Beyond the Deadlock

In the previous two issues of Vision we have looked at the Jewish/Israeli and Arab/Palestinian positions on Jerusalem. The future seems likely to remain clouded by deeply held beliefs and heated debates over religious symbols such as the Western Wall and the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount. Is there any way out of the impasse?

Ideas in the minds of men are intimately connected with events in the world. Writing about the notoriously complex reasons for the outbreak of World War One, historian James Joll said, “It is only by studying the minds of men that we shall understand the causes of anything.”

A similar approach engaged Robert English in his examination, in 2000, of the collapse of Soviet communism. His conclusion was that the demise of the West’s antagonist in the Cold War came about largely through the acceptance of “the idea of the West” by certain Soviet intellectuals beginning in the 1970s. Eventually Western liberal ideas, aided and abetted by these thinkers within Soviet society, triumphed over Marxist-Leninism. It wasn’t American military superiority or even Soviet economic failure but the attraction of Western ideas that brought down the moribund system. In the battle of two ideologies, liberalism won, and the identities of peoples in two opposing power blocs shifted significantly.

How ideas are laid down in the brain and become part of personal identity and ideology is important in understanding the deep roots of long-standing conflicts. And how identities and ideologies can change is central to the resolution of such antagonisms.

What can the study of the human mind offer in respect of a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict? Could it be that studying the minds of Middle Eastern men and women provides the “unlock” to the perplexing Arab-Israeli impasse and the interwoven Jerusalem Question?

Two lines of thought, separated in their origins by about 40 years, may be merged to offer some hope. The first is the pioneering work of Erik Erikson on the development of personal identity; the other is the relatively recent discovery of the brain’s “neuroplasticity”—its lifelong capacity to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections.

In his 1959 work on identity formation, Erikson emphasized the lasting influence of the example and teaching of parental and/or authority figures during early childhood and adolescence. At various critical stages along the way, essential layers of a person’s identity are laid down. It’s as if each person arrives with the capacity to become a distinct identity, interaction with the social environment being the necessary catalyst.

Though the individual’s identity is most malleable in the early and adolescent years, Erikson stressed that identity modification can occur throughout the life cycle by means of what might be termed a feedback loop, whereby social interaction can stimulate continued change. He wrote that radical change is even possible for the well-established identity. In fact, paradoxical though it seems, it is the inner strength of the well-established identity that allows for such change.

Significantly, the feedback loop represented by Erikson’s model of identity formation has a parallel in research findings in the cognitive science and neuroscience fields. The emerging model of brain function echoes his model. According to Sandra Blakeslee, writing in The New York Times, “neuroscientists are finding that [circuitry in the brain’s prefrontal cortex,] which fully matures in late adolescence, is an internal guidance system that fills each person’s world with values, meaning and emotional tone, taking shape according to a person’s culture.” And while it has long been known that life’s experiences are laid down in the brain’s neural pathways, it is now suggested that these pathways are subject to modification throughout life; that is, they exhibit “neuroplasticity.” This characteristic is most evident in early life, but even adult circuitry is open to modification, writes cognitive scientist Joan Stiles. Research psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, who coined the term “self-directed neuroplasticity,” has demonstrated that the mind, through focused use of the will, can actually change the structure of the brain at the neural level in patients with certain disorders.

In a related development, the mapping of the human genome has forced reconsideration of the relationship of heredity to environment in human development. New findings suggest that genes may predetermine the structure of the brain, but it seems they may also absorb formative experiences, react to social cues, and run memory. According to science author and editor Matt Ridley, it is no longer nature versus nurture, but a sophisticated mutuality. Once again the concept of a feedback loop is helpful in describing nature’s relationship with nurture in a more precise way. It is now nature via nurture.

Who and What Are We?

All of this may seem a long way from resolving the Jerusalem Question, until we consider that these various findings about the human brain and mind have implications for all aspects of human behavior. Schwartz writes, “In this new century, questions about the mind-brain interface will become increasingly important as we try to understand how humans function in fields ranging from medicine to economics and political science. Knowing that the mind can, through knowledge and effort, reshape neurobiological processes must powerfully inform that effort.” Author Ian McEwan, writing about the emerging genetic understanding of brain function, says it “seems crucial if our new understanding of human nature is to inform public policy.” It is the possibility of modification in the structures of the adult brain that makes these new findings so important to the case at hand: the resolution of the Jerusalem Question.

How such rewiring might be achieved where political impasses rest on deep-seated issues of identity and ideology is hinted at by psychologist Steven Pinker. He observes that the new discoveries in neuroscience not only explain “what makes us what we are” but also invite us to “ponder who we want to be.”

Studies in individual identity formation ask and answer the question “Who am I?” But identity awareness is only the starting point in resolving intercommunal problems. Far more significant is what Pinker touches on when he speaks of “who we want to be.” The answer to the question “Who should I be?” is the sine qua non of the resolution of any problem where modification of identity and ideology is essential. And Schwartz’s findings about the effect of deliberately willed thought on brain circuits offer hope.

