The Riggs Blog

Socio-Psychoanalytic Understandings of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In 1977, the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, delivered an historic speech to Israeli Knesset, in which he said that beyond political, military, and economic considerations, there were psychological barriers of suspicion, fear, rejection, and deception that divided Arabs and Israelis and that these were responsible for 70 percent of the problems that existed between them. 

Dr. Vamik Volkan, Senior Erikson Scholar and author of Enemies on the Couch: A Psychopolitical Journey Through War and Peace, was a member of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1979 during the time the committee was given the task of studying the psychological wall Anwar Sadat described. Sadat's speech was an important starting point for Volkan in questioning whether there were ways to apply psychoanalytically informed insights towards resolutions in conflicts within countries with large-group identities, as Volkan references in much of his work. 

Large-group identity is defined as a subjective feeling of sameness shared among tens, hundreds of thousands or millions of individuals, most of whom will never meet in their lifetimes. Large-group identities are the end-result of myths and realities of common beginnings, historical continuities, geographical realities, and other shared linguistic, societal, religious and cultural factors. Yet, a simple definition of this abstract concept is not sufficient to explain the power it has to influence political, economic, legal, and military initiatives and to induce seemingly irrational resistances to change. 

Large groups, usually with the guidance or manipulation of political leaders, will do anything to protect, maintain and repair their large-group identities, even if such activities include massive extreme sadism as well as extreme masochism. When the large-group identity is threatened, subgroups and dissenters within a large group do not substantially change how large groups react and deal with “others” who are foreign to them. Volkan noticed that this abstract thing called large-group identity occupies the central psychological  role in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and it is linked to political, legal, economic and military and terrorist activities. 

During the Interdisciplinary Forum on March 2, Dr. Volkan will try to illustrate how certain elements in the Israeli and Palestinian large-group identities create psychological obstacles against finding a lasting solution to this conflict and how a group like the International Dialogue Initiative may provide explanations and suggestions for the removal of  such psychological obstacles so that more realistic dialogues between the opposing parties can take place.

Reference:  Volkan, Vamik, 2013 (in print). Enemies on the Couch: A Psychopolitical Journey Through War and Peace. Durham, N. C.: Pitchstone Publishing

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