Ifat Maoz Department of Communication



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Discussion

The present study investigated the changes in the construction of the collective identity of self and other through the analysis of a dialogue between Avner and Nasser, two participants in a Jewish-Palestinian student encounter group. As the analysis of this dialogue is based on the authors' interpretations, it may be important to point out that alternative interpretations could be suggested. However, it is also relevant to note that during our process of work we found that the four of us agreed on the observations and interpretations that are presented here. These were first generated by each author individually and then discussed between us.

We may also ask to what extent Nasser and Avner are representative of other Arab and Jewish students. They are in fact somewhat unusual: Nasser’s family was quite mobile, unlike most of the Arab Israeli population, and Nasser studied in a Jewish Israeli school. These factors could account for his confrontational behavior, which was not typical of the other Arab students, at least at the beginning of the encounter. Though Avner belongs to the Israeli Jewish hegemonic (Ashkenazi) group, the fact that he grew up on a kibbutz may have made him more open to changing his identity construction as a result of the encounter with Nasser.

However, though they were atypical individuals in some respects, once Avner and Nasser took leading roles in the discussions they expressed positions and concerns that can be seen as representative of their own collectives and are also heard in other Jewish-Palestinian encounter groups (Bar & Bargal, 1995; Maoz, 2000a, 2000b; in press; Suleiman, 1997).

During the initial encounters, a lack of open dialogue characterized the exchanges between Avner and Nasser. In the first group session Avner can be seen as trying to patronize his Palestinian partner or to disregard his feelings by asking him: "Why are you not comfortable here? What is so bad about it?" Nasser can be viewed as expressing a strong monolithic construction of his own collective identity when he states that: "I am a Palestinian. I will never feel Israeli." A confrontation developed between the two, with each one trying to present his collective as better and as morally superior, thereby eroding the basis of the other's justifications. (Nasser: "We paid the price in order for the Jews to have a state." Avner: "Tell me, at what point in history does your definition as Palestinian begin?") At that early stage, behaving as representatives of their collectives, they both tried to appear consistent and coherent. These attempts brought each of them, in turn, to a defensive stance. Once it was Avner who sounded defensive, saying to Nasser (in the first. group meeting) "You attack me for things I did not mean." The other time it was Nasser (in the fifth meeting, after his visit to Bir Zeit) who had to justify his position that Israeli Palestinians would not move to a Palestinian state even if and when one is established: "Why should we go? Our land is here."

At a certain point in the dialogue process, from toward the middle of the process and onward (after the fifth meeting), Avner and later Nasser as well began to manifest some readiness to accept and to empathize with each other’s perspectives; to take on the complexity of each other’s identity and needs and not only compete for control and stake claim to ultimate justice.

This was apparent in Avner's reflections in the uni-national part of the seventh meeting. Referring to a question he had addressed to the Palestinians at a previous bi-national meeting, he said: "When I thought about it at home, I could see that it could be interpreted by the Palestinians as a provocative question." Nasser, on his part, expressed his readiness for empathy later, in the thirteenth bi-national meeting, saying: "Maybe I have learned to listen at the workshop."

Alongside this understanding, each of them was able to acknowledge and reveal a more complex construction of his own collective identity and include in the dialogue parts of himself that were silenced up to that point. Avner was able to acknowledge during the uni-national part of the thirteenth meeting that he was not simply a peace-loving dove and that a hawk that wants to keep his land also resided inside him. Nasser, for his part, was able to reveal during the bi-national part of this meeting more than the confrontational side of him that wanted to emphasize his separateness from the Jews. Once he felt his own positions acknowledged and understood by the Jews, there was also the part of him that wanted to join with them and try to plan a better future.



Again, one should take into account that the group process described here is open to different interpretations. The possibility of new tensions and even breakdowns at a later stage of such an encounter cannot be ruled out

Yet scholars have emphasized the importance of empathy: the ability to understand and “contain the other” in group processes aimed at coping with conflicts (Gergen, 1999; Kelman, 1998, 1999; Ross, 2000). Nonetheless little is said about how this happens and what in the dialogue creates this understanding and empathy to the other (Ellis, 2000). The complex, multi-layered process presented here between Avner and Nasser—members of groups in conflict who through the dialogue between them came to understand and accept their own and the other’s complexity of identity—shows that the moments of dialogue emerged through paradoxical, dialectical dynamics of confrontation and closeness.

