Pazit Ben-Nun Bloom

The paradox of protest: How pain can be a catalyst for healing

The demonstrators against judicial reform didn’t weaken Israeli society – they developed its greatest weapon
Right-wing demonstrators protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2023. The placard reads: 'The imperative of the hour: Unity!' (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Right-wing demonstrators protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2023. The placard reads: 'The imperative of the hour: Unity!' (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s war with Hamas possesses a significant psychological dimension: Hamas’s well-documented cruelty was aimed at instilling fear and despair, while deepening divisions in Israeli society.

Effectively fighting Hamas, therefore, requires substantial social resilience, yet Israel entered the fray as a nation divided, rife with internal conflicts. Some have criticized the protest movement opposing the judicial reform for fueling polarization and fractures, thereby undermining our national resilience and inadvertently aiding our adversaries, from a psychological standpoint. 

On the flip side, the protest organizations have garnered immense praise for their ability to foster unwavering solidarity and mutual responsibility since the war’s inception, providing support to soldiers, the wounded, and the families of those held hostage in Gaza.

How, then, did the protest movement fortify the psychological fabric of Israeli society?

Although in the short term, protest activities may accentuate divisions, disrupt stability, and divert psychological and other resources, they also act as a catalyst for social transformation and regeneration. They unite diverse groups under a shared sense of purpose and collective responsibility, ultimately contributing to long-term resilience and progress. This is the paradox of the healing power of protest: even as it may amplify societal divisions, it also equips us with the means to bridge these divides.

Many observers have highlighted the impressive organizational infrastructure built by protest activists, enabling efficient assistance for evacuees, soldiers, hostage families, and vulnerable civilians from the onset of the crisis. However, running in parallel with this logistical system, and equally crucial, is the establishment of a value-based framework for responding to the present crisis.

The struggle to uphold Israeli democracy has bestowed upon its activists a sense of moral self-efficacy – an unwavering belief in their capacity to act in alignment with their ethical principles. Recent studies conducted by our research group have unveiled latent currents in Israeli society that give rise to feelings of moral self-threat, an internal conflict that emerges when our actions diverge from our moral convictions.

Threats to our moral selves, whether stemming from compliance with Israeli actions in the conflict with the Palestinians, discrimination against other societal groups, or support for leaders who fail to uphold democratic values, provoke a defensive response rooted in the desire to preserve a positive self-image. This defensive response may manifest as trivializing moral dilemmas, evading morally challenging situations, or harboring doubts about one’s ethical capabilities.

The protest movement opposing the judicial reform effectively diminished this threat, along with the accompanying moral vulnerability. It empowered participants to ask themselves a fundamental question: “How would the person I aspire to be act within the society I envision?” 

The protest movement prompted contemplation of future ideals, nurtured optimism, and enriched individuals’ ethical discourse. It harnessed the protesters’ frustration, instilling a sense of pride in their persistent commitment to a higher purpose, despite the inherent risks and discomfort. Then, on Saturday, October 7, as many demonstrators readied themselves for the 40th round of protests, their sense of ethical preparedness was redirected towards a fresh moral challenge.

Alliances of solidarity and reciprocal responsibility were forged, setting expectations for proactive participation and bestowing symbolic recognition and emotional rewards for altruistic conduct. Additionally, the protest movement brought about a transformation in activists’ perceptions of authority figures, revealing profound and disheartening divisions, lowering their expectations of decision-makers, and heightening their willingness to shoulder responsibility themselves. 

The demonstrators’ actions set off an activism ripple effect, fostering an atmosphere that galvanized ever-widening segments of the public to act in accordance with these emerging norms. Consequently, extensive portions of the Israeli public developed a sense of moral efficacy, the gratification derived from unity and purpose, social norms encouraging civic involvement, and a compelling impetus to respond to a crisis of trust in the authorities.

In the absence of the protest movement, many of us would likely still have grappled with a diminished sense of moral efficacy, accompanied by ethical confusion, aimless negative emotions, isolation, a pervasive feeling of powerlessness, and a myopic and defensive mindset. Such a scenario would have significantly eroded the resilience of the Israeli public. Without the protest movement, Hamas’s attack would have targeted individuals who had lost their moral compass, leaving them fragmented, immobilized, fruitlessly seeking support from stagnant and unresponsive institutions.

It remains uncertain whether the initial demonstrations of solidarity exhibited by Israeli society following the Hamas attack will endure, much like the fluctuations witnessed in the erosion in activism during the course of the COVID pandemic. These shifts could be attributed to natural attrition or exacerbated by purveyors of discord and misinformation. Nevertheless, the most straightforward and conspicuous approach to fortify our solidarity in anticipation of future challenges is to keep the recent displays of altruism vivid within the collective Israeli consciousness.

We can pay tribute to the profound suffering endured by both Israelis and Palestinians in the wake of this war by preserving the lessons we have gleaned about our society’s intrinsic nature, its moral fiber, and its capacity for mutual responsibility and transcending conflict. This insight can serve as a protective shield against political cynicism, hatred, apathy, and shortsightedness. It empowers us to steadfastly set benchmarks for ethical conduct within ourselves, our communities, and our political and social leadership.

About the Author
Prof. Pazit Ben-Nun Bloom is the head of the Political Psychology Laboratory at the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Senior Fellow at the Oxford Interfaith Forum and an Affiliated Scholar with the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme.