Monthly Archives: May 2011
The Reckless Rhetoric Designed to Rattle Obama
The rhetorical campaign to smear Obama continues. Remember Obama only said that some sort of two state solution would involve the 1967 borders. Very few people who do not have an ax to grind thought anything about these comments. Almost all discussions of the two state solution or final agreement on boundaries involves the 1967 borders. The 1967 borders provide a discussion framework and it has always been assumed that adjustments will result in accordance with the needs of both sides. Again, no serious discussion of two states, by serious I mean considered genuinely by both sides, assumes a return to the 1949 Armistice lines.
Those of you who have enjoyed walking around the old city having a coffee while the great rich mixture of life passes by, need to remember that if Israel returned to 1967 borders you would be enjoying that cup of coffee in Jordan not Israel. That’s all Obama said, but those who do not want to make any concessions or who simply do not consider Obama a friend of Israel want to delegitimize him rhetorically. Listen to Caroline Glick below as reported on Isranet. She claims that Netanyahu was blindsided by Obama after Netanyahu spoke softly about concessions and settlements. She attacks Obama for not accepting assurances and then trashes him for it.
For two and a half years, the Obama administration has refused to recognize and reaffirm these assurances. Then last week in his State Department speech, President Obama definitively trashed them. He declared that the Arab-Israeli conflict should indeed be resolved along “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”
Here is Glick again but claiming Obama to be soft on Arabs and the Arab world. Same old phony charge about liberals being weak. Tell it to Mubarak and Osama bin Laden.
Since he assumed office, Obama has been traveling the world apologizing for America’s world leadership.
Next is Charles Krauthammer in his regular drumbeat of Obama criticism. He is not even correct. Obama came forward and said the whole thing means nothing more than the parties themselves will negotiate from the 67 borders and agree on any changes. This sounds sensible. Listen to Krauthammer’s harsh rhetoric. The two sides do not go back to 1967 borders just because one side does not agree. That’s what mutually means. Both sides have to agree. Obama says in the quote below that by definition the two sides will negotiate a border different from 67. How much clearer does he need to be?
Nothing new here, said Obama three days later. “By definition, it means that the parties themselves–Israelis and Palestinians–will negotiate a border that is different” from 1967.
It means nothing of the sort. “Mutually” means both parties have to agree. And if one side doesn’t? Then, by definition, you’re back to the 1967 lines.
Here’s Krauthammer making statements about the status of the negotiation that are inconsistent with everyone. His rhetorical ploy here is to assume that this is what Obama believes and it is therefore dangerous. What is the evidence that Obama has moved the goalposts with respect to the right of return? Does Krauthammer really believe that Obama supports allowing millions of Palestinian refugees for the last three generations to return to Israel? This just is not going to happen. It is well accepted in both Israeli and Palestinian circles that a group of people called the Palestinians were disadvantaged and displaced during Israel’s war of Independence. Some sort of reconciliation or compensation is necessary. It is an issue in the negotiations. Moreover, most Palestinians did flee and were not driven out, although a small amount probably where as Benny Morris reports. This is the demographic issue and of course if millions of Palestinians flowed back into Israel then Israel would cease being a Jewish state.
Obama also moved the goal posts on the so-called right of return. Flooding Israel with millions of Arabs would destroy the world’s only Jewish state while creating a 23rd Arab state and a second Palestinian state–not exactly what we mean when we speak of a “two-state solution.” That’s why it has been the policy of the U.S. to adamantly oppose this “right.”
Krauthammer is being nothing but provocative by claiming that Obama holds positions that he doesn’t and extreme ones at that. Krauthammer cares little about nuanced argument and more about demonizing his opponent.
Walter Russell Mead likens Obama to Charles II.
“Here lies our sovereign king,” wrote the Earl of Rochester about King Charles:
Whose word no man relies on.
Who never said a foolish thing
Or ever did a wise one.
It turns out that all you need to know about Walter Russell Mead is his quote below. Again the interest is in character assassination and describing the other as so extreme as to be unacceptable. There is very little argument here.
