Yet every word in conflict is also an expression of hope, because it is an attempt to bridge the gap that separates adversaries; an act of courage, because it is a plea for understanding; and an effort to re-connect, because it is a deliberate effort to move toward our opponents and away from the hostile assumptions that feed impasse.
If I could ever be convinced of the value of drawing up a list of the most influential people in my own professional and personal life, an unusually large number of those names would be Jewish people. Friends during my studies that influenced me deeply, mentors during my early years of legal practice, colleagues that worked shoulder to shoulder with me, clients that have become deeply trusted and respected friends – these are the people that would have all earned a place on my list. I believe that many of you could say the same.
The ongoing war between Israel and Palestine / Hamas (however you wish to describe it) has placed an unusual amount of pressure on some of these personal and professional relationships for many people. I see around me a variety of conflicts and unease in these relationships such as I cannot recall seeing in decades. These professional and personal relationships with Jewish people have, for some, taken on complex and troubling dimensions. Given the intense global media scrutiny of these events, and the emotional content of much of the talking points, such relationships that were otherwise untroubled by these considerations may now directly or indirectly be influenced and pressurized by anything from sanctions to peer pressure, from calls for conformity with in-group dictates to internal moral objections. This causes, quite understandably, both internal conflict (with ourselves) and conflict in those relationships. Just the fact that your fellow travellers in these relationships are Jewish have now created subtle or not-too-subtle conflict causes and triggers in some of those relationships. I do not see the long-term value in denying that this is so.
Some of these conflicts are easily resolved. If you agree with the general Israeli / Jewish position on the majority of these worldviews and events, then your relationship simply goes on, possibly strengthened by such conformity of views, and any conflicts may be from outside those relationships. You may also have assessed the available evidence and come to the conclusion that such relationships are no longer tolerable or defensible, and that they should be terminated. As the heat and noise of the global debate indicate (or should indicate) people of goodwill can hold widely disparate views on the various components of the conflict, and to walk away from such relationships on matters of moral and principled reflection is a perfectly valid and understandable response.
But for those of us who want to retain those relationships, who value those relationships above these pressures, the navigation of those assumptions and complexities can be difficult and unpleasant. It is to those relationships, the ones trying to hang on and survive despite these pressures, that this article is addressed. We look at a selected few conflict strategies that we can use in these relationships.
1. No compromise
We set ourselves and our partners up for cyclical conflicts and eventual failure of we compromise on important issues. We have nevertheless been taught, by a series of teachers, mentors and experts, that we should compromise, that compromise shows respect and that it is the polite thing to do. In the process we often plaster over the cracks and set up facades of pretence that we cannot, and should not have to, maintain. Different opinions and worldviews, here maybe even more than is usually the case, can be understood, tolerated and accommodated respectfully and with full recognition of the other’s dignity without there being any acceptance of such views, without there being any compromise on your own values and views. This is a crucially important gift that we can give each other in complex conflicts such as these ones, and yet we deny ourselves that potential by well-intentioned or lazily agreed upon compromises. We aim for peace and create a new cause of conflict between us, which in turn leads to resentment and further, secondary complexities in that relationship. Pay each other the compliment, love each other enough to be able to, and allow each other, to speak your own values, but learn how to do so in a constructive and effective manner.
2. The value of the differentiation phase
Given the high visibility and contentious nature of the topic, we often skip over some of the important early phases of these relationship conflicts and disagreements. We regard it as rude to ask questions, we assume too much, we nod and move on. In the process we cannot truly understand each other, we do not know how and why they have arrived at their worldviews and opinions. If your professional or personal relationship is experiencing levels of pressure that may be causing open or hidden conflicts in those relationships, you would do well to start from the beginning again, and have an honest look at why you believe what you believe. Bear in mind here that you are listening, not agreeing, not condoning. Allowing people to talk makes them feel heard, mirrors behaviour that you would expect from them, raises the trust and communication confidence levels in that relationship, and removes several potential obstacles to clear communication that later on could become an invaluable currency in that relationship.
