Obstacles to Reconciliation

FEBRUARY 27, 2017


This article will discuss some of the obstacles to reconciliation, including physical, emotional, psychological and ideological obstacles. The information provided is by no means comprehensive, and will primarily focus on the obstacles we find most common in our work.

Ideological Obstacles

Many obstacles to reconciliation, including physical, emotional and psychological obstacles, generally begin with ideological obstacles.

For example, your or your people’s political ideology might influence you or others to vote or act a certain way toward the other side, which can then act as an umbrella for some of the physical obstacles to reconciliation. It can also influence your attitudes, both emotionally and psychologically, which can act as an obstacle to reconciliation.

Another ideological facilitator or obstacle to reconciliation is religious ideology. Your or your group’s religious beliefs or theological understanding of certain biblical subjects can either encourage you or discourage you to meet the other. A final ideological issue that can be an obstacle to reconciliation is the issue of justice. For Palestinians, this is an important and essential issue as they feel they have suffered great injustice in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is also an issue that Israelis tend to shy away from, afraid of what it means, the demands it can make, and its implications.

Physical Obstacles

The first obvious obstacles to reconciliation we face are the physical obstacles. The most basic obstacle is the long standing conflict, and its physical manifestation in the division between Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians in the West Bank are separated from Israelis by a series of checkpoints, and the Wall (or Separation Barrier). There are logistical issues, such as finding a forum for meeting. Israelis cannot go into the West Bank, and Palestinians over the age of 16 cannot come into Israel unless they receive special permission. When we try to find a place to meet, we attempt to find a neutral location where both sides feel equally comfortable or uncomfortable. Another obstacle we face has to do with information. There is misinformation and disinformation (as well as lack of information), which is largely due to the first physical obstacle mentioned—the division between us. Often when people are separated from each other, they have less of an opportunity to get to know one another, allowing for ignorance to develop, and at times false knowledge and false opinions about the other. Another obstacle we face in this conflict is that of violence. This feeds into some of the emotional and psychological obstacles of perhaps not wanting to meet due to fear, or demonization, which will be discussed in the coming sections.

Emotional Obstacles

Some of the most difficult obstacles to contend with are those that we deal with within ourselves, namely our emotional obstacles. Sometimes participants are aware of their emotional obstacles, but oftentimes they become aware of them through their encounter with the other. On occasion, people who have been invited to Musalaha have a suspicion of the other people, their intent, or even of Musalaha. The suspicion can be tied to another strong emotion—fear. Due to lack of interaction with one another, or possible negative interaction in the past, sometimes people are afraid to meet the other. They are afraid of the unknown, and afraid of what they might be accused of. They are afraid the other side might lash out at them and accuse them of things that are not true, or even of their own people’s reaction to meeting with the other side (perhaps they will be called “collaborators”).

Another initial emotional issue we face is despair. Some people feel the situation is hopeless, that there is nothing they can do about it, and that it is futile to even try. This is closely linked to complacency or apathy, as people who feel despair sometimes choose not to do anything at all.

Hatred and anger are two more emotional obstacles. Hatred of the other people because of the conflict, or anger at the other side can cause people to choose not to engage in reconciliation at all. Tense situations always arise during the journey of reconciliation itself, so anger can reappear. It is a natural and expected reaction to difficult situations that arise, but what is important is how the anger is dealt with. Bitterness is closely tied in with some of the previous obstacles. Due to things seen, heard, or done by the other side, participants can hold bitterness toward Israelis or Palestinians and refuse to meet with them. Blame is another obstacle, and is tied in with bitterness. A very strong emotional obstacle is that of pain, which is one of the many characteristics of intractable conflicts.

The process of reconciliation itself is not without pain, and feeling pain is another natural response to dealing with difficult issues. After being involved in the initial process of reconciliation, some participants choose to back out for a time, or altogether, as a result of the painful feelings they sometimes encounter.

Another issue we face is denial of responsibility/reality. This is two pronged. Sometimes potential participants deny that their people has any responsibility for the current conflict, and refuse to meet with anyone who thinks differently, thereby eliminating themselves from the process of reconciliation. Second, there is denial of reality, where potential participants sometimes fear that coming to Musalaha and engaging in dialogue or reconciliation is somehow ignoring reality and is thus maintaining the status quo. This is a particularly important issue for many Palestinian participants who fear that reconciling with Israelis is an acceptance of the Israeli occupation. This is something we constantly have to counter on the Palestinian side, and tell them that Musalaha does not stand for the status quo, but that we believe that change can only happen once we meet each other and work together to change the status quo.

