Denial: The Enemy of Peace

Pagina 12, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 21, 2001.

World Press Review, April 2001


Stanley Cohen, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, has written on political violence, crimes of the state, and human rights. He grew up in South Africa, and spent the years 1980-98 in Israel, where he was director of the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He has worked with human rights organizations dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and is on the board of the International Council on Human Rights. In this interview with Argentina's Pagina 12, he addresses the issue of denial as it relates to peace negotiations and reconciliation. -WPR


* You describe the denial mechanism as part of the human condition. How does it function in peace processes?

It is fundamental in the process of self-justification. Let's take the case of the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians-the one I know best, since I lived in Israel for 18 years. The dominant party at the table, the Israelis, deny that the other party, the Palestinians, have been victims of Israeli actions. They deny it because they cannot perceive of themselves as the perpetrators of injustices, since this would weaken the image they have of themselves-the image they project to the world and want -to impose at the negotiation table. Thus, Israel continues systematically to deny everything. Currently, it denies the torture of Palestinians or it uses self-defense as a justification to explain why it opens fire on civilians. This denial even extends to the past. It is still impossible today to state in Israel that many Palestinians and Arabs were thrown out of their homes in 1948. It's a part of history that's been excluded, that no one wants to see.

* It doesn't seem to be a mechanism used exclusively by the Israelis.

Of course not. Today, the Turks continue to deny that between 1915 and 1917 they massacred nearly a million and a half Armenians. In France the great myth of the Resistance described a historic reality-that there were people who fought against the Nazi occupation-but it also covered up something unbearable: that there were also those who collaborated. The case of Israel is especially interesting because it's an open society. Information circulates, there is freedom in teaching, and there is a political opposition. However, at the same time, the mechanism of collective denial functions to astonishing extremes, such as the well-known statement by Prime Minister Golda Meir on the violations of Arabs' human rights. Turning things around, Golda Meir accused the victims of forcing those poor Israeli young men to commit horrible acts.

* This gives the impression that such a radical denial must impede any possibility for negotiation.

I don't want to overrate the importance of these mechanisms in the resolution of conflicts. We've seen extraordinary cases of peacemaking, even when the denial mechanism continues to be present. An example is South Africa-a case I know well since I was born and grew up there. For someone who lived there until the 1980s, the change from a system like apartheid to such a different social order without bloodshed, with great traumas, is truly astonishing. How did it happen? To some degree, it was outside influence: the impact of economic sanctions. To some degree, it was the existence of two exceptional leaders, Nelson Mandela and De Klerk. And to some degree, it was the creation of a mechanism like the Truth [and Reconciliation] Commission. And despite all of this, one of the formulas that was used to move things forward during the transition was that the apartheid system was a good idea that had gone bad. In other words, a clear denial. So I don't say that overcoming denial is indispensable for achieving peace. There's no perfect recipe. But I do think it's an obstacle to change.

* How can these denial mechanisms be overcome?

Outside mediators are often fundamental. Another very important mechanism is the truth commission, which provides a symbolic place in which the past can be addressed. And here an important distinction must be made. It's not a matter of knowing the facts because- especially when we are speaking of high-level leaders-those who give the orders have all the information. However, there's a literal denial that consists of saying that there are no missing persons, or what is denied is the meaning of the information. In other words, the information is admitted, but it is said that they were kidnapped by the guerrillas, that they escaped, that they are the result of excesses and not a systematic, deliberated plan. This is more complicated in the overall society, as we can see in Argentina or Chile in the case of missing persons. It is something that has been greatly debated. Was it possible in Nazi Germany to be unaware of what was happening? I think that here the denial mechanism operated with its full paradoxical force: The Germans, the Argentines, the Chileans knew-and they didn't know. It's similar to what happens in a family when the father sexually abuses a daughter over a long period of time. The mother didn't know? It's usually the case that she knew...or didn't want to know.

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