Back in the 1970s, when Stanford professor and social psychologist Philip Zimbardo placed 24 regular college students in a basement, randomly assigning half of them to be “prisoners” and the other half to be “guards,” it didn’t take long for the guards to start abusing their power and mistreating the prisoners. Despite all of them being white, middle-class, elite college students, they quickly felt compelled to exert the little power they had over innocent, randomly chosen prisoners.
Similarly, when Stanley Milgram from Yale University recruited 40 regular New Haven community members for a staged experiment in which they had to administer electroshocks to a “learner” (an actor and confederate of Milgram), not one of them hesitated to “punish” the actor by administering the shock. A staggering 65 percent administered what they believed to be a 450-volt shock, which, if real, would have put the learner’s life at risk. These were all regular folks (albeit all male), your everyday Americans (although similar experiments showed it made no difference if they were Europeans, Latin-Americans, or of any other nationality). They were not evil, fanatics, radicals, or anything else that might explain their behavior. They were just humans, driven by psychological principles that motivate us to belong, obey, and be part of a larger community. For those purposes, the human species has shown the capability of incredible cruelty.
That is why I was not surprised when Palestinian civilians took to the streets to celebrate the Hamas massacre of over 1,200 innocent people in Israel in October. I was not surprised to see them express support for Hamas, nor at the results of the recent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll in which 72% of Palestinians support Hamas. After all, we must remember, for example, that after the World Trade Center Attacks, public opinion polls showed wide support for military action against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, even if that meant the death of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians. In the midst of violence, polls tend to skew towards more violence, and neither of those results really means that people are monsters. They mean they are just humans.
However, what worries me deeply is that many commentators are using the reactions of the Palestinians to argue that “there are no innocent civilians” in Gaza. That “all Palestinians bear responsibility” for the October 7th massacre, and some radicals even use it to suggest that ethnic cleansing might be acceptable. It is not. Period.
Recently, an editor from a Jewish newsletter from Uruguay was writing about a change of heart she had regarding her belief that “the majority of the Palestinian people want what I want for my children and grandchildren: to grow up in peace, health, happiness, work well, fall in love, and have a full life.” She argued that after watching the popular outpouring of support for Hamas among the Palestinians, there is now plenty of reason to doubt that they just want peace, and instead, they are bent on violence against Israel.
But regardless of what current opinion polls show, the fact is that people’s attitudes, even deeply held racial prejudices and stereotypes, do change. A few examples: The most virulently antisemitic and cruel regime in history, Nazi Germany. Antisemitic beliefs ran deep in the vast majority of the German population. However, between 10 to 15% of Germans were actually affiliated to the Nazi party! Yet, a few short years after the Holocaust, American and British assessments during German reconstruction found a marked reduction in antisemitic attitudes and beliefs. And by the end of the 20th century, Germany was one of Israel’s closest allies. Closer to home, a study by Daniel Gerdes, from Hamline University, documented Israeli public opinion regarding peace with Egypt between the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the Camp David peace accords in 1979. Gerdes concludes that opinions fluctuated during that time, from a hard hawkish view during the Yom Kippur war, to a softening stance in the following years. Yet, it was a single act that had the most dramatic effect on Israeli public opinion: The visit of president Anwar Sadat from Egypt to Jerusalem in 1978. “Only after Sadat’s visit did the whole country rally around the idea of peace”, writes Gerdes. Even a single act of bravery, can have a profound effect on attitudes and public opinion.
For over two decades, I have researched the psychology of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and if there is something I believe unequivocally, it is that, given the right conditions, given hope, given a prospect for real and just peace, the support for peace will be there. After all, in an October 1995 poll by the same Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, ironically, also 72% of Palestinians supported the Oslo peace agreement. The difference is, today, the pain, the hatred, the prejudices are more powerful than ever, and they must be overcome to achieve a solution.
A dear friend of mine who lives in a kibbutz next to the Gaza strip, and who sadly was a close witness to the horrors of the Hamas terrorist massacre, not long ago said that when the cannons roar, the muses should not be quiet. They should speak even louder; they should shout so their song is not drowned. The route to a solution goes through the path of hope. In spite of everything, if we give in to the pain and despair, we will continue to sow hatred, and we will reap nothing but cruelty and violence.