Could COVID-19 pave the way to a Common Humanity? by Prof. Gilad Hirschberger

A united world in the face of an alien attack is a common theme in many science fiction movies. Research in social psychology also shows that when people are presented with the hypothetical possibility of a global catastrophe they tend to respond with a greater belief in common humanity, and an increased motivation to resolve intractable intergroup conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Could the COVID-19 pandemic that threatens all of humanity have a similar psychological effect? Could it diminish the significance of long-standing conflicts between groups by providing a new perspective on the perpetuation of seemingly endless conflicts? Unlike the empirical research conducted, thus far, that attempts to answer this question based on imaginary scenarios presented to subjects, at this moment in time we are facing the real thing. Reality is complex and messy, and often does not neatly conform to the elegant results of laboratory research that was conducted under very different circumstances.

To understand the complex effects of the coronavirus pandemic on intergroup relations, we need to consider our multifaceted response to this type of threat. The distinction Daniel Kahneman makes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow between the rapid processing of System 1 and the elaborate and deliberate workings of System 2 may offer some important insights. System 1, the fast thinking system is rapid, automatic, unconscious, requires few resources, and is highly adaptive for human survival. System 2, the slow thinking system, is conscious, rational, calculated, deliberate and tends to be more responsive to facts and data.

Although we may like to believe that we are sophisticated System 2 thinkers, the reality is that our thinking is governed primarily by the more basic System 1. Our appreciation of philosophy and the fine arts are no more than the tip of the iceberg of human thinking. At the same time, however, System 2 plays an important role that should not be discounted. When students in more-or-less normal times participate in research on the effects of global warming, a viral epidemic, or nuclear war, the role of System 2 in their responses is apparent. Students are intelligent people and the scenarios presented to them may generate some interest, but it is unlikely that hypothetical scenarios of the apocalypse evoke the sense of threat and dread that many are experiencing today when the unimaginable has become real.

System 2 may also help us recognize that faced with a global threat, there is no significance to countries, religions, narratives and ideologies. The virus is oblivious to the Green Line and does not discriminate between a Palestinian in Ramallah and a Jew in Petah Tikva. Therefore, Israeli-Palestinian cooperation to effectively cope with this common menace is not only prudent, it is the most logical course of action. But this is where System 1 comes into play. When System 1 identifies a threat, it activates a vigilant and defensive stance. If we are currently startled by the mere specter of a friend who momentarily penetrates the invisible six-feet parameter that supposedly protects us, we are even more bound to recoil from any stranger who is not perceived as part of the group. People from other groups are often depicted in viral terms even during regular times when there is no impending threat. They are portrayed as an infection, a threat to the integrity and purity of the group, and there is often a desire to create a buffer between us and them, to keep them out, to eliminate any contact. The Coronavirus pandemic can, therefore, affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in two different ways: it may elicit suspicion, disgust of the other, animosity and even a desire to eradicate the other that represents a source of infection. But, if we are able to overcome and transcend our automatic responses to fear and threat, we may also come to see how the threat of viral infection creates an incontrovertible Israeli-Palestinian common interest. If and when Palestinian hospitals, that are even less equipped than Israeli hospitals, will be overrun by patients, it will not only be an act of kindness and compassion to help them, it will become a vital Israeli interest to do so. The unique circumstances of the global pandemic make Israeli and Palestinian public health intertwined. Neither population can be safe if the health of the other is compromised.

A viral epidemic raging in the territories is akin to an epidemic in Israel, and the virus easily skips over the symbolic lines that people draw on maps, and effortlessly crosses fences and walls that offer no protection against this type of threat. The notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has never resonated more strongly when the two parties of one of the most protracted conflicts in history face a common threat. Perhaps, we can find a silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic, that may not only represent a grave threat, but also an opportunity. Perhaps these difficult times are offering a window of opportunity for change; an opportunity to advance the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an unconventional manner through a joint battle against a common enemy that jeopardizes all that is dear to the peoples, cultures, beliefs, and ideological perspectives that exist in the space we all share.

Prof. Gilad Hirschberger is a social psychologist from IDC-Herzliya. In recent years his research has focused on the conflict between Israel and its neighbors, looking at explicit and implicit factors that contribute to political violence.
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