Internationally, this matters a great deal; domestically it matters even more.… As the stunning and overwhelming response to Prime Minister Netanyahu in Congress showed, Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America.…
Once you make the argument from exceptionalism, the conversation is over. What else is there to say? What argument can be made? After all, we are exceptional and the normal rules don’t apply.
Obama is Israel’s friend
When Obama says things like, “friends can disagree” he means
it. His relationship with Israel is no different than that between two friends
who argue politics, often think the other is crazy, but each is the first to
call the other in time of trouble. Each trust the other with their children and
realize, even if unspoken, that the strength of the relationship overshadows
Conservative Republicans and blind Israel supporters continue to cast Obama in the role of Israel’s antagonist.They embrace Netanyahu and criticize Obama. Obama is regularly cast as unsympathetic toward Israel or, worse, ignorant of Israel’s true security
needs. Those on the fringe end of the conservative spectrum, the ones that call
Obama a socialist, continue to believe that Obama prefers international liberal
rights to individual group rights. Consequently, they assume Obama is willing
to kick Israel to the curb while placating Arabs and the international left.
Obama’s comment about a two state solution with 1967 borders set off a
firestorm of fear that Obama truly did not understand Israel’s needs.
Those of us who spend many waking hours thinking, or writing, or teaching about these issues were surprised at the reaction to the 1967 borders. The suggestion that a two state solution use borders somewhere along the 1967 lines is so common in the literature and in
discussions about resolving the conflict that the statement washed right over
me. Most people, including the majority of the Israeli public, prefer a two
state solution with borders being defined as somewhere along 67 lines. It never
occurred to me, or to most people that I talk to, that the borders would be
exactly the old 1967 borders. Netanyahu is correct that those borders would not
be sufficiently defensible. But with buffer zones, electronic surveillance, and
land swaps it’s possible to establish borders for a Palestinian state. To
pounce on this single statement was simply inaccurate and unfair.
Moreover, Obama’s has made some very supportive statements. And playing
politics or simply grubbing for the Jewish vote does not explain these comments
because they commit Obama to a course of action. Hence Obama told AIPAC that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.” This is
an unbelievably provocative statement and probably will not be included in some
final two state solution. Obama has stated clearly that borders from 1967 are
subject to negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians in order to determine
a final status. Any ultimate solution will be negotiated with the Israelis and
Palestinians. I trust Israel will do nothing that undermines its own security.
What more could Obama do with respect to the “Arab spring?”
He has chastised Assad; he has encouraged Yemen’s president Saleh to leave
office; he has supported the people in the streets in Tunisia and Egypt.
Calling on him to send in troops or overtly assert American power is simply
politically irresponsible. Obama has recognized emphatically the special
relationship between Israel and the United States.
Obama is not trying to appeal to everyone. He is encouraging the
Israelis to make necessary movements in an effort to stimulate discussion.
Right now nothing is going on. Netanyahu is not going to negotiate with a
Palestinian government that includes Hamas; he’s adamant about 67 borders not
being defensible so he wants to encroach into land east of Jerusalem toward the
Jordan River. The Arab world is in flux so it does not seem to be the time for
discussions. I credit Obama was trying to encourage additional contact.
Having said all this, I’m sure Netanyahu is not Obama’s favorite
international leader. Obama does have a more accommodating and diplomatic style
whereas Netanyahu knows exactly what he thinks and has little interest in
modifying it. But Obama believes that he is serving the needs of peace and
thereby the needs of Israel. He has acknowledged the problems of dealing with
Hamas. He knows that the 67 borders will require adjustments and land swaps.
And Obama supports and has stated as such Israel’s right to be a Jewish and
democratic state, including its capacity to defend itself. This is important
because the Jewish nature of the state remains problematic. Israel faces
tremendous demographic pressures as well as political ones that threaten the
Jewish and democratic nature of the state. Netanyahu is making a mistake if he
thinks the special nature of the US – Israel relationship means he can behave
any way he wants. The world grows weary of this conflict and is already turning
its attention elsewhere, and everyone’s patience has limitations.
