Narratives about Competing Narratives:
In their professional and academic roles as well as their personal and political efforts, many psychologists seek to understand, and ultimately help resolve, the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Too often, however, they overemphasize the centrality of competing narratives, partly in response to depoliticizing academic norms that demand the appearance of objectivity and neutrality. As a result, conflict-resolution approaches such as dialogue and mediation and common suggestions based on split-the-difference compromise favor a status quo in which the side with more power, Israel, remains dominant. In contrast, a critical psychology perspective consistent with justice-based conflict transformation understands that even-handed empathy-seeking and negotiations prioritizing procedural minutiae can achieve neither justice nor reconciliation.
As Boston activists gathered to protest the ongoing siege of Gaza after Israel’s 2010 attack on the Free Gaza flotilla’s Mava Marvara, a friend I’d met through the Radical Psychology Network (Fox 2001) asked what I’d been up to. Hearing I was writing about Israel and Palestine for a psychology journal, he asked, somewhat bemusedly, “Are you still in that psychology world?” In response I mumbled something about trying to offer a critical perspective amidst a sea of liberal complacency.
That same week, a Danish student preparing for a critical psychology orals exam that focused in part on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict emailed me half a dozen excellent questions. Fortunately — since I didn’t have good answers — I had no time to attempt a substantive response. Here are her questions:
While my friend implied that psychology, or at least mainstream psychology, has little to offer, Bramsen’s questions suggest issues worth considering, several of which I touch on here. After briefly addressing social psychology’s mainstream underpinnings, academic objectivity, and psychology’s traditional approach to conflict resolution, I take a closer look at the relevance of competing narratives to justice-based reconciliation.
Social Psychology’s “Sacred Liberal Values”
Jonathan Haidt recently claimed that “social psychologists are a ‘tribal-moral community’ united by ‘sacred values’ that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals” (Tierney 2011, p. D1). The field’s unsurprising anti-conservative tilt is worth pondering, but more relevant to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is psychology‘s marginalization of views further to the left than liberal (Fox 1993). Radical and critical perspectives are particularly important when liberals and conservatives tilt the same way, as demonstrated in the United States by bipartisan support for Israel.
My own introduction to social psychology took place in the 1960s, when liberal activism helped move experimentation from the laboratory to the streets. A course in the psychology of prejudice epitomized an apparent consensus that widespread problems had social psychological roots and thus needed social psychological solutions – not just prejudice but violence, war, inequality, and, once the 1970s began, sexism, environmental destruction, and just about everything else. As a young liberal, all this struck me as worthwhile; as a Jewish Zionist who saw anti-Semitism and dangers to Israel almost everywhere, it struck me as crucial.
Social psychology’s “crisis of confidence” (Elms 1975) passed me by completely until some years later, when the field’s concerns, which earlier had seemed so exciting and full of potential, began to look too narrow, preoccupied with statistical rather than real-world significance, aiming for incrementalism rather than transformation. As the crisis subsided, social psychology mostly resumed its liberal-reformist experimentalist path. Focusing more on individual prejudice than institutional racism, for example, most psychologists sought to understand and fix the individual and perhaps the interpersonal, not the institutional and societal. Social psychology today routinely reduces big problems to small pieces that add up to much less than the whole. Directing attention almost exclusively to individual strengths and weaknesses, while sometimes useful in specific cases, oversimplifies multidimensional causes and thus overlooks the possibility of comprehensive solutions.
