How Group Level Conflict Is Changed by Interaction Rituals

interaction ritualsEthnopolitical conflicts are pervasive in a culture and involve a relationship between locally situated parties and larger groups. The conflict is perceived as both an interpersonal problem and a group level problem. Attempts to resolve these conflicts are significantly at the interpersonal level in the form of communicative contact experiences that seek to change relationships in the hope that such changes will find their way to group levels. If intergroup contact of any sort (problem-solving groups, dialogue groups, civil society) is going to claim efficacy then there must be some principled relationship between interpersonal interactions and the larger world of social structure. This calls to mind work by Giddens on the relationship between communicative interactions and the pre-existing structural world (e.g. “culture,” “ethnicity”). Sociologists refer to this as the micro-macro link and the connections between the real-time world of individuals and the larger world of social structure. Conflict resolution experiences rely on interdependence between forms of interpersonal communication and broader group goals. For example, communicative contact between conflicting groups can have multiple goals. One goal can be immediate and concern change or attitude adjustment on the part of those participating in the communicative encounter, while a broader goal is concerned with the relationship between the communicative encounter and the conflict as a whole. Israeli and Palestinian high school students, for example, might interact in order to appreciate each other’s values and culture, and then have mechanisms to return to their home communities to transfer their experiences and widen the impact. A macro category such as “Israeli” or “Palestinian” serves as a shorthand for numerous micro communication and cultural behaviors. This leaves room for definition and change of meaning.

The term interaction ritual from Goffman refers to the motivations, resources, and messages of language users who are parties to conflicts to produce histories, cultural content, and stored memories. Ethnopolitically divided groups distort these processes on the basis of attribution errors, incompatible narratives, interpretive disjunctions, incomplete scripts, biased indexicality, and perceptual biases thereby producing dangerous, damaging, and inaccurate macro categories. Some interaction ritual chains (e.g. mutual victimization claims) are counterproductive and circulate in the larger community thereby perpetuating the conflict. Controlled encounters designed for positive change have new interaction rituals as a goal. A category for the other group such as “violent,” “backward,” “manipulative,” “deceptive,” or “rigid” contain the reality that lives in the network of communicative relationships. By changing the interaction rituals and activating the network of communicative relationships it’s possible to alter the group’s reality and alter the categories of meaning that sustain the intensity of the conflict. Macro categories of meaning (gender, ethnicity, group identification) are enfolded into individuals and displayed in communicative practices. Biased meanings are thus easily foregrounded in the context of ethnopolitical conflicts.

For example, one of the macro meaning categories for intractable conflicts in general, and the Israelis and Palestinians in particular, is “victimhood.” (See Eidelson and Eidelson for more on victimhood.) Victimhood is that state where groups feel a loss or sense of insecurity and diminished self-worth because of aggressive outsiders. Each group feels as though victimhood correctly characterizes their condition. Third person affects and group level perceptions supports the notion that even when individuals do not feel victimized, they believe that victimization characterizes their group. Typically, ethnopolitically divided groups argue about who has suffered more and “compete” for the most victimized status. The macro category “victim” serves as a short hand for a compilation of micro-experiences. Talk in localized contexts produces interaction ritual chains that circulate like capital between micro-and macro levels of reality. By changing the interaction rituals group members can change the nature of the circulating symbolic capital. Just as the label describing someone’s personality (e.g., friendly, aggressive, authoritarian) is an encapsulation of interaction encounters, so too are macro descriptive terms of group experiences. Conflict resolution is about changing communicative relationships in micro-contexts so that the phenomenological reality of the concept changes at the macro level.



A Third Narrative for Israel-Palestine


The Third Narrative


Anyone interested in the Middle East these days will be subjected to a relentless barrage of accusations against Israel on the Web, on campus and in other settings. Some of these attacks come from the far left, from activists trying to appeal to Jews and non-Jews who are committed to human rights and social justice.