3. Recalibrate your perspectives
Social media teaches us to oversimplify complex conflicts, breaking our world down into good vs bad, us vs them silos that we gratefully, lazily and often unknowingly accept. Bold and courageous communication can bring new perspectives to how we see our friend or client on the other end of the table. The monolithic straw-man standard that we are judging that person by may exist more in our imagination than in reality. This conflict in particular has very quickly given rise to extremely polarized terms and understanding, with vague terminology and the imprecise use of concepts such as “anti-semitism”, “genocide” and “self-defence” becoming conflict causes in themselves. Is your friend really in favour of the “mass killing of women and children”, as the accusation would have it? What is your friend’s view on the two state solution, on an immediate ceasefire? Often clear communication brings new understanding, important nuance and room for growth in that relationship. Explore it. This does not mean that both sides are correct, but it does mean that you are willing to work with, and despite, your differences towards the goals that relationship may have.
4. Building bridges
Our important relationships quickly get caught in acting-reacting spirals, conduct based on expectations and perceptions, all of which are conflicts waiting to happen. While, in the techniques discussed above, we have sharpened our understanding of what divides us, and have given full recognition to that, we also occasionally need to remind ourselves of what we share, either generally or insofar as this specific topic is concerned. We may disagree on the importance of a ceasefire, but agree that the war should end, or that civilians should not be harmed intentionally. A simple question and the occasional reminder of that balance, that all is not disagreement, can add much needed oxygen to a relationship under these types of pressures.
5. Develop your understanding of identity conflicts
Elsewhere I have written extensively on the crucial importance of identity conflicts, including what they are, how they are created and maintained, how to change minds in those conflicts, and the incredible harm we do when we try to change people’s minds in identity conflicts when we do not know exactly what we are doing. In the next point below I will briefly deal with the changing of hearts and minds in these situations, but here I want to invite you to spend a few minutes to get to a working, basic understanding of identity conflicts. It will become one of your most important life skills regardless of what you do professionally or personally. Conflicts such as the Israel / Palestine war cannot be meaningfully understood, or dealt with, unless you have at least a working understanding of identity conflicts.
Briefly put, and it is a concept that cannot really be “briefly put”, our identities are us, our very core beings. We do not give it much, if any thought, but our identities consist of layers of various views, beliefs, assumptions and truths. This is our identity, it is us, whether examined or not. These beliefs hold different levels of importance to us – we are at the same time a mother, a friend, a Liverpool fan, a doctor and a runner. We believe in God or we cannot accept the proposition, we vote ANC or we fail to understand why someone could be that “ignorant”. These are our identities, they are quite literally and existentially us. From this simple and uncontentious fact develops our identity conflicts.
Our identities give us a sense of belonging, of comfort, of prosperity, of meaning. If there is an “us” there has to be a “them”. Through factors as diverse as evolution to learned behaviour, from our own insecurity to political or commercial manipulation, these identities become weaponized and used, most often without us knowing this. Unspoken and unwritten codes of conduct reward the “correct” in-group behaviour, and punishes the “incorrect” behaviour towards the out-group (if you have any doubts about this, say something nice about “them” on social media as a test). This both creates and maintains my identity. If I say or do that which my group expects of me, I am rewarded, confirming at deep emotional levels my original “choice” to belong to this group. It shapes our values, our conduct in the outside world. “Good people” act like this and say that, while “bad people” act like that and say things like that. It becomes, long before we even know it, a matter of our existential survival. These identities are necessary and quite inescapable.
Once this scaffolding is erected (again, most of us do not even know that this has happened, or is happening), we start seeing the visible effect this has on our conflicts. Several multi-disciplinary studies and practical work show that the importance of our identities now mean that incoming information gets filtered in order to sustain and even protect that identity. Information that confirms and builds that identity gets accepted, often uncritically or at least with a fair dose of bias involved, and disconfirming information gets rejected with various degrees of scepticism. Information that does not support our identities, our worldviews, threatens who we are at an emotional level. And here we now find the harm that these arguments do: as counter-intuitive as this may sound, even objective evidence (as rare as that may be) now tends not to convince us, but threaten us.
Case studies show how the more we push others with such information and arguments the more we cause resistance, the more we not just fail to convince, but entrench people in their existing views. It is easier, by some measure, for most of us to find a reason or disconfirming counter-evidence to reject such arguments than what it is to shake our identities to their core.
