Returning to Identity

APRIL 4, 2017


As discussed in our previous article on identity, our identity is formed through a process of exclusion and inclusion, differentiation and identification. But in conflicts, the differences tend to become sharp, demarcated lines that exclude the other from walking alongside us. In conflict situations, our self-perception can become distorted and we often see ourselves as the ‘peace desiring’, and the other as ‘war mongering’. We perceive ourselves as the good group, and the other as the bad. We are the victims, and the other is trying to oppress us.

The polarizing differences that we come to see between ourselves and the other group not only separate us, but include elements of self-delusion and infliction of harm on the other side. We fail to see our own faults and shortcomings resulting in our perceived victimhood, as well as demonization and dehumanization of the other. The question then is, how exactly do these processes occur? And how do we overcome these challenges to our identities in conflict? How do we move beyond this and embrace the other in our pursuit of reconciliation?

Identity in Conflict

How Conflict Distorts Our Identity

The problem often arises here as we can slip into violence and conflict. “Instead of reconfiguring myself to make space for the other, I seek to reshape the other into who I want her to be in order that in relation to her I may be who I want to be.”               

These tensions and threats to oneself often lead to exclusion in which one’s own identity is affirmed at the expense of the other. We end up making polarizing accusations, such as those previously mentioned: the peace loving vs. the war mongering, the good vs. the bad, the victims vs. the oppressors. This distortion is further accentuated when we focus on certain aspects of our identities as a reaction to our situation. In conflict situations, we can place too much emphasis on our legitimacy and rightness in the conflict versus that of the other side, and consequently we hear things like “We are Jewish and have an ancient and ethnic right to the land; Palestinian identity is fictitious.” Or, “We Palestinians have the right to the land because we have been here for hundreds and thousands of years; Israelis and so called Jews who have come here converted to Judaism over the past several hundred years and now make these claims on our homeland.” Both of these reactionary statements show attempts to affirm one’s own identity at the expense of the other.

How Conflict Leads to Victimhood                    

In chapter 8, Obstacles to Reconciliation, victimization was briefly mentioned as one of the psychological obstacles to reconciliation. This section will deal with an aspect of victimization, namely victimhood. While victimization occurs when someone is made a victim, punished unjustly or is cheated, victimhood is specifically the perception that one is a victim, or the mentality one develops in which he or she constantly sees himself or herself as a victim. Victimhood can entail believing that you have little to no control over your life, and as a result take little to no action. Generally, people who develop a victim mentality have suffered some sort of wrong or aggression, but victimhood brings the victimization of the past into the present, and the choice to be controlled or influenced by it in the present.

One very striking similarity between Israelis and Palestinians is their claim that they are both victims of the other, and the constant attempt to try and out-do the other in their claims of who is the greater victim. This self-perception reveals the deeply ingrained victimhood of both societies.                    

It is important to note the linguistic context of the term “victim” in Hebrew and Arabic. There is no distinction between the words victim and sacrifice in Hebrew and Arabic, korban (קורבן) and dahiya (ضحية). So in our cultural and linguistic context, there is a close association between the ideas of victim and sacrifice, and this close association is evidenced in our conflict.5

Israeli Perceptions: On the Israeli side, there are a number of victims/sacrifices that are remembered in the Israeli historical narrative and collective memory. First, the state of Israel commemorates a yearly Holocaust Remembrance Day in which the Holocaust is discussed, and its victims/sacrifices remembered. Throughout the school year, part of the educational system includes lengthy discussions of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The Israeli media has regular articles on the Holocaust and anti- Semitism as well. Another form of victim/sacrifice commemorated and remembered are those who have died heroically for the state of Israel, and this is most prominently recalled in the context of the military and culminates in the national remembrance and services held on Memorial Day. Finally, a third type of victim/sacrifice remembered on the Israeli side is the civilian victims of Arab aggression, from the early 20th century until the present. The language and symbols used when commemorating these events exhibit a number of the characteristics of a society suffering from victimhood.

