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Book review: Israelis and Palestinians: From the cycle of violence to the conversation of mankind by Jonathan Glover

02 February 2024

Where does hope lie for ending strife in the Holy Land, asks Philip Lewis

THIS deeply pondered reflection on one of the most intractable of contemporary conflicts by a distinguished moral philosopher could not be more timely. Short and elegantly written, it will benefit those already with some knowledge of the historic outlines of this conflict.

The present study builds on the foundations of Professor Glover’s earlier acclaimed work, Humanity: A moral history of the Twentieth Century. There, he emphasised the importance of the psychological dynamics of “distancing”, tribalism, and ideology, which together subverted human sympathy for “enemies”, opening the doors to many of the atrocities that scarred that century.

The present work explores the disturbing psychology that accompanies and facilitates a deepening cycle of violence that entraps both sides, as hostilities drag on: the urge to respond to wounds or humiliations with a violent backlash; extremist political or religious beliefs that preclude compromise; finally, a people’s identity increasingly defined by a narrative of inter-generational conflict, which renders alternatives difficult to imagine.

In the present climate of polarised commentary, it comes as a relief to read that “We do not have to take sides. My sympathy is with both peoples, tragically entwined over the same homeland”. When documenting and analysing “the cycle of violence” (Part One), “backlash” (Part Two), “rigid beliefs and identity” (Part Three), around which the book is structured, he draws on moving personal accounts and poetry by participants, perpetrators, and victims alike.

Time and again, he points to deep, but unacknowledged, similarities in experiences and memories of both peoples: exile, trauma, humiliation, the fear of annihilation, as an indifferent world looks on. His four chapters in Part One, in which he documents unflinchingly the dark centre of the conflict — suicide bombing, torture, humiliations, and targeted assassinations — make for harrowing reading.

The author does not presume to offer a road map for peace. More modestly, he quarries appropriate lessons from enduring conflicts that were resolved, whether between France and Germany (1807-1945), South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, or Northern Ireland. He also looks to hopeful signs in the recent past, not least the Oslo Agreement, where a majority on both sides seemed willing to make agonising concessions, the precondition for any lasting peace.

He also commends several initiatives that reached across ethnic and religious divides. Few were more important than Breaking the Silence (2004), when Israeli Defense Forces veterans who had served in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, documented the excesses that their own side had committed. Such a publication made it a little easier to challenge the self-serving narratives that each side develops in a conflict to exonerate itself of blame.

Cumulatively, such developments — whether the solidarity of non-violent peaceniks around the world, including Israelis, seeking to stop the bulldozing of Palestinian homes and olive trees in Budrus in 2003, Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, or experiments in integrated schooling in Israel — were examples of what the political scientist Michael Oakeshott called “the conversation of mankind”: a developing pattern of non-coercive engagements that begin to humanise the other, instead of “defensive-aggressive talk” that simply demonises.

In the long term, by multiplying such conversations across religious and ethnic divisions, trust could slowly and painfully be rebuilt — an essential precondition for any future peace. Glover labours under no illusions about the essential fragility of such developments. He instances the Olive Tree programme at London’s City University, which, for 12 years, supported Palestinian-Israeli student dialogue about the conflict. The initial hope of reconciling differences through dialogue remained unfulfilled, and the programme re-focused on how rival narratives of the conflict could reinforce conflict. Weakening the grip of such narratives on personal and collective identity was itself far from straightforward, but deemed a worthwhile objective.

In a short book, there are bound to be gaps: I should have liked more about two issues that are briefly mentioned, namely an evaluation of the extent to which schooling — especially history and religion — as well as Jewish and Muslim, religious formation might contribute to more positive assessments of the other. It is also a pity that there is no mention of Arab Christians in Palestine and Israel and the part that they play as potential bridge-builders — however precarious their present position.

Still, if this is, as Professor Glover suspects, his last book, its distilled wisdom will remain a rich resource for a new generation of peacemakers.


Dr Philip Lewis is a consultant on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations, advised Bishops of Bradford for some three decades, and taught in Peace Studies at Bradford University.


Israelis and Palestinians: From the cycle of violence to the conversation of mankind
Jonathan Glover
Polity Press £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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