguing that atrocities are committed because of deeply embedded human tendencies. It is only by looking at the monsters within us that we can hope to contain and tame them. As someone who has worked on conflict resolution in the Middle East for the past two decades, I have seen the importance of combining these two levels of analysis. The Israeli government and Hamas defend their people with violence as they believe it is the only language the other side understands. Every “wound” is followed by a “blowback”. But this reciprocity exacerbates the trauma and makes peace even more difficult.

Israel was founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jewish people were massacred, unable to defend themselves against systematic, state-sponsored murder. Each new attack against Israeli civilians intensifies the collision of the traumatic past and present, reviving deep fears of annihilation.

For Israel, 1948 was the moment of independence. For Palestinians, it was the Nakba (“Catastrophe”), when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their homeland. More than seven decades of increasingly oppressive and violent occupation have continually re-traumatized Palestinians, erasing hopes for a better, peaceful future.

Glover emphasizes the need to acknowledge these traumatic pasts, then move beyond black-and-white thinking, and create dialogue in a grayer zone of mutual understanding and shared values. People are stuck describing themselves only in opposition to one another, unable to articulate a vision of what they stand for and what a better future might entail.

This naturally raises the problem of managing truly radical differences. My own experiences have taught me that even when there is dialogue, people rarely have empathy for the other or an appetite to find common ground. Representatives of each side often have completely different ways of describing their experiences, with little interest in their adversaries’ interpretations. Their deep suffering makes them consumed with their own experience, which makes the first step – to recognize the other’s humanity – particularly difficult.

What we do know is that the vast majority of people want to live in peace, take their children to school and spend time with their friends and loved ones. Glover quotes the Palestinian proverb: “don’t curse the darkness, light a candle”, a recognition that however difficult it may be to contemplate, without dialogue there is only violence and war.

Gabrielle Rifkind is the director of the Oxford Process and co-author of The Fog of Peace: How to Prevent War (Bloomsbury).

Israelis and Palestinians: From the Cycle of Violence to the Conversation of Mankind by Jonathan Glover is published by Polity (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy Delivery charges may apply.

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