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A Sense of Self-Perceived Collective Victimhood in Intractable Conflicts

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A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood emerges as a major theme in the ethos of conflict of societies involved in intractable conflict and is a fundamental part of the collective memory of the conflict. This sense is defined as a mindset shared by group members that results from a perceived intentional harm with severe consequences, inflicted on the collective by another group. This harm is viewed as undeserved, unjust and immoral, and one that the group could not prevent. The article analyses the nature of the self-perceived collective sense of victimhood in the conflict, its antecedents, the functions that it fulfils for the society and the consequences that result from this view.
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A sense of self-
perceived collective
victimhood in
intractable conflicts*
Daniel Bar-Tal, Lily Chernyak-Hai, Noa Schori and
Ayelet Gundar
Daniel Bar-Talis a political psychologist. He is the Branco Weiss Professor of
Research in Child Development and Education a t Tel-Aviv University’s School of
Education. Lily Chernyak-Hai, Noa Schori and Ayelet Gundar are studying
social psychology a t the Depar tment of Psychology,Tel-Aviv University.
Chernyak-Hai and Schori are PhD candidates, while Gundar is reading for an MA.
Abstract
A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood emerges as a major theme in the ethos of
conflict of societies involved in intractable conflict and is a fundamental part of the
collective memory of the conflict. This sense is defined as a mindset shared by group
members that results from a perceived intentional harm with severe consequences,
inflicted on the collective by another group. This harm is viewed as undeserved, unjust
and immoral, and one that the group could not prevent. The article analyses the
nature of the self-perceived collective sense of victimhood in the conflict, its
antecedents, the functions that it fulfils for the society and the consequences that
result from this view.
It is probably universal that in every serious, harsh and violent intergroup conflict,
at least one side – and very often both sides – believe that they are the victim in that
Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
* The authors would like to thank Johanna Vollhardt, Sabina C
ˇehajic
´-Clancy, Dinka Corkalo Biruski,
Yechiel Klar and Dario Spini for their helpful comments on the earlier draft of the present paper.
Correspondence regarding this manuscript should be sent to Daniel Bar-Tal, School of Education,
Tel-Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69778, Israel, email: daniel@post.tau.ac.il
doi:10.1017/S1816383109990221 229
conflict. In intractable intergroup conflicts, this theme is well-developed.
1
It con-
stitutes an inseparable part of the shared narrative among society members as
constructed in their collective memory of the conflict and ethos of conflict,
2
and
denotes that the rival group continuously inflicted unjust and immoral harm upon
them throughout the conflict. The prevalence of this theme is not surprising in
view of the fact that societies involved in intractable conflict believe that their goals
in conflict are well-justified, perceive their own group in a very positive light, and
delegitimize the rival.
Within this framework, it is just very natural that society members believe
that they are the victims of the rival in the conflict. This collective sense of victim-
hood has important effects on the way these societies manage the course of the
conflict, approach the peace process and eventually reconcile. In many cases it
serves as a factor that feeds continuation of the conflict and as an inhibitor of
peacemaking. Thus it is important to clarify the nature of the sense of collective
victimhood, its antecedents, functions and consequences. This is the objective of
the present paper.
In order to advance understanding of the phenomenon of the sense of
collective victimhood, we will also draw on contributions made in the study of
victimhood at the individual level. This line of research is developing in the social
sciences. It is especially marked in criminology and psychology, where the sub-
discipline of victimology has emerged, which studies victims’ relations with their
offenders, their behaviour, and the reactions of society (including those of various
institutions) towards them.
3
In contrast, very little has been written in terms of a
comprehensive study of the collective sense of victimhood in the context of in-
tractable conflict. This omission is strange, considering that a number of scholars
have recognized the importance of the sense of collective victimhood in under-
standing the behaviour of society members, their relationship with the rival and
with the international community at large.
4
1 Intractable conflicts, in which the parties involved invest substantial material and non-material resources
and which last at least 25 years, are characterized as being total, protracted, violent, central, and per-
ceived as being unsolvable and of zero-sum nature. See D. Bar-Tal, ‘Sociopsychological foundations of
intractable conflicts’, American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 50, 2007, pp. 1430–1453-a.
2 We recognize that in almost every intergroup conflict at least one side experiences a sense of collective
victimhood and that in many of them both sides have this sense. The present paper focuses on intractable
conflicts, in which both sides always experience a sense of collective victimhood.
3 A. Karmen, Crime Victims: An Introduction to Victimology (2nd edn), Wadsworth: Belmont, CA, 1990;
N. Ronel, K. Jaishankar and M. Bensimon, M. (eds), 2009, Trends and Issues in Victimology. Cambridge
Scholars Publishing: Newcastle upon Tyne, UK; O. Zur, ‘The psychology of victimhood’, in R.H. Wright
and N.A. Cummings (eds), Destructive Trends in Mental Health, Routledge: New York, 2005, pp. 45–64.
4 D. Corkalo Biruski and S. Penic (in preparation), ‘Facing trauma, facing the enemy: War trauma, group
identity, collective guilt and outgroup attitudes’, in D. Spini, D. Corkalo Biruski, G. Elcheroth and M.
Vasovic (eds), Facing Massive Violence and Social Change: Collective Experiences in the Former Yugoslavia;
J.D. Frank, Sanity and Survival: Psychological Aspects of War and Peace, Vintage: New York, 1967;
H.C. Kelman, ‘Social-psychological dimensions of international conflict’, in I.W. Zartman (ed),
Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques (revised edition), United States Institute
of Peace Press: Washington, DC, 2007, pp. 61–107; J. Mack, ‘The Enemy System’, 1990, in V. Volkan, J.
Demtrios and J. Montville (eds), The Psychodynamics of International Relationships, Vol. I: Concepts and
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D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
Sense of victimhood: individual approach
There are many kinds of situations that can bring a person as an individual or as a
member of a collective to have a sense of being a victim. It seems that victimhood
describes some lasting psychological state of mind that involves beliefs, attitudes,
emotions and behavioural tendencies. This results on the one hand from direct or
indirect experience of victimization, and on the other hand from its maintenance
in the personal repertoire. In other words, it is a state where the experienced harm
and the long-standing consequences ‘become elements in the victim’s personality’.
5
Experience
From the individual perspective, some researchers define victimization by focusing
on the experienced events. For example, Aquino and Byron refer to ‘the individ-
ual’s self-perception of having been the target, either momentarily or over time, to
harmful actions emanating from one or more other persons. In the most general
sense, a victim is anyone who experiences injury, loss, or misfortune as a result
of some event or series of events’.
6
Other scholars have emphasized elements in
victims’ psychology that emerges as a result of the harmful event.
7
They point to the
observed feeling of helplessness and self-pity, self-inefficacy, low self-esteem,
hopelessness, guilt, loss of trust, meaning and privacy, an absent sense of ac-
countability, a tendency to blame, and a stable external locus of control (in this
case, the belief is that the incident was beyond a person’s control and choice, and is
consistent with ‘out-of-control’ feelings).
