Dan Bar-On has been working for many years with the children of both Holocaust victims and German perpetrators to create models of understanding. Now the Israeli psychologist is applying this concept to the Middle East conflict. By Mahmoud Tawfik
It was in 1992 that the first meeting of his group "TRT—To Reflect and Trust" took place, in which the children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims and perpetrators met face to face in an attempt to bring them closer together.
Dan Bar-On has applied what he's learnt and the methods he's developed to the dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.
A model which could be useful in the Middle East dialogue
"When I look at both sides," says Bar-On, "the Israeli and the Palestinian, I believe that what we need at the moment is a period with a two-state solution, even if it is contrary to any logic. Perhaps we only need it for fifty years, not longer. Unfortunately, from a psychological point of view, we will need two generations in which we'll have to get rid of the damage, each for him- or herself, which has been caused by the conflict over so many years."
Bar-On does not believe that, from one day to next, people will be able to accept ideas like the creation of a federal state, or that the Jews of Israel would be able to accept the idea of an Arab prime minister. But perhaps in fifty years.
Bar-On explains: "We have certain fixed images of the world in our minds which we use to help us understand and be aware of the world. That way we can deal more easily with insecurity and uncertainties. But when the world changes and our images of the world are no longer relevant, then they don't just disappear on their own. We have to work at it, and that can be a painful process."
Holocaust has an effect right up to the 3rd generation
Relearning and rethinking may be a recipe for living together better – but how does one go about it? Dan Bar-On's work is best located at the crossroads between historical research and depth psychology. It leads to the realisation that there are additional technical terms which every therapist in Israel has to adopt.
In addition to terms like child abuse or loveless parents, therapists have to deal with Holocaust, diapora and war. The experiences of grandparents and parents are handed down together with a bundle of partly digested anxieties. Bar-On's conclusion after years of work with the children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims and perpetrators is that the Holocaust continues to have an effect, all the way to the third generation.
Bar-On wants to help people to "work their way through the Holocaust." They should understand "that not everything which was important back then is still important—that what happened in Europe in the forties doesn't necessarily have a role in the Middle East in 2004.
"One shouldn't either ignore or forget the past. But on the other hand one shouldn't relive the entire past every time there's a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv."
New target groups
"To Reflect and Trust"—that doesn't automatically mean reconciliation. But it can mean becoming aware of one's own anxieties and motivation as well as those of the other side, thus helping to build up trust.
The recipe seems astonishingly simple: one side relates their personal experience in detail, the other side listens, reacts and responds to what is being said.
It only took a few years before the TRT group began to attract people from other conflict regions, such as South Africa and Northern Ireland. Palestinians were invited to the group under a project run jointly with the Palestinian academic Sami Adwan.
First make sure your own identity is secure
In the course of the work with Israelis and Palestinians, it became clear once more how important it is for the dialogue, that each side first tries to work out for itself what the basis of its own position is.
According to Bar-On, "When students from both sides—Israelis and Palestinians—meet, they first spend a long time arguing about who's right, what exactly happened in the history of the conflict, or which side is really the victim."
"In such cases, where people are still so insecure in their own identity, you have to give them first a feeling of security about their own lives and futures and about how they deal with the issues of their own identity." Only when that's achieved can Bar-On require of them that they start dealing with the other side.
And here too the stories which have never been dealt with play a role: the "childhood trauma" of Israeli society is set against the Pallestinian trauma of flight and deracination following the war of 1948.
A new schoolbook for the Middle East
The experience of these expanded TRT groups led to the idea of creating a more ambitious project, "Learning from the history of the other." The idea was received well, and a schoolbook has been developed for both Israelis and Palestinians telling the story of the Middle East conflict in a new way.
Each page of the book is divided into three columns. In one is the Israeli story of the conflict, in the second the Palestinian, and in between an empty lined column for readers to write in their own version of the story.
Bar-On says it's not yet time for a common history. It may take fifty years before people start looking away from their own column to the column on the other side and the space is middle is filled with a new personal history.
© Qantara.de 2004
Translation from German: Michael Lawton
Dan Bar-On recieved the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize in 2003 together with the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwisch. More on that here on Qantara.de.