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Psychology Of ( Israeli Palestinian) Conflict

Uploaded 10/15/2023, approx. 22 minute read

Sleepless night as thousands of innocent civilians are slaughtered and massacred in the most horrifying and graphic ways in Israel and in Gaza.

The latest round in a war that has been going on since 1882 when the first Jewish settlers arrived from overseas in occupied land in what used to be at the time Palestine, joining an existing settlement of Jews throughout the Holy Land.

We are all acquainted with the trite and tired arguments on both sides, the Jewish historic right to the land of their forefathers.

The Arabs, who Palestinian, continued presence in the same territory.

The religious edicts regarding a Jewish state in the midst, or amidst the Muslim word, in a front against God's cosmic order and will.

The Jews as the last of the colonialists in Israel is the only remaining colonial outpost in a world that has moved on to other forms of government and other organizing principles.

We all know the grievances, who did what to whom, repeatedly in dozens of bloody drowns, massacring, slaughtering and killing each other, sometimes with glee and joy and sometimes inadvertently and sometimes because there is no other choice.

But beyond the historical and the religious and the political, scientific, theoretical considerations and arguments and debates, beyond the eggheads, butting heads, what do we have?

What is the psychology of this intractable conflict, the longest ongoing conflict in modern history? Why doesn't it seem closer to solution at all?

Israel is not talking about the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Both these peoples lay claim to exactly the same piece of land the size of New Jersey in the United States and both of them demand 100% of this land.

Both parties are intransigent, inflexible, uncompromising, devout in their dedication and commitment to maximizing outcomes at the expense of the other. Both of them regard the situation as a zero-sum game.

Because of this skewed viewpoint, they are incapable of reaching any accommodation, striking a deal of coexistence and perhaps mutual prosperity.

Instead they kill each other's babies and women and the elderly and of course each other's military.

What is the military?

Twenty-year-olds flowering the prime of their lives. This is the military on both sides.

These young men and women are dying and they are dying because of the psychology behind this conflict and that is a topic of today's video.


My name is Sam Vaknin and for a change I am not only the author of Malignant Self-Love, I am not only a former visiting professor of psychology, I am also an Israeli and an analyst of international affairs.

I am trying to balance these two as an Israeli, of course to some extent unbiased, although I am highly critical of Israel, especially in the last 20 or 30 years under the criminal and demented regime of the authoritarian pseudo-dictator or quasi-dictator Benjamin Netanyahu.

But I am trying to balance the fact that I am an Israeli energy with my allegiance to the truth as I see it as an analyst and I hope I will succeed in this delicate, delicate treading of the line in this video.

What goes on in the minds of the Hamas, of the Islamic Jihad, of Fatah, of Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon, in Jordan, Palestinians, in the Diaspora? What goes on in the minds of Jews all over the world, of Israelis, of military service age, of older Israelis? What passes in their minds and what compels them to behave in ways which ultimately are self-destructive and self-defeating?

Because this is going nowhere. This is going nowhere. This is leading to no favorable outcome. This is not self-efficacious. This is ruinous to both parties.

Every decision each of the parties makes, every such decision drives the deciding party closer to the edge of the cliff and very often beyond.

What is behind this essentially suicidal behavior?

It is very telling that both parties have their own suicidal myths, suicidal ideation, which is often coupled with religious righteousness.

Israel has the Masada story, a group of Jewish far-right extremists in today's terms who fought off the famed and celebrated Roman sixth legion in Masada, an outpost in the desert. They succeeded to hold off the hallowed Roman army for a very long time until they had no choice and under the siege they all committed suicide in a suicide pact that is one of the founding myths of Israel, a suicide.

Similarly, in Islam, religious righteousness is associated with Shahada and Jihad. Shahada, which essentially means witnessing, is conducting a life that is right in the eyes of God. But it also means committing suicide in order to further military or political goals, at least that's the interpretation of the hadith.

And Jihad is striving to conduct your life in a way that is good and would incur God's pleasure and approval.

But Jihad is also a holy, righteous religious war in which of course one dies as a Shahid, as a martyr. So death and suicide are at the heart and core of the ethos and the myths that motivate both these people, the Jews and the Palestinians, the Muslims, the Muslim Palestinians.

And so it's a bad starting point.

On both sides there is a trauma response, a fight response.

Both parties, the Jews and the Palestinians, are in the throes or in the wake of trauma. They are in a post-traumatic condition.

Israel is the product of the Holocaust, the greatest and most horrible genocide ever perpetrated.

The Germans killed well over six million Jews in an industrial, heartless, faceless process. The Holocaust is a major trauma.

