During the conflict between Israel and Hizbullah in the Lebanon in 2006, the Guardian ran side-by-side two articles. One was by Ali Fayyad, a senior member of the Hizbullah Executive Committee. The other was by Isaac Herzog, a minister in the Israeli Security Cabinet. They gave very different accounts. Ali Fayyad called it a war of terror and aggression by Israel, killing 400 and wounding more than 1,000 Lebanese, mainly civilians (a third children) “crushed in their homes or ripped to pieces in their cars by Israeli bombs and missiles”. Isaac Herzog said Israel faced a sustained onslaught by one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations: in a few days “1,000 rockets and 1,200 mortar rounds have been hurled across the border by Hizbullah at hospitals, schools and homes”, putting in danger the lives of a third of the Israeli people.

They disagreed about who started the conflict. Herzog said it was started by an unprovoked attack across the border by Hizbullah, killing three soldiers and kidnapping two. Fayyad saw this as a defensive response to Israeli attacks, incursions, occupation and their detention of prisoners. Each saw their own side as legitimate self-defence under international law.

They disagreed about the intentions of each side. On Hizbullah’s intentions, Herzog said, “Their intention is the killing and maiming of Israelis in general”. Fayyad said Hizbullah had tried to limit escalation “by adopting a policy of limited response while avoiding civilian targets”. On Israel’s intentions, Fayyad said, “The Israeli onslaught is aimed not only at liquidating the resistance and destroying the country’s infrastructure but at intervening in Lebanese politics and imposing conditions on what can be agreed”. Herzog said that Israel’s goal was to ensure that “Hizbullah no longer controls the border with Israel, and may not re-ignite fighting at its whim”.

These disagreements are about a short-term episode in the much longer historical conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This episode in Lebanon will fall into place in the two rival narratives of this longer history. There is interplay between the longer historical narrative and the interpretations each side places on a particular episode. Take the interpretations of the other side’s intentions in the Lebanon conflict. Why does Herzog think Hizbullah’s intention is to kill and maim Israelis in general? Why does he reject Fayyad’s account that they have tried to avoid civilian targets? Why does Fayyad think Israel’s intention is to liquidate resistance, to destroy infrastructure and to intervene in Lebanese politics? Why does he not accept Herzog’s account of intending to prevent Hizbullah controlling the border and re-starting the fighting?

It is easy to imagine the replies each might make to these questions. Each might doubt the truthfulness of the other, finding his own hostile account more plausible. “You can’t believe Hizbullah: they will do anything to advance their cause and have a record of attacking civilians.” “You can’t believe the Israelis are purely defensive: their record is one of aiming at domination and expansion.” In the thinking of each side, what counts as plausible comes from a stereotype of the other side. And the stereotype in turn comes from each side’s own narrative of the long conflict. The interpretation of each episode and the interpretation of the whole history are in mutual support.

The narratives and the related stereotypes are fiercely defended. People do not want to hear things that do not fit their version. Often they make life uncomfortable for those whose observations challenge their stereotypes. The journalist Johann Hari has experienced this from both ends. He studied anti-Semitism undercover at Finsbury Park mosque and challenged it on the Islam channel. He was sent death threats, calling him “a Jew-lover” and “a Zionist homo-pig”. He also reported from Israeli settlements, including his own observation of their pumping of untreated sewage on to Palestinian land, possibly contaminating reservoirs. Many e-mails called for him to be sacked and he was described as anti-Semitic like Goebells.

Sometimes efforts are made to recognise the other side’s narrative. Yuli Tamir is a distinguished political philosopher who defends a liberal version of nationalism. She is also Minister of Education in the Israeli government and believes in appropriate respect for the Arab culture in Israel. In 2007, she approved a textbook for Arab schools that used the Arabs’ word for their defeat in 1948: “Nakba”, which means “catastrophe”. (To Israeli Jews, it is “the War of Independence”.) The textbook mentions the Arabs expelled from their homes and who became refugees. But it also says the war was caused by Arab rejection of the UN partition plan that the Jews would have accepted. Much of the reaction to the textbook was tribal. Israeli Arab leaders welcomed it and thought there should be the same changes in Jewish textbooks. Some Israeli Jewish leaders denounced it. One called it “political masochism” and another called for Yuli Tamir’s dismissal.


It would be wonderful if we could eliminate the stereotypes that so harmfully reinforce the hostile narratives. But stereotypes play such an important role in the way people think about things, in the way we even see things, that it is hard to imagine eliminating them. This is a theme of a whole tradition in philosophy that recognises the limits of simple empiricism. Our understanding of the world does not come just from passive perception, from the mind simply accepting the imprint of the world. As Immanuel Kant saw, beliefs and knowledge are produced by the world and the mind together. We actively impose interpretations in terms of our categories and concepts.

In more recent times, this eighteenth century philosophical revolution has gathered a lot of scientific support. The neurosciences are mapping the complex mechanisms of interpretation that underlie visual perception. Studies in cognitive psychology bring out the role of expectations and stereotypes in assessing evidence. Experiments in the psychology of perception give plausibility to the idea of “perceptual hypotheses”. There is also support from outside science. The great twentieth century humanist in this Kantian tradition was Ernst Gombrich, claiming (against the Impressionists) that “there is no such thing as the innocent eye”. With many powerful illustrations, he made it hard to resist his claim that artists see what they are painting in terms of stereotypes, often derived from the history of art. As he put it, they work by “schema and correction”. (REFERENCE TO ART AND ILLUSION.)

I do not wish to go against this chorus of powerful voices from philosophy, psychology and art history, suggesting that thinking in stereotypes may be too deeply embedded to be eliminated. What are the implications of this for the role of stereotypes in tribal narrative and conflict? Wittgenstein famously discussed the “duck-rabbit” ambiguous figure, wondering what exactly changes when we switch Gestalt, switching from seeing it as a duck to seeing it as a rabbit. My interest here is different. It is in the duck-rabbit as a model of tribal narratives.

“They say the land is theirs, but we were here first and they took it from us.”
“But, even before that, we were here: it was ours and we were driven away first.”
“God promised the land to us.”
“No, God promised it to us.”
“The British promised we could have our state here.”
“But they said the same to us too.”
“It was the War of Independence.”
“It was the Nakba.”
“It was a duck.”
“It was a rabbit.”
“It is Israel.”
“It is Palestine.”
“It is a duck.”
“It is a rabbit.”

We may not be able to escape using stereotypes in our thinking. And, even when we are critically aware of their limitations, they may continue to colour how things feel to us. But we need not give up hope of weakening the grip of the hostile rival narratives and their stereotypes. I like Gombrich’s phrase: schema and correction. Thinking of other groups, we may have to start from the stereotype, but a critical attitude can change our view, sometimes radically. And the person who knows about the ambiguous figure, even if unable to see it both ways at once, will not get into futile arguments about whether it is really a duck or really a rabbit. So transcending the tribal narratives (anyway to some extent) may not be impossible. But it may not be easy either.