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{Reposted from the author’s blog}

Suddenly I was struck as if by lightning in the middle of the writing of this article critiquing a research study about Jewish-Arab dialogue groups. Bear with me and I will tell you why. But first, the preamble that sets the stage for my sudden understanding.

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I was taken aback the first time I was exposed to a group interaction process supposedly promoting improved relations between Jews and Arabs and peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And I wrote about what bothered me. It was the shame the Jews felt as a result of these dialogue groups that got me down. There seemed never to be the equivalent development of shame on the part of the Arabs, not that that is what I need to see happen. Not shame. Shame cannot be a positive outcome of anything, I think.

Rather, it is as if all the shame rests upon the idea that the fault of what is wrong between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is in the hands of the Jews.That is not new to us, being blamed for all that is wrong in the world. It is time that it stopped.

But I wondered if perhaps I was a bit overly sensitive because of my own personal life experiences.

And then I came across this article: Encountering the Narrative of the “Other”: Comparing Two Types of Dialogue Groups of Jews and Arabs in Israel. It was written by Efrat Zigenlaub and Shifra Sagy, both of Ben Gurion University of the Negev. The authors compared changes over time of Jews in a Jewish-Arab dialogue group (inter-group) in comparison with Jews who were presented with the same materials but with no Arabs present (intragroup). Following lectures on Palestinian and Israeli narratives, each group engaged in discussions to process what they heard. Pre and post tests examined a number of different variables.

I was surprised to see that one of the items assessed was shame. Why was “shame” even a variable in the study? In fact, Zigenlaub and Sagy cited a study from which they got the tool assessing feelings but that original study measured fear, anger, empathy and hope; they changed it to fear, anger and shame. Why?

Should we expect that shame would increase as a result of these group activities? And if so, why? Does shame lead to something positive?

I considered shame in terms of my former work with victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse and I do not think shame was helpful for either of these populations. Certainly not for the former and for the latter only as a stepping stone to taking responsibility. And in that case, I think we would be looking for remorse or guilt rather than shame.

So are the dialogue groups seeking to bring Jews to the point of feeling shame rather than pride in the fact that we have re-established our own sovereign state on the sacred lands upon which we became a people?

Would there be the same expectation of shame on the part of Palestinians for acts of terrorism were a similar study to be conducted at a university in Judea & Samaria or Gaza? I tend to doubt that.

After I had come across this article, I began to explore the research literature concerning shame.

The Psychological Literature on Shame and Guilt

There is a lot of literature on shame and guilt. The following quote, from a book called Facing Shame, Families in Recovery is an excellent summary of the main point:

Guilt is the developmentally more mature, though painful, feeling of regret one has about behavior that has violated a personal value. Guilt does not reflect directly upon one’ identity nor diminish one’s sense of personal worth. It emanates from an integrated conscience and set of values. It  is the reflection of a developing self. … The possibility of repair exists and learning and growth are promoted. … shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person. The possibility for repair seems foreclosed to the shameful person because shame is a matter of identity, not a behavioral infraction. There is nothing to be learned from it and no growth is opened by the experience because it only confirms one’s negative feelings about oneself. (pages 5-6) [emphasis added]

Now why would anyone want to see an increase in shame as the result of an intergroup dialogue pro-peace intervention? Is this how the group facilitators want Jews to feel about themselves upon leaving?

Or is this just how Jews have felt about themselves for centuries?

And then I got it!

Isn’t feeling shame part of being the Diaspora Jew? Never truly at home in any country (until the re-establishment of the modern State of Israel), always at the mercy of the host majority population, a rootless people have a difficult time developing a healthy sense of self-worth.

Furthermore, at certain points of our history, we were blamed repeatedly for the problems in each country in which we lived. From that to blaming Jews for all the world’s problems was an easy extrapolation. Regarded as “unwashed”, “dirty” and certainly as not-belonging, we were not accused of wrongs we had actually committed but what we might do in the future and the fact that we were just WRONG FOR EXISTING; our whole beingness was a blight on humanity. If that sounds harsh, I suggest you just skip along through the pages of history which are replete with examples of pogroms in England, Poland, Iraq, etc. It seems that mainly China and India did not join in the antisemitic festivities so common elsewhere. Now I am not saying that other peoples did not experience similar hate and massacres, because they did and still do; but here I am talking about Jewish experience.

So given that our beingness was under attack, Jews grew up with shame. That shame was passed on from generation to generation. It made my father change his name from Birenbaum to Burns when he reached adulthood in Toronto. As if that could hide the Yiddish inflections in his voice from the non-Jewish merchants he dealt with as a traveling salesman.

And now that very shame is being exploited for the feel-good-ness of others who think they know how to get Israel to capitulate to the Arabs who sought our demise in this little piece of land but did not succeed. So, after a few years’ grace during which the Western world allowed us to feel pride at the fact that we won wars of intended extermination against armies larger and stronger than our own, proud of Entebbe, we are once more expected to feel shame.

Perhaps it is because we have grown too big for our britches. Our armed forces are now among the very best in the world and we have a strong economy. Not something the meek Jew was supposed to achieve.

And now we get to the point: Jews feel shame for existing and succeeding. Arabs feel shame for losing.

Since shame is so familiar to us Jews (or a sizable proportion of us), we fall prey to the projections of the Arabs. I will expand on this in a future article, but suffice it to say here that the Arabs cannot bear the shame they feel because they lost to us and they “project” it onto us Jews for whom shame is a familiar way of being. We have learned how to tolerate feeling shame. So we accept the shame as if it is rightful that we feel guilty for “what we did to the Arabs who now call themselves Palestinians” because we are an unworthy lot. In the past we felt shame for being “dirty” and weak; now we feel shame for being strong.

Insidious Effect of Dialogue Groups

And, if we turn back to the article I am critiquing here, we find that Jews in the Jewish-Arab dialogue group reported a significant increase in felt shame whereas those in the Jewish-only intragroup showed a decrease in shame. (Neither of these are explained by the authors.) It seems to me that the increase in shame supports the idea that the Arabs projected their shame onto the Jewish participants, but this would have to be assessed specifically and if the Arab participants reported a decrease in shame from pretest to post-test, this would certainly be verification for projection.

Surprisingly, the authors did not report on any of the before-after data for the Arab participants in the inter-group sessions and I have to wonder why not. (I also wonder if they even collected that data and if so, if they held onto it as they are ethically supposed to do for seven years. Maybe I will write to the editor of the journal that published the paper and suggest they ask to see the data.)

When Jews accept the shame as our own in a dialogue group activity, the Arab participants likely feel a sense of relief. It is no longer their shame but ours. And if we feel shamed enough, maybe we will do something to correct the situation — reverse their losses and our wins. If enough of us accept the mantle of that shame, maybe we will pressure our government to the degree that we will shoot ourselves — not in the foot like the Four Mothers Movement that got us to skedaddle out of Lebanon — but fatally in the heart.

Is that what the Israeli/Jewish facilitators of the dialogue groups want to do? And is that what the Israeli/Jewish researchers what to see happen? I actually doubt it, but I cannot understand why two Israelis at Ben Gurion University would measure shame when, as far as I could determine, no other study on dialogue groups for any ethnicity considered that variable, unless they sensed something similar to what I am saying here about projection but just did not really contend with it. I wrote the lead author to ask why they measured shame and I am still waiting for an answer.

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Sheri Oz, owner of www.israeldiaries.com, is a retired family therapist exploring mutual interactions between politics and Israeli society.