Storytelling as a way to work-through intractable conflicts

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Storytelling as a way to work-through intractable conflicts:

The German-Jewish experience and its relevance to the Palestinian – Israeli1 context

Dan Bar-On2

Fatma Kassem

Department of Behavioral Sciences

Ben Gurion University of the Negev



This paper demonstrates how the method of storytelling can be used to work through intractable conflicts in inter-group activities. The original Freudian concept of working through was widened to apply to socially traumatic experiences arising from inter-group conflict situations, emphasizing the ability of the person to learn to live with the painful events of one's past while developing an ability to listen to the pain of the "other." After exploring the concept of working through, we define the storytelling approach and compare it to other approaches used in small group interventions. We then discuss the use of the storytelling approach in the TRT (To Reflect and Trust), a dialogue group that began its work in 1992 The TRT, which was initially composed of German descendants of Nazi perpetrators and Jewish descendants of Holocaust survivors, is now comprised of practitioners working in current conflicts We then describe how the storytelling method was applied in a year-long Jewish-Palestinian student workshop held at Ben Gurion University in 2000/1. The discussion focuses on the way personal storytelling facilitates working through processes in intractable conflicts.

This paper has a number of aims. Its major aim is to demonstrate how storytelling can be used to work through intractable conflicts in inter-group activities. We begin by defining the concept of working through, then widening it to apply to social traumatic events. Then, the storytelling approach, used in our work, is defined and compared to other approaches often used in small group interventions. Next, the TRT (To Reflect and Trust) group, the group in which the storytelling technique was first used, is discussed and we show how it was later applied in a year-long Jewish-Palestinian student workshop held at Ben Gurion University in 2000/1. We end our paper with a discussion on the ways personal storytelling can facilitate working through processes in intractable conflicts.
1. Working through collective historical traumatic events

The assumption, upon which our work is based, is that if groups in intractable conflicts are to reach some degree of reconciliation, they must work through their unresolved pain and anger related to the past through inter-group encounters. In the context of intractable conflicts, we define working through as learning to 'live with' the painful past better than one has up to now. The concept of working through was initially developed in individual therapy and has been used to explain the laborious psychological process, as opposed to a one-time insight, that an individual must undergo in order to confront repressed childhood experiences. In absence of this process, the repressed content may continue to interfere with one's feelings, attitudes and behavior to his/her changing reality (Novey, 1962).

The definition of working through has undergone changes over the years. When it was first introduced by Freud, he used it to describe the process between patient and therapist. Later on, the concept was widened to apply to social traumatic experiences and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) (Danieli, 1988). The goals of the working through process have also changed; if the original goal of the working through process was the letting-go of the influence of the repressed content, the later goal was more modest in that it aimed for the individual to learn to 'live with' the painful traumatic event better than s/he had done before (Lehman et al., 1987).

After the Second World War, therapists ‘borrowed’ the concept of working through to describe how survivors coped with the traumas originating from the Holocaust and the intergenerational after-effects of this trauma on the children of the survivors. Later, the concept was used to understand the ways in which Holocaust survivors processed their distress, seeing this processing as 'normal' delayed reactions to the terrible persecution and losses they had suffered both during and after the Holocaust (Danieli, 1988). Working through also served those researchers and clinicians who attempted to understand how survivors of social trauma continued to live with their losses and feelings of helplessness, in ever-changing realities. Finally, the concept helped explain the paradox of how survivors often succeeded in normalizing their lives, not showing pathological signs for many years, and then would suddenly become overwhelmed by the surfacing of the repressed contents of the trauma that threatened this functioning (Davidson, 1980).

Working through the consequences of social trauma has been found to have intergenerational aspects. For example, research has shown that the children of Holocaust survivors were often sensitive to their parents' silencing, and a sort of 'double wall' was erected between the two generations (Bar-On, 1995b). Parents did not talk about their experiences and their children did not ask. Even when one side wished to open up a ‘window’ in their wall, they were usually confronted with the other's wall. In our work, we have found very few spontaneous incidences in which both parties simultaneously opened up windows in their walls, making the sharing of feelings a possibility.