Often, these critics are not just attacking specific, objectionable Israeli policies and behavior. They treat Israel as the epitome of evil. They portray the entire Zionist enterprise, from the 19th century to the present, as nothing more than a racist, colonialist and immoral land theft. Many are active in the movement of Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, calling Israel an Apartheid state.

At Ameinu, a North American Jewish organization that supports progressive causes in Israel, the U.S. and Canada, we have often criticized Israeli policies and behavior, including settlement expansion, racism against Arabs and crony capitalism. But we believe too many of Israel’s left-wing critics cross the line that separates legitimate, productive criticism from polemical, inaccurate and unfair attacks.

At the same time, too many voices of those who reflexively support –or passively accept—the Israeli occupation and the morally indefensible status quo in the Palestinian territories are going unanswered.

The Third Narrative initiative is our response to this situation. We hope to engage people on the left who suspect that it is wrong to lay all blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict at the feet of Israeli Jews…but aren’t sure how to respond to Israel’s most vitriolic critics. Some of what these critics say is true, some of their accusations are justified. Some of what Israel’s traditional defenders say is also accurate. When it comes to this conflict, the truth is rarely black or white; it resides in a gray area where advocates on either side typically don’t like to venture. That is where we try to go with The Third Narrative.

We feel a deep connection to the Jewish state and the Jewish people. We are also committed to social justice and human rights for everyone. Some say those commitments are contradictory, that particularist attachments to a state or a people can’t be reconciled with universal values. Our response is that belonging to a people, a community larger than ourselves, is a basic human need –indeed, it is our right. And balancing our communal attachments with a commitment to humanity as a whole is our responsibility.

In fact, our ties to Israel might make us even more disturbed by its current direction than those that have no ties to it. But we are alarmed by the increasingly widespread rhetoric that refuses to recognize any justification whatsoever for Israeli positions or the Jewish state. And we think the American left –Jewish and non-Jewish—could use a third narrative, one that neither reflexively attacks nor reflexively justifies Israeli policies and actions.

For more information, please contact us.



Covering Israel: Western Democratic Traditions and Moral Failings

Times Opinion pageThe Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always here. It continues year after year as populations everywhere grow weary. The other issue that is always with us is the charge of biased news coverage. Large numbers of people will charge, for example, the New York Times with blatant bias and their fury seems to jump from the page. The next day another group will accuse the Times of being the mouthpiece for Israel. You can’t win and you don’t know who to believe. Margaret Sullivan of the New York Times recently expressed similar frustrations in an article called “The Conflict and the Coverage.”

Frustrating and futile as it seems to be, newspapers of quality such as the New York Times must continue to grapple with how they can do better. And they must continue to search for standards that ensure balance, context, and accuracy. Even though we have a tradition of aspiring to objective journalism the public remains ignorant about how journalists actually work, not to mention the difference between “bias” and “perspective.” Moreover it is impossible to write a story from a perspective that matches everyone. But let me suggest to you three good reads on the matter of covering Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The first one we mentioned above is Margaret Sullivan who is the public editor for the New York Times. Sullivan concludes that The Times does everything in its power to be fair and does have a basic worldview that Israel has a right to exist. This assumption puts them at odds with radical critics of Israel such that nothing The Times does will be satisfactory. She makes four suggestions: (1) provide more historical and geopolitical context, (2) improve the engagement between the newspaper and the public so that the public can ask questions and learn more about journalists, (3) improve the coverage of Palestinians, and (4) stop straining for equivalencies. In other words, take a stand when defensible and necessary.

If you want a perspective from a blogger strongly supportive of Israel who corrects biases and misunderstandings then go to “How Not to Report on Israel (and How It Can Be Done Correctly”). You will not find detailed data and argument on the site but you will find the perspective of a cultural native who is tapped into the consciousness of Israel. This is a useful perspective because many journalists covering the Middle East have a modest at best working knowledge of history, culture, language. This may not be true of journalists such as Thomas Friedman but he is an exception as well as an editorial writer which allows him to stay above the fray; that is, he is rarely if ever on the ground reporting facts.