8
Finally, of special interest is the finding
indicating that repeated experiences of victimization can trigger a pattern of
requital behaviours of retribution and cycles of violence.
9
Theories, pp. 83–95, Lexington, MA; V. Volkan, Blood Lines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism.
Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 1997.
5 J. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, Basic Books: New York, 1992.
6 K. Aquino and K. Byron, ‘Dominating interpersonal behavior and perceived victimization in groups:
Evidence for a curvilinear relationship’, Journal of Management, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2002, p. 71.
7 M. Bard and D. Sangrey, The Crime Victims’ Book (2nd edn). Brunner/Mazel Publishers: New York,
1986; see also O. Zur, above note 3.
8 In addition, it was found that personal victimization manifests itself in post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD), symptoms of depression or substance abuse (P.A. Resick, ‘The psychological impact of rape’,
Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 8, 1993, pp. 223–255; J. Wolfe and R. Kimerling, Gender issues in
the assessment of post-traumatic stress disorder, in J.P. Wilson and T.M. Keane (eds), Assessing psycho-
logical trauma and PTSD, Guilford: New York, 1997, pp. 192–238), of fear and anxiety (S.E. Taylor,
J.V. Wood and R.R. Lichtman, ‘It could be worse: Selective evaluation as a response to victimization’,
Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 39, 1983, pp. 19–40) and of physical health problems (J.M. Golding, ‘Sexual
assault history and physical health in randomly selected Los Angeles women’, Health Psychology, 13,
1994, pp. 130–138; H.S. Resnick, R.E. Acierno and D. Kilpatrick, ‘Health impact of interpersonal
violence 1: Prevalence rates, case identification, and risk factors for sexual assault, physical assault, and
domestic violence in men and women’. Behavioral Medicine, Vol. 23, 1997, pp. 65–78).
9 R.J. Bies, T.M. Tripp and R.M. Kramer, ‘At the breaking point: Cognitive and social dynamics of revenge
in organizations’, in R. Giacalone and J. Greenberg (eds), Antisocial Behavior in Organizations, Sage:
Thousand Oaks, CA, 1997, pp. 18–36; D.P. Skarlicki and R. Folger, ‘Retaliation in the workplace: The
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Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
Conditions for victimhood
Another approach taken delineates a series of necessary conditions for the emerg-
ence of a sense of victimhood. It suggests that individuals define themselves as a
victim if they believe that: (1) they were harmed; (2) they were not responsible for
the occurrence of the harmful act; (3) they could not prevent the harm; (4) they are
morally right and suffering from injustice done to them; and (5) they deserve
sympathy.
10
The latter condition adds crucial aspects to the definition. It points out
that mere experience of the harmful event is not enough for the emergence of the
sense of being a victim. In order to have this sense there is the need to perceive
the harm as undeserved, unjust and immoral, an act that could not be prevented
by the victim. The need to get empathy then emerges.
Further analysis
In addition to the different specific definitions, diverse elaborations of the analysis
of victimization have also appeared. For example, it has been proposed that the
idea of victimization assumes that certain individual or collective rights were
violated: either concrete rights such as the right to shelter and food, or more
abstract rights such as the right to happiness, living space, self-determination and
free expression of identity. This distinction leads to another differentiation which
suggests that some victims experience a tangible violation of rights (territory,
property, physical injury, murder), whereas other victims are affected by intangible
experiences such as identity damage, other psychological trauma, loss of security
and even loss of the ‘old’ self.
11
Therefore victimization is not only an objective
occurrence, but is also based on a subjective experience, as some people can define
themselves as ‘victims’ in circumstances that many others would regard as part of
their everyday life.
12
In addition, it should be noted that individuals may experience the harm
either directly or indirectly. That is, they can suffer psychological or physical
harm by themselves, or be related to other victimized individuals and therefore
feel indirect victimization.
13
Accordingly, there is an assumption that the most
practical approach to understanding the sense of being a victim is to focus on
the individual’s perception of his/her unpleasant experience.
14
It can be said that
roles of distributive, procedural, and interactional justice’, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 82, 1997,
pp. 434–443.
10 C.J. Sykes, A nation of victims: The decay of the American character, St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1992.
11 A. Confino, ‘Remembering the Second World War, 1945–1965: Narratives of victimhood and genocide’.
Cultural Analysis, Vol. 4, 2005, pp. 46–75.
12 S. Garkawe, ‘Revisiting the scope of victimology – How broad a discipline should it be?’ International
Review of Victimology, 11, 2004, pp. 275–294.
13 D. Bloomfield, T. Barnes and L. Huyse (eds), Reconciliation after violent conflict:A handbook,
International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Stockholm, 2003; R. Strobl,
‘Constructing the victim: Theoretical reflections and empirical examples’, International Review of
Victimology, Vol. 11, 2004, pp. 295–311.
14 See K. Aquino and K. Byron, above note 6.
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D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
victimhood is a psychological state of an individual who perceives himself/herself
as a victim and feels like a victim,
15
or is holding ‘victim beliefs’.
16
However, the question that should be raised is whether the sense of vic-
timhood is based on self-perception only. A number of scholars add another per-
spective to the analysis: the view of the social milieu. There is a ‘social construction’
of the sense of victimhood that defines the characteristics of ‘victim’, assigns them
to the victims and their social environment and legitimizes the label.
17
Once this
legitimization takes place, individuals often make efforts to maintain that sense
over time. In this vein, it is worth noting that reference to victimhood as a social
construction allows cultural variation in the definition of the victim, according
to different socio-political contexts
18
: ‘Victimization happens within a context of
relationship and a certain environment or culture. Hence, each participant’s be-
havior must be understood within the framework of the relationship and its legal,
economical, political, and social context’.
19
Foundations
Hence the sense of victimhood has three foundations. First, it is rooted in a realiz-
ation of harm experienced either directly or indirectly.
20
Second, mere personal
perception is not enough. ‘Victim’ is also a social label – in other words, a result of
social recognition of an act as illegitimate harm. Third, once individuals perceive
themselves as victims, they often attempt to maintain this status.
Sequential stages: the process of victimization
It is thus possible to see victimization as a dynamic social process divided into
several sequential stages that result in giving a certain individual or a group the
status of victim.
21
For example, according to the symbolic interaction approach,
individuals and collectives come to be known as victims through the social process.
This process requires an experience of a harmful act and then of suffering, removal
of self-responsibility for the suffering, ascription of causes for the harmful act and
specification of expected responses and behaviours. Viano
22
suggested four comp-
lementary stages in a process of victimization:
1.individuals experience harm, injury or suffering caused by another person or
persons or by institutions;
15 J.E. Bayley, The concept of victimhood, in D. Sank and D.I. Caplan (eds), To be a victim: Encounters with
crime and justice, Insight Books: New York, 1991, pp. 53–67.
16 See C.J. Sykes, above note 10.
17 J.A. Holstein and G. Miller, Rethinking victimization: An interactional approach to victimology,
Symbolic Interaction, 13, 1990, pp. 103–122.