Relevant to the present topic, traditional research on social psychological constructs and viewing conflict resolution as more a matter of technique and compromise than addressing power imbalances too often leave injustice in place. This appears to be the case for Moises Salinas, who insists in Planting Hatred, Sowing Pain: The Psychology of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict that “the obstacles to achieving peace are more psychological than political” (2007, p. 126). Salinas reviews research in stereotypes and prejudice (his primary specialization), hate (extremism, dehumanization, and violence), pain (trauma), and hope (reconciliation and the psychology of peace). Yet, adhering to norms emphasizing the appearance of objectivity, the book strenuously avoids the politics behind its analysis (Fox 2007). This is not unusual. Avowed or implied neutrality routinely deflects the academic gaze from much that is relevant. It also masks the potential impact of an author’s background and commitments on choices about what evidence to credit and what lessons to draw (Salinas’s About the Author page notes he is a Zionist activist). All this essentially depoliticizes conflict by removing from consideration power, history, law, and justice in favor, for example, of acknowledging both sides’ competing narratives, politely dismissing them as substantively unverifiable or irrelevant, and emphasizing instead procedural details suited to the different sides’ cultural norms and negotiating styles.
Responding to critics of his approach (Elbedour & Ferguson 2008; Fox 2007), Salinas (2009) says
[t]he question is whether depoliticizing the conflict can help move towards a solution. One of the main premises of the book is precisely that in order to solve the problem, there is no choice but to move away from the parallel, contradictory, and irreconcilable political and historical contextual narratives, and into a human paradigm with an orientation to the future. Counseling psychologists have showed that you can only resolve a conflict when you are able to move beyond the past. As long as we insist on focusing on who is to blame for the conflict, we will never be able to solve their problems. (p. 342)
Salinas may be right about
counseling when the agreed-upon goal is to maintain existing
relationships. Yet the parallel to political conflict is imperfect when
no agreement exists about desired goals and values and when the two
sides have vastly different resources and power. Depoliticized
approaches often categorize this conflict as one between two equally
victimized peoples who see things differently but want — or should want
— to kiss and make up without recrimination. In sharp contrast, others
recognize the imbalance between Israeli occupiers steadily expanding
Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory since 1967, armed and
backed by the US, and Palestinians living under an occupation that,
while changing form over time, makes ordinary life impossible (Gordon
2008). Those who prioritize Israel’s dominant position and Jewish
identity regardless of consequences are poles apart from those who look
to international law or other general standards as the only way to
resolve intractable conflicts around the globe.
Objectivity and Timidity
Mainstream academics traditionally
claim that research should be, and often is, objective and value-free.
Critical theorists, in contrast, note that even in the hard sciences
personal, professional, and political biases inevitably come into play,
from choosing theoretical models and framing research questions to
scrambling for funding and selecting methodology to analyzing findings
and recommending policy. The pose of objectivity and ethical neutrality
often masks personal preferences and institutional inertia that favor
particular interests. Focusing on “objectively” determined, narrowly
focused data rather than on value disparity and power imbalance leads
in conventional rather than system-challenging directions.
Despite academic norms, people still care. However, mandating the appearance of objectivity masks, and often dampens, the passion that drives many academics into contentious fields to begin with. Although many of us hoped enhancing knowledge would do some good, graduate school taught us that societal impact is not the main goal. In any professional field, advanced training transforms would-be do-gooders into cautious professionals who internalize the field’s substantive, social, and political limits (Schmidt 2000). It reshapes initial impulses, teaching us what is legitimate and what is not. It directs young scholars toward easily manageable research projects, often trivial variations of past work more likely to pad the curriculum vita and justify new funding requests than to advance either scientific knowledge or social justice. In the end, research too often buries relevant values and allegiances beneath a patina of substantive neutrality and emotional distance.
Ideologically convenient academic norms, thus, reinforce political timidity by favoring the status quo while marginalizing more challenging scholarship. The phrase ending so many reports – “more research needs to be done” – too often implies no question can ever be resolved because, after all, we don’t yet have enough data. Ironically, analyses replete with “on the one hand, on the other hand” qualifications bring respect and admiration. We pride ourselves on our cognitive complexity. But if years of investigation eventually lead to conclusions that favor one side, we draw accusations that we don’t understand the situation’s complexity or that we are unforgivably biased. Professional status and job demands, policy preferences of granting agencies, external political pressures and commitments, and the hope that policy makers will pay attention to our research channel us away from topics and conclusions that might shake things up. Only confusion is legitimate. Mainstream psychology’s depoliticized approach to Israel and Palestine reflects many of these influences..