A final reading is from Tablet magazine entitled “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth.” In this essay a former AP correspondent explains how so much of the reporting fails to understand Israel. Yet the international media is consistent in its reporting and suggests a narrative or an understanding of Israel that is largely misdirected. First, so many media assumes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more important than others where more people die and the politics are more contentious. This “magnification” process often associated with the media is truly operational here. The conflict also garners attention because it takes place in the center of the three Abraham religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and this infuses it with significance. Secondly, it is simply policy to favor stories that are about violence more than peace and reconciliation. When a political party is elected to government and it seeks a moderate path and contact with the Palestinians the story goes untold. This is true, according to Matti Friedman the author of the Tablet story, because of the pressure to maintain the consistent narrative that has the Palestinians as the underdog seeking a home and historical justice, but Israel as difficult and unmoving as it drifts rightward.

The coverage of Israel has moved from fair and supportive to unfair and critical. And no fair treatment of Israel can ignore either its strong Western democratic traditions or its moral failings. But it is also true that Israel is not a symbol for everything right or wrong, good or evil, solvable and not. The coverage of Israel requires some critical empathy on the part of all sides.










Strategies for Hate Applied To Islam

imagesMuslims, for a lot of obvious reasons, have been the recipients of hate crimes and this is quite unfortunate. In addition to old-fashioned violent hate fueled by fierce emotions there is the more benign form of hate that simply tries to dispute Islam’s status as a religion. This is usually the territory of the more educated who are able and patient enough to do close analyses that they consider to be insightful with respect to the “true” nature of the religion. One example of this is Bill Warner who has written about Islam and lays out a rather thorough analysis about how Islam is not really a religion but a political system based in force. Warner thoroughly rejects Islam as a religion and describes it as “warlike,” and concerned predominantly with “annihilating civilizations.” You can watch an interesting video of Warner explaining his position here. Warner masks his extreme hostility to Islam in academic images of critical analysis. He refers to Islam as not coming from the tradition of critical thinking but one of authoritative thinking. He states clearly that Islam is nondemocratic the supply and its alien stance toward the West.

Warner’s analysis is really quite skilled in that he denies the concept of the “golden rule” in Islam because Muslims, according to Warner, do not believe in equality for all. Rather, they believe in equality only for a few and how you are treated depends on what groups and social class you belong to. His “golden rule” example is an appealing comparison that the average reader can relate to. Warner goes on to state emphatically that Islam is primarily interested in destroying civilizations and conquering the world. His arguments play nicely into the hands of those prepared to receive them.

Another hate strategy for anti-Muslim groups is to portray them as strange and alien. Prayer and worship are fundamentally different than the Judeo-Christian tradition and are typically associated with negative traits. Muslims are portrayed as aggressive, irrational, and unsympathetic to violence, child marriage, and the roles of women. Clearly Islam is associated with terrorism and understood as a justification for terrorism. A study on the relationship between hate crimes and terrorism found that a crimes or violence against a group like Muslims do not necessarily lead to or predict terrorist activities. Still, anti-Muslim groups believe that Islam is a danger to the United States and typically think of Muslims as a fifth column waiting in the wings to damage American democracy and Western civilization. Their fears are accompanied by paranoia about population growth that will one day overwhelm majorities.

Finally, Muslim hate groups characterize Islam is an evil religion capable of great violence and hate itself. They presume that Islam has no core human values and is inferior to the West. The Southern Poverty Law Center produces the hate map which identifies various hate groups in different states in the United States. The hate map is an important source of information because people can be easily misled by the skilled rhetoric of those who speak for these groups. Additional Muslim hate groups have been identified and had their rhetoric and strategies exposed.

Hate is an extreme emotion capable of great violence. Yet, I recognize that Islam is currently in the grip of a violent force in terms of Jihadis who do have a violent doctrine with vicious capabilities. But clichéish as it sounds this strand of Jihadi violence is not the essence of Islam. We are not in the midst of a battle for the soul of Islam, but perhaps for the influence of a particular path. Anti-Muslim hate groups must not win undue influence.