18 See J.E. Bayley, above note 15; D. Bloomfield, T. Barnes and L. Huyse, above note 13.
19 See O. Zur, above note 3.
20 See D. Bloomfield, T. Barnes and L. Huyse, above note 13; R. Strobl, above note 13.
21 M.M. Lanier and S. Henry, Essential Criminology, Westview Press: Boulder, CO, 1998.
22 E.C. Viano, ‘Victimology today: Major issues in research and public policy’, in E.C. Viano (ed), Crime
and its victims: International research and public policy issues, Hemisphere: New York, 1989, pp. 3–14.
233
Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
2.some of them perceive this harm as undeserved, unfair and unjust, leading
them to view themselves as a victim;
3.some of those who perceive themselves as a victim attempt to gain social
validation by persuading others (family, friends, authorities, etc.) to recognize
that the harm occurred and that they are victims;
4.some of those who assert that they have been victimized receive external vali-
dation of their claim, thus becoming ‘official’ victims (as a result they may
receive social or institutional support and compensation).
Similarly, Strobl
23
proposed five minimum criteria as necessary to qualify
for the status of victim:
1.identifiable single event of harm;
2.its negative evaluation;
3.its being viewed as an uncontrollable event;
4.its attribution to a personal or social offender; and
5.its consideration as violating a socially shared norm.
On the basis of the above clarifications of the victim’s definition, status
and conception, we would now like to turn to analysis of the collective sense of
victimhood, which is our focal interest.
Collective sense of victimhood
Collective basis
The basic premise of this article is that just as individuals experience a sense of
victimhood because of personal experiences, collectives such as ethnic groups may
also experience this sense. It may result from events that harm the members of
the collective because of their membership, even if not all the group members
experience the harm directly.
24
Groups can suffer from collective victimization
which, similarly to individual victimization, is not based only on an objective
experience but also on the social construction of it. It means that at the collective
level of victimization, members of a collective hold shared beliefs about ingroup
victimization, i.e. of the social group to which they belong. Sharing these beliefs
reflects a sense of collective victimhood. In this case the inflicted harm has to be
perceived as intentionally directed towards the group, or towards the group
members because of their membership in that group.
Group members experience this sense on the basis of their identification
with the group. An act carried out with the intention to harm either the group as
23 See Strobl, above note 13.
24 In this conception we focus only on a sense of self-perceived collective victimhood that results from
behaviour of another group or groups.
234
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
a whole or some of its members also affects the thinking and feeling of other group
members who were not directly harmed.
25
They perceive this harm as directed
towards them because of their identification with the causes of the group and their
concerns about its well-being.
26
A social psychological theory of self-categorization, proposed by Turner
and his colleagues
27
is especially relevant in discussing the relationship between
group members, social identity and the sharing of beliefs within a group. Sharing
beliefs is one of the basic elements for group formation and the expression of
common social identity, since beliefs with particular contents prototypically define
a group. Individuals, defining themselves as group members, acquire these beliefs
through the process of depersonalization as part of their formation of social
identity. They subsequently continue to adopt various beliefs, attitudes and emo-
tions on the basis of experiences of their group.
28
In this vein there are, for example,
clear indications that group members experience a vicarious empathy when they
witness or are informed about distress and suffering experienced by compatriots.
29
This is an important psychological mechanism that underlies the development of a
collective sense of victimhood among group members who do not experience harm
directly. A large-scale study conducted by Cairns, Mallet, Lewis and Wilson
30
re-
veals that a great majority of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, despite
not being directly harmed, labelled themselves as victims in the conflict because
their fellow group members were hurt.
Thus the sense of self-perceived collective victimhood is based on and
reflected in the sharing of societal beliefs,
31
attitudes and emotions. These provide
one of the foundations for a societal system. Shared societal beliefs, such as beliefs
about victimhood, serve as a basis for construction of a common reality, culture,
identity, communication, unity, solidarity, goal-setting, co-ordinated activities,
and so on.
32
Moreover, societies may choose to internalize past harms and to
25 M.J.A. Wohl and N. Branscombe, ‘Collective guilt for current ingroup transgressions’, Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 94, No. 6, 2008, pp. 988–1006.
26 O. David and D. Bar-Tal, Collective identity and nations: A Socio-psychological conception, 2008, manu-
script submitted.
27 J.C. Turner, ‘Some current issues in research on social identity and self-categorization theories’, in N.
Ellemers, R. Spears and B. Dosje (eds), Social Identity: Context, Commitment, Content. Blackwell: Oxford,
1999, pp. 6–34; J.C. Turner, M.A. Hogg, P.J. Oakes, S.D. Reicher and M. Wetherell, Rediscovering the
Social Group: A Self-Categorizing Theory. Blackwell: Oxford, 1987.
28 D. Bar-Tal, Shared Beliefs in a Society: Social Psychological Analysis, Sage: Thousands Oaks, CA, 2000;
D.M. Mackie, T. Devos and E.R. Smith, From Prejudice to Intergroup Emotions: Differentiated Reactions to
Social Groups, Psychology Press: New York, 2002.
29 M.H. Davis, Empathy: A social psychological approach, Hawthorne: New York, 1994.
30 E. Cairns, J. Mallet, C. Lewis and R. Wilson, Who are the victims? Self-assessed victimhood and the
Northern Irish conflict, NIO Research and Statistical Series, Report No. 7, Northern Ireland Statistics and
Research Agency, Belfast, 2003.
31 Societal beliefs are defined as shared cognitions by the society members that address themes and issues
with which the society members are particularly preoccupied, and which contribute to their sense of
uniqueness, see D. Bar-Tal, above note 28.
32 J.W.D. Dougherty (ed), Directions in Cognitive Anthropology, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985;
K. Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, Harcourt, Brace and Company: NY, 1952; R.K. Merton, Social
Theory and Social Structure, Free Press: NY, 1957; T. Parsons, The Social System, Glencoe, IL, The Free
235
Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
‘transform them into powerful cultural narratives which become an integral part of
the social identity’.
33
Finally, the collective sense of victimhood becomes a prism
through which the society processes information and makes decisions.
Past foundations
An imperative aspect of the collective sense of victimhood is that a collective may
experience this sense in the present as a result of harm done even in the distant
past, as noted by Staub and Bar-Tal: ‘Groups encode important experiences,
especially extensive suffering, in their collective memory, which can maintain a
sense of woundedness and past injustice through generations’.
34
This encoding
fulfils various functions, just as Liu and Liu
35
believe that cultures shape their
collective memories
36
according to a ‘historical affordance’. This means that they
preserve those narratives that can be functional in the life of the collective. Indeed,
collective memory is entrenched in the particular socio-political-cultural context
that imprints its meaning. Connerton pointed out that ‘our experience of the
present very largely depends upon our knowledge of the past. We experience our
present world in the context which is causally connected with the past event and
objects’.
37
The lasting preoccupation with these memories, even after their effects have
ceased, can be explained by the functions that the collective of sense of victimhood
Press, 1951; R.A. Shweder and R.A. LeVine (eds), Culture Theory, Cambridge University Press:
Cambridge, 1984.
33 A. Robben and M. Suarez-Orozco, Cultures under siege: Collective violence and trauma, Cambridge
University Press: Cambridge, 2000, p. 23.
