Obituary: Dan Bar-On

Dialogue against Walls of Silence and Hostility

The Israeli psychologist and author Dan Bar-On died in Tel Aviv on 4 September. Bar-On was a leading force in the field of intercultural conflict management between Israelis and Palestinians. An obituary by Alexandra Senfft

Dan Bar-On (photo: Martin Lengemann)
Dan Bar-On, 1938 - 2008

​​"Dialogue under fire" is how Dan Bar-On referred to his work with the Palestinian educational scientist Sami Adwan. Their friendship and work together across the dividing wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories faced many a tough test: the continual failure of the Middle East peace talks, everyday violence and pressure from groups in society that consider it wrong to talk to "the enemy".

Dan Bar-On, a professor at Ben Gurion University, was very sensitive to the asymmetrical power relations between Israelis and Palestinians. He insisted on parity, as he abhorred all forms of patronage, yet he was always open and honest if he ever felt politically co-opted by his colleagues. Bar-On and Adwan founded the Peace Research Institute PRIME in Beit Jala to combat polarisation between their two societies.

Finding a common language

Dan Bar-On and Sami Adwan developed a history textbook in conjunction with Palestinian and Israeli teachers, placing the various historical narratives of the hostile cultures alongside one another – an innovative project that was translated into several languages and used by teachers in other conflicts.

Dan Bar-On was born in Haifa in 1938. His parents had left Hamburg to escape from the Nazis in 1933. He studied agriculture and then psychology, going on to live and work on a kibbutz in Negev for 25 years. He was a tireless man who was not afraid to confront himself and those around him. He liberated himself from the constraints of collective society at a young age, going very much his own way. He was a political man and spoke out in favour of a Palestinian state in coexistence with Israel immediately after the Six Day War.

In the 1970s, he interviewed children of Holocaust survivors, continuing courageously with this pioneering work although he experienced little support for it in Israel – few Israelis were willing to look back at painful memories at that time. When Bar-On travelled to Germany in 1985 he observed similar processes of repression: the Germans were also still unwilling to talk about the past. He published his interviews with the children of Nazi criminals he tracked down under the title The Legacy of Silence in 1993. They were documents of individuals' painful thoughts and feelings on the guilt of their parents. For Bar-On, who spoke perfect German, the experience was also an uncomfortable one.

From monologue to dialogue

In 1992 he was the first person to take the daring step of bringing his interview partners together as a group – children of victims and perpetrators alike. The group called itself To Reflect and Trust. Despite all the traumata, the participants (including the son of the Nazi Reich Minister Martin Bormann) were involved in dialogues over many years, coming closer to one another and tearing down the walls they had built around themselves by telling their own life stories. The details were purely biographical; there was no weighing up of facts. Reflection on their own family histories and identities – monologue – led to a dialogue.

This approach, developed by Bar-On, enables participants to find common ground even with their enemies by illustrating how very similar personal life experiences often are, regardless of historical, political, religious or ethnic boundaries. One individual's suffering cannot be weighed up against another's and victim-perpetrator categories are not static, as they shift according to context and may even apply simultaneously to a single person – one of the many subjects that he worked on in the uncomfortable three-way relationship between Israelis, Germans and Palestinians.

Over the years, he developed an almost unerring instinct for concealed and repressed traces of World War II, unconsciously marking people's lives, emotions and actions to this very day.

High demands tempered by empathy

Bar-On later extended his "storytelling" dialogue model to international conflicts. His last great achievement was leading a three-year dialogue training programme with participants from around the world at the Körber Foundation in Hamburg, his parents' former home. He was a disciplined hard worker who demanded a great deal of himself and others. This demanding side was always tempered with empathy. He was sensitive and charming in equal measure, unapproachable as he could sometimes appear. One of his greatest skills was listening.

His restrained attentiveness and precise analyses encouraged countless children and grandchildren of the Second World War around the world to research their own family histories. There are few men or women who have done as much for Germany's relationship with its past, for understanding between Palestinians and Israelis and for constructive, forward-looking dialogue as he achieved through his work.

Dan Bar-On, awarded honours such as the German Federal Cross of Merit, the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize and the Alexander Langer Prize, succumbed to severe cancer in Tel Aviv on 4 September. Speaking at his funeral, Sami Adwan said that this was one of the darkest days of his life. He spoke not only for himself and Bar-On's family, but also for all those who had been close to him and worked with him. We have lost an extraordinary man, but his intellectual legacy lives on.

Alexandra Senfft

© Qantara.de 2008

Alexandra Senfft is a writer and journalist. She is the author of "Schweigen tut weh. Eine deutsche Familiengeschichte" (claassen Verlag 2007), a book about her family history during Germany's Third Reich, and editor with John Bunzl of "Zwischen Antisemitismus und Islamophobie. Vorurteile und Projektionen in Europa und Nahost" (VSA 2008), a book on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Over the past three years Alexandra Senfft worked closely with Dan Bar-On, whom she had known since 1991, in the Hamburg dialogue programme "Storytelling in Conflicts".

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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