In 2005, the Dalai Lama spoke at Rutgers on "Peace, War and Reconciliation." When a student asked this great man of wisdom what to do about the situation in the Middle East, he replied, "I don't know."
The interminable struggle and deep trauma that has taken place between Israelis and Palestinians has stumped everyone. Countless books have focused on what would be fair economically, historically and politically. Exhaustive analyses of political leaders have been conducted. But Professor Moises Salinas has taken a different tact.
A tenured professor of developmental and social psychology at Central Connecticut State University, who has spent much of his career looking at stereotyping and prejudice, Salinas has analyzed the situation psychologically in his new book, "The Psychology of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Planting Hatred, Sowing Pain." He had wanted to call it the more optimistic "Planting Hope, Sowing Peace," but knew the title would be inappropriate.
"The solution is obviously the two states. We know the solution, so why don't we implement it?" he asks. The answer is that the people involved are psychologically destroyed. He begins his intro with a quote from one Israeli and one Palestinian both saying they want peace, but then goes on to show how when analyzed psychosocially, their prejudices and trauma prevent them from working together. One researcher calls it "intractable ethnonational," meaning the groups have become resistant to resolution.
Through extensive interviews (with Jews conducting those with Jews and Palestinians conducting those with Palestinians to assure that both sides are fairly represented), he explores the psychological factors that have made the situation seemingly stuck in granite. He begins by summarizing the history of the conflict and then each chapter explores in turn prejudice, pain, hatred and hope. Most of this won't be new to people who have read about the damaging affects of prejudice and trauma, but through the substantial detail and juxtaposition of the voices of Palestinians and Israelis, we can see that they experience trauma in the same way. This goes a long way in creating empathy and breaking down stereotypes.
Salinas admits to falling prey to prejudices against Arabs himself. A turning point for him was around the time of his bar mitzvah. Israel was in peace negotiations with Egypt, and he kept asking the adults around him, "Why are we talking to the bad guys?" Up to that point, he saw things in black and white and he marks that moment as the time he started seeing the complexities of the situation. Still decades later, he had to overcome some fear driving out to his interview subjects. He would reassure himself that statistically, he knew he would be okay, but it was hard not to respond to his own fears and misconceptions about Palestinians and remain neutral. (His first book was entitled "The Politics of Stereotypes").
In 2004, Salinas was one of 14 Zionist leaders worldwide to be honored with the first Herzl Awards from the World Zionist Organization. After attending Jewish day school in his native Mexico, he first went to Israel in 1984-85, where he attended the Machon L'Madrichei Chutz La'Aretz, the Institute for Youth Leaders Abroad in Jerusalem, a program for Zionist leadership and education. For college, he studied at Hebrew University, where he majored in psychology with a particular interest in stereotypes and prejudices. Being a blond, blue-eyed Jewish Mexican, people were often confounded when he didn't fit neatly into their stereotype of the dark Latino.
After getting his PhD at the University of Texas Austin, and getting tenure at CCSU, Salinas took time off to go to Israel with his family and began his research for a book he always wanted to write: looking at the Middle East conflict from a psychological perspective.
He is realistic about the conflict. His chapter on hope is the smallest and last and doesn't have the density of the other chapters. When asked to make a prediction about what will happen in the area he says, "They may sign an agreement, make a peace deal, but there will always be anger. Every time we get to real progress, extremists [on both sides] will try and sabotage it. Their reason for existing is taken away. They invested everything in their extremist identities. If we have peace, they become irrelevant."
What was his goal in writing the book? To educate people so they see the complexity of the situation. He wants people to talk about it, debate and discuss it. He expresses disappointment that many Jews are afraid to really engage on this seemingly taboo subject. Concerned about being politically correct, they don't want to criticize anyone.
"But this silence is what prevents progress," he says. He also feels Israel needs bold political moves from a leader with vision.
"Every time a leader has taken a chance in the Middle East, he has paid personally and socially," he says giving the examples of Sadat, Rabin, and Barak.
Salinas believes peace is possible in several decades. He hopes his book will bring people closer to seeing the people behind the stereotypes.
"It would be the greatest thing if this has some impact, if it helps," he says.