34 E. Staub and D. Bar-Tal, ‘Genocide, mass killing, and intractable conflict: Roots, evolution, prevention,
and reconciliation’, in D.O. Sears, L. Huddy and R. Jervis (eds), Handbook of Political Psychology, 2003,
Oxford University Press, New York, p. 722.
35 J.H. Liu and S.H. Liu, ‘The role of the social psychologist in the benevolent authority and plurality of
powers systems of historical affordance for authority’, in K.S. Yang, K.K. Hwang, P.B. Pedersen and
I. Daibo (eds), Progress in Asian social psychology: Conceptual and empirical contributions, Praeger:
Westport, CT, 2003, pp. 43–46.
36 Collective memory is defined as representations of the past which are remembered by society members as
the history of the group (see W. Kansteiner, ‘Finding meaning in memory: A methodological critique of
collective memory studies’, History and Theory, Vol. 41, 2002, pp. 179–197). Collective memory contains
the narratives, the symbols, the models, the myths, and the events that mould the culture of the group. It
does not intend to provide an objective history of the past, but tells about the past that is functional and
relevant to the society’s present existence and future aspirations. Thus it creates a socially constructed
narrative that has some basis in actual events, but is biased, selective and distorted in ways that meet
societal present needs (see E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge
University Press: Cambridge, 1983; J.H. Liu and D.J. Hilton, ‘How the past weighs on the present: Social
representations of history and their role in identity politics’, British Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 44,
No. 4, 2005, pp. 537–556; B. Southgate, What is History For? New York, Rutledge, 2005). Moreover,
Corkalo et al talk about the ‘ethnization of memory’, where ‘memory itself and interpretation of the past
become ethnically exclusive, creating subjective, psychological realities and different symbolic meanings
of common events in people who belong to different ethnic groups’. D. Corkalo, D. Ajdukovic,
H. Weinstein, E. Stover, D. Djipa and M. Biro, ‘Neighbors again? Inter-Community relations after ethnic
violence’, in E. Stover and H. Weinstein (eds), My neighbor, my enemy: Justice and community in the
aftermath of mass atrocity, 2004, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, pp. 143–161.
37 P. Connerton, How Societies Remember, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1989, p. 2.
236
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
fulfils. Despite obvious discussed consequences of being a victim, a victim’s position
is also often a powerful one because it is viewed as morally superior, entitled to
sympathy and consideration and protected from criticism.
38
As a result, a collective
may cultivate the image of being a victim and embed it in their culture.
Groups maintain a sense of collective victimhood as a result of various
traumatic experiences such as past colonial occupation, extensive harm done to
them, inflicted wars or prolonged exploitation and discrimination, or of geno-
cide many of them within the framework of vicious and violent conflicts. For
example, Serbs maintain a sense of collective victimhood because of their past
experiences of violence. This sense is well expressed in a declaration issued in April
1997 by a prominent group of Serbian bishops, intellectuals and artists:
The history of Serbian lands … is full of instances of genocide against Serbs
and of exoduses to which they were exposed. Processes of annihilation of
Serbs in the most diverse and brutal ways have been continuous … yet they
have always been self-defenders of their own existence, spirituality, culture,
and democratic convictions.
39
Similarly, Poles suffered under the yoke of imperial domination by
Prussia, Russia and Austria through the centuries and therefore ‘a romantic myth
emerged that ascribed to the Polish nation a messianic role as the “Christ of
nations”’, or ‘the new Golgotha’.
40
Through its suffering Poland, the blameless
victim, atones for the sins of other nations and thereby incurs their debt. The self-
image of Poland as the innocent victim of aggression by powerful neighbours has
endured throughout the centuries to this day and has an effect on the relationship
with Germany and Russia.
In this vein, Volkan
41
argues that groups may adhere to a particular ex-
perience of collective violence and loss that survivors are unable to mourn, and
hold it in their collective memory. He suggested that ‘if historical circumstances do
not allow a new generation to reverse feelings of past powerlessness, the mental
representation of the shared calamity still bonds members of the group together.
But instead of raising a group’s self esteem, the mental image of the event links
people through a continuing sense of powerlessness, as though members of the
group existed under a large tent of victim hood’. This experience is considered as
a ‘chosen trauma’ and leads to the collective focus on the group’s past experiences
of victimization, to the point when the entire identity of the group’s members
may centre on it.
42
It is maintained in the culture and transmitted to the new
generations. Examples of such ‘chosen traumas’ are the defeat of the Serbs by the
Turks in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the 1937 massacre of Chinese in Nanking,
38 M. Kanan, ‘On victim and victimhood: The Iraqi case’, Current History, Vol. 98, 1999, pp. 96–106.
39 Anzulovic, Heavenly Serbia: From myth to genocide, Hurst: London, 1999, p. 124.
40 A. Jasin
´ska-Kania, ‘Bloody revenge in “God’s Playground”: Poles’ collective memory of relations with
Germans, Russians, and Jews’, International Journal of Sociology, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2007, p. 33.
41 See V. Volkan, above note 4, p. 47.
42 See V. Volkan, above note 4; H. Krystal, Massive Psychic Trauma, International Universities Press:
New York, 1968.
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Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
the Holocaust in World War II, and the Palestinian Nakba (disaster) or exodus of
the Palestinians in the 1948 war. Each of these events has great societal significance,
is kept in mind, commemorated and used for various purposes in many different
ways to provide an important lesson for the respective society, and is sometimes
even used to justify violence against other groups.
It can be assumed that groups who focus in their collective memory on
being a victim and view themselves as such are prone to view themselves also
as victims in new situations in which they are harmed. These societies are very
sensitive to particular cues and conditions and readily tend to use their inherent
schema of victimhood to apply to the new situation. An example of this are Serbs
who viewed themselves as victims in the wars that broke out in the former
Yugoslavia in the 1990s, partly because of their collective memory of the Battle of
Kosovo that took place some 600 years earlier, but also the traumatic events during
World War II when hundreds of thousands of Serbs were massacred and others
sent to concentration camps.
43
A traumatic re-enactment and exploitation of old
fears and hatreds, as well as the emphasis placed on the victimization of Serbs in the
past,
44
may have added to the nationalism that sparked the wars, horrendous acts of
revenge, mass killings and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.
45
The psychological nature of collective victimhood
We would like to define a sense of self-perceived collective victimhood as a mindset
shared by group members that results from a perceived intentional harm with
severe and lasting consequences inflicted on a collective by another group or
groups, a harm that is viewed as undeserved, unjust and immoral, and one that the
group was not able to prevent.
46
This mindset emerges as a result of cognitive
construction of the situation in which such harm is inflicted. The perceived harm
can be done in the present or fairly recent past, or well remembered in the collec-
tive memory as harm done in the distant past. It can be real or partly imagined,
but usually is based on experienced events. It can be large-scale, as a result of a
one-time event (such as the loss of a battle or war, genocide or ethnic cleansing)
or of long-term harmful treatment of the group such as slavery, exploitation,
discrimination or occupation.