British journalist Robert Fisk had this to say about his work in the Middle East:
Here's another piece of media cowardice that makes my 63-year-old teeth grind together after 34 years of eating humus and tahina in the Middle East. We are told, in many analysis features, that what we have to deal with in the Middle East are “competing narratives.” How very cozy. There's no justice, no injustice, just a couple of people who tell different history stories. “Competing narratives” now regularly pop up in the British press. The phrase, from the false language of anthropology, deletes the possibility that one group of people – in the Middle East, for example – is occupied, while another is doing the occupying. Again, no justice, no injustice, no oppression or oppressing, just some friendly “competing narratives,” a football match, if you like, a level playing field because the two sides are – are they not? – “in competition.” And two sides have to be given equal time in every story. (Fisk 2010)
Competing narratives are well-known in another relevant context: mediation, dialogue groups, and similar forms of conflict resolution and conflict management that outsiders as well as Israeli liberals frequently advocate. That Palestinians and Israelis are steeped in conflicting national myths is not at issue; such differences attract significant academic and political attention (Rotberg 2006). What is problematic, though, is responding to contradictory perceptions by directing attention to process rather than justice.
Approaching issues as a neutral can
help a newcomer, mediator, or helping professional discover how each
side frames important issues. In deep political conflicts, however,
reconciliation requires acknowledging and resolving long-standing
grievances and transforming institutions. While dialogue and
self-disclosure can generate powerful emotions and personal change,
increasing interaction and sometimes empathy and friendship, they do
not reliably enough motivate commitment to end institutional injustices
linked to favored values and group interests. Key conflict-resolution
assumptions are inappropriate when the opposing sides have unequal
power, especially when external standards such as internationally
applicable principles of law or justice overwhelmingly support the
weaker side. Neutral mediation that pretends all perceptions are not
only equally relevant but equally valid delegitimizes crucial concerns
by rendering victim and victimizer equally responsible, rewards the
more powerful side’s stubbornness, and institutionalizes existing
In 2006 I spent a day in Bet Jalah, near Bethlehem, observing Palestinian and Israeli high school teachers work on a dual-narrative history project. Directed by Sami Adwan and Dan Bar-On of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME), the teachers had produced short texts on key events; the Israeli narrative runs down the left side of each page, the Palestinians’ down the right (PRIME 2003). One thing about this difficult project struck me as curious: PRIME did not envision working toward a single narrative that both sides might someday come to accept. Integrating the conflicting perspectives, I was told, if such a task could even be accomplished, would likely make the material impossible to use in either Palestinian or Israeli schools. Bar-On and Adwan (2006) “assume it is not possible to develop such a bridging narrative in the near future, except among a few exclusive and elite groups” (p. 205).
