Building Israeli-Palestinian trust, a marshmallow at a time

Maya Factor beamed as 141 Jewish and Arab teens collaborated to build toy towers made of spaghetti, marshmallows and tape. The towers, she said, symbolize the potential for Israelis and Palestinians to build a society of mutual cooperation.

“Something in their minds had opened,” she said of that day in April 2015. “As you break the fear, something can be changed, and it’s hard to go back from that.”

Factor, 20, now in the Israeli army, looks back fondly on her role in that experiment. It started when a team of psychology researchers from Stanford University and Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) launched a study of conflict resolution.

 

Maya Factor

That study was published in last month’s edition of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. The authors wanted to answer a vexing question: If people are taught to believe groups can cooperate, change and grow, will they?

 

Israeli-born Stanford doctoral student Amit Goldenberg helped lead the effort to answer that question. He and colleagues postulated that skills required for mutual cooperation resemble a muscle. One needs to flex that muscle to strengthen it.

“We’re interested in changing the psychological barriers in conflict,” he  said. “If you have two smart peoples considering all aspects of a conflict, and need to come to a solution, they would probably come up with the offers of the last 15 years, some sort of two-state solution. But there are psychological barriers blocking achievement. Our goal was to see how to reduce these barriers.”

Goldenberg teamed up with IDC colleagues to design an experiment, and added a surprise element to the mix: Factor and her Arab Israeli friend, Fayruze Rizqalla. The two met while participating in a leadership program for teens.

For that program, Factor designed a joint Jewish-Arab community garden project. “I thought hard work could overcome barriers,” she recalled in a phone interview. “If you put teens together to create something new, they would see the beauty in each other, and love the creation they made together. The differences and stigma wouldn’t matter.”

The 2014 Gaza War caused her project to fizzle, but she never gave up. When she met researchers from the IDC, she asked if she and her friend Fayruze could be part of their experiment.

“[Maya and Fayruze] organized the whole infrastructure,” Goldenberg said.

The team brought in middle-school students from one Jewish school and one Arab school. They conducted a series of separate workshops, teaching the teens psychological skills to expand their openness to change. They also organized a control group, which did not learn the same skills. After three sessions, the kids met at IDC in Herzliya for some fun and games.

“We did cooperation tasks,” Goldenberg recalled, “for example, we divided them into small groups and they built a tower like the Tower of Babylon.”

Whichever team constructed the tallest spaghetti and marshmallow tower won the contest. The researchers found that the teens who underwent cooperation training built much taller towers.

“I saw young Arab girls asking for the Facebook page of a Jewish boy,” Factor said. “It was really pretty clear to me that things had changed, and they actually can do things together now. They have the strength and power to overcome barriers their families and communities have created for years.”

Goldenberg spent more than 18 months analyzing the data before publishing last month. He hopes his work will have applications for others seeking to foster reconciliation and teamwork. And he especially hopes it will improve the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

“I think we’re suggesting something really important,” he said. “If you want to make an encounter good, you have to do some psychological preparation [including] changing people’s belief in their ability to change. One of the biggest problems of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is that people are desperate and have no hope. That affects the other side. Changing the perception that there is a possibility of hope improves the situation”

As for Factor, she is happy to have played a role in the project, and even happier that it made a difference in the lives of the participating Jewish and Arab teens.

“We proved that it’s happening,” she said of changes in participants’ attitudes. “They overcame challenges and created togetherness. After six months [researchers] checked them again and their belief in change did not go back to what it was before.”

 

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.