Three Dilemmas for Israeli Settlers



Given that the territories are defined as a “frontier land”—neither sovereign nor part of the Israeli official map—their definition is open to construction. Israeli settlers frame three discursive dilemmas they must solve. These three dilemmas are (1) the construction of authenticity, (2) the discourse of marginality including the confrontation with the Palestinians or the “native others”, and (3) the use of rituals and collective memory to normalize life and established cultural and religious authority. Settlers must engage in various sense making patterns in order to facilitate the appropriation of the land.

The Authenticity Dilemma

Ethnoreligious communities are mostly constituted by narratives about their origins. These narratives are composed of bits of history and group identity that are consolidated into a narrative or “imagined community.” Such narratives must be complete and coherent enough to include discourses about belonging, citizenship, culture, as well as position people in relation to one another. These narratives are particularly potent because they clothe power with legitimacy, which is just the discursive puzzle that requires resolution.

The most important settler element of recorded time is the sanctity of the past. The insistence on the divine promise of the land to the Jewish people negates any legal arguments about property rights in the present. The relationship between the land and the Jews is transhistorical and therefore not subject to secular considerations. The land is a heavenly bequest to the Jewish people and their rights can never be relinquished. Moreover, the Jewish people are not “born of the soil” but arrived in the land on the basis of the covenantial relationship with God. In other words, the claim on the land is stronger than mere historical rights. Just as the American Indian cannot claim rights to the land, a Jew could not claim rights to the land of Israel on the basis of historical inhabitants; rather, the Jewish people claim their unique covenantial history and the fact that they created this history.

The solution to the discursive dilemma – the one most fundamentally associated with Jewish authenticity for settlers – about how to reconcile redemption with the institutions of the state lay in pragmatism. Religious settlers would not turn away from the commandment to settle the land, but find a more practical way of fulfilling it. This would be accomplished by the invocation of the security frame.

The Marginality Dilemma

The discourse of marginality is about the relationship between the center and the periphery and how the concept of the periphery, or margin, is essential to the concept of the center. The Palestinians live at the periphery of the environment and this increasingly informs their identity, albeit an undesirable one. The margins of a landscape contain what one is but not what they should be, and the conflict comes from the individual’s struggle against being socialized by the margins. The discourse of marginality depends on comparisons of the center to the margins.

We can borrow some from Gramsci here by pointing out that the marginal or disadvantaged group is in a binary relationship with the dominant group, cut off from most avenues of legitimate participatory politics, especially in the dominant sphere. The discourses that emerge from the authoritative center overwhelm local specificities and place the marginal group in a position that is enervated and without agency.

The Authority Dilemma

Settlers marginalize Palestinians by appealing to authority, but it is an authority that resonates with the settler community and deep elements of the Jewish historical consciousness. In other words, they are unconcerned with the general international community or the public at large and seek a form of self justification based on internal community authority standards. Traditional social movements are more successful when they use frames that are pragmatic for the intended audience. Hence, the appeal to the biblical right to the land or Jewish ethnoreligious roots creates arguments that resonate and converge with the interests of the target settler community.

The dominant settler discourse is built on the premise of biblical promise. It stresses the authority of the Bible and the word of God and projects an unassailable morality and inevitability. The invocation of the Bible and the word of God frames the narrative in language sealed from criticism and scrutiny. By definition, any questioning or challenge is viewed in moral terms and considered unacceptable. In contrast, the Palestinian narrative is less grounded in religious terminology but no less hardened by claims of historical rights.



The Problem with the Concept of “Peace” in Islam

Islam and Peace

Given the contemporary image of Islam as violent, and the current grip that extremist Islam has on the image of Islam, it’s a little difficult to explain that Islam has a preference for nonviolence and forgiveness. But Islam has a long history of reestablishing harmony and solving problems through genuine reformation including the moral courage to sincerely forgive others.

