Every time the conflict in Gaza breaks out, the “international community” asks itself: what can we do about it? Social scientists have argued for decades over cultural VS institutional/material explanations for all kinds of phenomena, from democracy to ideology itself (for a Marxist or even a “rational choice” approach, ideology is a consequence of material conditions). Today, the trend is to consider both sources of explanations as complementary (at least in political science).
In the case of Israel and Palestine, it seems reasonable that cultural/ideological/”non-rational”, as well as structural/institutional/material factors, both play a role here. The war involves religion, ideology, territory dispute and economic interests (not only from those who are directly involved in the war). However, at this point, the main obstacle for a solution to the crisis could be the escalating hate between the two sides of the war.
Some journalists point out that support for Israeli airstrikes among its population was never so high (although it vanished after the many civil casualties, according to NBC). Reports of racist attitudes of Israel citizens against Palestinians confirm that the anger got to a new level.
At the same time, anti-Semitism that seemed to be always latent in the hearts and minds of some people around the world also finds a new ground after the civil casualties attributed to Israel.
These hate speeches are often covered by common place expressions such as “we do not have anything against Palestinians or Muslims, our problem is only with the terrorists like Hamas” or “Israel is a genocide state” (instead of just saying that THEY are the only ones causing the problem, as it seems to be the main belief of people who keeps reproducing this thought).
To make things worse, a well-known victimization complex lies inside Jewish and Muslim communities at the same time. The Israelis, having been persecuted since the times of the pharaohs and having become the priority of Nazis mass murders, always think they are the victim. Being surrounded by Arab countries with Muslim majorities and some groups who do not seem very sympathetic to Jews and Israelis does not help on that. The Muslims, in turn, see themselves as persecuted since Muhammad. After centuries of colonization by Western countries and, most particularly the widening view of them as a religion pruned to terrorism in the past decades (mainly after September 11), they also think they are the victims here.
The irrational element on the war, however, takes effect also in the same “international community” that tries to be a rational, unbiased third-party bringing peace. The real war let slip an Internet war between supporters of both sides. The increasing polarization among those who reproduce the conflict in the virtual world creates a smoke screen which makes it difficult to know where the truth lies. Whom can we believe in? We are not in Gaza, we are not close friends with Netanyahu or Hamas leaders, so who is telling the truth here? Who started it? With the advent of Internet and social media, we can rely on different sources of information, some of them from real people coming directly from the Middle East. Nonetheless, the polarizing attitude of some people makes it hard to know what is true and what is distorted, just like in many political issues. The media might be biased, but only because regular people are also biased and wants to read and watch only the news that fits their world-views. This is what scholars such as Gentzkow and Shapiro call the “confirmation bias”.
One bad thing about cultural approaches in social sciences is that it is hard to propose solutions to cultural problems. Nevertheless, as Leonard Morlino points out in some of his studies, this is not a reason for dropping the cultural factor from the table. Even though the dimension of ideology and feelings is not the initial cause of many political phenomena, it creates some sort of path dependence that stretch over generations.
The psychologist Thomas Singer writes about that in “The Vision Thing: Myth, Politics and Psyche in the World” which is mainly concerned with persistent ethnic wars such as the one we are talking about. He sees a dangerous “us/them” polarization filled with “victimization and revenge dynamics” as one of the main obstacles to get out of those conflicts.
To sum-up, if the international community wants to help in bringing peace to Gaza (as well as solving other political problems marked by a strong polarization – like many of them are), we first need to understand the cultural dynamics of the main players in this conflict and we also need to avoid ourselves any sort of polarization and bias.