The dialogical moment in which a new understanding of the other is reached (Levinas, 1990; Holquist, 1990), seems to emerge from a direct confrontation between the sides that breaks down the “double-wall” of dichotomous monolithic constructions of identities that had separated the two before the confrontation (Bar-On, 1995). However, confrontation alone can lead to escalation of conflict and increasing of misunderstanding. The process that evolved between Nasser and Avner shows the importance of two elements in combination in achieving empathy toward an out-group: friendship with an out-group member (Pettigrew, 1998), together with the ability to directly confront members of the out-group and to express disagreement or difference in perspectives.

The notion investigated in this study —that dialogue changes constructions of self and other and enables, through experiential, affective processes, achieving empathy toward the others' perspective —resonates with recent reformulation of the contact hypothesis. Recent understanding of this theory emphasizes that affective processes, such as experiencing and understanding the other and including the other within the self, are crucial for contacts conducive to improving inter-group perceptions (Liebkind & McAlister, 1999; Pettigrew, 1998; Wright et al., 1997). Pettigrew (1998) examined the effect on attitudes toward out-group members of friendship with them and found that having an out-group friend predicts lower level of prejudice. Wright et al. (1997) and Liebkind & McAlister (1999), in line with the predictions of the extended contact hypothesis, demonstrated that even the mere knowledge of a close relationship between an in-group member and an out-group member leads to more positive inter-group attitudes.



The formulations and studies cited above refer to the effects of inter-group friendship on attitudes, opinions, and representations of the other. The present study followed the process through which such a relationship was formed in a context of an inter-group confrontation and looks at the changes in construction of identity that were elicited through the formation of closeness with an out-group member.

The evolution of the interaction described in this study, with the accompanying changes in representations of self and other, illustrates a few important points pertaining to group dynamics in the inter-group dialogue process. First, it is important to have facilitating leaders among the participants who are able to actively model the forming of a relationship between the two sides through the gradual creation of personal bonds. Second, the process described points to the possibility that inter-group empathy can be developed through a dialectical process. In such a dialectical process, the lack of mutual understanding and the extent of the lack of acceptance between the two parties have to first become clearly stated and visible to both sides. Then, the parties have to find a way to connect and relate to each other by developing more complex constructions of their own identity and of the other’s.

The paradoxical notion of achieving empathy through confrontation requires further study in inter-group contexts. Such study may enable identification of inter- and intra-personal and group processes through which the confrontation is able to facilitate empathy. In doing so it may draw the boundaries or define the necessary conditions for this confrontation-empathy connection.

In this article we have attempted to describe and evaluate a group process, through focusing almost exclusively on two central actors in the group. However, in future research additional procedures should be considered that may be useful in evaluating such process changes more broadly and may thus be applied to entire groups or to larger social units. For example, a textual analysis could be performed to examine the extent to which complexity in the image of self and others, described here for the key dyad, is achieved in the entire group. Another possibility is to develop a coding system that would enable assessment of the level of empathy and of confrontation expressed in each group session, as well as changes in this level over time.

Developing and applying such procedures in additional studies would enable a more comprehensive understanding of the complex processes involved in the dialogue on the level of the entire group, beyond the specific interactions analyzed here. Future research should also devote more attention to understanding the complex relations between events that occur in the political reality outside the group sessions, as well as changes and developments in the group process itself.

Clearly, it is difficult to transfer what we have learnt about this process in a micro setting to the macro social and political level. Still one can assume that conflict resolution will always need individuals like Nasser and Avner who are willing and able to become engaged in a mutual exchange that may change their perspectives of themselves and of the other. The difficulty, however, may be determining how to achieve this change without giving up membership in and representation of the individual’s own collectives.

Another aspect to consider here is that the issues and dilemmas discussed in an intergroup dialogue of the kind described in this study can be taken as a serious indication of unresolved problems and tensions in relations between larger groups that the members of the discussion groups represent.



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