Palestinian Perceptions: The Palestinian historical narrative and collective memory perceives itself as victims/sacrifices from the end of the 19th century until the present, as foreign and imperial powers conspired to appropriate land for their own interests at the expense of the local Palestinian population. Additionally, Palestinian victimhood/sacrifice can be seen in the remembrance of the Nakba of 1948 (and subsequently the Naksa of 1967) in which Palestinians were driven from their homes and land, becoming refugees, and suffering massacres at the hands of the Israelis. The commemoration of these events focuses on the ongoing suffering and victimization of the Palestinian people, to the extent that it can rightly be called victimhood. Finally, just as the Israelis remember civilian victims/sacrifices of Arab aggression, so too, the Palestinians recall their shuhada or martyrs, both civilians and fighters, who have fallen in the face of Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people.

Another aspect of victimhood is the self-righteousness that emerges throughout the course of the conflict. We can easily find examples of this from our own media and historical narratives, where one side will allege “we never would have done _______ had you not done _______” or “we had to do _______ to protect ourselves because you did _______.” There is a cycle that starts in which each side asserts its community’s innocence, or relative blamelessness because the out-group’s actions (in the eyes of the in-group) far outweigh the violence (or excuse the violence) the in-group perpetrates “in response.” Each side claims that they are the true victims, and thus begins a competition to prove to the international community and to one’s own community that the in-group is the greater victim. Israelis and Palestinians alike suffer from this victimhood mentality and try and explain to outside parties their victimization in order to draft others to their side in the conflict. However, the claim that one side is the “true victim” delegitimizes the other’s pain and suffering. This conflict-perpetuating victimhood becomes a form of power and influence that each side attempts to wield against the other.                   

The victimhood mentality is deeply ingrained in our societies, and moving beyond this mentality tends to progress in stages.

A victimhood mentality feeds into our individual and collective identities, so much so that we are unaware of its hold over us. We are happy and comfortable with this mentality, and it gives us a sense of standing on moral, higher ground, with no need for self-criticism.                                       

When confronted about our victimhood mentality, we often deny having any such complex and become very defensive. It is very difficult to overcome seeing oneself or one’s community as the victim.                                                     

We begin to have an awareness of certain thought patterns and use of language in our societies that belies our victimhood mentality. However, there is still resistance. Blame begins to creep in and we refuse to accept responsibility for our complicity in this debilitating mentality.                                                     

Our awareness of our victimhood mentality grows, and we allow ourselves to reflect on our own and our society’s part in perpetuating this mentality. We begin to allow for self-criticism and seek to combat victimhood in ourselves, and challenge our community about this mentality’s crippling and blinding effect, as well as its role in perpetuating the conflict.

A large part of overcoming an intractable conflict is accomplished through a change in the beliefs of the societies in conflict. One element of this is a reduction in “the monopolization of feelings of victimhood; that is, there should be a recognition that both groups were victims in the conflict and have endured suffering.”9 This is achieved by learning about the other side, and why they feel like a victim (learning their historical narrative). Following this should come a realization and recognition of the out-group victimization and the in-group aggression that played a role in its creation and perpetuation. This recognition of the other’s suffering and willingness to move forward together allows the two sides to slowly move out of this victimhood mentality. Finally, it is forgiveness and grace (seeing the other’s shortcomings, choosing to let go of animosity and bitterness, allowing the other to express their identity while accepting, respecting and consequently legitimizing and allowing for differences) that lead to a reciprocal overcoming of victimhood.

