Negative thinking

By Sarah Ozacky-Lazar

Haaretz

Sivan 17, 5765

"Stereotypes and Prejudice in Conflict: Representations of Arabs in Israeli Jewish Society" by Yona Teichman and Daniel Bar-Tal, Cambridge University Press, 483 pages, $68



Elementary school children were asked to draw an Arab. One boy drew a man with a mustache in a galabiya and kaffiyeh, holding a big stick and leading a herd of sheep. Another boy drew the same Bedouin-type character, but with the addition of a dialogue bubble containing the word "war." Which of these stereotypes is more disturbing?

In a decade-long research project conducted throughout the 1990s, the authors studied the perception of Arabs among Jewish Israeli kindergarten children, and how that perception changed over the years, until the subjects reached adolescence. None of the children drew an Arab woman, whereas mustaches, guns, dark skin and a menacing look featured highly in many drawings.

Prof. Yona Teichman, a clinical psychologist from Tel Aviv University (TAU), has devised a method for tracing the development of stereotypes on the basis of children's drawings. Her findings are surprisingly similar to studies in the United States on prejudice toward blacks. Among preschool children, the stereotypes are the most vivid. Even before they know what an Arab (or a black) is, they have absorbed the negative cultural vibes, regardless of family background or socioeconomic 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 gets 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 views retain the negative stereotype in the back of their minds, even if they do not admit to it.

Fifty-five percent of the subjects from all age groups said their ideas about Arabs came from television; 25 percent cited parental influence. Only 10 percent said that school was their source of information. These figures lend a different perspective to the complaints of social organizations that still believe things can be changed and are incensed that "education for peace" programs have been canceled under Education Minister Limor Livnat. But that may not be where the problem lies.

Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal of TAU's school of education 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. Bar-Tal 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, patriotism, 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, literature in general? How do culture and art reinforce these images? How do all these things 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")?

How the other side is perceived must change if the aim is to create an atmosphere that is conducive to peace, promotes peace and safeguards 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 about them. Is the situation unchangeable? In the final chapter, the authors propose guidelines and intervention strategies, but also point out another finding that hardly comes as 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 this is not enough, of course. We cannot sit around and rely on politicians. The media must become involved, along with 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, economic experts and the academic world. It's a two-way process, say the authors, moving from top to bottom and vice versa. On the other hand, the people cannot be forcibly "reeducated," as in totalitarian countries. In a democratic society, persuasion is the method of choice.

The authors briefly survey methods for introducing change. Most of them 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 has an impact on public opinion. It can be instrumental in convincing various sectors of society that the conflict is not forever 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 and the 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. To lay all the responsibility for changing ingrained social beliefs and resolving the conflict on their young shoulders is not ethical. The target population in educating toward peace and change 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.

All educators, all politicians - in fact, everyone - should read this book. Regrettably, it has been published only in English and in a scholarly format, employing terminology that is sometimes dense and overly academic. The authors will be doing Israeli society a valuable service if they publish a shorter, more accessible Hebrew version and see that it reaches the broad public.



Dr. Sarah Ozacky-Lazar is a historian. She is working on educational programs to promote peace.