The entire Jewish people, regardless of its origins, regardless of its locations, is heavily traumatized to this very day. The Palestinians have their nachba, the disaster of the catastrophe of 1948 when they have been expelled from their homes by the advancing Jewish army on the one hand and encouraged by their own arrogant leaders to leave their homes because the Jews will soon be defeated and thrown back to the sea where they came from.

These are two motivating, identity-defining traumas on both sides.

And so the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a form of competitive victimhood. These are two victimhood movements.

There's a clash between two entitled and self-centered victimhood movements.

This competitive victimhood, of course, gave rise to narcissism and psychopathy on both sides.

These movements, Zionism on the other hand, the Arab national movement on the other, they were hijacked by narcissists and psychopaths who currently constitute the leadership on both sides, the Israeli side and the Palestinian side. Thugs, bullies, murderers, dictators in the making, criminals are in charge today of the state of Israel and of all major religious Palestinian movements such as Hamas.

Like every conflict in history, the parties, it gave rise to specific dynamics, psychological dynamics in the parties involved. Conflict triggers narcissistic defenses. Conflict also known as dissonance in clinical terms. Conflict creates cognitive distortions.

In the case of Israel, conflict led to the emergence of grandiosity, a sense of immunity to the consequences of one's actions, a sense of invulnerability and invincibility. All of them, of course, counterfactual. All of them have been falsified on October 7th, but not only in October 7th, on multiple other occasions.

The Israeli army has been repeatedly defeated time and again, and yet this is denied and repressed in the collective Israeli consciousness, refrained as victory.

Similarly, of course, there are cognitive distortions on the Palestinian side, which also involve forms of grandiosity, the belief that the Palestinians are fulfilling some kind of godly or divine mission on earth.

The divide is of cosmic proportions that it signifies some apocalyptic timeline.

These are all grandiose notions for a group of bedraggled, unkempt terrorists who decapitate babies, rape women and kill men in their beds, especially elderly men.

Both parties, therefore, have an impaired reality testing. They're unable to grasp reality as it is because they need to deny it. They need to repress it. They need to reframe it in order to avoid narcissistic injuries and narcissistic modification in public.

Both cultures, the Jewish Israeli culture and even more so, much more so, the Palestinian Muslim Arab culture, are based on shame, on not losing face, on maintaining one's reputation. It's very much a mob, a mafia mentality.

And so they need to ignore reality and to inhabit a fantastic space, a paracosm, in which they are perfect, in which they can do no wrong, in which they are always morally upright.

This impaired reality testing leads to wrong decision making, erroneous choices. It is a path to hell, a hell mutually imposed upon one another.

There's a lot of magical thinking involved.

If I only ignore the Palestinians, they would go away. If we only attack Israel, it will fall apart.

Magical thinking.

My thoughts shape reality. My words have power. I'm going to magically, wizardry, sorcery of sorts, I'm going to transform the world, solve my problems simply by wishing them to go away somehow. And I'm going to act and pretend as if they are no more these problems, these issues. I'm going to besiege the Palestinians in Gaza Strip, well over two million people, most of whom are refugees, 1948, and their children, grandchildren and grandchildren. I'm going to just ignore them, I'm going to besiege them, forget about them. I'm going to annex territory, establish illegal settlements everywhere, because I can. And I can because I want to, and I want to because God is on my side, so is history.

This is magical thinking.

And of course, on the Palestinian side, there's even more magical thinking, even more egregious magical thinking, you know. Magical thinking leads to gradual psychotic break, a departure from reality.

And all activities and all operations are conducted within a mental space that is solipsistic, self contained, self sufficient.

And frankly, insane.

Both parties are demented. Both of them require medication on a regular basis.

They are so divorced from reality and from the mere fact of each other's existence.

And so this leads to reactance.

Rejection is associated in clinical psychology with psychopathy. It's an anti social feature. It involves defiance, consummation, the rejection of authority, the other's authority, defiance against the other, pushing back in your face, see if I care. I'm going to do it regardless of the cost.

On both sides, it's not limited to Israel, although it sounds a lot like Israel.

And so the losses mount and they're enormous.

And the parties are unable to move on.

Unable to move on, Israel has built thriving economy, scintillating cultural sphere, life.

The Palestinians have tried to hope under impossible circumstances.

But both of them are locked into this dance macabre. Both of them are unable to let go of the other because the other, the pernicious nefarious malevolent other, the demonized other has become a determinant of their identity. Their own identity is in opposition to the Israeli, the Israeli as the other.

What does it mean to be a Palestinian if not to hate Israel and oppose it in every way?

Palestinian resistance is Palestinian identity and there's no resistance without Israel and Israelis.

Similarly, the Israelis came to define themselves via their conflict with the Arab world and with the Palestinians.