To date there is very little psychological literature on the working through process and the intergenerational effects of the Holocaust on the descendants of the Nazi perpetrators. The literature that does exist has explored a number of issues: the ways in which descendants of perpetrators work through their parents’ dark past (Bar-On, 1990), the extent to which the atrocities, committed by the descendants’ fathers, have been transmitted to their children through a 'conspiracy of silence' (developed for very different reasons than that of the survivors' silencing), and how the children have begun confronting and working through this silence (Hardtmann, 1991; Rosenthal, 1992). One reason why there has been so little inquiry into the working through processes of the second generation of Nazi perpetrators can be attributed to the fact that health professionals have tended to suppress this inquiry, sensing that such research might point to psychological symmetry between children of survivors and children of perpetrators. That is, if both sides were presented as being psychologically burdened by the Nazi era, this thinking might interfere with the moral superiority that the victim had over their victimizer (Bar-On, 1992). To date, almost no attempt has been made to discuss these issues or to try and bring children of survivors and childrens of perpetrators of the Holocaust together into a dialogical, semi-therapeutic context. Later in this paper, we will describe one such attempt, showing how the working through concept was used in a group setting that brought together descendants of Holocaust survivors and descendants of Nazi perpetrators.

As a final note on working through, we would like to draw the readers’ attention to work that has related to the ways in which personal working through both differs from and is similar to the working through processes in groups (Bar-On, 1990; 1995a) and to the ways in which the concept of working through differs from the concept of reconciliation (Bar-On, in press).
2. Small group interventions for the working through of intractable conflicts – a typology

Small group interventions, whose purpose is to attempt a resolution of ethnic conflicts, can be classified into three main approaches:

  1. The human relations approach, based primarily on Contact Hypothesis (Allport, 1954; Pettigrew, 1998). Groups that are exposed to this kind of intervention work at creating personal relationships between the participants from the two sides. The basic assumption of this approach is that getting to know each other contributes to changes in stereotypic perceptions, attitudes and relationships with the other. This approach, however, has two main problems: it tends to disregard the historical roots of the conflict and it tends to ignore the fact that there is an asymmetry in the power relations between the two groups, due to the political reality in which they live. Furthermore, while this approach may appear to work in the short run, it usually has little long-term impact. This is because the external power relations between the groups and the hostile environment, in which the groups continue to live, may erase the positive effect created by the small group process. (For further discussion of the Contact Hypothesis, see Ben Ari in this issue).

  2. The confrontational model: This model was developed at Neve Shalom and Givat Havivah in Israel as a critical response to the human relations model (see Maoz; and Halabi & Sonnenschein, both in this issue). This approach focuses on the emphasis of collective identities and the asymmetric power relations that exist between the parties (Maoz; Suleiman, both in this issue).

Over the years, researchers have studied the issue of identity and power relations. For example, Janet Helms (1990) viewed the problem that arose between members of the majority and members of the minority as one of vagueness in the definition of self among members of the majority (the White majority in the case of the USA). This vagueness stands out in the face of a clearly strengthening identity among the oppressed minority (the Black minority, in the case of the USA). Moscovici (1976) and Mugny & Perez (1991) similarly maintain that in encounters between majority and minority groups, the minority group is at an advantage due to its ability to form clear representations of the social self. That is, minority groups know how to differentiate between their self- representation and that of the majority, with whom they are often in disaccord, while the majority group usually has no similar clear representation, but merely a vague self-representation. The reason for this vague representation is that members of the majority group do not need such a clear representation of the minority group for their own survival.

When these conceptualizations are examined in group encounters between Jews and Palestinans using the confrontational model, it has been found that during the first stages of the encounters, the minority group (the Palestinians) strives to use its relative advantage, concerning its ability to clearly define its self and the other, to gain power within the group setting. This puts the majority group (the Jews) at a disadvantage as it struggles to re-examine the vagueness and marked internal contradictions in its self-definition (Maoz, Bar-On, Steinberg Frakhadeen, in press; Steinberg & Bar-On, 2002). This group interaction can be analyzed in the following way: the Jews try to preserve the status quo and, therefore, approach members of the Palestinian group on an individual basis, while the Palestinians try to change the status quo and, therefore, approach the Jews on a collective level (Suleiman, Halabi & Sonnenschein, both in this issue).

The advantage of using the confrontational method is twofold: it helps empower members of the minority group while encouraging members of the dominant group to gain new insights both into their own ambivalence concerning their identity and into their attitudes toward power (Maoz, 2000a; 2000b; Sulieman, 1997). These advantages, however, are achieved at the expense of an atmosphere of trust and personal friendships, that are often gained between members of groups that employ the human relations model in their work. The problem that exists with the confrontational model is that the confrontation, together with lack of trust that remains characteristic of these groups, do not enable group members to develop more complex perspectives of the self and of the other (Bar-On 1999).

