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Conflict Resolution, the Arab-Israel Conflict, and Campus Anti-Semitism: An Interview with Dr. Peter Weinberger of the Institute of Peace

Brandeis Center

August 14, 2015

Peter Weinberger is a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace who has interesting ideas about how conflict analysis tools can be applied not only to the Arab-Israel conflict but also to the resurgent problem of campus anti-Semitism. Dr. Weinberger works with the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding. His primary focus at the Academy is on how to best deal with ethnic, religious and tribal groups when rebuilding countries after war and conflict.

The views expressed herein are those of Dr. Weinberger and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Institute of Peace.

What are the most important lessons that you have learned from your work in international conflict resolution?

It is possible to reframe a situation, or shift people’s perspective in a way, to help find a solution that works for them.

You have to listen to people, and understand what is important and meaningful for them.
If you offer to help someone, you have an ethical responsibility to give them the resources and tools so that they can be successful. (You can’t just   parachute in, give people some new ideas, and leave them to their fate.)

How has your training in neuroscience informed your perspective? 

My interest in neuroscience began when I became involved with very large project related to countering violent extremism. I spent considerable time in consultation with experts, because I recognized that there was a role for neuroscience in this program. This meant really learning to understand how the brain works, and particularly how prolonged fear, stress, and trauma play out, and how that might specifically related to conflict resolution initiatives and techniques to counter violent extremism.

I began to think about supplementing conflict resolution designs with two basic things. First, a basic education about the brain and traumatic stress- which can be an eye-opener for a lot of people who are on the front lines in their communities. This helps a lot of people to understand the reactions, in terms of fear or helplessness or anger, that is often common when there is intense conflict and violence. Second, I actively incorporate some techniques, basic techniques which are validated by new findings in neuroscience, to help calm and relax participants, and which also are known to open up the parts of the brain which are responsible for empathy and self-reflection.

Do these lessons apply to the Arab-Israel conflict? 

Yes, I believe so. I don’t pretend to have the magic formula to address this highly complex conflict. There have been numerous failed diplomatic initiatives that we all know about. There has also been millions of dollars invested in dialogue and conflict resolution programs since the signing of the Oslo agreements in the 1990s. Many question their value. But I believe that, even as we reflect upon these failures or unsuccessful approaches, we can identify some successes and aspects of initiatives that yielded positive results. It may be possible to use some new insights that come from neuroscience or conflict resolution to redesign or enhance those programs that have been more successful.

Do you have a sense of how successfully American universities are addressing this issue?

I think poorly, and for a number of reasons. I think that there could be a better job at widening the scope of discussion, or contextualizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, within a larger perspective. My experience internationally has shown me that it’s important to let communities in conflict understand that what they face is not unique and is in fact similar to a lot of places around the world. That insight can be empowering for them as they understand that they are not alone, and that they can look for other communities which eventually moved towards resolution, for inspiration or perhaps for concrete ideas.

But the converse frequently occurs on university campuses. I know this from my time as a professor, and when I conducted faculty training and other workshops at numerous universities as part of my work at the Institute of Peace. Rather than show that the Israeli Palestinian conflict is one of many places in the world where there are similar dynamics, there is often a situation which suggests that this conflict is singularly unique. It creates a misleading environment, because a number of students or faculty are not able to see the bigger picture. At best, people have a highly oversimplified understanding– which is not what a university should be trying to offer in terms of education. At worst, it runs the risk of demonizing the parties– usually the Israelis because they are perceived as the stronger side– and can make the Palestinians seem to be perennial victims who have no agency, and justified if they choose to use violence or terrorism.

By contrast, when I have talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, say to university or faith-based audiences, I make reference to other places I have worked, such as Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and Sri Lanka. I try to help people have a more holistic understanding of international conflict and conflict resolution.

What is your view on the recent resurgence of campus anti-Semitism in North America and Europe?

