Hearts of Flesh Not Stone

January 13, 2015

Reconciliation is a complex and long-term political process with a psychological dimension that is the object of many research projects today. During the event “Hearts of Flesh Not Stone: Encountering the Suffering of the Other through a German Lens,” Professor Dr. Martin Leiner, the founding director of the Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies (JCRS), explained the concept of “reconciliation” in the context of an ongoing trilateral research project funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) involving German, Palestinian, and Israeli scholars.

In 2013, the Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies, which was founded the same year and is affiliated with the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, launched a Palestinian-Israeli-German project. The center focuses on reconciliation, conflict transformation, and peace studies in main conflict areas such as the Middle East and East Asia. It also monitors an international working group on reconciliation studies with several other universities.

The presentation displayed the latest results of a transdisciplinary project which brings together disciplines like social psychology, education, political science, philosophical ethics, theology, and religious studies. The project is centered on social psychology. The main idea is that we can create a significant increase in openness to reconciliation when conflicting groups confront the previously unacknowledged suffering of the other party had thus far been. The project also deals with factors such as religious traditions, respect, and trust.

Professors from the universities Al-Quds, Beer-Sheba, Jena, and Tel Aviv chose the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to conduct this research. For the Palestinian group, they chose twenty-eight students for what is thought to have been the first group of students from the Palestinian territories to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland. The visit enabled them to learn about the Holocaust, which is not part of the curriculum in Palestinian schools and frequently the subject of denial among many Palestinians. Israeli students visited refugee camps on the West Bank to hear from the Palestinian perspective about the consequences of the 1948 war, the “naqba,” which is forbidden by Israeli law from being taught in schools in Israel.

Professor Dr. Leiner showed that by exposing the suffering of the “other” group, the result is a significant increase in the willingness to reconcile for a large majority of participants. This was true both with the thirty Israelis who visited a refugee camp near Bethlehem and with the Palestinians who visited Auschwitz. However, there have also been obstacles to the willingness to reconcile, including mistrust, disrespect, or trauma (about 30 percent of the Palestinian participants have been in Israeli prisons before) and certain Israeli arguments and uses of the Holocaust to legitimize Israel’s policies.

The media reaction to the trip, however, was disturbing. Breaking an agreement with the project scholars, a journalist published an article about the trip in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The article was then incorrectly “translated” through Al Quds News, who claimed that two Zionist organizations funded the Auschwitz trip. The report was false, but it created unwanted attention for the Palestinians who visited Auschwitz. There were also threats from Palestinian extremists against Palestinian professor Mohammed Dajani, who organized the trip. He needed extra security to be able to teach, and ultimately had to stop teaching due to a lack of support from the university until the situation changed. The media falsely reported that Professor Dajani was banned from Al-Quds University. There was a surprising volume of coverage in the media (New York Times, Washington Post, Le Figaro, Le Monde, Die Zeit, Die Frankfurter Allgemeine, and La Repubblicca, BBC World, CNN, and Al Jazeera-Washington) in response to the idea of bringing West Bank Palestinians to Auschwitz and the lack of solidarity for Professor Dajani. The effect on the Palestinian students was that a majority is now much more committed to reconciliation, but a minority has since then distanced themselves from the trip.

After presenting that experience, Professor Dr. Leiner emphasized the unique role that Germany should play in reconciliation processes within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said that reconciliation should be one of Germany’s main focuses in the field of foreign policy. Some participants noted that the intention of the project was good but that its impact might be limited because only participants who were already willing to exchange with the other group signed up for the trip. Professor Dr. Leiner agreed but underlined that in the beginning, the project did not aim to change the entire society in Israel and Palestine. Now, however, that impact’s importance has been growing because many of the Palestinian participants have become activists for reconciliation and against the denial of the Holocaust. Professor Dr. Leiner is convinced that by using a bottom-up process, the project is going to change Palestinian society. One PhD student from Palestine has even built up a large women’s network, which will connect with Israeli women’s networks for peace. Together they will exercise pressure on politicians to choose reconciliation as a realistic option.

Professor Dr. Martin Leiner currently holds the Chair in Systematic Theology at the University of Jena where he is also the founding director of the Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies (JCRS). He studied Protestant Theology and Philosophy, and has held positions at the universities of Mainz, Neuchâtel, and Jena.

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