Obama was very helpful to Israel by avoiding issues such as the Arab
Peace Initiative, settlements, and discussion of refugees. It takes leadership
to talk about the Middle East “as it should be.” Obama recognizes
that the current situation is untenable, and that the September UN vote will
precipitate many problems. Of course, Obama’s primary lesson is to value human
rights over locked-jaw nationalism. And his summoning of American freedom
fighters and references to the Boston Tea Party, Rosa Parks, and the Tunisia
street vendor whose defiance sparked the Arab spring is to be applauded.
Obama and the 1967 Borders
Apparently, Obama touched a nerve by mentioning the 1967 borders. I listened to the speech and did not think much of it. Most of what I heard has been said before and was consistent with the two state solution proposal which I support. Frankly, I was a little surprised at the reaction to the 1967 borders comment by the president. A solution that has borders somewhere near the 1967 borders is so common in negotiation circles that no one who pays attention to these matters could have been surprised.
Netanyahu reacted strongly because he does not want to begin negotiations or assume that final borders will be along 1967 lines. Netanyahu would like to have an Israeli presence further east toward the Jordan River and makes a security argument. Such an argument is defensible. The vehemence toward Israel by the Arab world in general and the Palestinian Authority in particular is palpable. I have provided an abbreviation of a report below that demonstrates this point. The distortions of history and politics and culture are so great in Palestinian Authority media that it seems difficult to imagine sensible negotiation. In an earlier post I was supportive of the unity government between Hamas and the PLA. Others have joined me in believing that such a unity government must be developed before there can be any real conflict resolution. But I support the convergence of Hamas and the PLA only because I think it’s a necessary road to accommodation. Hamas clearly must evolve and accept Israel’s right to exist. As of now, they are a long way from that.
In the meantime, language and distortions such as that reported in the Palestinian media – see below – must change.
If you read the report, one can easily imagine the 1967 border lines as offering insufficient defense of Israel.
The full report can be retrieved at Isranet here.
THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL
IN PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY IDEOLOGY AND EDUCATION
Itamar Marcus & Harel Zioni
Palestinian Media Watch, May 18, 2011
On the occasion of the 63rd anniversary of Israel’s independence, Palestinian Media Watch has prepared a comprehensive report describing how the establishment of the state [of Israel] is depicted in the Palestinian Authority’s educational system and official media, both of which operate under the supervision of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The report documents how the establishment of Israel and its continued existence are demonized by spokesmen and representatives of the PA in the official controlled media.
The report does not include quotes from the media controlled by Hamas, since the Hamas position concerning Israel’s existence is well-known and its charter calls for the destruction of Israel. The aim of the report is to document the PA positions expressed in internal Palestinian discourse in Arabic that are not expressed to the outside world. The report focuses on statements by senior PA officials, columnists in the official PA press, and program hosts and reporters on PA TV, from 2010-2011.
“The Zionist gangs stole Palestine…and established the state of Israel”–this quote, from an official PA 12th Grade schoolbook, is an accurate depiction of how the PA educates its population to view the establishment of the State of Israel. Presenting the creation of the state as an act of theft and its continued existence as a historical injustice serves as the basis for the PA’s non-recognition of Israel’s right to exist.
In order to create an ideological basis for this, the PA denies there was an ancient Jewish history in the Land of Israel and also distorts modern history, presenting Zionism as a demonic Nazi-like phenomenon. In order to explain what made Jews come to Israel, since they claim there was no historical connection to draw them, Zionism is presented as a colonialist movement created by the West to further its interests.… Israel is further demonized through images and descriptions, such as “the foster child of the Nazis,” “an organized terror state,” “the cruelest enemy,” etc. Accordingly, the idea of the State of Israel ceasing to exist is presented as the achievement of justice.
Today, following the establishment of a Fatah and Hamas unity government, many countries are demanding that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist as a condition for the world’s recognition of their new government. Ironically, this very condition is violated daily by the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas.
1. “THE ZIONIST GANGS STOLE PALESTINE”
“The Zionist gangs stole Palestine” is a quote from a Palestinian Authority official 12th-Grade schoolbook. It encapsulates how the PA views–and educates its population to view–the establishment of the State of Israel.… The establishment of the state is presented as the result of crime, robbery and theft by foreigners with neither the right nor any historical connection to the place, with the deliberate aim of harming the Arab inhabitants of the land. The term “Zionist gangs” is prevalent in Palestinian discourse and refers to the generation that founded the state. The word “theft” refers to the acts of developing the land and establishing the state.