(3) A third option: Inter-group encounters focusing on family stories. When we began our work with groups in conflict, we felt that a different method of group work was needed. The new design was developed in order to address some of the shortcomings of the previous noted intrevention models. In the new model, members of both groups are asked to share their personal and family stories with one another during the inter-group encounters (Zehavi-Verete, 2000). The family stories represent the emotional and personal history of the participant as well as the collective history of the conflict, from the perspective of each side. As a result, this model enables the development of emotional ties between members of the group and allows more complex representations of the self and other to emerge. The storytelling model was developed by the first author in his work with a group comprised of children of Holocaust survivors and children of Nazi perpetrators (Bar-On, 1995a). This group was later expanded to include practitioners who live and work in the conflict areas of Northern Ireland, South Africa and Israel/Palestine (Bar-On, 2000). The storytelling approach used in this group was then further applied to a group work with Jewish and Palestinian students in Israel.

3. Developing the method: Storytelling as an inter-group method for working through the Holocaust

In this section, we will describe encounters that attempted to address and work through various levels of inter-group conflicts. The first attempt took place between Germans and Jews and the second attempt took place between Jews and Palestinians in Israel.

The TRT (To Reflect and Trust) group, which began its work in 1992, initially brought together descendants of Holocaust survivors from the USA and from Israel and descendants of Nazi perpetrators from Germany (Bar-On, 1993). The group process that evolved was based on the participants sharing of personal stories. This process helped group members work through the abyss that still appeared to exist between Germans and Jews so many years after the Holocaust. The TRT group process will be described, as it evolved from 1992 to 1998. The criteria used for choosing ways the TRT members is described elsewhere (Bar-On, 1995a).
Developing a common emotional and conceptual language across the abyss

After years of intensive work with descendants of survivors in Israel (Bar-On, 1995b), and after interviewing descendants of Nazi perpetrators in Germany (Bar-On, 1989), the first author initiated the formation of a setting in which members from both of these groups could come together and enter into an open dialogue. The questions that concerned him were as follows: Could the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators speak openly with one another? Would this encounter help each party work through aspects of their families’ traumatic pasts that they had been unable to work through in their separate 'tribal ego' setting? Finally, by engaging in such a group process, would a common agenda emerge that could go beyond the separate agendas of each side (Time Watch, 1993)?

Six encounters between a group of eight descendants of Holocaust perpetrators and a group of five American and four Israeli descendants of Holocaust survivors, took place between 1992-1997. The meetings rotated between Germany, Israel and the USA with each meeting usually lasting between four to five days. Except for the first meeting, which was planned by the first author and which was solely devoted to getting acquainted mainly by listening to each other's personal accounts and stories (Bar-On, 1993), successive scheduling was done by the group itself. However, the meetings continued to focus on reflection on these personal and family stories.

During this joint working through process, the group developed a common emotional and conceptual language that differed from the separate languages that characterized the communities from which the people came. However, the development of this language created a dilemma for the groups of descendants; members began to struggle with the question: "Shall we become an isolated sect, since the communities to which we belong are not yet able to cope with the new understandings that we have gained from our group experiences, or will we have to end this common work in order to remain active members in our communities?" Interestingly, this group chose to go in neither of these directions. Instead, the group chose to contain the tension between these options; they used the group for support and hoped that their communities would slowly move toward one another arriving at the new “space” that had been created by the group. This decision may help explain why the TRT process was a relatively slow process, one that was only partly acknowledged by their German and Jewish communities several years after the group began its work.

How did the process unfold? It was the role of the first author (as an initiator of the group, even though he was clearly a member of the Jewish group) to present the group with issues to be addressed and to suggest conceptualizations about the direction in which the group was heading. He tried to offer questions, concepts or ideas that members of both groups could identify with and around which they could clarify the construction of their personal and collective experiences. As the work proceeded, everyone did not always agree with the first author's formulations, and so the ideas were reformulated. In the following paragraphs, some of these ideas will be discussed.

In the beginning, the TRT members shared their stories with the entire group. They spoke about how, when and in what ways they could trace the after-effects of the Holocaust in their own lives. We learned that, for some of the members, this confrontation with their family’s past was a daily struggle that was accompanied by sleeplessness, fears and uncontrollable reactions. This struggle also often met with silence, repression or other difficult reactions from their parents and social networks. In many cases, acknowledging that one was personally connected to the Holocaust was accompanied by feelings of estrangement - internal (from oneself) as well as external (from one's social surroundings). Members of the group spoke about how it had taken them years to comprehend how this dual estrangement connected to the ways they confronted their personal relationship to the Holocaust.

