by Sarah Ozacky-Lazar
Recent research by Daniel Bar-Tal and Yona Teichman deals with the “knowledge” of Israeli Jews about Arabs, how it is reflected in public discourse, in media, culture and art, literature, films and in school textbooks. They explore how these beliefs develop and the root causes in the process.
The results of studies done at different times with different respondents present, unsurprisingly, a coherent and consistent picture: Arabs are stereotyped negatively, the attitudes and emotions towards them are negative, and negative intentions are attributed to them. Main themes pertain to perceived low intelligence, primitivism, dishonesty, fanaticism, conservativism, violence and lack of value for human life. On the other hand, positive attributes are also mentioned, like hospitality, sociability and diligence (p. 228).
Professor Teichman, a clinical psychologist at Tel Aviv University, has devised a method of tracing the development of stereotypes on the basis of children’s drawings. In a decade-long research project conducted through the 1990s, she studied the perception of Arabs among Jewish-Israeli kindergarten children, and how that perception changed over the years until the subjects reached adolescence. Moustaches, guns, dark skins and menacing looks featured highly in those drawings. Her findings are similar to studies in the United States on prejudice toward blacks. The stereotypes are the most vivid among preschool children. Even before they know what an Arab (or a black) is, they have absorbed negative cultural vibes, regardless of family background or socio-economic status. So much so that even the sound of the word “Arab,” compared to “Frenchman,” for example, evokes a powerful negative reaction.
Children hear and absorb these attitudes at a very young age. As they develop cognitively, they have access to a broader range of information and their views grow more complex. Cracks begin to appear in the stereotype and as the child grows older, the picture becomes less one-sided. That is the good news. The bad news is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to erase these first impressions altogether. The studies show that even liberal adults with moderate political views retain the negative stereotype in the back of their minds, even if they do not admit to it.
Of the subjects from all age groups, 55 percent said their ideas about Arabs came from television; 25 percent cited parental influence. Only 10 percent said that school was their source of information.
Professor Bar-Tal, of Tel Aviv University’s school of education (and previously co-editor of PIJ), is a social psychologist who has written intensively about the psychological processes undergone by individuals and groups who live in a state of unresolved conflict. He has identified and analyzed several “functional societal beliefs” developed by Israeli society that enable it to cope successfully with the trying circumstances in this country. These beliefs have been preserved and cultivated over the years through the media, the rhetoric of Israel’s leaders, culture, education, the army, and more. The core beliefs are:
* security as a supreme value
* national unity
* visions of peace (a goal that engenders optimism and gives purpose to the struggle, without going into detail about how to achieve it)
* the perception of Israel’s victimization
* a positive self-image (self-justification and belief that Israel’s conduct is moral and humane)
* and delegitimization of the other side
The current study dwells on this last point, examining it from every possible angle and placing it in a broad socio-historical context. How are the Arabs portrayed in public discourse, textbooks, children’s literature and literature in general? How do culture and art reinforce these images? How does it all filter down to create a shared socio-psychological “repertoire” based on fear (“the Arabs are out to destroy Israel and kill all the Jews”); generalizations (“all Arabs are the same”); stereotypes, dehumanization and idioms with negative connotations (“avoda aravit,” literally “Arab labor” - Hebrew slang for “lousy job”; “ta’am aravi,” literally “Arab taste” - meaning “tacky” or “in poor taste”)?
The authors tell us the obvious: the way the other side is perceived must change if the aim is to promote peace and safeguard it once it has been achieved. Although the attitude of Israelis toward Arabs has changed over the past two decades, the findings indicate that deep-seated prejudice and dehumanization are still very much alive.
The book does not stop at reporting these worrying trends; it also asks what can be done
to change them. In the final chapter, the authors propose guidelines and intervention strategies, but also point out another finding that hardly comes as a surprise: context matters. Current events and political developments have a direct bearing on changes of attitude and modification of the collective psychological repertoire. A clear example is the visit to Israel of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1977, followed by the signing of a peace treaty. When this happened, “Egypt” became separate from “the Arabs,” which required an adjustment of the stereotype. The same was true after the Oslo Accords and the peace treaty with Jordan - not only in the minds of adults, but among children, too.
But of course this is not enough. We cannot sit around and rely on politicians. The media must become involved, along with other agents of culture, parents and schools. On a cognitive level, Bar-Tal and Teichman believe that hope can be instilled by promoting acceptance of “the other,” by humanizing him, recognizing his rights, viewing him as an equal partner. At the same time, the existing narratives must be reexamined with respect to the origins of the conflict and past relations, with an eye to creating a new “collective memory.” The injustices of the past must somehow be forgiven, while embarking on a process of reconciliation. The way we perceive the past is no less important than how we perceive the present and the future. In terms of the future, we need to use our imaginations and envision the kind of difference it could make to live without fear and discord.
The leaders have an important job to do: they must serve as guides and role models. Other agents of change are local and community leaders, religious leaders, intellectual and business elites and educators. It’s a two-way process, say the authors, moving from top-down and vice versa. On the other hand, people cannot be forcibly “reeducated,” as in totalitarian countries. In a democratic society, persuasion is the method of choice.
Bar-Tal and Teichman briefly survey methods for introducing change. Most have already been tried, though not always successfully, and are still being used: encounters, joint projects, cultural exchange, tourism, writing a joint history. Again, to put these strategies into practice, they recommend mobilizing the educational system, the media and non-governmental organizations.
From my many years of experience in social organizations involved in “peace education,” I agree that this sort of work may have an impact on public opinion. It can be instrumental in convincing various sectors of society that the conflict is not eternal and that there are ways of reaching an agreement with the other side. Nevertheless, even the combined efforts of dozens of such organizations have managed to reach only a small percentage of the population. Without full-fledged cooperation from the media, the ministry of education and other agencies that govern the workings of society, there is little hope for genuine change.
I also believe that we should not only be focusing our attention on children. The target population in educating toward peace and reconciliation is first and foremost the adult population - those who have absorbed the stereotypes and negative attitudes toward Arabs from childhood, and experienced the horrors of wars, terror and bereavement in the flesh. It is adults who are mature enough to adopt a multifaceted perspective of the conflict and to see that not only one party is to blame. They are the ones who can, and must, look bravely in the mirror and want to change. They are the ones who can make things happen - and the children are sure to follow.