43 See B. Anzulovic, above note 39.
44 J. Leatherman, W. DeMars, P.D. Gaffney and R. Vayrynen, Breaking cycles of violence: Conflict prevention
in intrastate cries, Kumarian Press: West Hartford, CT, 1999; G. Ross, The trauma vortex in action again
in the Middle East, 2001, available at http://www.traumainstitute.org/articles.php (last viewed on
24 April 2009).
45 E. Staub, ‘Reconciliation after genocide, mass killing and intractable conflict: Understanding the roots of
violence, psychological recovery, and steps toward a general theory’, Political Psychology, Vol. 27, No. 6,
2006, pp. 867–894.
46 We do not claim that this mindset has to be shared by all the group members. We assume that at the
height of an intractable conflict it is shared by the great majority of group members, but over time, when
the peace process begins and continues, the sharing may be significantly diminished.
238
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
Symptoms of victimhood
When a collective develops a sense of victimhood, it consists of beliefs, attitudes,
emotions and behavioural tendencies. The beliefs first of all focus on various
types of harms such as losses, destructions, suffering, oppressions, humiliations
or atrocities viewed as uncontrolled and unavoidable, which are inflicted on the
ingroup by another group. They stress that the harm is undeserved and unjust; it is
viewed as immoral because in the eyes of the group members it violates basic moral
norms and codes that govern human behaviour. The beliefs ascribe the responsi-
bility for the harm to the other group. They centre on the tribulations of the
ingroup and its members; pertain to the duration and continuity of the harmful
experiences, the circumstances surrounding them and the resulting severe conse-
quences; and highlight the status of being a victim, the obligations of the per-
petrator and those of the international community. The latter beliefs focus on the
deservingness of apology, compensation or punishment of the perpetrator, and the
entitlement to empathy, support and help from the international community.
The attitudes express negative feelings towards the perpetrator and to-
wards those who do not recognize the group’s status as being the victim, while
positive feelings are expressed towards all those groups who empathize with, sup-
port and help the group. Emotionally, the sense of victimhood is usually associated
with anger, fear and self-pity. Finally, this sense leads to various behavioural in-
tentions such as the desire to prevent future harm and to avenge the harm already
done. The described beliefs, attitudes, emotions and behavioural tendencies may
become a very dominant part of the repertoire held by a collective, assimilated into
its collective memory, where it is maintained, elaborated and activated frequently.
It can then be labelled as a syndrome of victimhood.
Process of collective victimization
We accept the view that, as in the individual case, the collective sense of victimhood
develops progressively. An act or acts carried out by another group are only the
first phase in its development. Eventually those patterns of behaviour have to
be assessed as being harmful. The assessment can be made immediately, following
a particular event (for example an attack such as that on 1 September 1939,
when Poland was invaded by Germany), or through a longer process of self-
enlightenment as sometimes occurs in a situation of collective discrimination,
oppression, maltreatment and exploitation. Again, the assessment of the harm
must be accompanied by an evaluation of the act as unjust, undeserved, unavoid-
able and uncontrolled by the collective. On the basis of these findings, a collective
labels itself a victim and attempts to impart this label and the rationale of this status
to members of the collective. Once the collective views itself as a victim, it makes an
active effort to persuade other groups and the whole international community that
it has this status.
However, in contrast to the individual case, where there is need for ac-
knowledgment by the social environment, the recognition of the international
239
Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
community is not a necessary condition for the emergence and solidification of the
collective sense of victimhood. A collective may continue to view itself as a victim
despite the fact that the international community does not recognize its victim-
hood and sometimes even considers this same group as a perpetrator. One example
is Iran, which perceives itself as a victim although the international community
views that country very differently. Iran’s President Ahmadinejad recently said:
‘We’ve been victims of terrorism …’,
47
whereas many nations view Iran as a per-
petrator that develops mass destruction weapons and exports terror.
Sense of victimhood in intractable conflicts
The sense of collective victimhood emerges as a major theme in the ethos of con-
flict
48
of societies involved in intractable conflict and is a fundamental part of the
collective memory thereof. The ethos and collective memory of conflict are part of
the socio-psychological infrastructure and provide the contents for a culture of
conflict that evolves to meet the challenges of the conflict.
49
The shared societal
beliefs of ethos and collective memory portray the own group as the victim of the
opponent. The focus of these beliefs is on the unjust harm, evil deeds and atrocities
perpetrated by the adversary. This view is formed over a long period of violence as
a result of the society’s sufferings and losses.
50
The more and the longer the society
experiences harm (especially human losses) in conflict, and the more intensive and
extensive is the view that the harm is undeserved and unjust, the more prevalent
and entrenched is the collective sense of being the victim.
47 Sewell Chan, ‘Iranian Leader, Calling Introductory Remarks Insulting, Addresses Columbia’, New York
Times, 25 September 2007.
48 Ethos of conflict, defined as the configuration of central societal beliefs that provide a particular dominant
orientation to a society experiencing prolonged intractable conflict (see D. Bar-Tal, above note 28). It has
been proposed that in the context of intractable conflict, such an ethos evolves with eight themes (see D.
Bar-Tal, Societal beliefs in times of intractable conflict: The Israeli case, International Journal of Conflict
Management, 9, 1998, pp. 22–50; and D. Bar-Tal, above note 1), as follows: societal beliefs about the
justness of one’s own goals first of all outline the goals in conflict, indicate their crucial importance and
provide explanations and rationales for them. Societal beliefs about security stress the importance of
personal safety and national survival, and outline the conditions for their achievement. Societal beliefs of
a positive collective self-image concern the ethnocentric tendency to attribute positive traits, values and
behaviour to one’s own society. Societal beliefs about one’s own victimization concern self-presentation as
a victim, especially in the context of the intractable conflict. Societal beliefs about the delegitimization of
the opponent are beliefs that deny the adversary’s humanity. Societal beliefs about patriotism generate
attachment to the country and society by propagating loyalty, love, care and sacrifice. Societal beliefs
about unity refer to the importance of ignoring internal conflicts and disagreements during intractable
conflict in order to join forces in the face of the external threat. Finally, societal beliefs about peace refer to
peace as the ultimate desire of the society.
49 See D. Bar-Tal, above note 1.
50 D. Bar-Tal, Collective memory of physical violence: Its contribution to the culture of violence, in
E. Cairns and M. D. Roe (eds), The Role of Memory in Ethnic Conflict, Palgrave Macmillan: Houndmills,
UK, 2003, pp. 77–93; see also H.C. Kelman, above note 4; J. Mack, above note 4; J.V. Montville, Conflict
and Peacemaking in Multiethnic Societies, New York: Lexington Books, 1991; see also V. Volkan, above
note 4.
240
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
‘The killing fields of national ethnic conflicts, the graves of the fallen, are the
building blocks of which modern nations are made, out of which the fabric of
national sentiment grows.’
51
A sense of collective victimhood is unrelated to the strength and power of
the collectives involved in intractable conflict. Collectives that are strong and
powerful militarily, politically and economically still perceive themselves as victims
or potential victims in the conflict. The self-assigned status as the victim does not
necessarily indicate weakness. On the contrary, it provides strength vis-a
`-vis
the international community, which usually tends to support the victimized side in
the conflict, and it often energizes members of a group to take revenge and punish
the opponent.