The two parties, Palestinians and the Israelis, engage in negative identity formation. Identity politics that relies on negating the other, rejecting the other, demeaning and debasing the other, humiliating the other, ignoring and denying the other and ultimately exterminating the other.

But not too fast because what would happen then to one's identity?

One needs an enemy in order to feel that one exists.

It's a form of self-harm and self-mutilation.

Israel is committing suicide by Palestinians and Palestinians are committing suicide by Israel.

It's a form of recklessness, disregard for the consequences of one's actions, no long-term foresight and planning, no intelligence employed or deployed into any of these decisions and choices.

It's short-term. It's knee-jerk. It's impulsive. It's crazy-making. It's acting out. It's decompensation, the loss of all psychological defenses which leads to violent externalized aggression.


And both parties of course react to this ongoing self-inflicted trauma the same way that individuals react to trauma.

Total ability, elation and then depression. There's emotional dysregulation, emotional thinking and emotional decision-making.

People are driven by negative affectivity such as rage or envy or vengefulness and vindictiveness and hatred.

The parties of the conflict abuse each other and manipulate each other as the exclusive modes of interacting with each other.

They don't talk to dictate. They don't communicate, they posture. They don't shake hands, they shake guns. They don't sit down to reach a compromise, they sit down to engage in one upmanship.

It's a zero-sum game in the sense that the other's gains are your loss and your gains are their loss. And it's a hundred to zero. Its winner takes all. You or me.

This decontinous thinking of black and white, good versus evil, a morality play.

The parties are like actors in a place scripted by a higher power of some kind.

Power of history, power of their own trauma, perhaps God.

But they are actors. They are not free. They are not at liberty to determine their own script, to control their own destiny, to shape their own fate. They've handed control to the outside. They have an external locus of control.

And of course they have alloplastic defenses. They blame the other for everything that has gone wrong, for every defeat, for every failure, for every mishap, for every deotic choice, for every malicious decision, and for the backlash and inevitable consequences and outcomes of such misbehavior and misconduct.

And the parties seek to manipulate each other exactly as abusers do. They gaslight each other. They try to cause the other party to doubt their own judgment regarding reality. They try to cast the other.

It's crazy, insane, unreliable, demented to be shunned and avoided because they are no longer with us. They are psychotic or they are religious fanatics.

So there's a lot of gaslighting going on. Gaslighting of the other, Palestinians gaslight Israelis, especially the Israeli left, and Israelis gaslight Palestinians. And there's gaslighting of the rest of the world, of course, also known as propaganda.


And this projective identification, the parties provoke each other to behave in ways that conform to their expectations.

And they need this. These provocations are not accidental or incidental or unintended. They're premeditated. They're part of a plan. They're part of a pattern.

There's a need to provoke the other in order to buttress one's self-identity, in order to remove doubts as to one's misconduct, own misconduct.

Both parties at heart have a negative self-image. They see themselves as somewhat inadequate, somewhat bad, somewhat wrong.

And the only way to get rid of these doubts, self-doubts, the only way to reassert oneself in a position of 100% righteousness and right is to force the other party to behave in ways which remove the shame, negate the negative self-image.

So if the other party abuses you, kills you, slaughters you, besieges you, then definitely you are the good one.

And this leads, of course, to splitting.

We are all good. The enemy is all bad.

How can we reassure ourselves that the enemy is all bad, projective identification?

We're going to push the enemy. We're going to provoke the enemy. We're going to make sure that the enemy behaves in horrendous, horrendous, unacceptable ways. We're going to make sure that the enemy is condemned by one and all.

And we are going to drive the enemy to behave this way. We are going to dump our shame on the enemy. We are going to recruit the enemy to help us feel, to help us to feel that we are perfect, to help us with our narcissistic defenses, fantastic inflated grandiose self-image.

We need our enemy to help us with this.

So we need our enemy to act as an enemy, and not only just any enemy, an evil enemy, an implacable enemy, a god-hating enemy.

And so both parties provoke each other to act the enemy in order to purge themselves of these bad objects, internal bad objects, the feeling that one is less than perfect.

This bleeding, we are all good, our enemies are all bad, is the exact reason why no meaningful dialogue is taking place, why all the attempts at peacemaking have failed, and why a compromise can never be struck.

The positions of both parties are maximal precisely in order to ascertain that they will never cease to be each other's enemies.

Enemies and lovers, as Bashevi Zinger once famously wrote.

Hatred and love are flip sides of the same coin. This is known as ambivalence.

You love your enemy, because what are you without your enemy? Nothing.

Your enemy defines you, your enemy provides you with an identity, a purpose, a direction, your enemy imbues your life with meaning, makes sense of your reality.

You need your enemy. Had your enemy not existed, you would have needed to invent it.