Initially this approach to the Jerusalem Question may seem idealistic, unrealistic or impractical. 

Initially this approach to the Jerusalem Question may seem idealistic, unrealistic or impractical. But as political scientists Steven Spiegel and David Pervin observe in Volume 2 of Practical Peacemaking in the Middle East (1995), these are precisely the adjectives that would also have been used with regard to the Oslo Agreement had it been suggested as a real possibility prior to its unveiling.

That ideas in the minds of men can affect outcomes in a positive way for opponents in a lengthy conflict was apparent from the Palestine Liberation Organization’s 1988 decision to engage in the strategy of negotiation, renouncing violence as a means of achieving liberation, and recognizing Israel’s right to exist. After decades of mutual implacability, it became possible for the two sides to achieve recognition of each other and to actively pursue peace. As a result, communities of experts on both sides began to examine the way forward on the most difficult issues. Discussion and compromise became feasible, even if resolution was deferred until final-status negotiations.

Though the PLO’s sincerity has been called into question over its renunciation of violence, and though the Oslo process was eventually declared dead in the wake of the Second Intifada, the fact that both parties put so much on the table meant that a basis for agreement had been established. Each side recognized what some researchers had already discovered: that Jerusalem signified different things to the respective communities. As a result, previous implacably held positions on the city’s inviolability fell away to some degree.

Identities in Conflict

In 2004 the Jerusalem Question remains the source of endless commentary and mind-numbing perplexity as the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to challenge world leaders and diplomats and to destroy ordinary men, women and children who lead their daily lives in harm’s way. Some leaders, such as former Jerusalem deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti, have concluded that the conflict is an “insoluble but manageable” problem, because it involves “issues of identity, absolute justice, clash of affinity to the same homeland, and conflicting myths.” But this view ignores the findings that even well-established identities and ideologies can change.

The Jerusalem Question remains the source of endless commentary and mind-numbing perplexity.

With respect to the Jerusalem Question, the results of two studies published in 2000 offer some hope. Jerome Segal and his fellow researchers found that while questions about the negotiability of Jerusalem as a whole elicited rejection of any compromise on sovereignty from Israelis and Palestinians alike, questions about which areas of Jerusalem were the most important to the different population groups produced a different picture. Forty-five percent of Israeli Jews “would seriously consider Palestinian sovereignty over Arab settlements and villages previously in the West Bank and now within the borders of Jerusalem.” On the other hand, a majority of Palestinians would give serious consideration to a proposal “in which West Jerusalem would be under Israeli sovereignty and East Jerusalem would be under Palestinian sovereignty, with a special arrangement for Israeli control of the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.” While the Old City was not included in the questions that led to these conclusions, the results of the studies suggest that because Jerusalem means different things to different people, compromise on sovereignty in more peripheral areas of the city may be possible.

As to the Old City and its holy sites, however, opinions were far less flexible. The most important areas to both peoples “as part of Jerusalem” were the Temple Mount/Haram, the Mount of Olives, and the Old City itself, unless it is disaggregated. The Western Wall was “very important” or “important” to 99 percent of the Israelis, while the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were “very important” or “important” to 100 percent of the Palestinians.

Here again is the heart of the identity-ideology clash over Jerusalem. Ceding sovereignty in these areas seems impossible at this point. How can the impasse be overcome?

The Role of Religion

Political Zionism appropriated several elements from the Jewish religion, obviously including the noun Zion (both land and city), for its key symbols. According to Israeli political scientist Baruch Kimmerling, “despite Israel’s image as a secular state, most residents are not nonreligious, even if they do not define themselves as ‘religious’” (emphasis added). Aspects of identity common to Judaism and Jewish national history continue to provide unity in the face of Arab opposition. Hence the crescendo of emotion across the Israeli and Jewish spectrum from observant to atheist following the Israeli capture of the Western Wall in 1967.

Despite Israel’s image as a secular state, most residents are not nonreligious.”

Baruch Kimmerling, Israeli political scientist

On the Palestinian side, whether Muslim or Christian (and the majority is, of course, Muslim), religion also plays a role. Though Palestinian religious affiliation is not coincident with national identity, the surveys conducted by Segal and his colleagues indicate the depth of Palestinian religious feeling for non-Jewish locations in the Old City: 96 percent of the “very religious” rate Jerusalem as “very important to me personally,” yet the rating remains high (78 percent) for the “not religious.”

In the context of identity and ideology, overcoming the impasse over the Jerusalem Question requires a new depth of understanding on the leadership and public levels of at least two central issues: religious origins, and ideology and identity modification.

With these thoughts in mind, it is unreasonable to suggest that identities and ideologies are destined to clash in perpetuity, and that the conflict can therefore only be managed and never resolved.

As English has shown of the Soviet Union, the process of identity modification often begins at the level of the intellectual community. A first step, then, in resolving the Jerusalem Question might be to draw together an international group of experts in identity formation and modification, including neuroscientists, psychologists and cognitive theorists. They would interact with leaders and dispute-resolution team members from the Palestinian and Israeli sides, together with outside facilitators (likely representing the United States and the European Union). The purpose would be to lead Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in self-understanding about the role that identity and ideology play and have played in the conflict over Jerusalem. It is at the leadership level that such education and introspection must begin.