Alternatively, some participants deny reality by refusing to recognize the issues that divide us. Sometimes they insist that the commonalities between us take precedence and the issues that divide us are inconsequential. While focusing on what we have in common is very important in relationship building, refusal to discuss the issues that divide us prevents honest, deep development of relationships, and ultimately reconciliation.

A final and important emotional obstacle to reconciliation is dealing with issues too quickly. Often at initial encounters, there are always some participants that want to rush into discussing the bigger and more sensitive issues of the conflict. In our experience, we have found that dealing with these emotionally-charged issues too quickly can cause participants to get hurt and withdraw, and never have a chance to develop relationships. Once relationships are developed, and thereby trust between the participants established, then issues can be discussed and dealt with.

Psychological Obstacles

Psychological obstacles are prevalent, and often difficult to challenge. Many times we are unaware of our psychological obstacles and take offense when accused of having them. There are a number of psychological obstacles we generally face while recruiting or during the process of reconciliation, and all of them can be summed up in one word: prejudice. We will try and address this in the coming section, but first we will identify some common psychological obstacles to reconciliation.

The first four are tied together: us vs. them (“othering”), moral superiority, ethnocentrism, and control. Us vs. them, or “othering” occurs when we use social differences (racial, ethnic, social, ideological, etc.) to distinguish ourselves from someone else, and use this as the basis of viewing oneself or one’s social group more positively than another social group, seeing one’s own group as “us” and the different group as “them” or the “other.”

Moral superiority occurs when participants feel that their people or their actions are right because they have better moral values than those who are different from them. Ethnocentrism is tied in with the previous two, as it is the belief that one’s own ethno-cultural group is more important than other ethno-cultural groups, and seeks to judge other groups relative to their own superior group. Under this category we find two sub-categories that arise from ethnocentrism, namely xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Xenophobia is the aversion and fear toward those different from oneself, particularly foreigners, and can manifest itself as racism. Anti- Semitism is a specific form of ethnocentrism and xenophobia in which one holds prejudice or hatred toward Jews as a result of their ethnicity, culture or religion.

Additionally, there is the fourth psychological obstacle of control. Sometimes participants feel that coming to dialogue and meet with Israelis or Palestinians would cause them to lose control of the situation. Simply hearing different opinions, or being challenged on certain ideologies can be threatening, and sometimes participants are afraid they will lose control of the situation, that their people may not be portrayed fairly, or that the other side will gain the upper hand in the discussion. These feelings all go back to the psychological obstacle of desiring to control people or situations.

Two more related psychological obstacles to reconciliation are dehumanization and demonization. Dehumanization occurs when members of a certain group accuse another group of being inferior to them, and emphasize this through their words or actions. This is related to moral superiority and racism. This can happen on an individual/group level or also on a state level, when a state accuses a minority group or another state of being inferior, and consequently takes discriminatory actions against them.

Demonization occurs when groups or individuals are characterized as being evil. In our conflict, both Israelis and Palestinians have been guilty of dehumanizing and demonizing the other side. While our participants do not overtly make dehumanizing or demonizing statements against participants of another ethnicity, we are continually countering the dehumanizing and demonizing attitudes prevalent within both societies that will, of course, have affected our participants.

Victimization is another obstacle we face, and it occurs when someone is made a victim, punished unjustly or is cheated. An extension of this is something called secondary victimization, when a victim (or someone who was victimized) is then blamed for becoming a victim at all. An example of a victim is a woman who is raped, and thereby victimized. Secondary victimization can occur if her society then blames her for being raped, and marginalizes her as a result. Another psychological obstacle we face is that of self-fulfilling prophecy. This occurs when someone predicts a certain negative outcome, and is so convinced that it will be negative, they do not allow a positive outcome to occur. For example, if an Israeli believes that all Palestinians hate all Israelis and therefore we should take harsh measures against them and keep them away from us, many Palestinians will likely come to hate Israelis as a result of the measures taken (although they may not have hated Israelis beforehand). A final psychological obstacle is trauma, which occurs when someone is emotionally or physically wounded leading to psychological distress. A traumatic event can happen once, or repeatedly. Different people process events differently—a difficult event will traumatize one person and not another, so it is subjective to some degree. But as trauma affects the psyche, it is something that can lead to fear or anger or a variety of other emotions or prejudices which can act as obstacles to reconciliation.