The Jewish members of the group talked about how they suffered from a sense of physical uprootedness, as their parents had immigrated to the USA or to Israel after the Holocaust. This physical uprootedness was usually accompanied by a sense of psychological uprootedness since the children of the survivors understood the difficulties that their parents had in overcoming the loss of so many family members and with integrating themselves into their new societies. In contrast, the German members of the group did not experience physical uprootedness since their families usually continued to live in their original communities. However, the German participants, like the Jewish participants, felt a sense of psychological uprootedness, albeit for other reasons: the German members felt, that due to the atrocities that had been committed by their parents, their roots had been “poisoned” and, therefore, they could no longer use them as a base upon which they could construct their own sense of identity. Thus, the descendants of the perpetrators also had to develop new roots.

Struggling with the feelings of estrangement and uprootedness brought up new questions for group discussion. One major issue that concerned both the Jews and the Germans was to what degree the participants felt they could allow themselves to live their own lives, neither dependent nor independent of their parents. We learned that the Jewish descendants’ separation from their parents was more difficult than it was for the German descendants, due to the tendency of the survivors to emotionally lean on their children, especially as the survivors aged. The descendants of Nazi perpetrators reacted differently to their parents; they tended to have counter-reactions to their parents behavior and so they would distance themselves from them, leading to an emotional void (Berger & Berger, 2001). This problem became more severe over time; as the parents of the German participants aged, the children found themselves faced with the reality of having to care for them.

Through the group process, we learned, that members of both groups struggle daily with dreams about death, with the fact that they bear the names of dead people (especially among the Jewish descendants of survivors), and that they have fantasies of sacrificing themselves for a greater human cause (especially among the descendants of Nazi perpetrators). As one member of the group mentioned: "We talk about our feelings, emotions and ideas, but they all concern the dead people who are in the back of our minds." Perhaps, it is not a coincidence that a number of group members belong to the helping professions. Perhaps this is one way in which they can give their lives, lived under the shadow of death, a special meaning .

Both the Jewish and the German group members, could, quite easily, establish an open dialogue with the victim within themselves. However, we found that it was much more difficult for group members to identify with and to enter into an open dialogue with the victimizer within themselves and to let the two 'figures' talk with one another. Our group discussion on this issue taught us that the only way one can reduce the potential for uncontrollable victimization is by acknowledging and entering into a dialogue with the victimizer in oneself. After the group reached this realization, a new issue was defined: once we accept and let go of these roles of victim and victimizers within ourselves - what is left? Who are we if we are not defined through these roles? This understanding led to the beginnings of a new process of identity construction, one that was neither based on negation of the "other," nor on the role of the victim within oneself (Krondorfer, 1995; Bar-On, 1999).

The issues associated with identity construction brought up the question of "who suffered more?" This issue included the “scaling” of suffering. In the group context, it became evident that we tended to create a subjective scale of suffering. We were told that there are families of survivors in which only the members who had been in Auschwitz were “allowed” to talk about their suffering in family gatherings. This issue also came up when we discussed the BBC film that had been made of the group. We asked ourselves if some German participants were “more important” than others due to the fact that their fathers had been prominent figures in the Nazi regime? Or, perhaps this scaling was associated with the fact that these members had to work harder in order to work through the meaning that their fathers’ roles had for their own lives (Bar-On, 1995a). We came to understand that extreme suffering may cause us to feel helpless, and so we scale it in order to gain some sense of control. Since some people cannot grasp the experiences their parents had during the Holocaust, the scaling also helps us make sense of it. We found that it is much more difficult for people to relate to the experiences of the other as just being different, than it is for them to relate to them as being more or less difficult. In sum, as we confronted the central issue of scaling we had to learn how to acknowledge the differences without scaling them, as we saw that this in itself led to the creation of additional pain and humiliation.

As the group work proceeded, members developed a feeling of mutual trust and respect for one another and this led to a new symmetry between the parties. However, this by no means erased the asymmetry that still existed in people's minds concerning their parents – there were victimizers and there were victims. Although it was difficult for group members to simultaneously maintain these two frames of mind, it was very important to find a way to navigate between them. This process of navigation led to discussions about the relationship between the past and the present and about ways to manage this relationship

The group experience taught us that we should not try to forget the past, or to rid ourselves of it, once and for all, but that we should look for new ways to live with it – ways that were more conscious, less threatening and self-destructive than our previous attempts. This suggests that by working through massive trauma, one does not let it go, but one finds new ways to live with it. As one German member said: “The day we will feel that it is done with will mean that we went off our course.” While the Holocaust cannot be undone, the negative impact that it has had on the lives of the descendants can be reduced through conscious working through processes on a group or on an individual level. Perhaps confrontation with these issues was the TRT's main "product" as it was through this confrontation that the group worked through their joint traumatic past by becoming forgiving and by reconciliating with one another, rather than by only talking about it.

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