The interpenetration of Islam as a religion and the resolution of secular problems is a core theme in the Islamic definition of peace. Peace in the Islamic tradition is related to God and reflects a higher reality. In the Koran peace is affirmed in many aspects of the language and as a condition of paradise. It is something the innermost person yearns for and it is related to wholeness attained through the relationship with the divine. Now, peace in Judaic or Christian traditions is also a higher-order reality and integral to the primary religious precepts of these religions. But the contemporary problem with conflict resolution in Islam is just such a notion of the divine because the most recalcitrant tension is that peace has been defined as Islamic peace. And making relationships and having a sense of community is based on sharing Islamic principles. Thus there is an inconsistency between theory and practice where both sides, Islam and the West, have arguments between principles and practice and conflict is rooted in these disagreements between how to express and practice the divine. So in extremist Islam jihad is an effort aimed at the more abstract religious principles of the Islamic community and its maintenance (according to the practitioners of this strand of Islam) but it is a practice that justifies violence. Hence, the Muslim extremist and the religious Christian or Jew – or even the secular person – holds the same sense of peace as being integrated into the community but the conflict results from the practice of violence which is justified in one case but certainly not in the other. The jihadist “practice” is not considered acceptable as an expression of the holy Koran by either some other Muslims or group.

There is considerable overlap between the Western conception of peace and the Islamic one but the overlap is not complete. Even the role of acceptable legal precepts and wisdom is valued in Islam above the capricious decisions of dictators or force of the military. Islam has always held its military and check and rejected abuses of power. There is a tradition of positive peace based on the actual practice of justice and not only the absence of arbitrary rule. There has been a long tradition of Islamic scholarship and wisdom, even wisdom in the Western tradition, but the relationship between reason and religion has maintained which is one difference between Islam and the West. This leads to an important difference between Islam and the West which is that reason in the West has been elevated to a more “correct” way of thinking. Passion in Western conflict management is considered disruptive and in need of control. A fundamental difference that accounts for the difficulty and intractability of conflicts between Islam and the West is the thorough integration and wholeness of the concept of peace with religious precepts. Peace is not only the domain of secular social science but peace begins with God and his attained as God calls everyone to the “house of peace.” Peace in Islam is patterned on harmony and religion based integration. The word jihad means to strive for the divine, but from a contemporary Western Islamist perspective has been corrupted by the inclusion of justifiable violence.

Islam also has a tradition of cooperation and coexistence with groups that were either divergent or even antagonistic toward Islamic precepts. There is a discursive tradition in Islam which refers to the “house of peace or truce” and includes issues concerning limits on war, truce with non-Muslims, and general concerns about managing conflicts. But the more dichotomous thinking of fundamentalists currently holds sway because military ideas about jihad have moved to the forefront. It remains true that a conception of peace and conflict management cannot be separated from Muslim discourse. Even the idea of individual freedom in Islam is based on the attainment of freedom as a result of being at peace with and integrated into the broader religious community. Individual freedom clearly is not synonymous with “doing whatever you like.” Rather, individual dignity emerges from the maintenance of harmony between individuals and God. There is in contemporary Islam a tension between using religion to justify violence and actual conflict dynamics. Conflicts are typically rooted in political and economic grievances, but religion is used to intensify attitudes and rally support. Nuance and issue complexity are lost as the discourse gets simpler and adherents become more radicalized. Currently Islamic fundamentalist leaders have made the claim that Muslims are occupied by non-Muslims in foreign lands and oppressed by various transnational governments. Casting such a wide transnational net is unusual and is typically interpreted as exceptional religious vocabulary used to justify violence. But from a dialogue and conflict management perspective using such religious discourse is not unusual. Moreover, the West must approach Islam with respect to pragmatic conflict dynamics (economic, political, and social issues) – including exploring the relationship between the conflict and Islamic principles – in an effort to meet group secular needs while maintaining harmonious relationships within the community. The West after a long period of engagement can turn this tradition to its advantage and the advantage of all.