How Identity Can Be Exclusive            

Our identity forms as a result of what separates us from others, and connects us to others. We often exclude because we want what others have; we want to be in control and have exclusive access to certain resources.10 Exclusion quickly leads to violence and conflict and manifests itself in a number of ways:                                                                    

  • Exclusion fosters a false sense of purity in which the in-group views itself as good and pure in contrast to the evil and wrongdoing out-group.
  • Exclusion can lead to elimination—whether through ethnic cleansing, or encouraging the out-group to assimilate to the in group’s superior identity and values by giving up their own.              
  • Exclusion leads to domination and attempts to colonize, exploit and subjugate the other for the in-group’s gain.                                                     
  • Exclusion leads to negative separation and abandonment when the out-group poses little threat to the in-group and the out-group has nothing the in-group wants or needs; instead of aiding in reducing the out-group’s suffering, the in- group separates itself from the out-group so the out-group cannot ask for assistance.                                
  • Exclusion feeds off of hate and indifference toward the out-group, and additionally leads to the two pronged distortion of identity—of one’s own identity and the out- group’s identity. Furthermore, it dehumanizes the out-group while perpetuating the in- group’s sense of goodness and innocence.                    

How Identity is Challenged in Reconciliation                    

In our reconciliation encounters, we find that identity is challenged over the course of our meetings. Meeting with the other side can be a challenge to identity in and of itself, perhaps because of what we know (or rather, do not know) about the other. Oftentimes, encountering the other brings fear and uncertainty as we meet people who break the negative stereotypes that we have toward the out-group. Yet, when we hear stories about people’s lives from the other side, and discuss subjects such as history and narrative, we suddenly encounter new information that is quite unexpected. Sometimes the information we encounter undermines what we know (or what we think we know) about “how things happened” or “how things are.”

Additionally, in reconciliation meetings, we often encounter each other’s wounded feelings, and wounded identity. As our identities are related to self-esteem, when our identities have been wounded and we have been dismissed (or excluded) by the other side, we have the natural, human fear that we will be rejected. Perhaps this rejection is tied to some sort of physical fear— fear that the other side wants to get rid of us, push us into the sea and kill us, or transfer us from our homes and livelihood. But more often than not, it is an emotional fear, and this fear finds expression in our reconciliation encounters.

Learning to Embrace the Other

Righting Our Understanding through Repentance and Forgiveness

Chapter 11 of this curriculum deals with issues of repentance and forgiveness. Under the section on repentance, we briefly mentioned how both the offended and offender have to realize their complicity in the offense. In conflicts such as our own, neither side can claim to be completely innocent. But the call to repentance includes both the oppressed and oppressors. “If victims do not repent today they will become perpetrators tomorrow who, in their self-deceit, will seek to exculpate their misdeeds on account of their own victimization.” Repentance will aid in leading us toward forgiveness, which is “the boundary between exclusion and embrace.”

Coming to Embrace

Volf outlines the four elements of embrace: opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening the arms again. In order for a successful embrace to happen, all four of these elements must be present. When we open our arms, we invite the other to be part of who we are and express our desire to be part of the other. It acknowledges that the other is not with us and has an element of expectation that the other will come and share our space. By opening our arms, we create space within our personal space for the other to join us. We also indicate that our personal boundaries are able to be passed as we open for the other to enter our presence.19 Finally, in opening our arms we extend an invitation to the other.

The second element is waiting. We must wait for the other, not pushing ourselves or imposing our will on them. We wait for them to wish to reciprocate the action and open their arms. This waiting indicates that while one side may have initiated the action, the goal of embrace cannot be achieved without reciprocal action.

If the other reciprocates, then we have reached the goal of embrace, the closing of our arms in which we are both active and passive—we are holding the other and being held. Here, we must be careful that we do not hold on too tightly so as to crush or assimilate the other into ourselves as this is an act of power and ultimately exclusion. At the same time, we must not allow ourselves to retreat emotionally, and instead give of ourselves in the embrace and allow ourselves to be changed by the presence of the other. In this act, we find affirmation and affirm the other.

