Alan Flashman

The Children of Israel 6: Demonization – A Developmental Toxin

From 1998 to 2007, I was privileged to participate in a unique venture in Israel-Palestinian communication. A grass-roots organization called Middle East Children’s Association (MECA) brought together groups of Israeli and PA teachers for discussions on the influence of the Middle East conflict on the lives of children on both sides. At first groups would meet regularly about twice a month under the guidance of a Paelstinian and an Israeli co-facilitators.. Teachers would become deeply familiar with each other’s experiences and think together of ways to help children think about the other side. After the Second Intifada, Israel became closed to PA residents, so foreign venues were utilized for less regular but more intensive talks. More details of these meetings can be found in my recent professional autobiography, LOSING IT.

MECA suspended operations around 2007, after THE WALL separated the two sides, Palestinians teachers said they had lost hope for prospects of a negotiated settlement and civil society programs were mostly defunded. At that point, one of my colleagues in the organization, Dr. Ofra Ayalon, and I asked ourselves how we might help children to overcome the concrete vertical barrier dividing them. We envisioned a bilingual digitalized multimedia project, perhaps bearing a name like “Two Sides to the Wall,” in which children from both sides could give expression to their own day to day lives and how they imagined the lives of their peers beyond the wall. We enquired among the MECA teachers on the Israeli side, many of whom had been dedicated to bilateral work for nearly a decade. Their nearly unanimous response was that Israeli children would need a lot of help in recognizing the human presence on the other side, and that no Israeli school would support such an activity. We gave up before we asked our Palestinian colleagues.

It is no surprise, then that our Israeli children have been abandoned to the portrayal of Palestinian children in the media. Recently, for example, clips abound of Palestinian children being trained to stab any Israeli (or Jew). Without the mediation of adults, children will tend to generalize even more than adults, creating massive demonization of the other side. Here I would like to outline what I consider the detrimental influence that this massive projection and demonization wreak on the kids on OUR side.

Massive projection becomes a developmental danger for our children because it is too absolute, too final, and too irreversible, in short- virtually irresistible. It offers a pseudo-solution, a partial truth, which is “too good”, and thereby obstructs rather than facilitates seeking and finding better solutions. Massive projection takes a toll on every aspect of emotional balance and development:

  • On aggression: By projecting murderous impulses upon Palestinians alone, Israeli children become estranged from their own aggressive instincts. They feel less control over their own natural inner violence, as the violence they project upon Palestinians is considered out of control. This will make it more difficult for them to be normally aggressive with each other and thus learn how to make their personal aggression work in concert with other parts of their personality. Projection makes our own aggression a “loose canon.”
  • On Conscience: It is only in grade school that children begin to reliably feel responsible for their own actions. They gradually take inside themselves the voices of parents who tell them what is right and wrong, permitted and forbidden. We help a child all along this path by pointing out that while it is hard to criticize herself, she gains more self-control and autonomy by learning to see her own failings and take responsibility for them. Massive projection runs directly counter to this sensitive, new developmental achievement. By demonizing the Palestinians, children are encouraged to feel that our side is free from self-critique or responsibility, because their side deserves anything we do. A parent would be horrified if his child insisted that this was the only way to understand why the child has done something. “It’s his fault” is exactly what we are trying to help children grow beyond.
  • On reality: Knowing an answer may seem to be preferable to having a question. We generally wish to help children to approach reality with questions. One of the most pressing questions of our current reality would be, “What is it like to be my age and live in the Palestinian Authority today? How do children there cope day by day? What losses and fears and threats do they encounter?” These questions are foreclosed by the answer that demonization provides. Foreclosing one question risks foreclosure of other questions, indeed the risk is one of foreclosing of an open attitude to reality altogether. Children burdened by demonizing the Palestinians become burdened with answers that precede questions.
  • On fantasy: Human creative experience depends upon the existence of a realm where the imaginary and the real can intermingle. British Psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott called this the “transitional zone.” A common example involves the suspension of the question “is this real” that allows us to become emotionally involved in a film or novel. Artists commonly rely on this lifting of the barrier between fantasy and reality to create with materials from each realm. Access to this transitional zone is as vulnerable as it is essential for growth. Now demonization is an example of an invasion of fantasy into reality. Devils, hobgoblins, vampires are all the lawful denizens of our fantasy world. We can meet them safely in our transitional zone. But when an entire – neighboring – people are made into demons, and the media upon whom we rely to report reality confirms this assignation, then this fantasy becomes too frightening and too convincing –precisely because it has roots so close to home, right in our own fantasies. This invasion creates a need to close down the transitional zone, and separate reality from fantasy. Some children will respond with a choice of reality only, although that reality will be infused with fantasy in a frightening, flooding, unproductive way. Such children will become aggressive towards their “real” enemies, including Israeli children who are “soft” on the enemy. Other children will retreat into fantasy, and leave no place in reality for even assertion or self-protection from others. Both children will have their creative life narrowed severely.
  • On family: The family is normally a place for learning about normative conflict. Siblings make rival claims for parental attention or protection. Spouses have competing needs for resources and affection. The Other is always a member of the group. With demonization afoot, family members may find more freedom to demonize others in the family, the in-laws, and the other sibling camp. Alternatively, the family may become “united” around defending itself against Others who are different. This creates a pseudo-unity in which normative conflicts are erased by the need to “stand united.” Pseudounity comes at the price of disavowing the presence or possibility of resolving the real conflicts in the family. Students of Family Therapist Murray Bowen know that family health requires the ability of real conflict to find real resolution. Families with a higher level of “differentiation” allow room for conflicting members to settle their differences. More poorly differentiated families form “triangles” in which conflicts are displaced upon other relations. For example, spouses may deflect their own conflict by teaming up for – or against- a given child, or grandparent, or school. Demonization of the Palestinians could provide an Israeli family with too-convenient a triangle 3 upon whom to displace all normative inner conflicts, which are then doomed to be remained unresolved, with a lowering of the families level of differentiation.
  • On voice: Carol Gilligan and her colleagues once described the way in which school-age girls “know” and “say” a lot more about social relations than do their adolescent peers. These researchers have shown how the need to become a “good girl” who is acceptable to all friends and pleasing to adults creates the risk that the girl may “lose her voice” and settle for pseudo-relationships at the cost of real relationships. Now many an Israeli schoolgirl could naturally imagine her age mates in the Palestinian Authority suffering a nightmarish daily reality. This intuition would be easily suppressed by the demonization expected by parents and peers. But the girl who loses voice about one matter runs a developmental risk of loss of voice regarding many other social insights. So I believe there could be a particular risk to girls who are silenced from casting doubt on the demonization process.
  • On social relations: Peer relations are the great training ground for social relations as adults. We would like to believe that children learn to respect their peers, to listen to differences, to assert their own needs without erasing the needs of others. We would be horrified to learn that children have demonized another child or another group. When we find this has happened – as it often does – we like to believe that we respond in a vigorous adult educational manner to challenge the very process of mass projection. But in the current climate of demonization of Palestinians, children are more likely to learn of the acceptability and indeed advantages of mass projection. They become more likely to apply this strategy in their own relations. Hate and projection do not tend to stay put, and more commonly fall back upon the group using them.
  • On thinking and learning: Children go to school not just to learn information. They learn about learning, and particularly they learn the pleasures of learning and thinking, what psychoanalysts refer to as sublimations. They learn that thinking before acting, that talking about feelings give them pleasure and mastery, and are effective in mastering reality. Demonization of Palestinian children leaves little room for thought or learning. Projection is a far more primitive – and therefore attractive – psychic mechanism than sublimation. In an atmosphere that condones and encourages massive projection, children will find it very difficult to attend to the more complex and tedious formation of sublimations necessary for learning.
  • On history: Children take part in the great group narrative we call history. They need a story that provides coherence and affiliation. They need a “we” that is present through time with whom they can feel connected. Demonization tends to collapse the story of who we are into the much less helpful story of who they are. Our own complex and fascinating –and inspiring- history needs no demonic Other to be told. Children can understand that there is a tragic conflict and that the solution is not yet clear. Once they are offered the demonic Other, their interest and ability to appreciate the story of who we are pales into the hatred of that Other.
  • On spirit: Those Israelis who wish to teach something about the world of Spirit generally look the notion of human brotherhood as a fundamental principle in which the presence of One Creator is realized. In the brotherhood of man there are conflicts, tragedies, enemies, -but not demons. The very notion of a different from of human being, who only hates us and who is not like us in any way – this invites in children a Gnostic dualism on earth that is easily transferred onto the celestial sphere. Those who find in Martin Buber’s theology of dialogue an important statement of Jewish spirit will find the spread of demonization antithetical to this approach. Even in times of crisis and conflict – and perhaps especially in such times – children are most open to lessons of the Spirit, and most vulnerable to the suffocation of spirit by chauvinism and demonization.
  • On hope: I once concluded a piece for the Jerusalem Post with the sentence: “Nothing gives children more hope than the understanding that children of the enemy side are very much like themselves, – also growing up in times of pain, solitude and silence.” This sentence was censored by the editor without my consent. Apparently, it was alread considered unacceptable to suggest that Palestinian children are still human beings. But I stand by this sentence – indeed its fate prompted the first form of this essay more than a decade ago. To what can Israeli children turn in hopes for a brighter future? To a resumed conquest? To an even more extreme and aggressive “solution?” All of my experience with children suggests that children need to hope that on the other side there are children like themselves, who wish to live in a quiet and just way, protected and safe. I believe that by demonizing the Palestinian people – including their children – we deny our children a last ray of hope, and condemn them to a future of mutual demonization, bloodshed, and hopelessness.
About the Author
Alan Flashman was born in Foxborough, MA, and gained his BA from Columbia, MD from NYU, Pediatrics, Adult and Child Psychiatry specialties at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, The Bronx, NY. He has practiced in Beer Sheba since 1983, and taught mental health at Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University. Alan has edited readers on Therapeutic Communication with Children (2002) and Adolescents (2005) in Hebrew, translated Buber's I and Thou anew into Hebrew, and authored Losing It, an autobiography, and From Protection to Passover. He recently published two summary works of his clinical experience (both 2022) Family Therapies for the 21st Century and Mental Health in Pediatrics.