Dany Bahar and Natan Sachs’ recent assessment of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement (BDS) and its its impact (or lack thereof) on Israel’s economy revealed what the movement is really about, but it may not be what the average Israeli thinks. Sachs and Bahar emphasize how the structure of Israel’s economy and trade make it mostly immune to boycott and divestment. Yet, BDS supporters still say their movement can be an effective tool against Israel and its detractors maintain that it is an imminent and existential threat. Thus, the contest between BDS and anti-boycott movements is not an economic or diplomatic battle, but rather a psychological one. Indeed, the psychological motivations of Israelis and Palestinians are a typical example of a psychosocial construct called “competitive victimhood.”
Competitive victimhood is defined as “the motivation of conflicting groups to establish that their group has suffered more than their adversarial group.” Both parties describe themselves as the moral victim of a conflict and their adversarial group as the perpetrator who has unjustifiably meant to do them harm. For Israelis, they narrate their victimhood based on suffering from terrorism and regional isolation and delegitimization. For Palestinians, their victimhood is based on living under Israeli military occupation and loss of land.
There may be a number of reasons as to why people participate in competitive victimhood, but a couple of noteworthy reasons especially relevant for Israelis and Palestinians are developing social cohesion and receiving support from a third party. A sense of collective victimhood helps increase ingroup social cohesion and unity because members feel they can relate to each other based on their shared history of suffering.
Competitive victimhood between different groups also tends to lead to competition for support from a third party in order validate victim status. Groups often use their victimization rhetoric in order to persuade the external party to provide them with moral and practical support. This is why you will often hear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly talk about how Israel faces many terrorist threats and can therefore help the international community in the fight against terrorism in order to attract support from outside actors. It is also why you hear his Palestinian counterpart President Mahmoud Abbas talk about how the Palestinians have been victimized from Israel’s aggression and that the international community should therefore impose pressure on Israel and recognize Palestine as a state at the UN. While Israelis are genuinely fearful and do face serious security threats and Palestinians do encounter real hardships as a result of the bureaucracy of the occupation, efforts to draw in outside actors to confirm suffering can distract direct reconciliation efforts. The effort to attract extern support becomes less of an effort to promote a solution and more an exercise in determining whose hardships are more severe.
As one would guess, competitive victimhood can be an impediment to conflict resolution. Parties that compete over who has suffered more are less likely to make concessions because they feel they may be conceding to their victimization and legitimizing their assailants. Moreover, when the third party makes an official endorsement of support for one of the two competing groups, the side that did not receive support tends to become less compromising and more defiant. For instance, in light of U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinian officials boycotted Vice President Mike Pence’s recent visit to the Middle East and claimed that the United States is no longer a suitable mediator.
Nevertheless, there have been other intractable conflicts featuring competitive victimhood that were resolved. The classic example that has been often referenced as a model for the Israel-Palestine conflict is the Northern Ireland model. Like Israelis, the Unionists saw themselves as the moral victim of the conflict by suffering from terrorist attacks from the Irish Republican Army and regional isolation. And like Palestinians, the Republican Nationalists considered themselves to be the moral victim due to suffering under British control and struggling for independence. Yet, through people-to-people dialogue, the two communities were able to overcome their competition over victimhood, recognizing the legitimacy of one another’s grievances, and end the decades-old conflict by supporting the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Israelis and Palestinians will not be willing to make concessions and reconcile with each other until they overcome their sense of competitive victimhood as well. Many social psychologists refer to what is described as the “Need-Based Model” as the way to help decrease competitive victimhood. The Needs-Based Model suggests that in order to increase people’s’ willingness to reconcile with their adversarial group they need a sense of both empowerment and moral acceptance. Therefore, considering that the Israel-Palestine conflict is an asymmetrical conflict, more people-to-people grassroots organizations in Israel and Palestine need to structure the dialogue in a way that allows Palestinians to feel a sense of empowerment and reciprocally for Israelis to feel a sense of moral acceptance from their Palestinian counterparts.
Of course, decreasing a sense of competitive victimhood for the sake of peace should not and does not mean sacrificing Israeli and Palestinians’ sense of pain altogether. As explained before, a sense of collective victimhood plays an important role in people’s identities and they are certainly entitled to their narrative. Pierre Bouchat and his colleagues’ academic article “A Century of Victimhood” may provide insight on finding a balance. The authors measured the memory of victimhood of citizens from European nation states that participated in World War I. The results revealed that most Europeans still have a relatively strong sense of victimhood from the war about a century ago, but not necessarily in a competitive state of mind. Many Europeans said they acknowledged that their country and their former adversaries were somewhat responsible for both sides’ suffering and uphold a pacifist paradigm. Thus, it is indeed possible for former adversarial groups to overcome a sense of competitive victimhood while still preserving their sense of collective victimhood.
Regardless of the BDS movement’s motivations, economic and diplomatic pressure alone will not bring the parties and their respective communities closer together for a peace agreement. Rather, unilateral pressure may feed into their sense of victimization and accordingly make them more defiant. For the Palestinians, BDS reinforces the sense that they are the solitary and morally right party in the conflict. Among Israelis, BDS engenders a siege mentality without actually affecting concessions. It will not be until each society liberates itself from the mentality of competitive victimhood that both parties will be willing to make concessions and reconcile with each other – and the role of BDS is certainly not constructive in this regard.