Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ethnic Group Conflict

Cultural conformity, especially in religious heritage is a powerful mediator of social perception. Both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are entrenched in negative social perceptions of their nemesis, and only by reconciling and lessening the divergent perspectives between the groups will reconciliation be accomplished. The opposing doctrines create a religiously biased lens that supports and maintains the traditionally held stereotypes of each other. Although religion is a central theme in their conflict, it may serve as a foundational bridge between their apparently weighted differences. Peace building can alter perceptions and promote positive social interactions when common ground is emphasized (Byrne, (191).

Cultural Conformity

According to Shiraev and Levy (2010), "conformity is a form of social influence in which individuals change their attitudes and/or behavior to adhere to a group or social norm" (p. 283). Social psychology explains human conformity as the need to accommodate the majority, maintain consensus, to reduce negative sanctions, and to live up to the expectations of other people to maintain positive relationships (Shiraev & Levy, 2010). According to the rational actor theories, conformity is a rational choice whereby people choose from available alternatives after determining whether benefits or negative consequences will result from their choice.

Regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, each group is represented by and behaves according to their respective religious doctrine, and religious and political conformity is of significant consequence to citizenship in either of these areas (Hofman, 1977). In both Judaism and Islamic cultures, consistency in religious attitudes is much more complex and rigorous than in other religions and demands following the rules and expectations of religious norms and leadership. Because of the strict religious conformity, there is little flexibility in attitudes, and beliefs intricately woven into the cultural fabric of group. Although religious and political conflict exists between the Muslim and Jewish religions, some of the current issues concern extremist groups from either side who determine their own set of (usually violent) rules of cultural conformity. Grave differences in religious affiliation continue to distance the two sides. Whereas Palestinians are primarily Muslim (Sunni), the majority of Israelis are Jewish. Religion in both areas has maintained a consistently central role in shaping the cultures and lifestyles in both cultures (Hofman, 1977), and religion is a cultural variable that can contribute or detract from understandings between nations or societies (Cohen, 1990). The intolerant attitudes perpetuated by both groups and various political issues, creates an environment in which mutual exclusivity prevents reconciliation.

Social Perception and Social Cognition

Social perception is the process by which people aim to understand themselves and each other, whereas social cognition is the process by which people interpret, remember, and use information about the world and ourselves. People in all cultures recall experiences to make decisions. Within their cultural milieu, people develop attitudes, beliefs, and judgments through socialization experiences. Social perception is culturally rooted, so people raised in similar environments interpret their experiences in similar ways, although when people are exposed to different religions and lifestyles, they are likely to have radically different world views. The relationship between social perception and social cognition is best described by explaining social perception as it exists as a function of social cognition. Culture colors perceptions so consequently, social cognition functions within the cultural perception.

The divergent perspectives of the Palestinians and the Israelis contribute to their conflicting beliefs of each other and their complex worldview which, in turn, supports their perspectives. In the case of these two warring factions, they engage in conflict against one another because of their respective views of each other, which is through a biased lens of the traditionally held stereotypes of the other. For example, many Palestinians believe Israel does not want to reach a peaceful agreement with the Israelis, but wants to continue to engage in controlling the entire territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. From the Israeli perspective, they believe the Palestinians seek to conquer Palestine and are using official peace-related claims as a temporary strategy. Because of the various opinions and interpretations, it has become difficult to articulate the exact demands of each party. These are political issues about which many citizens on both sides disagree.

Heider's theory of attitude balance, which claims people seek consistency in their attitudes and beliefs is important to consider (Spector, 2008). People tend to overestimate positive characteristics of people they like and underestimate positive traits and place emphasis on the negative ones of those who they do not care for (Heider, 1959). Applying this theory to the age-old conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis, each group has perpetuated the negative aspects of the other, and passed this information generationally, usually through religious affiliation. Not only do members of each group perpetuate these beliefs, they refuse information that presents evidence contrary to their beliefs and attitudes (Krueger & DiDonato, 2008). As each side devalues and maintains derogatory attitudes toward the other, each group becomes more entrenched in their perception of the other (Krueger & DiDonato, 2008).

Social Perceptions That Require Change

The religions of both sides are of Abrahamic origin, tracing their common religious origin to Abraham, or Abrahamic spiritual tradition, the similarities they refuse to observe (WGBH Educational Foundation, 2002). Both religions, along with Christianity have similarities, which inextricably link them in a common theological dogma: all three are monotheistic, and believe in God as the higher power and source of moral law. The sacred tales of these religions include many of the same characters, histories, and places although often told from different perspectives and with different meanings (WGBH Educational Foundation, 2002). Although Christianity, Judaism, and the Muslim faith are defined by common beliefs, they have many internal differences based on details of doctrine and practice. These differences are emphasized and escalated to the point of extreme contention.