Most Palestinians I’ve met make mutual understanding less of a priority than PRIME. After years of dialoguing, they are frustrated by activities that “normalize” relationships without resisting occupation; they object to endless political negotiations that bypass core disputes or that seem destined ¬– even designed – to resolve those disputes in Israel’s favor. Kaufman-Lacusta (2010) provides a wide range of Palestinian and Israeli reflections on this issue. Ghassan Andoni, for example, former director of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement and cofounder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), recalls spending “fourteen years of my life in dialogues with Israelis, encouraging dialogues, trying to bring about more understanding … [but] right now, we are not trying to build a Palestinian peace movement. We are trying to build Palestinian civil-based resistance” (Kaufman-Lacusta 2010, pp. 102-103). The ISM’s Huwaida Arraf traced Palestinian rejection of normalization to the period after the 1993 Oslo Accords, “where so much money from the international community was invested in ‘people to people’ programs and conflict resolution programs and dialoguing,” which she described as “Israeli feel-good programs” that “diverted energy from resistance to the occupation”:
They met a Palestinian and they talked to a Palestinian – “He understands me and I understand her” – but in the end, the occupation was just “cemented” really, because the focus was shifted from what Israel was doing on the ground to “let’s dialogue and learn to like each other.” Palestinians don’t have a problem living with Jews and Israelis, so that’s not the issue…. The issue has got to be the occupation.... (Kaufman-Lacusta 2010, p. 155)
Kaufman-Lacusta’s interviewees want peace and reconciliation, but they also want justice. Like the Palestinian academics and activists I’ve met, they have little confidence in Israelis who are eager to talk and understand but unwilling to reassess their bottom line. They are, though, eager to work with Israelis who resist the occupation. A broad array of Palestinian-organized nonviolent protests have drawn increasing numbers of Israeli Jewish activists (Kaufman-Lacusta, 2010; Rothchild, 2007). Still, caution remains. Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, points out that participating in Palestinian-led nonviolent protests is itself “fraught with ‘the danger of normalization’” when “‘good relations’ are promoted and the source of oppression is downplayed and rendered non-urgent” (Kaufman-Lacusta 2010, p. 155). Similarly, Israeli participants in PRIME’s dual-narrative history project who had more freedom of movement than their Palestinian peers were able to bring them needed travel permits, “but this was actually detrimental to the project, as it gave the representatives of the stronger, Israeli side more power” (Bar-On & Adwan 2006, p. 209). Adwan (2009) later wrote that PRIME met with resistance from Palestinians for whom “these books are just excuses for Israeli behavior, as they watch Israel continue to build settlements” (p. 145).
Organizers of a 2008 conference on
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Salinas & Abu Rabi 2009)
explicitly maintained that academic research and depoliticized conflict
resolution will lead to a stable two-state solution. In response, I
pointed out that the list of suggested relevant topics omitted
justice and law (Fox 2009). From a conflict-resolution perspective,
these omissions make sense: Including them would push the conversation
closer to the Palestinian narrative, making even-handedness more
jarring. The conference, as a result, was not designed to explore which
side’s perceptions more accurately reflect historical events,
commonsense notions of fundamental fairness, or global human rights
standards, or even whether those events, notions, and standards are
relevant, because, after all, “perception is more important than
reality” (Salinas 2007, p. 126).
Justice and Standards
It’s hard enough to agree about what’s legal; deciding what’s just is even more complicated. That’s why legal scholars traditionally maintain justice is not law’s proper goal – justice is too subjective, too culturally specific, whereas law is, or at least claims to be, more objective. That’s also why social psychologists generally study procedural rather than substantive justice. One consequence is that identifying procedures that make people feel good – whether in a courtroom or in a mediation or negotiation session – makes it easier to create the appearance of justice without actually delivering it (Fox, 1999).
One way through this morass,
admittedly imperfect, is to decide not which competing narrative is
right but which broader external standards are relevant. Whether these
include the system of international law created by nation states with
their own interests in mind or more generalized notions of fairness,
justice, and morality, resorting to wider-ranging norms makes sense
even when moving from generalities to specifics raises new
complications. Advocates of a human rights focus will continue to
debate those who seek justice-based conflict transformation, even while
some attempt to merge the two (Dudouet & Schmelzle 2010). As
Darweish (2010) noted, in both Palestine and Israel
a multi-dimensional understanding of human rights, and also of development and conflict issues, will enable human rights, conflict transformation and development organizations who are engaged in the struggle for peace and justice to develop a multi-faceted strategy ... to transform the conditions that have given rise to discrimination and oppression. (p. 92)
Whatever form it takes, justice-seeking cannot completely resolve conflicting principles or differing experiences. It cannot completely erase the passage of time. Ending injustice for past victims becomes difficult, sometimes impossible, and can create new victims, descendants of those benefitting from the past. So justice-for-everyone is not so easy. On the other hand, reconciliation requires ending institutional support for continuing injustice. Simply ending violence without acknowledging and trying to resolve grievances leaves conflict’s sources intact.
