International conflicts: only multiple directed partiality can save us

Trump is wrong in one-sidedly blaming the Palestinian authorities. Corbyn is wrong by mainly blaming Israel. Everyone is a victim and an aggressor to a more or lesser extent: we feel hurt and we have hurt, and the other feels hurt and has hurt us. Only acknowledging the duality of ourselves and the duality of each other can resolve any conflict. Therefore we need multi-directional partiality, which means taking alternately sides of different individuals in the Israel-Palestine conflict: now see the conflict from the eyes from one stakeholder, and later see it from the perspective of another stakeholder, and ask the different stakeholders to listen to each other. This is possibly the only skill that can help us out of a long history of polarisation and generations of hurting and feeling hurt by each other. Everyone feels hurt. Everyone has a sense of injustice. Everyone has contributed in one or another way to polarisation and escalation. Everyone feels entitled to get heard and get compensated for their wounds.

build bridges

It won’t help to only take the side of only one party: “poor Israelis and bad Palestinians” or “poor Palestinians and bad Israelis”. Everyone needs to get heard, even though that may feel difficult.

We seem to have lost the ability to take the time to listen. We seem to have lost the ability to meet each other face to face, particularly in an era dominated by media which earn their money by selling exciting news and false truths. There are too many one-sided political and financial interests for the international community.

Alternately listening to the different sides is difficult when there is an acute existential crisis due to imbalanced power structures. In that case, the dialogue starts with creating safety and demanding an immediate cease fire, and starting by taking the side of the immediate victims although this should not imply that their perspective should be the only perspective in the long term conversations.

The international community has a crucial role to play in the multi directional partiality and creating immediate safety for the victims at this moment. They should demand a cease fire. Most of all, they should have a clear presence as a guide with multi directional partiality. Unfortunately this seems difficult as many countries have a one sided view and have political and economic interests, which became very clear with Trump. Without multi directional partiality, the international community escalates the situation, like Trumps decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The EU seems to have a reasonable response, speaking horror about the deaths, demanding an immediate cease fire, and asking all sides not to escalate the conflict with provocations and violence.

I have been involved for many years in project COME, Communications in the Middle East, which is based on multi directional partiality. Every year we organise a meeting between young Palestinian and Israeli people on Cyprus. The main method is to create a space in which they can share their perspectives, tell how they feel hurt, and how they feel entitled to demanding justice from the other. They take turns in sharing their perspectives. This helps them to see how much everyone is hurt; the other is hurt like themselves. They see their tears, they look them in the eyes, they are together as humans. This also helps them to understand their own contribution to the polarisation. In sum, the participants start to see the human face beyond the stereotypic picture of the enemy. They also start to acknowledge how the other sees them. A former doctorate student of mine has studied the effects of this intervention (mixed methods). She concluded that multi directional partiality helps to humanise the other, and see their human face. This is more than simple empathy as it includes seeing oneself from the eyes of the other. It also is about tolerating paradoxical feelings and tensions, and abstaining from demanding immediate justice from the other party.

The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland was also brokered by leaders and mediators who dared to have a multiple directional partiality. Similar to the reconciliation Committee in South Africa. Many more examples can be provided from the field of Conflict and Peace Studies.

My belief in multiple partiality is based on the experiences in former Eastern Germany DDR as a child. I helped to tear the Berlin wall down (OK, just hammering some chips off the concrete). We went through Checkpoint Charlie and visited friends at the east side. From a wealthy country we drove to very poor regions, literally only meters away from each other.  I remember the fears. I remember the risks that people had to take, for instance when they showed us the secretly hidden photo copier which was the core of the activists’ activities of building change. The walls were unnecessary. The walls created injustice. It took a long time for Germany to heal, and still until today there are differences and the historical pains are there. But they have been united and have learned to live together again. This process of unification was not an easy road, it was bumpy. Let’s not build or maintain new walls! Let’s bring down the symbolic walls between ethnic groups, between rich and poor, between countries such as UK and EU. People should never be divided. However it seems as if our walls nowadays are higher and stronger than the concrete walls I grew up with.

When I was 9 and I was helping to knock down the Berlin wall with my family, I learned then that walls cannot be a permanent solution. When I was 26 I was standing at another wall, the wall in Bethlehem and this was the only time I have ever used graffiti: “build bridges not walls”. However it’s easy for me to point the finger at the walls built by others, but I’m trying to prevent the symbolic walls that we are building in our daily lives but it’s hard work as apparently we human beings like the illusionary safety and control of walls and separation. We are afraid of otherness. However only meeting the other can heal us from our fear, from us needing these walls. Ultimately we build walls not against the other but against ourselves.

Let’s start chipping off pieces from our walls between each other. Therefore I believe that our only hope comes from multi directional partiality.

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From the dictionary of family therapy:

Multi directional partiality
The term Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark (1973) apply to the therapist’s ability to adopt the position of each of the family members and even that of an absent member. The therapist is neither a neutral umpire, nor someone who stands ‘above the fray.’ He or she actively takes the side, during the therapy, of each of the family members, being guided in that task by his or her empathy and sense of fairness. This implies that he or she gives each person the sense of being someone important, someone who counts and whose desires he or she is trying to understand, while at the same time letting each person know that he or she is trying to support everyone in the family. Such a concept may be compared and contrasted with the concepts of neutrality and ‘siding’ with. For Boszormenyi-Nagy, the therapist must plead the case of each of the members of the family in turn, both of the nuclear and the extended family, including deceased members. He must therefore show partiality, but must do so with everyone, both avoiding an attitude of ‘benevolent neutrality’ and refusing to join any pre-exisiting coalitions. This multi-directional partiality is the preconditon for restoring mutual trust within the family and for maintaining the credibility of the therapist, both of which are necessary if a therapeutic process is to be engaged.