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Dilemmas of Identity Construction

A Researcher's Description of the Israeli-Palestinian Context

The aim of this research was tracing processes involved in the construction of personal and collective identity of people who live in conflict areas, in this case, Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The goals of this study were to examine how the use of dilemmas can help in the understanding of the processes of development and change in the construction of identity among young adults, Jews and Palestinians, on the personal interpersonal and inter-group levels. Furthermore, it aimed to explore how the Palestinian\ Jewish "other" was perceived by Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, as an element within this construction of identity, over the course of four years, and to follow the processes that the interviewees underwent in their perception of self and other over time.

In order to achieve these goals, 20 Israeli students, comprised of 10 Jews and 10 Palestinians, who took part in a year long seminar on the "Israeli-Palestinian conflict," that used life stories as its main method in its group work, were interviewed three times – once at the beginning of the seminar in 2000, at its end in 2001, and three years later, in 2004. Data collection was based on the invention of a semi-structured interview that employed the use of dilemmas. The dilemmas used in this study were based on significant events that arouse conflicts in Israeli political and social discourse. The instrument aimed to shed light on how young adults respond to dilemmas that deal with perception of the other (the Palestinian/the Jew), as a component in the construction of their collective identity. The responses to the dilemmas were analyzed using a variety of content and form analyses.

In general, the results showed that during the year of the seminar and three years later, all of the participants enhanced their self awareness of the complexity of the conflict. Each group emphasized the processes that reflect the role of the conflict in the construction of its collective identity. The Palestinians appeared to be in the process of constructing their identity and the Jews in the process of deconstructing theirs, while trying to cope with their need for security during the on-going conflict. Focusing on the Jewish Israeli sample, the results pointed to a duality that was salient in the interviews with the Jewish students concerning the existence of two opposing forces in the perception of the Palestinian other within Jewish-Israeli society today.

On the one hand, Jewish-Israeli society is motivated by the acceptance of the other and by acknowledgement of the complexity of the conflict. On the other hand, the results also pointed to a neo-monolithic understanding of the conflict among Jewish-Israelis, which is motivated by anxiety, mainly due to the difficult security situation and the continuous threat to their sense of security. This leads many Jewish-Israelis to see the Palestinian others as an enemy, and to negate the possibility of dialogue with them. It appears as if the variety of voices that were expressed in the interviews with the Jews and the Palestinians reflect some of the voices that are currently being heard in Israeli society today, even if the proportions found in this small and selective sample differ from those within the wider society.

-By Tal Litvak-Hirsch; hirscht@zahav.net.il