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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Human Rights

What Lies Behind Our Lies? Self-Deception and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Though people tend to see themselves as objective interpreters of the world, they are often active self-deceivers. Self-deception is a psychological process whereby one selectively chooses knowledge that confirms a positive self bias. Affecting people on an individual and group level, self-deception can have destructive consequences. It is thus important to understand self-deception’s role in the creation, prolonging, and exacerbation of conflict. This is particularly relevant in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This article argues that self-deception plays a major role in protracting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by enabling both sides to maintain their positive self-image without challenging or changing their mutually destructive behavior. Focusing on Israeli self-deception, the article concentrates on four mechanisms of self-deception prominent in the case of Israel and contributing to its prolonged conflict with the Palestinians: rhetoric and euphemism, blaming the enemy, the slippery slope of decision making, and selective omissions.

Self-deception has been defined as “a motivated unawareness of conflicting knowledge” whereby one accepts only those facts that confirm a positive self bias (Starek and Keating 1991, 146). Therefore, though people tend to believe they have an objective image of the world, they actually constantly deceive themselves. Theorists differ in their understanding of self-deception: Is it an intentional or unintentional act? Is it, in fact, an act/behavior, or is it a state? And do unconscious elements impact self-deception? (Bermúdez 2000, 309-310; Audi 1989, 247-248). However defined, self-deception is a phenomenon affecting human behavior in general and group conflicts in particular. It enables groups in conflict to create multiple narratives over shared events, with each side believing it is the one holding the truth. Self-deception significantly protracts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as differing narratives are constantly reaffirmed, promoting a static reality that replicates cycles of violence.
In this article, I hope to partially uncover what lies behind Israeli self lies.1 I begin with a brief analysis of some of the attributes of self-deception and its relation to individuals and groups in general. Then, I present four major mechanisms of self-deception salient in Israeli society and discuss their roles in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These mechanisms are rhetoric and euphemisms; blaming the enemy; the slippery slope of decision making involving psychological numbing and induction processes; and selective omissions.
Self-deception exists because it has many positive features. It serves to create a better image of ourselves and so decreases depression and anxiety while promoting a more positive physical and mental state (Hagedorn 1996, 139-142). According to Joanna Starek and Caroline Keating, self-deception contributes to people’s success in competitive tasks. These researchers have shown how swimmers who deceived themselves, believing they were better than their competitors, had better results than those who did not engage in self-deception (1991, 145-146). However, self-deception can also bring about grave negative consequences, especially with regard to ethical judgment. Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick argue that self-deception promotes “ethical fading,” diminishing the moral implications of one’s decisions, thus enabling one to unintentionally act unethically (2004). In instances whereby one’s self-interest requires unethical behavior, “fading” the ethical norms—that is, deceiving one’s self that they do not exist—can allow one to keep his or her self-interest without losing the positive self-image (Tenbrunsel and Messick 2004, 224).
Like individuals, groups also wish to sustain their positive self-image as well as their interests. Thus, when reality seems to impede these motivations, it is frequently easier for the group members to “revise” their perception of reality by deceiving themselves rather than changing their own image or acting in a manner that does not serve their interests as well (Baumeister and Hastings 1997, 277). Relating to ethical decisions, self-deception becomes a dangerous phenomenon that can aggravate conflict and hinder its resolution by making it easier for groups to act unethically, without fully realizing it. But how do individuals and, even more so, groups succeed in deceiving themselves, ignoring an otherwise obvious truth? How do ethical standards “fade”? Different mechanisms provide possible answers. In the following arguments, four such mechanisms will be presented that are especially relevant to Israeli society in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One method of self-deception is the use of rhetoric and euphemisms. Tenbrunsel and Messick argue that euphemisms can be harmless and even necessary; they become dangerous  only when used to “disguise” unethical actions (2004, 226-228). One example relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that of the Israeli-West Bank barrier. A debate has been taking place with regard to the construction and nature of this barrier. Israeli officials argue that it serves to protect Israel against terror attacks, citing Article 51 of the United Nations’ (UN) Charter as the basis to their claim on states’ right to self-defense (United Nations 1945). Palestinians, on the other hand, assert that it is a barrier meant to separate societies, creating an apartheid reality and a de facto border integrating West Bank areas into Israel, in violation of the International Court of Justice’s 2004 ruling on the subject (Bell 2005). Thus, Jewish Israelis commonly refer to this barrier as the “security fence,” implying it is a “neighborly” fence whose existence is justified as a security measure defending the citizens of Israel. Palestinians, on the other hand, often call it the “separation wall,” thereby implying it is a war-related wall, supposedly built in order to separate populations and therefore lacking moral justification (Rogers and Ben-David 2010). Through the use of rhetoric, both sides are thus able to disregard data that is incongruent with their positive self-image: Israelis as alleged occupiers creating an immoral separation, and Palestinians as allegedly participating in terrorism, creating the need for security.
A similar act of rhetorical self-deception can be detected in the term chosen to describe the territory of the West Bank. In Israel, many Jewish Israelis may refer to the area using the Jewish biblical term “Judea and Samaria” rather than the “West Bank” or the “Palestinian territories” (Peteet 2005, 163). The former term helps justify Jewish existence in the territory by associating it with Jewish historical/biblical roots, while the latter implies Palestinian rule over the land. While each holds a partial truth, the choice to use one or the other holds political and ethical value judgments that promote a specific agenda regarding the legitimacy of each side’s land ownership and occupation, disregarding the alternative view and legitimizing one’s own.
A final example of rhetoric as a mechanism of self-deception is Israel’s identification of the Palestinian people as “Arabs” rather than “Palestinians” (Oren and Bar-Tal 2007, 6). In doing so (mainly until the 1990s when, with the beginning of the Oslo Accords, Israeli officials acknowledged the legitimacy of the Palestinian Liberation Organization [PLO]), Israel emphasized that Palestinians were part of the Arab world—implying they could live in any other Arab state—obstructing the notion that they are a separate people who have a right to self-determination and legal sovereignty. Thus, the rhetorical use of Arab rather than Palestinian justified Israel’s existence as the sole homeland of the Jewish people and its actions toward maintaining its sovereignty over the land.