The Israel/ Palestine war is by definition a highly complex identity conflict. Participants involved at various levels are drawn into the conflict in important ways, all feeding into their identities. This is why we see a global reaction to the conflict, as identities defined as Palestinian or Israeli, Jew or Zionist, Muslim, democrat, liberal or conservative, good or bad people and a range of other identity markers, all get drawn into the conflict, each see a need to build or defend their identity using the focal point of the primary conflict as foundation. If we are going to be able to effectively navigate our personal or professional relationships across this gaping dive, we will need to have an above-average understanding of identity conflicts, how they are created and maintained, and the damage we do when we unskilfully use arguments based on facts as we see them. For other visible conflicts that seem impervious to “the facts” we can consider the US election wars, the Covid-19 debates, various climate and environmental debates and so on. In other words, you being right, you having all the scientific studies and YouTube videos on your side do not in themselves help you to persuade in these conflicts, in fact you are probably making matters worse and entrenching that person in their views. Importantly also, them resisting your facts (if facts they are) do not necessarily make them evil or bad people.
With very few exceptions people sincerely believe what builds and maintains their identities. This is the main reason why name-calling and insults simply drive people deeper into these identities, once more assured of the correctness of their views. Once we see how these identities and their defences are constructed, vilifying our opponents become a lot more difficult.
6. Changing their opinions?
This part of the discussion could be the most difficult decision for you to make in these relationships. You may feel completely sure about your views, and passionately wish to convince your friend to see this important issue the same way that you do. As we have seen in 5 above, our efforts could be harmful and counter-productive, even with the best intentions and armed with the best objective evidence. I am not going to tell you whether it is ethically correct or not to try and change opinions in these relationships, you will make up your own mind on that. I am satisfied that, if you decide to try and do so, you are better prepared to attempt this very complex conflict technique, and that your basic knowledge of identity conflicts will guide you. Personally I do not attempt any changing of minds, unless I am specifically asked to advise on something, or if our discussions lead to that. If you do decide to attempt such work, I recommend the more detailed nine-step procedure that you can access at DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS - part 2/3 - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za)
7. Beware the puppet-master
Once we have a working knowledge of how identity conflicts work, how our identities are shaped and maintained, it hopefully becomes easier to see how those with political, commercial or other motives may push our buttons. There are already, as the keen observer will be able to find, several groups using the war to rile up their constituents, to create fear and animosity, and to benefit from these strong emotions, all in the name of this horrific conflict. The us-vs-them dynamic serves a range of other aims as well. We need not stop these abuses and manipulations, but it helps our relationships if we are aware of how easily we can be manipulated into believing certain things, saying certain things and generally being pressurized into acting “correctly”. Make up your mind, come to your own conclusions, just be aware of how those opinions are shaped.
There are several other conflict techniques that we can use fruitfully in these relationships, but the article is long enough as it is. If need be we can follow-up on our discussion. My thoughts here are specifically not designed to be an easy, middle-of-the-road compromise, let’s-play-nice suggestion. Quite the contrary, as our discussion should indicate clearly enough. These are incredibly difficult, divisive, complex conflicts, and it should come as no surprise that they place enormous pressure on our relationships. We do ourselves, and these relationships, a disfavour if we patronize their complexity or dumb down the issues at stake. That way lies dishonesty, a loss of integrity and the devaluation of that relationship. Have these difficult, painful discussions, but do so from an informed, skilful position. If you get this right, you will have added a new depth, a new level of understanding to these valuable relationships.
Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading
1. Selected work by Jay van Bavel, Jonathan Haidt, Yascha Mounk and Peter Boghossian (further details on request) on identity conflicts.
2. Rethinking Conflict Resolution and Management, by IW Zartman and Sinisa Vukovic, Elgar Publishing (2023)
3. Dangerous Magic by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022), especially chapters 4 (identity conflicts) and 8 (on clear communication during conflict)
4. Various relevant articles on the Conflict Conversations blog at www.conflict-conversations.co.za
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org for any further information)
(c) Andre Vlok