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opinion

Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University

It is by now well-known that groups in protracted conflict see the other side as holding primary responsibility for the conflict's continuation. Neither side wants to compromise out of fear that the other side, sensing weakness, will exploit the concession. And as individuals view their own side as inherently more noble, group identities get wrapped up with conflict attitudes. As a result, individuals tend to bat aside opposing evidence so as to stave off the uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance.

So what happens if you try to sell the participants' own beliefs right back to them, using the tool of absurdity? A research team in Israel did just that recently, with surprising results.

In a scientific study conducted shortly before the 2013 Israeli election, a group of researchers showed Israeli subjects – many of them centrists and right-wingers – a 30-second video spot replete with triumphant military music and stock film footage of military operations, interspersed with three accompanying screen-fills of Hebrew text:

Without It, We wouldn 't have the strongest army in the world.

For the sake of the army, it 's clear that we need the conflict.

The conflict! Find "the conflict" on Facebook.

The result? After repeated viewings, the subjects actually moderated their views towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even became more likely to vote for more dovish parties in the 2013 elections. Specifically, participants were more willing to give up the belief that the Palestinians are not a suitable partner for peace – a belief, as the study's authors note, that has been propagated by successive Israeli governments. In turn, the participants were willing to have their government make compromises for the sake of peace, namely through settlement evacuation.

The study, authored by Boaz Hameiri, Roni Porat, Daniel Bar-Tal, Atara Bieler and Eran Halperin, was published in the July 29, 2014 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It's also a study that's forming the backbone of the current publicizing efforts of an Israeli peace NGO called the Arik Insitute: The Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace, which also collaborated on the project. The organization was founded by Yitzhak Frankenthal in memory of his son, Arik, who was killed in Israel-Hamas fighting in 1994; the organization received startup funding from none other than Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who donated the proceeds from his 2009 Israel concert to the group.

Maybe absurdity, rather than evidence-based earnestness, is indeed catching on among activists. I recently noticed this approach by the Israeli-based peace group Peace Now. In their Jerusalem Day campaign, Peace Now circulated a series of posters across social media with a play on the Hebrew slogan (typically translated as) "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her cunning." In place of Jerusalem, the Hebrew posters inserted names of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, including Silwan, Beit Hanina and Wadi Al Joz. The result is a touch of absurdity, as the trained Hebrew eye blinks at the seemly out-of-place Arabic names.

As for the connection with Leonard Cohen, there is certainly something about absurdity which fires the imagination of artists and creators. The last time I encountered Cohen's music used in this sort of context was in my recent revisiting of the classic Israeli film Life According to Agfa. There, in a final, climactic scene, a group of drunken Israeli soldiers shoot up a bar filled with ordinary Israelis, as Cohen's Who By Fire plays in the background. Written at the height of the Intifada, Israeli filmmaker Assi Dayan (son of the legendary Israeli general Moshe Dayan) may have been attempting a political statement: the conflict was smouldering and so too should Tel Aviv be burning with public accountability, at least. With the signing of the Oslo agreement, that first Intifada was quelled soon after, but the conflict has continued.

As for the study itself, the question remains how and whether perceptions of power affects the possibility of belief-change study. The study shows that Israelis might be in a position to consciously realize how much their collective identity is wrapped up in a military approach to the conflict. Are Palestinians ready to be challenged in their conflict beliefs as well?