2. NOT RECOGNIZING ISRAEL’S RIGHT TO EXIST
In order to substantiate the claim that the establishment of the State of Israel was an act of theft, the PA engages in historical revision. The ancient Jewish history in the Land of Israel is erased, while modern Jewish history is distorted in order to present Zionism as a demonic phenomenon.
Thus, the PA leadership creates the ideological basis for negating Israel’s right to exist. PA spokesmen have claimed that the Jewish nation is an “invented nation,” intended to justify Zionism; this ignores the reality of Zionism as the expression of the aspirations of the Jewish people returning to its homeland. This…erasure of the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel results in the verdict that the State of Israel has no right to exist.
3. ESTABLISHMENT OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL PRESENTED AS “COLONIALIST” PLAN
In order to explain Israel’s existence as a country of immigrants who have no connection with the land, the claim is made–in President Mahmoud Abbas’s name–that “the Zionist movement is not Jewish, nor did it flow from the desire of the Jews themselves; rather, it was an imperialist colonialist movement which sought to use the Jews and to enlist them for the benefit of the west’s colonialist plans.” (See source below.) In other words, the State of Israel is the result of an international imperialist plot. The PA argues that the countries of Europe (led by Britain) tried to rid themselves of the Jews, who were a burden to them. They wanted a foreign body in the heart of the Arab world and establishing a state for the Jews there served this colonialist purpose.
4. DEMONIC IMAGES AND DESCRIPTIONS OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL
The Palestinian Authority demonizes Israel through horrific visual images and descriptions….
The following are some examples:
Coordinator of the Prisoners’ Committee of the National and Islamic Parties, Yasser Mazhar, on behalf of the Committee: “Israel is the foster child of Nazism, and a strategic ally of racism, which has disappeared from the world–except for there.” [Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, July 27, 2010]
Jamal Tamimi, a lecturer in communications at Al-Quds University, responding to the question, Where is Israel is headed? “To what is beyond Hitlerism, what is beyond fascism, what is beyond Nazism.” [PA TV (Fatah), Oct. 12, 2010]
Senior Fatah member, Marwan Barghouti, serving 5 life sentences in Israel for his involvement in terror activities, in an interview from prison: “The great Palestinian people–generators of the longest armed revolution in modern history, and proprietors of the two mightiest and greatest Intifadas in the region, facing the cruelest enemy and Zionist settlement colonialism that is unparalleled in the modern history of colonialism…” [Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Sept. 28, 2010]
5. JUSTICE WILL BE ACHIEVED WHEN ISRAEL CEASES TO EXIST
The Palestinian Authority policy is to present the conflict with Israel as a struggle between Palestinians who are said to be innocent, with justice on their side, and Israel, which is said to be oppressive and cruel, void of legitimate rights. For this reason, the PA objective–having a world without the State of Israel–is not perceived as negative or unjust towards the citizens of Israel. Rather, it is presented as the attainment of historical justice.
How Do You Get from Chomsky to bin Laden?
One of the valuable pieces of intelligence found by the Navy Seals in bin Laden’s hideaway was a copy of Noam Chomsky’s book. Apparently, when Osama wanted to do some light reading he put his feet up and popped open a little Chomsky. Or there might even be times when Osama needed an ideological boost. Perhaps he became too comfortable with Coca-Cola and computer technology – all creations of the imperialistic west – and felt himself faltering ideologically. Chomsky would surely roust you out of your ideological stupor and have you back on the track of a revolutionary utopia in no time.
Hugo Chavez was also a Chomsky fan and tried desperately to get George Bush to read it. What is it about Chomsky that makes him so appealing to authoritarian leaders? Well, on one hand, it’s simple. Chomsky is a scathing critic of the United States and provides authoritarian leaders with intellectual sustenance. Chomsky argues that American media operates essentially on a propaganda model. This means that the US uses the media as a nonviolent means of control, similar to totalitarian governments, and that American propaganda is a weapon in the same way that totalitarian leaders use guns as weapons. Read more about the propaganda model here. Chomsky has been a critic of about every aspect of United States including its war on terrorism, activities in the Middle East, anti-Semitism, Cuba, globalization, and numerous other political topics.