Understanding Prejudice

Prejudice is defined as an “aversive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to that group.” We develop prejudices due to fear of being threatened in one way or another. Some examples of this are:

1. We fear that the person we are prejudiced against will hurt us.

2. We fear that the person’s worldview will challenge our own.

3. We fear that the other person will embarrass us or make fun of us.

How prejudiced we will be against someone else is linked to a number of factors:

1. How strongly we identify with our in-group.

2. The quantity and quality of our past contact with the individual/out-group.

3. How much we know about the individual/out-group.

4. The presence of past intergroup conflict.

5. The difference in social status between ourselves and the individual/out-group.

The more we identify with our in-group, have limited contact with the out-group, have limited knowledge of the out-group, and have a greater social status difference between us, the more likely we (the in-group) will feel threatened. Feelings of prejudice never remain simply feelings. They manifest themselves in our behavior, which, when influenced by prejudice, is often negative. Becoming aware of these prejudices is important, and being willing to face these prejudices within ourselves and work past them is part of the process of reconciliation.

The Contact Hypothesis

One of the best ways of dealing with prejudices is through what psychologists call the Contact Hypothesis, which states that the more we interact with the other, and the more we get to know the other, the less prejudice we will have toward the other. There are four conditions that must be met in order for the Contact Hypothesis to succeed:

1. The two groups must have equal status in the context of meeting each other.

2. The two groups must have common goals.

3. The two groups must have little to no competition between them.

4. The two groups must be supported by authority figures.

In the context of Musalaha’s reconciliation activities, we need to keep these four conditions in mind. We can do this by trying to rectify imbalances of power between Israelis and Palestinians. For example, if one group is far less informed on a subject pertinent to an upcoming discussion, it would be best for the less-informed group to have a separate introductory session to try and remedy the imbalance of knowledge between them. Then, when the two groups come together to discuss a particular issue, they will be coming to the table with more equal knowledge of the topic, and one group will not be superior to the other in the discussion. As all of our work is faith- based, and the majority of it is between two groups that share a common faith identity, this proves to be our common overarching goal. In order to meet the third condition, we always have mixed team work efforts so the ethnic groups are not pitted against one another. We do discuss differences between the two groups, but we do not encourage competition between them where one will accomplish something at the expense of the other. Finally, we encourage each group’s specific community (often faith community) to support our reconciliation endeavors, and to encourage their children, women, youth, and leaders, to be involved. This positive reinforcement is necessary for sustained positive interaction.

Identifying and Dealing with Our Prejudices

When discussing prejudice, it is important to consider whether or not we are aware of our prejudice. We all have prejudices to one degree or another, and the first step in moving beyond our prejudice is admitting that it is there. An obstacle arises if we are aware of our prejudice, yet believe it is justified. As attitudes and behavior are often linked, we can act on our prejudices and treat another person or group unfairly as a result of our preconceived notions.In this situation, it is important to remember our moral and religious values which speak against such attitudes, even if moral and religious people within our in- group share our prejudices. Once we become aware of our prejudices, if we wish to reduce them, we need to remember that we have learned our prejudices and they have become habits, but we can unlearn them by developing new habits and expanding our knowledge and contact with the other person or group.

For this to occur we need to utilize the conditions of the Contact Hypothesis. A few things we can do to counter the perpetuation of prejudice is:

1. Admit that we have them,

2. Commit to trying to counter them in ourselves and our children,

3. Commit to working together with people who are different from us,

4. Commit to discover biases that we may not be aware that we have, and

5. Commit to change by making a conscious effort to understand where our biases come from, why we have them, and to move beyond them.


As we encounter obstacles to reconciliation and learn to overcome them, there are a number of changes we hope will happen. We hope that attitudes toward the out- group will change, which in our case means that Israelis and Palestinians will have a greater appreciation and respect for each other. We hope that there will be an increased complexity in the intergroup perception, meaning that as we come to know the out-group, we will realize that they have as many values, conflicts and positive and negative traits as we do. We hope for decategorization, which means that people cease to view each other simply as products of their categories/groups. Finally, we hope that encountering and overcoming these obstacles will lead to an exploration and redefinition of our collective identities. While this does not necessarily mean that we will like the other group more as a result of our interaction with them, at the very least, we hope that it will encourage us (or our in-group) to be more self-aware and self-critical.


Horenczyk, Gabriel. “Minorities and Intergroup Contact: Conceptualizations and Findings.” Lecture presentation at annual meeting of Musalaha board and staff, February 2010.

Dugan, Maire A. “Prejudice,” Eds, Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Last modified January 2004. Accessed April 10, 2011, http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/prejudice.

Teaching Tolerance: A Project of the SouthernPoverty Law Center. “Test Yourself for Hidden Bias.” http:www.tolerance.org/activity/test-youself-hidden-bias.