Finally, for the embrace to be successful, we must open our arms again. We must not take the other into ourselves so that together the two of us comprise a “we” and our differences are ignored in favor of what we share. We must let each other go so that our otherness, difference, and uniqueness can remain.20 We must step away and allow the other his or her differences, and allow ourselves to be “enriched by the traces that the presence of the other has left…”

For this embrace to be successful, there are a number of things we must understand. First of all, the fluidity of our identities: We need to realize that we are individuals and parts of communities, and who and what we are overlap these various individual and communal social settings. Second, the non-symmetricity of a relationship: When we embrace, we come together as equals, already recognizing the other. When we embrace, there should be no struggle in which the other should earn our recognition. Third, the underdetermination of the outcome: As we wait with open arms, there is no guarantee that the other will reciprocate and enter into our embrace. The other has the right to refuse our initiating gesture. Even after the embrace has taken place, there is no guarantee of what will result. Any outcome is possible except for the possibility that genuine embrace will leave one or both sides unchanged. The fourth feature builds on the previous two and is the risk of embrace. There is always a risk when we open ourselves to an embrace as we do not know what the outcome will be. It could result in misunderstanding, hostility, or a violation and offense, and we could become either a savior or a victim. Opening ourselves to embrace is a gamble.

Learning to Value our Common Identity               

Another element of embrace is learning to see the other not only as different and distinct from us, but as someone similar to us. This can be achieved by focusing on the common (or superordinate) identity that we share, regardless of the multicultural, multiethnic societies we come from.

There are a variety of superordinate identities that can be beneficial and conducive towards this element of embrace. For example, Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians share a common, superordinate faith identity. While culture, ethnicity and even symbols and faith expression might be different, these two disparate groups share a common identity as believers in Jesus as the Messiah. Or, in Muslim-Christian-Jewish encounters, the focus can be on the shared identity as children of Abraham, or heirs to the Abrahamic tradition. Research has shown that identification with a superordinate group aids in the maintenance of social cohesion and does not need to come at the expense of loyalty to subgroups (Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc.).

As previously mentioned, in conflict we can overemphasize certain aspects of our identity that we feel are threatened. Sometimes we see this expressed in hyper- nationalist or hyper-religious sentiments where we try and reinforce our identity at the expense of the other. Focusing on our superordinate, common identity helps us not only see each other’s similarities and consequently have further appreciation for our differences (instead of finding those differences threatening), but also encourages us to embrace other aspects of our own identity.

Once we are able to see our common identity, and appreciate the other’s similarities to us, we can also learn to appreciate the differences. Seeing ourselves in terms of a superordinate identity will give us the respect necessary to hear and accept the way the other side defines itself. Just as we see ourselves as varied and complex individuals comprised of many identities—gender, religion, ethnicity, etc.—through our relationship with the other side we learn to see them as varied and complex as ourselves. This recognition is healing and humanizing toward the other side. At the same time, while we recognize the multi-faceted nature of our own and others’ identities, we also come to see the paradoxes, failures, and shortcomings of our own identities. Coming to recognize this gives us the humility, self-criticism, and self- awareness necessary to continue in the journey of reconciliation.


Reconciliation is not possible unless we are comfortable with who we are, and can open ourselves and create space to include others in our identities. Our encounters provide a forum for participants to learn about each other, focus on their common identities, and in the context of relationship, focus on differences. As we learn about one another and our similarities, we begin to open ourselves to embrace. The challenge is then learning the problematic aspects, and wounded parts of identity. It is our goal to help participants learn about one another, and learn the shortcomings of their identities. Only through mutual respect, self-awareness and humility can the reconciliation process move forward. Together these allow us to reclaim our identity and stand mutually affirmed in our identities so we can move forward stronger and more confident of who we are apart and together.                


Bar-Tal, Daniel. “Collective Memory of Physical Violence: Its Contribution to the Culture of Violence.” In The Role of Memory in Ethnic Conflict, edited by E. Cairns and M. D. Roe, 1–29. Houndmills, England: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.                  

———. “From Intractable Conflict through Conflict Resolution to

Reconciliation: Psychological Analysis.” Political Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 2: (June 2000), 351–365.                    

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace, A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.                    

Huo, Yuen J., Heather J. Smith, Tom R. Tyler, E. Allan Lind. “Superordinate                                

Identification, Subgroup Identification, and Justice Concerns: Is Separatism the Problem: Is Assimiliation the Answer?” American Psychological Society, Vol 7, No. 1, (January 1996), 40–45.  

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