But Chomsky’s critique of American politics and foreign policy is not my main concern. We should not forget that Chomsky is an intellectual and an academic in the purest sense of the terms. It is his job to tell us what he thinks. There are more than a few spots where he makes sense or touches on a nerve of truth.
Chomsky and bin Laden: Opposites Attract?
Interestingly, it would be possible to put Chomsky and bin Laden on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. What could they possibly have in common? I mean Chomsky is a classic leftist urging revolution to overturn repressive rule of czars or presidents or whomever. He calls for class warfare and for the oppressed of the world to rise up and break their chains. It is a secular ideology that “never met a minority group that wasn’t oppressed.” The PLO is one such example of the secular leftist group with an agenda and political perspective left over from the Cold War. During the life of the Soviet Union most politically motivated violence was inspired by repressive political systems such as the Soviets. But there is a difference between politically motivated violence and terror. The Cuban revolution was politically motivated and designed to amass the military and political forces necessary for political change. But it was not “terror” in the sense that we use the word today; that is, the killing of innocents for the purpose of sowing fear. I realize that the word “terror” has become a broad metaphor for any type of violence one opposes. But if we cling to the most typical definition of terror, then it does not include cases of violence between recognized military units or those situations where a populace is protecting itself against a repressive government. Religion, in the case of secular leftists, was used in the service of oppressive governments to pacify a populace, or was out rightly banned and discouraged.
What could all this have to do with bin Laden? What would bin Laden get out of Chomsky other then harsh criticism of the United States? Bin Laden is extremely religious and wants to replace governments with religious polities. Bin Laden’s battle for the sensitivities of others is filtered through the prism of religion; Chomsky’s battle for the sensitivities of others is filtered through the prism of capitalism. Bin Laden, unlike Chomsky, is a conservative force who wants to religiously constrain the behaviors of citizens and governments. Bin Laden does not want to “free” a public – except in the most metaphorically stretched sense of the term used mostly as a rhetorical trick – he wants to confine them in the narrow religious world.
The answer to what these two find in each other probably lives in the mind of the “true believer.” Both Chomsky and bin Laden have clearly defined and rigid political ideologies that are considered true with the capital “T.” As the secular social justification for violence has passed with the third wave of democracy and the demise of the Soviet Union, the true believer must find a new ideology to legitimize himself. This at least partially explains the rise in Islamic extremism. Chomsky’s secular revolutionary belief system may seem incompatible with Islam, but they have deep kinship when it comes to the justification of violence. Both consider themselves to be arguing for utopias, although both would strenuously disagree with the use of the word utopia in an unattainable sense, and both believe that violence is justified. In fairness to Chomsky, he calls for anarchy rather than terror but bin Laden sees the two as conflated.
Chomsky and bin Laden share the mentality of true believers. That’s what they see in each other, that’s the foundation of bin Laden’s attraction to Chomsky; true believers have fanatical faith and extravagant hope. This is what binds the oneness of opposites and makes it possible for the conservative bin Laden to find common cause with the liberal Chomsky. There’s a great passion and great attraction to those who believe strongly in something. The high diction of “sacrifice” and “commitment” accompanies the true believer and the appeal is mesmerizing.
The appeal is mesmerizing but potentially dangerous. For as Hoffer wrote:
The true believer is “without wonder and hesitation.” “An active mass movement rejects the present and centers its interest on the future.” (p. 82) The mass movement hates independence and individualism.
Even at the risk of glossing over important differences between Chomsky and bin Laden, it bears warning that the mind of the true believer is potentially more dangerous than the politics contained therein.
Hamas and Fatah Unity: Reversing Contamination
The unity and reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas holds promise for the future. Clearly, we have to take a wait-and-see attitude. But I consider it potentially a turning point in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Many Israelis reacted negatively to the news and quickly assumed that Hamas would dominate. But let’s consider a few issues.