The Quest for Unity

As examples of what can be achieved when the will to change existing identity and ideology is present, consider three scholars—one Israeli and two Palestinians. They are among the few in their communities who have broken the mold in efforts at reconciliation and identity modification.

Identity modification is one of the goals of the Israeli organization Peace Now. According to political scientist and peace activist Menachem Klein, the organization seeks to persuade the protagonists on both sides of the conflict to change their identities so that the Jerusalem Question, among other things, may come to resolution.

On the Palestinian side, the president of Al-Quds University, Sari Nuseibeh, offers a way to open discussion on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif dilemma and religious origins. He explains that for the prophet Muhammad there was but one faith, not three monotheistic systems. Thus for him, Judaism, Christianity and Islam were simply manifestations of this primary religion, each in their own time. Seeking out this commonality would be a very significant departure for both sides.

Nuseibeh writes: “The more we see ourselves as belonging to different religions—the more monotheism is a tritheism—the harder the chances for reconciliation, and the more Jerusalem will be a potential source of diffusion and destruction. . . . It will be a source of unity, on the other hand, and will shine as the true jewel it is, if it made [sic] us aware of the unity of our faith. If the unity of our faith is properly perceived as I have described, then our respective claims on Jerusalem as our political capitals can be regarded as a celebration of this unity, rather than as a point of selfish contention between two ethno-centric tribes.”

For his part, the now deceased Palestinian writer Edward Said introduced what he named “the Andalusian model,” after the location of his joint cultural project, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, with Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim. Barenboim explains that he and Said shared the view “that there is no military solution in the Middle East, either strategically or morally.” Instead they brought together young people through music, creating orchestras where Palestinian, Israeli, Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian and other musicians performed in workshops. Their relationship encouraged them in finding alternative paths to peace and mutual understanding. The project is presently located in Seville in Andalusia, which, with its history of Jewish, Christian and Muslim mutual tolerance, serves as the inspiration for what the founders viewed as hope for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The orchestra is a kind of metaphor for Middle East peace. At one of the workshops, an Egyptian attendee sitting next to an Israeli performer said, “Images can be very misleading. The suicide bomber brings to mind a certain image; so does the military operation. But these must not be fixed in one’s brain.”

This is a beginning of recognition that change begins individually in the heart—a rewiring of the brain and its images. It is a small start, but Said brought forward no other possibility, despite his lifelong pursuit of justice for the dispossessed Palestinian people.

In fact, Said emphasized his own need for such healing when, after discussing his Andalusian model, he descended into an acrimonious exchange with pro-Israeli members of his audience following a lecture at a California university campus in February 2003. He thus demonstrated an apparent inability to overcome his own deeply held identity and ideology, despite his obvious desire to find a road to peace. It is exactly such ambiguities that, when amplified to a national level, suggest that a workable solution to the impasse is likely to remain elusive unless identity awareness programs are instituted.

Changing Who We Are

If identity and ideology can be modified at the national level, beginning with the leadership on both sides of the conflict, there can be realistic hope for change. But this will be challenging. For instance, in the case of Yasser Arafat, according to U.S. peace-process special adviser Dennis Ross, it was difficult to negotiate. “Here’s a man,” Ross said, “who’s not able to give up the notion of conflict, because struggle is such an essential part of his life’s definition.” In other words, Arafat’s identity is defined by struggle. When there is no struggle for him, there is a personal identity disturbance. He will therefore create struggle to resolve the identity crisis he feels when there is nothing to fight against.

Ross’s approach (which failed) centered on finding “an objective that [was] less than the total resolution of conflict.” However, the answer to this kind of difficulty in dispute resolution is not gradualism—attempting to slowly persuade a man against his will—but rather the leadership of negotiators who grasp how identity can be modified through individual will.

Identity formation is a delicate and highly personal process. We defend who we have become. 

The kind of meaningful identity modification that is necessary in the case of Jerusalem can only begin with individual identity and then proceed to the collective level. Identity formation is a delicate and highly personal process. We defend who we have become. Asking and answering the question “Who am I?” with the help of qualified educators and negotiators would be a precursor to understanding the boundaries and limitations of individual identities. Such guidance could lead to more willingness to examine and change the aspects of identity that have perpetuated conflicts such as that between Israelis and Palestinians for far too long.

But as Pinker notes, in reality the question “Who am I?” is only the beginning of the discussion. If there is to be hope for reconciliation and resolution in any of the world’s identity-based conflicts, then “Who am I?” must lead to the much more important question, “Who should I be?” This is about initiating a process by which leaders and publics come to understand the role of identity and ideology in their lives.

Because the relationship between identity and ideology is not easily self-understood, it requires a process of education and introspection to bring its reality and consequences to the surface. The change of heart that can result is the first essential step to broad political change.