This has happened in the case of Russians in the Chechen conflict,
Americans in the Vietnam War, Israeli Jews in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
Turks in their conflict with Kurds, or Sinhalese in the Sri Lanka conflict. The sense
of collective victimhood is a result of the inimical context and the socio-psycho-
logical repertoire that accompanies it. The violence, losses and unavoidable suf-
fering together with their framing within the ethos of conflict lead to the inevitable
inference of being a victim in the conflict.
The formation of the sense of collective victimhood is based on beliefs
about the justness of the goals of one’s group and on one’s positive self-image,
while emphasizing the wickedness of the opponent’s goals and characteristics.
52
In
other words, focusing on the injustice, harm, evil and atrocities associated with the
adversary, while emphasizing one’s own society as being just, moral and human,
leads society members to present themselves as victims.
53
Beliefs about victimhood
imply that the conflict was imposed by an adversary who not only fights for unjust
goals, but also uses violent and immoral means to achieve them. They provide the
moral incentive to seek justice and oppose the opponent, as well as to mobilize
moral, political and material support from the international community. In fact,
these three themes of the ethos of conflict societal beliefs about victimhood,
justness of one’s own goals, and delegitimization of the rival – form a triangular
system that constitutes the core beliefs of the intractable conflict.
54
The three
themes feed and sustain each other, contributing to the continuation of the
conflict.
For example, in the context of the violent Northern Ireland conflict,
both the Catholics and the Protestants each perceive themselves as victims of
the other. The two groups focus on the terrorism of the other side, selectively
51 I. Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005,
p. 9.
52 See D. Bar-Tal, above note 1; J.D. Frank, above note 4; H.C. Kelman, above note 4; R.K. White, Nobody
Wanted War: Misperception in Vietnam and Other Wars, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1970.
53 B. Sahdra and M. Ross, ‘Group identification and historical memory’, Personality and Social Psychology
Bulletin, Vol. 33, 2007, pp. 384–395.
54 U. Gopher, Antecedents to the ethos of conflict in Israeli-Jewish society, Master Thesis submitted to Tel
Aviv University (in Hebrew), 2006.
241
Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
remembering the violent acts and blaming the opponent for them.
55
The same
holds true in the case of Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the Israeli-Arab conflict;
56
Serbs and Croats in the conflict following Croatia’s declaration of independence
in June 1991;
57
Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots
58
and Tamils and Sinhalese
in Sri Lanka.
59
Each community construes the other as the cause of their
suffering and perceives their own side as not responsible – in other words, as the
victim.
In sum, the sense of collective victimhood as defined has a number of
important implications during intractable conflict:
1.it positions the society members in a particular state of mind;
2.it provides a rigid, durable self-perception that is unlikely to change while the
intractable conflict lasts, and will most probably persist long after;
3.it is accompanied by intense negative emotions such as anger, fear or self-pity;
4.it appears automatically in situations of violence because of the underlying
emotional and teleological nature;
5.it serves as a prism through which society members evaluate their experiences,
especially in the context of the conflict;
6.it magnifies the difference between the groups engaged in conflict;
7.it implies that the rival has the ongoing potential for harming and thus the
society lives under continuous conditions of threat;
8.it has serious cognitive and emotional consequences that also reinforce the
self-collective view as the victim; and
9.it has behavioural implications for the society suggesting that it does
not deserve to be harmed, and that therefore measures should be taken
to prevent any further harm and punish the opponent for the harm already
done.
Thus the sense of collective victimhood often leads to cycles of violence
because of preventive and vengeful acts.
55 See E. Cairns, J. Mallet, C. Lewis and R. Wilson, above note 30; J.A. Hunter, M. Stringer and R.P.
Watson, ‘Intergroup violence and intergroup attributions’, British Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 30,
1991, pp. 261–266.
56 D. Bar-Tal, Living with the conflict: Socio-psychological analysis of the Israeli-Jewish society, Jerusalem:
Carmel (in Hebrew), 2007; N. Caplan, ‘Victimhood and identity: Psychological obstacles to Israeli
reconciliation with the Palestinians’, in K. Abdel-Malek and D.C. Jacobson (eds), Israeli and Palestinian
Identities in History and Literature, St Martin’s Press: New York, 1999, pp. 63–86; L. Khalili, Heroes and
Martyrs of Palestine – The politics of national commemoration, Cambridge University Press: New York,
2007; N. Rouhana and D. Bar-Tal, ‘Psychological dynamics of intractable conflicts: The Israeli-
Palestinian case’, American Psychologist, Vol. 53, 1998, pp. 761–770; J. Vollhardt, ‘The role of victim
beliefs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Risk or potential for peace?’ Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace
Psychology (in press).
57 See V. Volkan, above note 4, p. 54.
58 M. Hadjipavlou, ‘The Cyprus conflict: Root causes and implications for peacebuilding’, Journal of Peace
Research, Vol. 44, No. 3, 2007, pp. 349–365.
59 R. Ramanathapillai, ‘The politicizing of trauma: A case study of Sri Lanka’. Peace and Conflict: Journal of
Peace Psychology, Vol. 12, 2006, pp. 1–18.
242
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
Functions
The sense of collective victimhood fulfils major functions for the societies involved
in intractable conflicts.
60
These functions are of importance for understanding
why groups make an active effort to create and then maintain the sense of vic-
timhood.
Providing explanations
First, the beliefs about self-perceived collective victimhood perform the epistemic
function of illuminating the conflict situation. The situation of intractable conflict
is extremely threatening and accompanied by stress, vulnerability, uncertainty and
fear, as well as shattering previously held world views. In face of the ambiguity and
unpredictability, individuals must satisfy the need for a comprehensive under-
standing of the conflict, which provides a coherent and predictable picture of the
situation.
61
The societal beliefs about collective victimhood fulfil these demands,
providing information and explanations about the conflict, explaining who is
responsible for the harm it brings, which is the evil side in it and which is the
victim.
Coping with stress
Furthermore, the sense of being a victim helps in coping with stress created by the
conditions of intractable conflict. Successful coping with stress often involves
Collective Memory of the Past –
Unrelated to the Conflict
Context
Intractable
Conflict
Sense of Self-Collective
Victimhood
Perceived intentional harm
Viewed as undeserved, unjust
and immoral
Viewed as unpreventable
Perceived severe lasting
consequences
Changed world view
Egocentrism and lack of
empathy
Selective and biased
information processing
Reduced accountability and
responsibility
Moral entitlement
Violent reactions
Increased empathy and
prosocial behaviors (rarely)
Construction Transmission
Dissemination
Figure 1: Model of Sense of Self-Collective Victimhood in Intractable Conflict
60 J. Holmwood, ‘Functionalism and its critics’, in A. Harrington (ed), Modern Social Theory: an intro-
duction, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2005, pp. 87–109.