The United States is doing this very often.

So this is the tango in which these two parties are engaged, barely on their feet, wary, dying, at least morally, if not physically, and very often physically as well, and yet unable to disentangle, to stand apart, to detach, held in each other's arms, they lean into the horror attempting to perpetuate it, because that is their comfort zone.

That is the only thing they've known for decades now, well over a century and a half.

They know no better, and they know no different, and the horrifying news is no one can ever teach them.

The heart of all conflicts is the inability to empathize, the incapacity to put yourself in someone else's shoes, especially your enemy's shoes, the lack of will and wish to somehow attain objectivity, neutrality, the ability to observe impartially and to make decisions based on reality, including the reality of your enemy.

Wars and conflicts are the sad outcomes of our declining ability to empathize.

A decline that started thousands of years ago, when the Palestinians see an Israeli, they don't see a baby, they don't see a mother, they don't see a sister, they don't ask themselves what common experiences do we have, what things we share, what do we share, what makes us more the same than different.

They don't ask these questions.

The stereotype is two dimensional cartoon figures, and they react to the stereotype.

They react to the cartoonish rendition of the other, the enemy.

And similarly, of course, the Israelis.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians work inside Israel. Almost a million Arab Palestinians are Israeli citizens.

And yet the Israelis never bother to get acquainted with the other's culture, the other's world, the other's life, the other's point of view, the other's pains, the other's wishes and dreams, including and especially broken dreams.

There's no interface between Israelis and Palestinians, both ways.

Christians are as guilty as Israelis in pretending that the other is less than human, in dehumanizing and objectifying the other.

In a way, both parties instrumentalize each other. They use each other as tools to obtain political goals, military aims and most importantly, a sense of moral uprightness and superiority.

You can't do that if and when you empathize.

Empathy reduces aggression. Empathy prevents malevolence. Empathy is the antidote to narcissism. Narcissism is crucial in any conflict because narcissism helps you to pretend that this is a morality play in which you are good and fighting against evil, fighting to eradicate it and eliminate it, making the world a better place.

Even the Nazis claim that exterminating the Jews would make Europe a far better place. It's for the greater good, they said.

This argument, the most pernicious, despicable, abhorrent and abominable argument in human history, it's for the greater good, is a cover for the most heinous crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Something that is for the greater good is evil because it overlooks the individual, it overlooks the inner life of human beings.

Human beings are relational, they inhabit collectives, they share, of course, many things in common, common ethics, common culture, a society within which they function.

That is all true.

But every human being shares with other human beings much more than he or she shares with the collective.

Every Israeli has a lot more in common with every Palestinian than it would ever have with the state of Israel. And every Palestinian has a lot more in common with every Jew than it would ever have with Hamas.

Collectives are not and should never be definers of identity. Identity is human.

We are first and foremost human beings.

This should be our primary and possibly only allegiance and affiliation. We are members of the human tribe, the human species.

We get up in the morning, we are hungry, we are thirsty, we are terrified, we are happy, we are joyful, we are laughing, we are making love. We are raising children. We have dreams, they get broken, promises. We experience pain and loss and we outgrow them and develop and become.

This is a universal experience of Palestinians and Jews and Sikhs and Russians and Ukrainians and Americans and Mexicans.

There around the world, who is bipedal, everywhere around the world, who is human, it's the same experiences, 98% of what it is to be us, humans.

The layers of statehood, nationality, citizenship, history, that's a veneer. It's a coat of paint.

It's not who we are, it's not our essence and quintessence.

We are above all human, and if we are given the possibility and the choice to empathize with other humans, the very concept of enemy is dead. Capability to live together, to collaborate, rests heavily and sometimes exclusively on the capacity to reimagine ourselves as the other, as our enemy.

And it is through this reimagining, through the inhabiting of the space of the other, the world and life of the other, the mind of the other, the hopes and dreams and narratives and stories of the other that we come together as humans.

And this is what's missing in conflicts such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The other is demonized, stripped of its humanity. The other is not human, it's devilish, it's evil, it's vermin, as the Nazis call the Jews.

And if the other is not human, then slaughtering the other is justified, shouldn't provoke any moral indignation, pangs of consciousness and conscious.

Killing the other should be as simple as eradicating insects in your kitchen.

This reduction of the other, of the enemy, into non-human form is at the core of the atrocities that people commit when they're engaged in conflict.

We must never let that happen.

Whether you're Palestinian or an Israeli, a Jew or a Muslim, you must never let that happen.

Remember the humanity of the other.

Try to be your enemy for one day, one hour, one minute.

Maybe it will stay your hand on the way to slaughtering a baby, bombing the family.

Maybe if you go through this exercise a sufficient number of times, the conflict will be over.

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