As long as the cultural perceptions are instilled in the younger generations of both groups in conflict, the problems will continue (Shamir & Shikaki, 2002). Although the young children are too immature to determine whether they will carry the burden of history, during later years, such as during adolescence, young adults may ponder their limited choice and investigate the reality of the claims of each side. Until new perceptions are embraced in both groups, the unsubstantiated claims and distorted perceptions of the enemy will continue to provoke conflict between them.

According to Huntington (1996), "international stability can be advanced by nations discovering and developing greater intercultural understanding and appreciation of each other" (p. 320). Research supports the importance of culture and psychological perceptions in politics and religion (Huntington, 1996). Peace building can affect change in perception and the quality of social interactions with emphasis on equal status contact, intimate encounters, and cooperative relationships, and discovering common ground in another group can promote improved mutual perceptions (Byrne, (191). One of the most significant provocations between the two groups, and the escalatory influence is religious differences, so reconciliation in this area will promote more accurate social perceptions on both sides.

According to Byrne (1969), individuals are more apt to change negative attitudes toward another group when they acknowledge attitudes and beliefs similar to their own. Because there are similarities in rituals and terminologies in both Abrahamic religions, this could be the starting point for conciliatory action. Mollov and Barhoum (1998) demonstrated similarities in the religious framework and customs between Islam and Judaism. Additionally, Mollov and Barhoum (1998) claim,

Interactions between the Israeli and Palestinian students and faculty have not remained limited to the formal meetings. Personal relationships have developed and survived the vicissitudes of sometimes turbulent current events; members have reacted constructively during tragedy and difficulty and have visited each other on personal occasions of both illness and celebration, thus creating a strong human bond for the dialogues and cooperation efforts to continue (Para. 9).

Although limited in scope, evidence such as the in experience of Israeli and Palestinian students and faculty, there is a strong basis for focusing on inter-religious dialogue as a means to mediating social perceptions between the two groups (Mollov & Lavie, 2001). Communication based on religious ideals is a reasonable conciliatory point on which to begin resolution because of the depth and extraordinary commitment of both sides to maintaining a presence on the land they cherish because of religious heritage (Mollov & Lavie, 2001). To change social perceptions based in such an ideological balance of power, it is apparent that religious and culturally based convictions must accommodate a middle ground.


It would be far too simple to claim an easy solution for the long-established Palestinian-Israeli conflict, although changing social perception through the mediation of inter-religious communication can play a significant role in facilitating change in how individuals on each side view members of the other. Notwithstanding the complications resulting from instigating such reconciliation and the complexities of this definitively age old stand-off, in-roads have been forged between students and faculty on either side. Social perceptions have been changed, and regardless of the extraordinary challenge to mediate such long-standing hatred, changing social perception can be accomplished by emphasizing and embracing similarities in religious heritage.


Byrne, D. (1961). Interpersonal attraction and attitude similarity. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 62(3), 713-715. doi: 10.1037/h0044721

Cohen, R. (1990). Culture and conflict in Egyptian-Israeli relations: a dialogue of the deaf. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Heider, F. (1959). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York:Wiley.

Hofman, J. (1977). Identity and intergroup perception in Israel. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 1(3), 79-102. doi: 10.1016/0147-1767(77)90021-9

Krueger, J. I., & DiDonato, T. E. (2008). Social categorization and the perception of groups and group differences. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(2), 733-750. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00083.x

Mollov, B., & Barhoum, M. I. (1999). Building religious/cultural bridges between Israeli and Palestinian university students. Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics, 9, 55-55.

Mollov, B., & Lavie, C. (2001). Culture, dialogue, and perception change In he Israeli- Palestinian conflict. International Journal of Conflict Management, 12(1), 69-87. doi: 10.1108/eb022850

Shamir, J., & Shikaki, K. (2002). Self-serving perceptions of terrorism among Israelis and Palestinians. Political Psychology, 23(3), 537-557. doi: 10.1111/0162-895X.00297

Shiraev, E. B. & Levy, D. A. (2010). Cross-cultural psychology: Critical thinking and contemporary applications (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson/Allyn Bacon.

WGBH Educational Foundation. (2002). Global connections. PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved July 01, 2011, from

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