Do Israelis and Palestinians Inhabit the Same World?
Israelis and Palestinians love their families, communities, and culture. The vast majority want the killing and destruction to stop
In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, science writer Ed Yong describes how every mammal, fish, insect – all life forms on Earth – is “enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world.” That sensory bubble is the creature’s Umwelt, the “part of those surroundings that an animal can sense and experience – its perceptual world.” Two creatures can be “standing in the same physical space,” and yet, “have completely different Umwelten.”
This raises a fundamentally important question: Do all humans share the same Umwelt? Or can we become incapable of shared experience?
An animal’s perceptual world is determined by the specifics of its senses. For example, a shark uses smell to locate its prey over miles of ocean, sight once the prey is within its field of vision, a sensory organ known as a lateral line to detect movement, and electrical pulses at the very end to guide its attack. Birds can see ultraviolet markings on one another’s feathers that humans cannot, so male and female birds that look identical to us look very different to them. Bats “see” the world through echolocation, while some fish use “electrolocation.”
A dog maps its surroundings primarily by smell. It uses sight and hearing as secondary senses, but sees only shades of yellow-green and blue-violet. A human standing right beside that dog will smell very little, while seeing the same surroundings in shades of red, green, and blue. Crucially, the dog and human are not merely seeing the same thing in different ways, as when two humans disagree on whether something is greyish-green or greenish-grey. Rather, things that are central to one’s experience are not part of the other’s world at all.
As for humans, most of us are born with the same basic senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Of course, some have more acute vision or duller hearing than others. Some prefer sweeter or saltier flavors, or are more or less sensitive to certain sensations. Each of us experiences the “world” beyond and around our bodies – and, indeed, within our bodies – differently.
Nonetheless, we generally understand these to be differences of degree. Our broadly similar sensory capabilities mean that the sensory experiences of other humans are rarely beyond our ability to imagine.
Let us suppose, however, that our geographies, cultures, lived experiences, news environments, and family histories could differ so much in degree that they become differences in kind, such that our sensory bubbles become impossible for another group of humans to perceive. Might it be possible that, over time or as a result of a specific crisis, these differing perceptions of the same world can harden into distinct Umwelten? If so, it may well provide valuable insights into seemingly intractable disagreements, beginning with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Plenty of Israelis and Palestinians view one another, first and foremost, as fellow humans, adapting to their particular circumstances in understandable ways. Deep personal and social connections have been built on the qualities and experiences the two sides do share, especially pain and loss. Groups like Women Wage Peace, Standing Together, and Whispered in Gaza challenge the stereotypes of undying enmity.
But millions of Israelis and Palestinians may well be operating within different Umwelten. Many Israelis can sense only threat, their awareness shaped by centuries of trauma, persecution, and genocide. And many Palestinians can sense only oppression, occupation, and expulsion; the area surrounding Gaza and the West Bank registers as a large, lurking predator that blots out the perception of anything else.
Diplomatic approaches to conflict resolution tend to focus on trying to persuade each side to see things from the other’s point of view, at least a little. The language here is telling. Both sides are assumed not only to possess the same senses but also similar versions of them. So, they are expected to be capable of shared perceptions, if only they try hard enough.
But if the parties have different Umwelten – if they inhabit different sensory worlds that cannot be bridged – a different diplomatic strategy is needed, perhaps one that focuses on persuading each side to recognize the gulf between them. “Your view of the world is correct for you,” they might tell each other, “and my view of the world is correct for me. Just as you are other to us, we are other to you. We cannot understand what you see or feel; the best we can do is to recognize that you cannot understand us any more than we can understand you.”
This might seem like a bleak conclusion, for it rejects the universality of our common humanity. But accepting that another group can’t see things from our perspective – not because they don’t want to, but because of a kind of sociobiological lacuna – turns the emotional heat down. “Coming together” is impossible, at least for now, as is compelling the other to share our understanding of reality. But perhaps accepting our profound and unbridgeable differences regarding the past and the present can make it possible to find common ground for the future.
Israelis and Palestinians love their families, communities, and culture. The vast majority want the killing and destruction to stop. They want perpetrators of atrocities and war criminals to be held accountable. They want lives of peace, freedom, and prosperity. These goals they share, for their own side.
To achieve them, both sides can say, “We will accept your account of your world, as you must accept ours. We will build a cold peace. We will mourn our dead separately. We will rebuild separately. And with enough outside help, we will create institutions and cultures to enable our young children and grandchildren to regain the senses we have lost.”
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