“Is there any justification for an occupation of a land in any religion? How is occupation defined religiously in the first place and where lies the responsibility of religious leaders in a political situation, which clearly involves oppression of a less powerful people? What can we do?”
There are laws and regulations, national and international politics and negotiations. And there is religion. Could it be a source for change? Is it giving people strength and consolation or is it even a source to nurture contradiction, oppression and/or moral superiority?
As a psychologist, I am interested in experiences and behaviour of people, both, on the individual and societal level. Individuals are influenced by their personal experience, their immediate context and - naturally - the society they live in.
The military occupation in the Palestinian territories exerts control over political, economic, cultural and ideological structures. The mechanisms of control are manifested on the macro, meso and micro levels of society and over the decades have cemented oppressive social conditions. Any development on the personal, communal and sociopolitical level is severely impaired by the occupation.
Both, the Palestinian as well as the Israeli society deal with the negative impact of these conditions – just on different sides of the coin.
The impact on psychological functioning happens in the form of internalizing oppression. On the side of the oppressor it leads to the need for constant justification of the necessity to exert control and the need for the recognition of this necessity. Arthur Neslen speaks about a “…national psyche that has become scarred by mental security barriers, emotional checkpoints and displaced outposts of self-righteousness and aggression”. The inherited trauma in the Israeli society contributes to a collective identity as former victims, who are taking action to stand up for themselves – justifying the occupation as a protective measure.
On the side of the oppressed it leads to a feeling of inferiority; the ongoing loss of land increases the feeling of helplessness and inability to influence their environment and living circumstances. Traumatization as a consequence of the occupation is vividly observable on all levels of society. The Naqba as a central part in collective memory is of increasing importance for the Palestinian identity. Many negative patterns have their origins in oppressive social conditions. The victimization is forming a major part of identity on this side as well, it feeds into a victim identity, which is very visual again on all levels and repeatedly presented as a justification for negative action as well as for a rejection of responsibility for such action and the rejection of criticism in general.
And what is “talking” going to change?
Well, dialogue is the start of taking action in the frame of very limited options in order to broaden the scope of options.
Options on the personal level
Taking action recreates self – confidence and strength, it increases the sense of control over life. Personal development requires strong role models and positive images. Especially in a highly exhausting and seemingly endless conflict people are seeking positive messages, to give them hope and consolation. So here religion plays an important role on the individual level. People on both sides refer to religious authorities for advice and hold on to their respective religion to give their life structure and meaning. All religious leaders are in the position of being advisors within their communities. This is where dialogue with people of other religions can increase knowledge, experience and a change of perception on the very personal, individual level, which will be reproduced in daily life and therefore have an impact on change on all levels.
Options on the interpersonal level
On an interpersonal level dialogue can evoke support and encouragement by the group. The potential in a bilateral, multi-religious dialogue is a positive development both, within the “own” group as well as the “other” groups. This is feeding into creating a sense of belonging, of solidarity - which may be true especially for the Christians and Muslims who share the Palestinian identity to a certain degree and who can contribute to cultivating a stronger sense of community in spite of religious differences.
Diversity can be perceived as a value and not as a contradiction, especially when a connection between the groups is created through identifying common values. This is a chance to raise awareness for the obstacles people face in their societal and spiritual lives. Awareness on both sides, for the diversity of religious beliefs, the diversity of personalities and within societies. A sense of solidarity as people of faith, with shared values, moral and ethic guidelines can evoke a mutual interest in political change and therefore convert fear into a sense of solidarity. Once a real connection is established, it will feed into understanding that a fundamental and lasting change of the situation with new structures based on common values and equality can only be achieved in spiritually (freedom of religion, freedom of speech, academic and intellectual freedom) and physically free societies with a viable economy.
Options on the sociopolitical level
A broadened understanding is the basis for developing a strategy and vision, reorganizing sociopolitical structures. A social confrontation of group interests can also mean to explore options to develop a different (shared?) group interest. Religion plays a very important role in both societies and their respective policies. Where religion is used as a justification for negative actions, it also presents a resource for positive interaction; policies guided by positive values, by one moral, not bendable to this side or the other, a moral, which is the same for both peoples. On the Palestinian side religion is playing an enormous role in society as for example the image of various legal systems applied under occupation has led to distrust in official legal systems and other structures, which are required in establishing a democracy. The increasing frustration about the failure to improve their situation, disappointment in politicians, lack of trust in secular structures among other facts, leads to a trend towards religious conservatism. On the Israeli side, the state is secular in structure, but very much based on a Jewish identity and nationality, which is undividable from religion, especially religious justifications for the legitimacy of the state and its actions, in which the occupation of the Palestinian territories plays a dominant role. Religion is the source for exclusiveness as a group and as a state. So religion plays a role in conflict resolution within the societies as well as in conflict resolution between the societies.
Option to change
Real change requires the feeling of empowerment in order to enable people to believe they can, not only initiate, but also shape change. Therefore, reflecting and interlinking development on the three levels is destined to become a powerful part of the dynamic of change. Here lies the challenge, the chance and the responsibility of religious leaders on both sides. Once people of faith act on the common values they have identified, they will be inclined to demand change towards a society which knows no good reason for an occupation.