Dialogue, Conflict Resolution, and Change: Arab-Jewish Encounters in Israel
By Mohammed Abu-Nimer
Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Abu-Nimer, Mohammed. Dialogue, Conflict Resolution, and Change: Arab-Jewish Encounters in Israel. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Dialogue, Conflict Resolution, and Change: Arab-Jewish Encounters in Israel is an in-depth examination of six Arab-Jewish encounter programs. These programs are run in Arab and Jewish schools in Israel, with teachers and students as participants. They last one to three days and are intended to foster peace through cross-cultural dialogue. Abu-Nimer researched these programs using 75 unstructured interviews and eight direct observations. In doing so, he sought to discover whether these programs are "...directed and implemented to promote political changes..." or were meant to "...support the status quo control system that characterizes Arab-Jewish relations in Israel." He concludes that they are indeed mechanisms of control.
In part, this is thought to be a result of the programs' theoretical dependence on the contact hypothesis. The contact hypothesis argues that simply bringing people from different cultures together over a concentrated period of time will change their attitudes and opinions toward each other. Abu-Nimer points out that since the contact hypothesis is based on individual and interpersonal encounters, it lacks "...effectiveness at the macro or structural level..." Thus, encounter programs based on the contact hypothesis (such as the six he studied) will be unable to change macro-level structures.
In contrast, Abu-Nimer prefers programs based on conflict resolution theory, which he claims can "...lead to systematic and structural changes because...(they have) either a direct or an indirect goal of re-education of the parties involved in the conflict." Such "re-education" includes teaching "encounter skills" with which to analyze conflict, acknowledging and expressing emotions, integrating inter-group and collective identities and an emphasis on transforming the conflict relationship from adversarial to cooperative. Unfortunately, these concepts are absent in the encounter programs he studied.
Rather, these programs reflect the educational system in which they are imbedded, wherein he claims, "...it is clear that the role of education is to maintain control over the Arabs in Israel and to nationalize the Jewish students and population against the threat of Arabs." Because the programs operate within this educational system, Abu-Nimer argues they "...are obligated to its principles and assumptions." Thus, he sees these encounter programs as a piece of a larger system of control. As a control mechanism, these programs are seen as "reforming defects in the social order," rather than changing Israeli society. In other words, these six encounter programs "...in their current structure, framework, process, content, and organizational structure...are operating in a manner that can directly or indirectly contribute to preserving the status quo of the control system which the Israeli government imposes on Arabs in Israel."
In addition, he points out limitations specific to the design of these six programs. Structurally, he claims they lack any evaluation of previous interventions, a follow-up program, preparation, and continued action. Process problems are said to include avoidance of political issues, avoidance of differences, a lack of attention to practical outputs and asymmetric content. Additionally, the third party facilitators tend to lack professional training, be too focused on content at the expense of process, vary in their authority on ethnic lines (Arabs tend to have less power than Jews) and lack clarified goals. These programs also tended to adhere to the hegemonic assumptions of a primarily Jewish society and to intentionally avoid politics. Finally, there were external factors limiting these programs, including a lack of government commitment, historical ties to Jewish political mobilization organizations and their place within the Ministry of Education.
Despite such strong condemnation, Abu-Nimer acknowledges that each of these six programs was successful in creating cross-cultural friendships and in reducing stereotypes and prejudice. While he sees this as a good thing, he views it as a "drop in the ocean" because they affect only the micro-level relationships of a very limited number of people. Further, he points out that in order for these micro-level changes to succeed in changing macro-level policy, participants must translate their changed attitudes/perceptions into changed actions, while under the pressure of "agents of their environment" who do not share this new attitude. According to Abu-Nimer, to do so requires conflict resolution intervention, but unfortunately, "...it is clear that these programs do not fall under the definition of conflict resolution programs."
The conflict resolution intervention that he envisions refers to "...those intervention models that relate equally and symmetrically to all the parties of the conflict." Such a model would be structured around the basic principles of conflict resolution, which include mutual and symmetric empowerment, democratic values, acknowledgment of emotions, and collaborative problem solving. This approach attempts to create individuals who are "...personally, socially and politically involved in the conflict while understanding the complexity and interdependence of conflict relations..." as well as dialogue environments free of asymmetrical power relations.
When dialogue replaces action without such an environment, encounter programs are thought to be doomed to reproduce unequal power relations. They do so by first relieving the conscience of the "oppressor" and second by allowing the "oppressed" to vent frustration. The result is a "better" relationship on the individual level without any real changes made to the underling "oppressive" social structures that caused the "oppression" in the first place. On the other hand, encounters armed with conflict resolution theory are thought to be able to recognize these macro-level "oppressive" structures and incorporate this understanding into micro-level relational issues. Such programs can foster a general questioning of the existing power relations based on an edict of total equality which, it is thought, can lead to systemic changes in the polity.
In the introduction, Abu-Nimer states, "...the assumption of this study is that there should be no immediate, naive acceptance or warm welcome of every dialogue setting." In other words, encounter programs are not inherently positive in their affect. Indeed, according to Abu-Nimer, the six programs he studied essentially acted as control mechanisms, reinforcing asymmetric power structures in the minds of the people they reach (despite some limited positive affects on micro-level relationships). In their place, he would like to see conflict resolution intervention, which combines the principles of conflict resolution with face-to-face cross-cultural encounters in a mutually empowering environment. Encounter programs based on conflict resolution intervention would seek to change, rather than replicate, the status quo. According to Abu-Nimer, until such a strategy is implemented, Rosen's 1970 comment, "Arab-Jewish cooperation in Israel is alive but not well," will continue to ring true.