I find it deeply disturbing. But it is in some ways the logical outgrowth of the environment in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been discussed on university campuses in North America and Europe. I see a lot of analogies with other work that I have done internationally, in which we address issues of hate speech. There are overt and subtle forms of this phenomenon. The subtle forms are what I call a “free-wheeling” press, as opposed to a “free press.” So for example, in Serbian television in the 1990s, there were a lot of violent images, particularly images of dead or mutilated people. It was uncensored but operated without giving a larger explanation of how those people tragically lost their lives. For example, if they were killed in a NATO airstrike, what were the reasons that that occurred? Did Serbian military forces deliberately hide in a civilian area, for example? This is significant, because in countries or societies where critical thinking is not encouraged, these images and media commentary can serve as a de facto means to incite people to violence. If it happens repeatedly, and there is no counter voice, it can lead or incite some individuals to violence, because they feel outraged or have become convinced that it is the “appropriate” thing to do. I believe that something similar may be going on in campuses in North America and Europe. The vitriolic discourse toward Israel has allowed racist tropes about Jews to be uttered more openly, and, in increasing instances, is leading to acts of anti-Semitism.

If you could develop a conflict resolution program to address campus anti-Semitism, what would it look like? 

It would have to have a few different layers, or components.

First of all, it should be grounded in a human rights perspective that fundamentally respects the dignity and humanity of all people, including those on campus who were interested in having a complex discussion. This means that we have to discuss Middle East conflict(s) without slipping into stereotypes, bias, or hate.

There needs to be some better guidelines, or “modeling” about how to achieve this outcome. So we need to provide detailed instructions or training for university administrators as well as concerned faculty how to do this.

The program would really have to focus on making participants become “compassionate listeners,” to have the ability to learn, sit with discomfort, and to have a more holistic understanding of the complexity of the situation. I would suggest, as I mentioned earlier, about the need to contextualize Middle East conflict vis-à-vis other conflicts–places in the world where similar dynamics have occurred. This helps to show that conflicts, in some instances moved toward resolution. I have found that this approach also helps to prevent the demonization of any of the parties, such as Israelis, by showing that human beings have reacted similarly in many instances around the world.

It would be possible to introduce some of the techniques that have been validated by new insights in neuroscience into these kinds of conflict resolution discussions as well. It might be framed by saying, “we found that these discussions often become very heated. Since we have a commitment to listen to each other respectfully, we invite you to participate in this breathing exercise which is scientifically demonstrated to make people more calm and able to listen respectfully to ideas that you may not agree with. It also helps people to find common ground more easily.”

The program would then have to explicitly address campus anti-Semitism. It will be necessary to unpack, or show the participants, how people consciously or semi-consciously reproduce the discourse of anti-Semitism, both when it is related to discussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in other instances. And I think it’s crucial to take a principled stance, and not sanction the reductionist thinking or moral relativism that sometimes comes to play when talking about anti-Semitism, i.e. “Yes, attacking Jews here is wrong, but…the treatment of the Palestinians.”

What kind of impact do you think that this program would have, and how would you measure results?

In my work we have to constantly engage in monitoring and evaluation of programs, because we have to show results in order to justify continued funding.

First of all is important to distinguish between what is called “process” and “impact” evaluation. A process evaluation is simply a description of the numbers of people who were trained in and what they were taught. That is it. But impact evaluation is more substantial because it involves follow-up. So, you say, “We trained 25 people in basic conflict resolution techniques. And then, over a series of lags–three months, six months, and one year, we followed up to see how they were using what we taught them in their daily lives and their work. And we offered them help on an “as needed” basis.” The use of impact evaluation is crucial, especially if you want to measure something like sustained attitude change.

For a successful project to address campus anti-Semitism, you would likely need to measure three things, all related to sustained impact:

Attitude transformation of the students/faculty/university staff who participated;

Ability of the project facilitators on each campus to adapt to complex changes and challenges;

Ability of campus police and university administrators to respond to instances of campus anti-Semitism, based on their participation and knowledge of the core-lessons of the project.

If there was sustained commitment and funding, I believe that it would be possible to 1) stop the numbers of anti-Semitic acts from growing; and 2) begin to reverse the growth and actively lower numbers of anti-Semitic acts.

If you are concerned about anti-Semitism on your campus, or if you seek advice about best practices, contact us.

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Research Articles
and Reports
Over 50% of Jewish American college students report that they experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism on their campuses during the 2013-2014 academic year. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has announced that campus anti-Semitism “is a serious problem which warrants further attention.” Campus anti-Semitism can include subjecting Jewish students to different treatment, harassment, violence or a hostile environment. In some cases, campus anti-Semitism is related to anti-Israel sentiment. In other cases, it is not. For most purposes, we define anti-Semitism according to the U.S. Department of State definition of anti-Semitism. .
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Irwin Cotler
Irwin Cotler is a Canadian Member of Parliament, a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and a Professor of Law at McGill University, Canada (on leave).
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