First, a united Palestinian people are going to be more responsive to the peace process. Did anyone ever really think the peace process would be successful with Hamas and Fatah separated and in conflict with one another? Did anyone ever really think a solution to the conflict would include a separate West Bank and Gaza, under separate political entities? The unity of Hamas and Fatah was inevitable. This will be especially true if the two groups unite on some fundamental issues regarding the peace process and international recognition. The United Nations and European Union welcomed the efforts toward reconciliation and the possibility for new dialogue.
Everybody with an opinion on this matter could turn out to be wrong. Two possibilities bound the end of the continuum. The worst-case scenario is Hamas overtaking the PLA and the government and security services. Hamas maintains its rigidity and continues to call for the destruction of Israel. Hezbollah continues to prosper in Lebanon and the Islamic Brotherhood gains a stronger foothold in Egypt and provides support for a Hamas driven Palestinian Authority. This scenario will guarantee war, not peace.
The best case scenario, and the one that I think is most likely, is that Hamas is moderated by the PLA and becomes more normally integrated into a Palestinian governing body that realizes the need for certain practicalities. The new Palestinian unity government gains credibility and brings a fresh voice to the peace process. It will take some time for the Palestinian unity government to prove itself to the Israelis. Netanyahu will not go gently into a relationship with Hamas. The Israelis and PLA currently share certain security responsibilities, and it’s hard to imagine continuing this shared security relationship with Hamas. But a Fatah Hamas reconciliation is necessary to a successful peace process. It solves the problem of Israel needing someone to talk to who represents all of the Palestinians.
Hamas is an Islamic militant group and Fatah is a secularist party. The two groups have always opposed one another with respect to tactics and their relationship to Israel. They have separate security systems and there are plenty of stories of Palestinians who are arrested one day by the PLA and the next day by Hamas. But the unity arrangement will strengthen the Palestinians in their quest for a Palestinian state – not two states (Gaza and the West Bank) but one state. This unity agreement could be a new era for the Palestinians.
According to some analysts, it was Hamas who made most of the concessions that enabled the unity agreement. The “Arab Spring” is one reason for this. Hamas fears that the unrest in places like Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria could spread to Gaza and threaten its rule. The PLA needs increased legitimacy. They are perceived as weak and known to have difficulty carrying out legitimate elections. The reconciliation between Hamas and the PLA will present a unified stance for the Palestinians. There is a clever sleight-of-hand operating here also. The United Nations will undoubtedly vote for a Palestinian state in September and this will confer legitimacy on Hamas. Hamas will go from a militant Islamist party steeped in violence with extreme political attitudes that are unsustainable in any context, to an internationally recognized political operation that represents the Palestinian people. Although there is an irony to this, it does pressure Hamas to yield to international demands.
The United States and Israel should see this reconciliation as an opportunity. Hopefully, talks can continue and Hamas will find itself in a situation where it must cooperate and engage with United States and Israel. This will include stronger pressures on Hamas to maintain cease fires, eliminate rocket attacks into Israel, and control violence. There’s a good chance that any resultant political platform will be more consistent with the PLA than Hamas. The hope is that Hamas will not contaminate the PLA, but the influence will run in the other direction.
Hamas and the Theory of Contamination
The argument that this reconciliation will result in something positive is based on the assumption that the PLA will moderate Hamas rather than Hamas “contaminating” the PLA. The theory of contamination is based on the theory of disgust which is explained more here. Briefly, disgust is an evolutionary emotion probably related to knowing what to eat and avoiding food that is bad or contaminated. We always assume that contamination passes from the dirty to the clean and therefore “contaminates” the clean. If I drop a piece of food on the floor, the dirty floor contaminates the clean food. Nobody assumes that cleanliness passes to the dirty and purifies it; the “clean” food does not pass to the dirty floor and make it cleaner.
And so it is psychologically. Things that are considered dirty, harmful, or just plain “bad” are always assumed to contaminate the “good.” A racist will consider his or her neighborhood “contaminated” if a member of an undesirable minority group moves in. Most people assume that Hamas will “contaminate” the PLA. But in the realm of human interaction, in the socio-symbolic world, it is possible to avoid contamination and have influence move in the other direction. The normal theory of contamination would clearly have Hamas contaminating the PLA and making matters worse between Israelis and Palestinians.