61 J.W. Burton (ed), Conflict: Human Needs Theory, St Martin’s Press: New York, 1990.
243
Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
making sense of and finding meaning in the stressful conditions within
existing schemes and the existing world view, or an adjustment of that view to the
events.
62
The societal beliefs of victimhood provide such meaning and allow ‘sense-
making’.
Moral justification
In its moral function, the sense of being a victim delegates responsibility for both
the outbreak of the conflict and the subsequent violence to the opponent. In ad-
dition, it provides the moral weight to seek justice and oppose the adversary, and
thus serves to justify and legitimize the harmful acts of the ingroup towards the
enemy, including violence and destruction.
63
Differentiation and superiority
The sense of being a victim creates a sense of differentiation and superiority.
64
It
sharpens intergroup differences because while it describes the opponent in delegi-
timizing terms and at the same time as responsible for the unjust and immoral acts,
it presents the own society as a sole victim of the conflict. Since societies involved in
intractable conflict view their own goals as justified and perceive themselves in a
positive light, they attribute all responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict, its
continuation and especially its violence to the opponent. The repertoire focuses on
the violence, atrocities, cruelty, lack of concern for human life, and viciousness of
the other side. It describes the other side as inhuman and immoral; the conflict as
intransigent, irrational, far-reaching and irreconcilable; and this precludes any
peaceful solution. These beliefs stand in contrast to the societal beliefs about
positive collective self-image, which portray the ingroup in positive terms and as
the victim in the conflict.
Preparation and immunization
The sense of being a victim prepares the society for threatening and violent acts of
the enemy, as well as for difficult living conditions. It tunes the society to infor-
mation that signals potential harm and continuing violent confrontations, allowing
62 A. Antonovsky, Unraveling the Mystery of Health: How People Manage Stress and Stay Well, Jossey-Bass:
San Francisco, 1987; V.E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Washington Square Press: New York, 1963;
R. Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma, The Free Press: New
York, 1992; S.E. Taylor, ‘Adjustment to threatening events: A theory of cognitive adaptation’, American
Psychologist, Vol. 38, 1983, pp. 1161–1173.
63 D.E. Apter (ed), Legitimization of Violence, New York University Press: New York, 1997; J.T. Jost and
B. Major (eds), The Psychology of Legitimacy: Emerging Perspectives on Ideology, Justice, and Intergroup
Relations, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2001.
64 J. Sidanius and F. Pratto, Social Dominance, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1999.
244
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
psychological preparations for the lasting conflict and immunization against
negative experiences. The society is attentive and sensitive to cues about threats, so
no sudden surprises can arise. In this sense the psychological repertoire also allows
economic predictability, which is one of the basic conditions for coping success-
fully with stress.
65
Solidarity
The sense of being a victim serves as a basis for unity and solidarity because it
implies a threat to the collective’s well-being and even to its survival.
66
It heightens
the need for unity and solidarity, which are important conditions for survival in
view of the continuous harm caused by the rival. Collective victimhood may serve
as ‘social glue’, bonding members of the collective together on the basis of the
present threat and past ‘chosen traumas’.
67
This basis for unity has been used by
various societies, as this representation ‘appears to be capable of smoothing over
ethnic and regional differences’.
68
Patriotism and mobilization
The sense of being a victim has the function of motivating patriotism, mobilization
and action.
69
It highlights security needs as a core value and indicates a situation of
emergency which requires mobilization and sacrifice that are crucial for countering
the threat. It implies the necessity to exert all the group’s efforts and resources in
the struggle against the perpetrator. It plays a central role in stirring up patriotism,
which leads to readiness for various sacrifices in order to defend the group and the
country and avenge acts of violence by the enemy. In addition, it reminds group
members of past violent acts by the rival and indicates that they could recur. The
implication is that society members should mobilize in view of the threat, and
should maybe even take violent action to prevent possible harm and avenge the
harm already done. This function is therefore essential to meet the challenge of
withstanding the enemy in the conflict.
For example, in the case of Sri Lanka victimhood narratives were
used by militant groups to recruit the Tamil people and induce them to
commit violent acts.
70
Ramanathapillai claims that: ‘Stories about the traumatic
events became both a powerful symbol and an effective tool to create new
65 See A. Antonovsky, above note 62; R.S. Lazarus and S. Folkman, Stress, Appraisal and Coping, Springer
Publishing Company: New York, 1984.
66 S. Rosenberg, Victimhood, Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project, Conflict Research Consortium,
University of Colorado, 2003, available at http://www.intractableconflict.org/m/victimhood.jsp (last
visited 27 April 2009).
67 See V. Volkan, above note 4.
68 See J.H. Liu and D.J. Hilton, above note 36, p. 546.
69 D. Bar-Tal and E. Staub, Patriotism in the Life of Individuals and Nations. Nelson-Hall: Chicago, 1997.
70 See R. Ramanathapillai, above note 59.
245
Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
combatants’.
71
Also, in a speech given just before Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in
1982, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin used collective victimization as an
argument in favour of the war. ‘It is our destiny that in Israel there is no other way
but fighting’, said Begin, and added: ‘We won’t allow another Treblinka’.
By mentioning the notorious extermination camp, Begin activated beliefs about
collective victimization.
Gaining international support
Victimhood in a conflict enables criticism to be avoided and support obtained
from the international community, especially when the group or society concerned
is the weaker side, suffers more and does not violate international moral codes of
behaviour. Victims are not blamed for the outbreak of the conflict and the violence
that follows, as they are suffering from the unjustified violence of the aggressor.
This is crucial in obtaining the backing of worldwide public opinion and increasing
the likelihood of moral, political and material support. In the post-conflict era,
it puts the group or society at an advantage – especially if the rival accepts this
status – as the one that should get support, assistance, compensation, apology, and
so on.
Competitive victimhood
As pointed out, ‘The status of victim renders the victim deserving of sympathy,
support, outside help. Victims, by definition, are vulnerable, and any violence on
their part can be construed as the consequences of their victimization. The acqui-
sition of the status of victim becomes an institutionalized way of escaping guilt,
shame or responsibility.’
72
It is thus not surprising that the described ‘rewards’
inherent in the status of victim can lead to a ‘competitive victimhood’ between two
sides in an intractable conflict.
73
Each of the adversaries in intractable conflict
makes every effort to persuade its own society, the rival side and the international
community that it alone is the victim in the conflict. The side that wins this status is
assured of international support and often financial aid, since the international
community tends to assist groups that are perceived as victims. In this vein, Nadler
and Shnabel
74
examined the frequent use of victim terminology among both
Palestinians and Israelis. They argue that the ‘victimhood competition’ between
71 Ibid,p.1.
72 M. Smyth, ‘Putting the past in its place: Issues of victimhood and reconciliation in Northern Ireland’s
peace process’, in N. Biggar (ed), Burying the Past: Making Peace and Doing Justice after Civil Conflict,
Georgetown University Press: Washington, DC, 2001, p. 126,
73 M. Noor, R.J. Brown and G. Prentice, ‘Precursors and mediators of intergroup reconciliation in
Northern Ireland: A new model’, British Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 47, 2008, pp. 481–495.