Educating for Free and Deliberative Speech

Hearing criticisms of your own convictions and learning the beliefs of others are training for life in the multi-faith society. Preventing open debate means that all believers, including atheists, remain in the prison of unconsidered opinion. The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it. John O’Sullivan

indexI have been a pretty standard liberal Democrat all my life, but recently I have been more critical of the left’s retreat from First Amendment protections. I’m talking about the left’s willingness to restrict symbolic expression that is critical of an ethnopolitical group or identity group of any kind. A recent article by John O’Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal takes up the issue of the new limits on free expression in the name of protecting religious and ethnopolitical group sensitivities. The article is an excellent treatment of these issues and I highly recommend it.

The harsh and anti-democratic strand of jihadist Islam has successfully scared enough people into restraining free expression in the form of restricting criticism of religion and political culture. Earlier in the history of free expression, O’Sullivan explains, the predominant restrictions on speech were with respect to obscenity, pornography, and language that was sexually explicit. The purveyors of these restrictions were moralistic and believed themselves to be defending proper standards of society. Political speech was strongly protected. But now, the calls for restrictions are designed to limit the political speech of others and consider off-limits the entire array of topics surrounding religion and politics. Obscene and pornographic speech was limited on the basis of protecting the broad moral foundation of the culture, limiting speech that is critical of religion is justified on the basis of particular groups with each making their own demands.

Burning an American flag is considered political speech and symbolic expression that is protected. I can legally burn the American flag in the center of the town square as a symbolic statement of opposition to some aspect of American foreign policy. But if I burn the Koran, which would still be legal in the United States as politically protected expression, it will cause a different reaction. There is a suggestion that the US endorse an international blasphemy law that would define the Koran as so special that burning it constitutes a particular offense, rather than simply protected symbolic expression.

The traditional approach to protected speech is to ignore the content of speech but simply disallow symbolic expression that will cause imminent danger (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater).Yet feeling free to limit speech because words are supposedly so powerful and dangerous is a slippery slope that will slowly erode freedom.

The Answer: Education

One does not come into the world with established political ideology and sensitivities to managing group differences. Democracy and freedom of speech is advanced citizenship in a democracy and must be taught. Free and open societies, where citizen participation is rich and required, necessitate learning the habits of pluralism and democratic processes. The legal environment surrounding freedom of expression has drifted toward an oversensitivity to categorize speech is injurious and in constant need of management. We should not be in the business of restricting all sorts of pure symbolic behavior. Living amongst one’s fellows in a pluralistic, multi-faith, diverse environment requires living in a world that is not of one’s own making and is constituted by differences. These differences must be managed through the deliberative communication process which is by definition “contestatory.”

The lines and distinctions implied here are difficult. For example, do we allow street gangs to deface public buildings with racist slogans and call it “freedom of expression”? I presume it would be possible to define such activities as sufficiently harmful and capable of producing imminent danger, but it will depend on many factors. Slow and long term as it is democratic cultures must continue civic education that includes democratic values.

If You Were Born in Jerusalem Were You Born in Israel? Maybe not

Jerusalem erased

There is currently a court case in the United States about to be heard by the Supreme Court pertaining to Menachem Zivotofsky who was born in Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem – Western Jerusalem. As reported in the Wall Street Journal on October 31, 2014 Menachem’s parents are US citizens but when they went to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to apply for his passport they listed his place of birth as “Israel.” The consular officials said no. The case is currently under consideration and interestingly is a major issue in foreign policy. Let’s explain with a little background first.

Some Background

Jerusalem from 1517 was part of the Ottoman Empire up until the First World War. It was an international city mostly of interest because of its religious sites traced to the Abrahamic religions. After World War I Jerusalem was part of the British mandate and in 1948 the United Nations partitioned Palestine and Jerusalem was declared a “separate body” with special political status. After the establishment of the State of Israel Jordan controlled East Jerusalem and Israel maintained control in West Jerusalem. Jerusalem was divided for 19 years and after the 1967 war, Israel retook the old city and declared Jerusalem united.