Mediators who assume, in practice if not in theory, that the best outcome to any conflict is someplace in the middle often press both sides to shift positions. This sometimes makes sense, but compromise can disproportionately disadvantage the side that has already lost too much. Israeli-Palestinian dialogue efforts often fall into this trap by giving equal weight to incompatible narratives that, I suspect, most outsiders would not consider equally justified. When supporters of Israel dismiss as biased any contradiction of Israel’s official narrative, the principled response is not to agree with either party’s self-serving ideology but to apply broader understandings from other global contexts. The common slogan “Peace with Justice” insists that any compromise must be principled and honest, not a muddle forced upon those too weak to resist. Aiming for conflict transformation rather than conflict resolution means dealing with root causes, not just papering over the past:
[C]onflict transformation, because of its explicit grounding in social justice and hence inherently normative foundation, may provide a more nuanced and fruitful conceptual space for thinking about human rights, conflict and peace than conflict resolution and conflict management. Placing constructive social change at its core, conflict transformation acknowledges the need for addressing power imbalances and recognizes a role for advocacy and the importance of voices that challenge the status quo. (Parlevliet 2010, p. 16)
Israeli Critical Psychology and the Challenge for Palestine
At Ben Gurion University in 2006, the late Dan Bar-On asked me
to talk to the faculty about critical psychology’s relevance to Israel,
whose psychologists he considered rigidly tradition-bound. Wondering
aloud what an Israeli critical psychologist might find worth exploring,
first I asked how mainstream Israeli psychology – like mainstream
psychology elsewhere – helps maintain an unsatisfactory status quo by
directly supporting it, by imagining that a “values-free” psychology is
divorced from politics, or by avoiding politically charged issues
Finally, I wondered how critical psychologists might approach both the internal conflict between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens and the national conflict between Israelis and West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. What empirical issues are worth investigating, ideological myths worth dissecting, tribal and nationalist assumptions worth challenging? Israel’s most noticeable internal confusion is the claim to be both a Jewish and a democratic state. Many Jewish Israelis resolve the contradiction by distorting or making ambiguous both relevant terms. Despite widespread agreement that Israel should always have a Jewish majority, for example, there’s no consensus about what that means legally, politically, or religiously. And despite claims to be “the only democracy in the Middle East,” Israel’s democracy is relatively shallow, grounded in majority rule more than individual and minority rights (Avishai 2002; Cook 2006). Might critical psychologists help other Israelis see things afresh, free of a gaze that converts the Jewish experience of victimhood into justification for victimizing others?
If the fundamental Israeli question is whether to be a Jewish
or a democratic state, fundamental for Palestinians is whether to
choose between justice and reconciliation, assuming either one someday
becomes possible. How much justice will Palestinians demand, how little
will they accept? Is compromise acceptable, or only a step toward a
different long-term end? Visiting Ramallah’s Birzeit University, it was
clear that Palestinian academics had little consensus. Might critical
psychologists be able to address them, focusing not on negotiation
techniques and individualistic assumptions but taking into account
power and justice?
Lykes and Coquillon (2009) note that “as critical psychologists and human rights activists, we should consider the multiple meanings of words like recovery, healing, reparation, and reconciliation. …Thus psychological language of ‘recovery,’ as commonly used, is insufficient to encompass the search for justice with truth” ( pp. 296-297). So long as academic research, political negotiation, and apolitical dialogue assume equality of perception and seek split-the-difference compromise, reconciliation will remain impossible. Successful efforts must acknowledge the imbalance of power and suffering as well as the historical and continuing responsibility for injustice. Mainstream psychology is ill equipped for such a task, because its professional horizons and ideological blinders dismiss such concerns as irrelevant. Critical psychologists aiming to advance justice, in contrast, insist that power cannot be ignored. Adopting approaches consistent with conflict transformation rather than narrower conflict resolution or management, we should facilitate processes that require accepting responsibility, making amends, and changing institutions. Only such an approach can lead to justice and encourage the flexibility we hope will arise on both sides once past wrongs have been acknowledged and remedied.
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