But the extension of theories of contamination and disgust into the social world has its limits. It is not inevitable that desirable social processes be contaminated; in fact, contamination as a psychological construct is culturally created. It was learned, and that means it can be unlearned. Let’s hope the PLA can withstand the normal flow of contamination and have a positive influence on the culture of Hamas.
The Power of Communicative Contact
In the movie American History X Edward Norton plays a racist skinhead who goes to jail for killing two African-Americans who tried to rob his house. In prison the Norton character is assigned laundry duties with an African American. As a result, they form an interpersonal relationship and the Edward Norton character is transformed with an expanded view of humanity. Fresh out of prison he returns home to prevent his younger brother from making the same mistakes.
How realistic is this? Is this really the way to reduce prejudice and diminish conflict between groups? Is it typical to have a pleasant interpersonal relationship with a member of another group and then have those positive feelings generalize to all members of the group? It turns out that this is pretty much how it works. It is not typically the case that cordial relations with particular individuals are limited to that context only.
Below is sort of a straightforward summary of the research in this area known as the contact hypothesis. I offer it up here because I believe it is so important. In an earlier post I asked whether or not I was naïve about the power of communication. It turns out that I am not and the research strongly supports this. Intergroup contact does decrease intergroup bias. True, there are conditions in which intergroup contact can increase prejudice and hostility, but this is not very common especially if the contact experience is properly controlled.
In their book, When Groups Meet: the Dynamics of Intergroup Contact, Pettigrew and Tropp organize and summarize the literature on contact. My comments below rely on the research reported in the Pettigrew and Tropp book and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in these issues. One of the first questions to answer is whether or not a quality individual interpersonal relationship with a member of an outgroup generalizes to the entire outgroup. In other words, if an Israeli Jew has a friendly relationship with a Palestinian Arab will that affect the Israeli Jew’s more general attitude about Palestinian Arabs as a group? This is an issue of levels of analysis, or whether or not contact effects transfer. It turns out that they do. Pettigrew and Tropp’s analysis provides strong evidence that positive contact with an individual member of an outgroup generalizes to the outgroup as a whole.
Even more specifically, intergroup contact generalizes to an entire outgroup when that outgroup is a salient or particularly important category. The effects of contact are strongest when the participants are seen as typical members of the group and when membership in a group is important. So, if I am in a communicative relationship with a member of an outgroup and we are talking about issues that perhaps separate us because of our different group memberships, then our group identification has become particularly salient. Under these conditions I am more likely to generalize my experiences to a group beyond my immediate interpersonal relationship.
The next question becomes how do situations affect my interpretations and relationships with others. This is a standard question in the social sciences. Does it matter if I have contact with an outgroup member at work, social event, or neighborhood? Pettigrew and Tropp’s rigorous meta-analysis confirms that attitude change resulting from contact in one situation generalizes to another. This is additional evidence that positive interactive relationships have positive effects beyond the original context situation. It explains why the racist Edward Norton character in the movie referenced above had a positive contact relationship with an African-American in one situation (the prison laundry room) and it both generalized to the entire outgroup of all African-Americans as well as other situations.
A third generalization – referred to as the secondary transfer effect– involves whether contact with members of one outgroup will have any positive transference effects toward members of a different outgroup who were not involved in the original contact. An example of this would be a racist who has biases toward African-Americans has a positive contact experience with an African-American and generalizes that positive contact not only to African-Americans as a group, but to other groups such as Arabs. This secondary transfer, to a group not part of the original contact experience, is supported.
What explains this? Although this effect seems unlikely it’s possible to pose several explanations and Pettigrew and Tropp do so. First, and briefly, there might be an expansiveness effect that encourages a more general reappraisal of attitudes. After positive contact experiences people simply become less provincial. Secondly, prejudices are interrelated with one another. An individual who is prejudice against one group is likely to be prejudiced against others. Given these interconnections, altering attitudes in a positive direction toward one group will have similar effects toward another group.
The evidence is strong that contact generalizes in important ways. I choose to think about this issue as a matter of communication, even though actual communication is rarely, if ever, studied by social psychologists examining intergroup relations. Contact implies some sort of message exchange whether it is simple or complex, otherwise there is no contact. We will return to these issues.