Status of International Law

UN resolution 181 in 1947 declared Jerusalem a “separate entity,” and would be managed on the bases outlined in the United Nations Proposal 181 which concerned the partition of Palestine. Israel has always considered the partition proposal null and void because the Arabs rejected the UN resolution and attacked the new state of Israel. Consequently, separating Jerusalem out as a separate entity was unjustified. Israel was again attacked in 1967 and as result of their victory in the Six-Day War Jerusalem was reunified, or reclaimed by Israelis, as a Jewish city. Since 1967 all residents including Arabs were offered Israeli citizenship, although most of them declined. The Palestinians argue that in violation of United Nations principles Israel acquired land by military means and the unification of Jerusalem was illegal.

Israel in 1980 declared Jerusalem as its eternal capital and made the argument that such claims are rooted in 3000 years of history citing King David, biblical events, the structure of Jewish prayer which turns toward Jerusalem three times a day, as well as the foregrounding of Jerusalem in the thoughts and liturgies of Jews everywhere.

Still, the Palestinian Authority claims all of East Jerusalem including the Temple Mount and maintains that West Jerusalem and its final status can only result from negotiated agreements between the two sides.

So What Is to Become of young Menachem Zivotofsky?

The United States prefers Jerusalem to remain an international city with final status to be the result of negotiations. It does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel according to international law. The United States position is specific in that it supported the partition plan but not UN control of Jerusalem. The US also objected to all unilateral action, including moving its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, that made decisions for Jerusalem outside the boundaries of negotiated agreements.

US foreign policy became entangled in this issue when Congress passed a law in 2002 that directed the State Department to allow US citizens born in Jerusalem to identify “Israel” as their place of birth. This allowed people like Mr. Zivotofsky to self identify. But the Bush and Obama administrations have refused to implement the rule claiming their exclusive powers in foreign policy and avoiding antagonizing the Arab world by maintaining the international standing definition of Jerusalem.

As of now, Jerusalem remains a potentially contentious definitional issue with much of the world automatically associating it with Israel and other parts of the world refusing. It has found its way into a political battle between Congress and the presidency with respect to who is most authoritative when it comes to directing the nation’s foreign affairs. Can the executive branch just ignore Congress, and can Congress direct legislation over the head of the President. These are the matters influencing the Supreme Court decision while Menachem Zivotofsky waits to see where he was born.


The Klinghoffer Opera and History


distorted historyWe have become so committed to the fluid and malleable sense of history that the existence of facts or truth has lost its moorings and, more than that, you are considered unreconstructed if you believe in such things. This is especially true in academia where the “social construction of reality” rules the day. History is considered to be the result of myths, subjective narratives, flawed memory, social construction, or written by the victors with all of their self-serving perspective.

I’m thinking in particular about the Klinghoffer Opera currently being staged at the Metropolitan in New York. This is a controversial opera by John Adams called “The Death of Klinghoffer” which has generated protests in New York and demonstrations in front of the Met. These protesters take serious objection to the portrayal of the Palestinian terrorists who killed Leon Klinghoffer on the cruise ship Achilles Lauro. Note: I have not seen the Klinghoffer Opera but I’m not writing about it as if I had. You can read some background on the controversy here.

Very briefly, in 1985 Palestinian terrorists hijacked the cruise ship Achilles Lauro and singled out Jewish passengers. One passenger was a wheelchair bound Jew by the name of Leon Klinghoffer. The terrorists shot Klinghoffer in the head and threw him and his wheelchair overboard. It has always been considered a vicious act of murder, terrorism, and anti-Semitism.

The opera “The Death of Klinghoffer first appeared in 1991 and it was accused of sanctioning blatant murder and rationalizing and legitimizing the terrorism that took place on the Achilles Lauro. The play apparently was sympathetic or at least asked the audience to consider its sympathies for the Palestinians. The opera has since been edited with scenes removed and is being re-staged at the Metropolitan Opera. John Adams, the composer of the opera, and the librettist Alice Goodman have been accused of portraying false moral equivalence between the historical plight of Jews and that of the Palestinians. Adams talks about his work in the opera here.