The above euphemisms and use of rhetoric all entail value judgments that maintain Israel’s self-image as a peaceful nation. The rhetoric preserves Israeli narratives, serving its interests in sustaining occupation of the land and its actions toward securing its citizens. This protection of narrative is possible only by what this article frames as an “intentional unawareness” to knowledge that might undermine the Jewish Israeli positive self-image. It is the disguising, or “fading,” of their ethically questionable behaviors that then enables their subsequent justification.
A second mechanism for self-deception is placement of blame on one’s enemy. Through this method, people relieve themselves from responsibility for their own actions. Furthermore, it may frequently include projecting one’s own faults on one’s enemy (Baumeister and Hastings 1997, 287-289). This can be found in the Israeli context in the presentation of war as always being a “no choice war.” Israel’s elite contended (mainly until the war in Lebanon in 1982) that its wars were always forced upon it by its enemies, the Arabs. The latter were therefore also perceived as morally responsible for the consequences of war; as Efraim Inbar, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, mentions, the most common words used by politicians in Israel regarding wars are “coerced,” “forced,” “compulsion,” or “necessity” (1992). Past Israeli President Moshe Katsav is quoted as saying, “Israel unfortunately knew, against its will, many wars since its establishment” (emphasis in text, Inbar 1992, 261). While this is true to some extent, Inbar claims that viewing war as an external fatalistic fate of the Jewish people puts all wars, including preemptive wars and wars of aggression, in a vague and general category of “no choice wars.” He continues to argue that this relieves Israeli leadership from its responsibility for decisions and actions that may have led to war and for those wars that were, in fact, wars of aggression, such as the war in Lebanon in 1982 (Inbar 1992, 262). Israel maintains a positive self-image by blaming its enemies for its suffering while justifying its wars and their morally questionable outcomes. Moreover, this self-deception worsens the Arab’s negative image in the eyes of the Israeli population (enabling the further distinction of “us” versus “them”) as the former are deemed responsible not only for Israel’s losses at war, but also for making Israel use violent measures in contradiction to its perceived own will and values.
A third, more subtle, mechanism of self-deception at play is what Tenbrunsel and Messick (2004) call the slippery slope of decision making. This is a process that combines two psychological phenomena: psychological numbing and inductions. Tenbrunsel and Messick claim that when one is exposed repeatedly to an ethical dilemma, he or she may lose his or her moral compass and become numb even to the most unethical situations (2004). This process is referred to as psychological numbing. Inductions refers to the psychological tendency of people to infer that if one action is considered morally acceptable, then a similar action will be similarly acceptable. For example, if a twenty-one-year-old person can drink alcoholic beverages, then a person who is twenty years and eleven months old can also drink. The risk of such a process is the constant widening of ethical borders. When both phenomena happen simultaneously, numbing, by obscuring ethical borders, can exacerbate inductions. Thus, a repeated behavior can, after a step-by-step process of induction and numbing, find itself very far from its initial “red line” (Tenbrunsel and Messick 2004, 228-229). In societies in conflict, such a slippery slope can have grave consequences as unethical behaviors affect human lives and worsen structures and cycles of violence.
The slippery slope of decision making is prominent in intractable conflicts, such as that of Israelis and Palestinians. In such conflicts, ethical decisions and actions are taken repeatedly over very long periods of time, enabling inductions and numbing processes to occur. Israeli soldiers serving at checkpoints in the West Bank represent a conspicuous example of these phenomena. The soldiers check hundreds of Palestinians daily (Machsomwatch n.d.; UN OCHA oPt 2012), making hundreds of ethically charged decisions under difficult conditions. Young soldiers (usually eighteen to twenty-two years old) are responsible for the freedom of movement of thousands of Palestinians. In minutes, they must decide whether and how to check children, women, and old men for possible security threats. Over time, these decisions become susceptible to induction and the soldiers to numbing, allowing the gradual reduction of the soldiers’ ethical standards and a dehumanization of the Palestinians. The existence since 2001 of the Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO) Machsomwatch—a women’s organization dedicated to watching soldiers’ behavior at Israeli checkpoints, monitoring abuse of human rights—is a verification of and antidote for this slippery slope. By their mere presence, the women of Machsomwatch become a reminder of norms and ethical values, trying to prevent the spread of self-deceiving “truths.”
So far this article has focused on self-deceiving actions. Another important mechanism for self-deception focuses on our inactions: what we don’t do, say, or even see. These are known as selective omissions and represent those “truths” or parts of reality around us that we choose to omit from our collective memory in order to preserve our self-image (Baumeister and Hastings 1997, 280-281). In the Israeli case, a prominent example is that of the “Nakba,” the Palestinian narrative for the events of 1948 in Palestine/Israel (literally meaning the “catastrophe” in Arabic). While many “truths” regarding the 1948 war may be contested, the fact that the Palestinians perceive it as a Nakba is not an issue of contention and is visible in memorial days, the work of NGOs, and historical research on the subject. However, threatening Israeli self-image, the Israeli government continually refuses to acknowledge the existence of this narrative and its succinct representation in the word Nakba (Peteet 2005, 154-156; Pappé 2004, 81), so much so that a complete denial was required by Israeli state officials. This can be observed in the recent refusal to allow even an incidental appearance of the word Nakba in a history book written in Arabic, designed for third-grade Palestinian children who are citizens of Israel. Israel’s education minister at the time, Gideon Sa’ar, said at the 2007 parliament committee debate: “The education committee revokes completely any presentation of two perspectives in the education books of the state of Israel for the events of the War of Independence” (Knesset Education, Culture, and Sports Committee 2007). Israelis fear acknowledging a narrative that challenges their own, which causes them to selectively omit even a verbal representation of the events of 1948 in the word Nakba.
Furthermore, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, omissions are an all-encompassing phenomenon relating to the conflict as a whole rather than any one particular event. Israel denies the legitimacy of the existence of the Palestinians as a national entity (and vice versa). The Palestinians are usually only seen and referred to as enemies (Kelman 1978; Kelman 1987; Oren and Bar-Tal 2007). This can be seen in the following example: An eight-year-old Jewish Israeli boy, participating in a program I led at the Peres Center for Peace in 2009 connecting Israelis and Palestinians, was shocked when Palestinian children came to meet him and his friends for the first time. He explained that before the event he was sure he was going to meet a black-bearded adult man (Harmat 2009), as Palestinians are oftentimes portrayed in Israeli society. He could not imagine the existence of children who are Palestinian. A notion of a humane “other,” a vulnerable child like himself, was an impossibility. This denial is sustained by a social silencing of contradicting information. Images or knowledge that break from the narrative depicting Palestinians as pure “enemy,” that humanize Palestinians, or that criticize Israel are denied. While little evidence can be found on what is not mentioned, the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, an organization committed to collecting testimonies from Israeli soldiers that served in the Palestinian territories, exemplifies the phenomenon of silence. It argues the following:

Discharged soldiers returning to civilian life discover the gap between the reality they encountered in the [Palestinian] Territories, and the silence about this reality they encounter at home . . . soldiers are forced to ignore what they have seen and done . . .  (Breaking the Silence n.d.)

Finally, analyzing the example of the above-mentioned soldiers, it is important to emphasize that the soldiers are not only psychologically compelled to deny what they see but also what they have done. This relates back to the question of the purpose of self-deception. Herbert Kelman, professor emeritus of social ethics at Harvard University, argues that mutual denials of Israelis and Palestinians (the selective omissions) serve to maintain each group’s positive self-image (1999). I find that all four mechanisms listed above, and others, serve this purpose. Acknowledging the Palestinian people as more than just an enemy, seeing them as humans who themselves might be victims, puts a mirror in front of Israeli society. This mirror reflects not only the image of a more positive Palestinian society but more importantly that of a negative Israeli society. It is the image of a strong, violent occupier (Kelman 1999, 184-185) that could shake Israeli’s self-image as a peace-seeking victim, fighting a “no choice war” against an inhumane enemy. This is an image Israel as a society is not yet willing to accommodate. Yet only by confronting this mirror, by acknowledging wrongdoing and understanding complexities, can these issues be addressed and can the conflict cycle be transformed from a war system to a peace system (Fitzduff 1997, 85). Therefore, the unresolved question remaining is, how can one counteract a society’s self-deception, especially when unintentional or unconscious? In other words, how can a society face its mirror? This will require a deep challenging of narratives. Such a significant change will probably only come about through a reciprocal process in both Israeli and Palestinian societies. This will require brave leadership on both sides, a great deal of mutual trust, and a slow but consistent mutual process of reevaluating narratives.


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