The Lessons of the Fish and the Sun

By Hauke Z iessler

July 10, revisions by RK


I recently read a blog post by Rabbi Ron Kronish, Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel , which reflected exactly what was running through my mind at the time, and I felt that it is important to highlight his notion of hope amidst despair in a more psychological manner.
Through various situations in which I have been involved in recent weeks in Israel, I have noticed that the breakdown in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians has caused a wave of despair and frustration that has engulfed many people on both sides of the conflict, which has led to a stagnation in both collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian organizations and a complete cessation of the Peace Process. As part of this process, both sides have assumed the position of victim even more than is usually the case. This is a large psychological burden, as both sides have fallen into patterns of despair.

If one believes that there is an ominous oppressor/enemy that cannot be stopped, one quickly judges oneself as inferior and falls into the thinking that the situation is hopeless. This builds in-group bonds and weakens any readiness to interrelate with or even trust the out-group. As shown by Robert Putnam (a researcher in the field of Social ties and relations with books such as “Bowling Alone” published in 1995), there is a so-called bridging and bonding social capital in every society which is vital for the trust and structure of these communities. He identifies a strong presence of bonding capital which is the extent of interrelations with people who are alike and within your group. He found that this already is a step towards a peaceful society in a homogenous community. But in a diverse multi-ethnic and heterogeneous community, that bridging capital is vital. Bridging Capital is the extent of relations with people that are not alike. If bridging is not present, distrust is fostered and this fosters prejudice and thus causes societal stagnation.

In a recent informal conversation in Jerusalem, I was told by an Israeli Arab that the conflict is like a lion cub. If one treats the lion cub humanly it will grow up as a kind respectful animal but if you treat it with brutality, at some point it will attack its owner violently (the lion cub, in his view, refers to the Palestinian people). While there is some truth behind this, I think it is sad that this is the narrative which is being recited.
This reminded me of the phenomenon of “learned helplessness”, which was first conceptualized and studied by Martin Seligman in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania. In his study rats were thrown into a water pool where there was no hope of getting out. At one point, the rat would give up and stop trying to escape. If the rat was put in a new situation where there was an escape the rat would not even bother trying to find a way out as it assumed the situation was hopeless.
Similar patterns were found in tests with humans. The problem is that this frustration amidst the constant danger of violence for both sides has created a mutual self-victimization and thus a rationalization of figurative lion attacks occurs. I have heard comments from Palestinians that Jews who tell me they are involved in dialogue and want peace are lying. Similarly, I have been told by Israeli Jews that all Arabs do not accept Jews as neighbours. Generalizations induced by frustration and despair incited by diverse sources, which is a whole different topic, are the cause of distrust and thus a breakdown in social ties.

So how do we combat this?
We need to seek dialogue and seek relations with people that are promoting peaceful coexistence. Do not sit and wait for someone to join you in your lonely, fishbowl but take a risk and jump out of your bowl and join your neighbour. A single fish in the ocean is doomed but as a swarm you can protect yourself against the attacks of frustration and despair. Things can only change if hope is what is written on the flags and not hate, frustration and anger.

As I continue to work on the new ICCI Internet Radio Station called Microphones for Peace. I have hit many moments when I wondered how I am going to find motivated individuals who will unite to make their voice heard. But through my last few meetings, I have been positively impressed by people who are excited to fight the plight of despair by bringing people together under the umbrella of unity.
This reminds me of a statement I recently read in a book called The True Jihad. This book talks about how the idea of non-violence in Islam is (contrary to popular believes) the essence of the religion. It says that “the habit of tolerance prevents a man from wasting his time and talent on unnecessary friction. When negatively affected by another’s unpalatable behaviour, your mental equilibrium is upset. But if you remain emotionally untouched by such behaviour, your mind will fully retain its equilibrium” (Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, 2002). Now I don’t fully agree that we have to become unemotional robots that are unaffected by any form of “unpalatable behaviour”. But the question is: do we let the fear, frustration, and the despair– that is there and should not be ignored– conquer our very being, or do we carry on like the sun. We rise in the morning with the same unrelenting splendour spreading the warmth of tolerance that is inherently taught in Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike.


Hauke Ziessler studies Intercultural Relations and Behaviour at the Jacobs University in Bremen where he co-founded a local Mentoring Program (Explore Bremen) and has founded a campus Radio Station. He is now a summer intern with ICCI, with a focus setting up ICCI’ new Internet Radio Station entitled “Microphones for Peace.”



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