The Klinghoffer daughters stated that the opera “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it. The political approach of the composer and librettist is evident with the opera’s disingenuous and dangerous juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded, terrorist murder of an innocent disabled American Jew.” The arts are central to the full expression and comprehension of political issues, but the Klinghoffer Opera does not critically examine world events; rather, it rationalizes violence and manipulates the historical truths that make up the Palestinian narrative.

History As a Lump of Clay

History can be changed and molded and even if it isn’t particularly easy, over time, and with systematic efforts, what was once true can now be false. The campaign against Israel and the redefinition of Zionism and the historical plight of the Jews is relentless. Even the Holocaust, which is associated with Jewish particularity and the primary stimulus for the creation of the state of Israel, of which there is reams of evidence, is chipped away at, challenged, denied, and ultimately turned back on the Jews. The Palestinians now blatantly claim that they were put in internment camps by Israelis and suffered the same Holocaust.

These issues remain difficult because a committed group of people can always be relied on to daze and confuse others. And they will always be successful with at least some group of people. Part of the answer is to become more rigorous about language. We must continue to try and recognize the distinction between narrative and flagrant manipulation. Of course, the hell of it is that we will never be completely successful at such a distinction. But we must try.

Social Media Does Damage to the Israeli-Palestinian Debate

I always tell students or groups that I am speaking to not to fall into the trap of communication ideology. By ideology I mean slavish adherence to a set of beliefs about how communication works. One piece of communication ideology is that the more opportunity for communication the better; that is, all opportunities and technological availabilities devoted to the increase in communicative contact are by definition “good.” For example, some of the most current and interesting research procedures have graphically displayed how contact in the world of social media has detracted from Israel-Palestine debate. An article at on how social media makes the debate worse explains how polarization is on the increase and there is even less contact between the opposing sides. The article makes the argument that social media makes things worse between Israel and Palestine. How can that be?

The graph in this link displays clusters of contact and those locations in the graph where there are large gaps between clusters are indicators of lack of contact. In those places where contacts cluster each point in the cluster has lots of neighbors; that is, there are groups of connections that increase the likelihood of additional connections. This creates clusters and indicators and there is strong and regular reciprocal contact between members of that cluster neighborhood. In effect, it is an empirical indicator of the confirmation hypothesis or the fact that people turn to those like them for evidence to confirm their beliefs and ignore others with opposing views.

The data displays in the two links are a visualization of the results of analysis of the interactions between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups. As the graph depicts, each camp talks mostly to those in their preferred camp. This difficult and violent conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has entrenched each side in its own discourse such that they spend most of their time reinforcing each other. It is also a rather dramatic display of the lack of cooperation between the two sides. The flow of information between these two politicized camps is stunted. This results in members of each camp living within a bounded community of language and ideas related to the conflict and, most importantly, never getting beyond the limits of their own thinking and information. The matrix of ideas and attitudes they live in may be defensible, but if they don’t see the language and matrix of ideas from the other side than they do not have a full picture of the conflict. To put it simply, cooperation and engaged problem-solving will not result when the two sides share such little common information.

One response to this problem is to improve the media environment such that each has more access to the same media. Middle ground media typically fail to gain the energy and intensity of partisan media but they are more effective as bridging structures: in other words, bridging structures or bridging discourse connects groups and exposes them to opposing viewpoints. As of now, social media is failing miserably because it is simply one more mechanism of providing exposure and reinforcement to those who already agree with you. It is, in Dryzek’s words, bringing forth more “bonding” discourse which unites people of similar dispositions but divides them from others. Bridging discourse is harder work because it must understand the other group and build a bridge – a discursive bridge – between the two divided groups. The simplistic theory of social media, that it would facilitate an open flow of contact, gives way to a more realistic theory that demonstrates how people affirm what they already believe.

Lotan’s research in the first link above offers up strong evidence that partisans from the two sides rarely talk to one another. Moreover, the more you are committed and ego involved in a political issue the more likely you are to ignore evidence to the contrary and resist making the other side look good. Some of these cluster networks maintain a cycle of self-reinforcement that keeps each side trapped in his or her discourse. We could say that a tribal mentality continues.
















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