The victim wars: How competitive victimhood stymies reconciliation between conflicting groups

Ask an Israeli about the conflict with Palestinians and you'll probably hear a tale of woe and victimhood. The strange thing is, if you ask a Palestinian the same question, you'll most likely hear the same story. Since Israel became a nation in 1948, both Israelis and Palestinians have felt victimized.

From the 1949 Armistice Agreements to the most recent Oslo peace negotiations (1993), any formal attempt for a lasting and comprehensive peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians has spectacularly failed. Although economic, historical, and cultural factors are important starting points for understanding this conflict, the rationale for perpetuating it today turns on how each side answers one simple line of questioning: Who is the greatest victim? Who has suffered more?

Victimhood experiences have dramatic consequences for the relations between communities (e.g., Bar-Tal, Chernyak-Hai, Schori, & Gundar, 2009), as demonstrated by the Arab-Israel conflict or by other long-term conflicts around the world (for example, former Yugoslavia and North-Ireland). Further, Masi Noor and colleagues (see Noor, Schnabel, Samer, & Nadler, in press, for a review) suggests that, especially in contexts where material and social resources are scarce, group members actively attempt to affirm that one’s own group has been victimized more than the other. This group tendency, called competitive victimhood, plays a key role in decreasing the prospect for future peaceful coexistence between conflicting groups.

To promote reconciliation and end conflict, it is vitally important to overcome competitive victimhood. Here's why.

The hidden obstacle to reconciliation

How can members of different groups live together after decades of mutual violence, humiliation and abuse? Is it possible for them to coexist peacefully? Addressing these questions is perhaps one of the most challenging but urgent tasks for social scientists in general, and social psychologists in particular. Over the last few decades, the world has indeed been marked by deep-rooted conflicts, not just across national borders, but also between ethnic and religious groups within the same territory. The Arab-Israel conflict, Apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda, violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and civil wars in the former Yugoslavia are just a few examples.

What is clear is that formal agreements between political leaders or strategic divisions of valuable resources, such as money or land, are not enough. For most of these conflicts, diplomatic and strategic negotiations have proved to be a feeble panacea. After the cessation of hostilities, conflicting groups often return to common spaces, but feelings of distrust, lack of empathy and increasing motivations for revenge remain potent even after the formal resolution of the conflict, and may trigger an endless cycle of violence (Nadler, 2002).

Only a radical change in each group's perception of the others can break the cycle of violence and guarantee an enduring peace. This notion is the core of reconciliation (Staub, 2006). More specifically, reconciliation implies the mutual acceptance by groups of each other (e.g., Staub & Bar-Tal, 2003). This is a long and hard process that should involve all the segments of the conflicting groups. And it can be achieved only by addressing each of the parties’ conflict-related feelings, thoughts, and needs (Nadler, Malloy, & Fisher, 2008).

The intrinsic need to compete over victimhood is perhaps one of the greatest inhibitors of reconciliation processes, and removing it can crucially contribute to an enduring peace. Fortunately, social psychologists have suggested strategies that could dismantle the phenomenon. But first, let's take a closer look at it.

Claiming one’s own group as the only victim of the conflict

In most  intractable conflicts, both of the parties involved suffer severe physical and psychological trauma. However, people often assess the impact of the conflict subjectively, perceiving their own group to be the only legitimate victim, and their rivals as illegitimate perpetrators of unjust and immoral misdeeds (Bar-Tal et al., 2009; Nadler & Saguy, 2003). This belief is apparent in communities at conflict today and in recent history. For example, both Israelis and Palestinians perceive themselves as the unequivocal victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict and accuse the other group of being the victimizer (Bar-Tal, 2007; Caplan, 1999). The same holds true for Catholics and Protestants in the violent context of Northern Ireland (Cairns, Mallet, Lewis, & Wilson, 2003), or Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia (e.g., Volkan, 1997). Even when the roles of victim and victimizer are fairly obvious, the victimizers can feel that they are, in fact, the ones who are set upon. For instance, Buckley-Zistel (2006) documented that a large percentage of the Hutu population considered themselves to be victims of the horrific Rwandan Genocide committed by Hutu militias against the Tutsi minority in 1994.

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