74 A. Nadler and N. Shnabel, ‘Instrumental and socio-emotional paths to intergroup reconciliation and the
need-based model of socio-emotional reconciliation’, in A. Nadler, T. Malloy and J. Fisher (eds), Social
Psychology of Intergroup Reconciliation, Oxford University Press: New York, 2006, pp. 37–56.
246
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
those two rivals is actually a fight over moral social identity. Palestinians
portrays Israel as an imperialist power, sometimes comparing Jewish soldiers
with Nazis.
75
Israeli Jews, on the other hand, insist they are the victims of Arab
aggression.
76
These two groups are striving to achieve a moral social identity by
favouring their own-group tragedies over those of the other. Similarly, Noor et al.
77
found that Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland not only focus on their
own ingroup’s victimhood, but also engage in competition about which group’s
suffering is greater.
Maintaining the sense of collective victimhood
Considering the psychological, social and political profits to be gained by
collective victimization, it is no wonder that societies involved in intractable
conflict seek to maintain the sense of victimhood over time, or at least for the
duration of the conflict. They make efforts to nurture the beliefs and feelings
embedded in the sense of collective victimization and try to assimilate them into
the society’s collective memory and ethos of conflict and collective emotional
orientation.
78
In order to maintain this theme in the repertoire of society members, the
beliefs that impart the status of victimhood are transmitted and disseminated via
societal channels of communication and societal institutions. These supplement
interpersonal transmissions, as well as personal experiences of suffering. The edu-
cational system plays a major role in inculcating those beliefs through textbooks,
educational programmes, school ceremonies and teachers’ explicit and implicit
messages. In addition, the public discourse in speeches by leaders, newspaper ar-
ticles and texts in various other channels of communication continuously
strengthens the sense of collective victimhood. Politicians often use collective vic-
timization as a source of political power, and reminders of past and present vic-
timization are a potent theme for recruitment and mobilization. At the formal
societal and cultural level, memorial days, religious and national holidays and the
ceremonies that accompany them serve as an annual routine to remind society
members about their victimization. Finally, cultural products of various kinds are
an important means of transmitting beliefs and feelings about the society’s vic-
timhood. Books, films, theatrical plays and even art exhibitions may convey the
sense of collective victimhood to consumers of these cultural products. Israeli
society provides an illustration of how societal, political, educational and cultural
sources play a role in forming, transmitting and disseminating the sense of
75 N. Oren and D. Bar-Tal, ‘The detrimental dynamics of delegitimization in intractable conflicts: The
Israeli-Palestinian case’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 31 (1), 2006, pp. 111–126.
76 See D. Bar-Tal, above note 56.
77 See M. Noor, R.J. Brown and G. Prentice, above note 73.
78 See D. Bar-Tal, above note 1.
247
Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
collective victimhood.
79
The way Serbs maintain their sense of victimhood is
another example of continuous societal socialization.
80
Consequences
A system of beliefs about victimization of one’s own society has a profound in-
fluence on all aspects of life of its members and the society as a whole. A number of
major consequences are outlined below.
Effects on world view
General world view
A sense of collective victimhood based on continuous harm or even a major
traumatic event to which a group was subjected may become the cornerstone for
the construction of a new reality. Those experiences and the subsequent beliefs
about the group’s victimhood may shake its general world view by shattering
79 L. Adar and H. Adler, Values Education for Immigrant School Children, Hebrew University and Ministry
of Culture and Education Press: Jerusalem, 1965, (in Hebrew); R. Arviv-Abbramovich, State ceremonies
as mechanism for inculcating ethos of conflict in times of intractable conflict: The Israeli case, 2004, Master
Thesis submitted to Tel Aviv University (in Hebrew); D. Bar-Tal, above note 48; D. Bar-Tal, ‘The rocky
road towards peace: Societal beliefs functional to intractable conflict in Israeli school textbooks’, Journal
of Peace Research, Vol. 35, 1998, pp. 723–742; D. Bar-Tal, above note 56; D. Bar-Tal and D. Antebi, ‘Siege
mentality in Israel’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 16, 1992, pp. 251–275; N. Ben-Shaul,
A violent world: TV news images of Middle Eastern terror and war, Rowman and Littlefield: Boulder, CO,
2006; O. David, The crystallization and transformations of the Jewish-Israeli identity: A study of identity
reflection in Hebrew readers of the 20th century, Doctoral dissertation, 2007, Tel-Aviv University (in
Hebrew); R. Firer, The Agents of Zionist Education, Hakibutz Hameuhad Tel-Aviv, 1985, (in Hebrew);
C.S. Liebman and E. Don-Yehiya, Civil religion in Israel: Traditional Judaism and political culture in the
Jewish state, University of California Press: Berkeley, CA, 1983; D. Ofer, ‘History, memory and identity:
Perceptions of Holocaust in Israel’, in U. Rebhun and C.I. Waxman (eds), Jews in Israel. Contemporary
social and cultural patterns, Brandeis University Press: Hanover NH, 2004, pp. 394–417; E. Podeh, The
Arab-Israeli conflict in Israeli history textbooks, 1948–2000, Bergin and Garvey: Westport, CT, 2002; D.A.
Porat, ‘From the scandal to the Holocaust in Israeli education’, Journal in Contemporary History, Vol. 39,
2004, pp. 636–619; T. Segev, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, Henry Holt and Co:
New York, 2000; E. Shohat, Israeli Cinema: East/west and the Politics of Representation., University of
Texas Press: Austin, TX, 1989; H. Yaoz, The Holocaust in Hebrew Literature As historical and trans-
historical fiction, 1980, Tel-Aviv: Eked (in Hebrew); J. Yedger, Our Story: The National Narrative and the
Israeli Press, Haifa University Press: Haifa, 2004, (in Hebrew); A. Yurman, Victimization of the holocaust
as a component of the cultural-political discourse in Israeli society between the years 1948–1998, Doctoral
dissertation, 2001, Bar-Ilan University (in Hebrew); I. Zertal, above note 51; M. Zuckermann, Shoah in
the sealed room – The Holocaust in the Israeli press during the Gulf war, Hubermann: Tel-Aviv, 1993 (in
Hebrew).
80 See B. Anzulovic, above note 39; S. Jansen, ‘Why do they hate us? Everyday Serbian nationalist knowl-
edge of Muslim hatred’, Journal of Mediterranean Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2003, pp. 215–237; D.B.
MacDonald, Balkan holocaust? Serbian and Croatian victim-centered propaganda and the war in
Yugoslavia, Manchester University Press: Manchester, 2002; N. Malcolm, Bosnia: A Short History, New
York University Press: New York, 1994; T. Pavasovic, The political dynamics of ethnicity change: A case-
study of Serbian textbooks 1970–2002, paper presented at the Harvard-Oxford-Stockholm Conference in
Stockholm, 14–16 April 2006; V. Volkan, above note 4.
248
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
constructs of collective self-perception and transforming assumptions about in-
tergroup relations and the world itself. The changes take place because naturally the
victimized collectives try to explain the harm inflicted, make inferences, draw
conclusions and imply lessons to be learned. The first result of these processes is to
blame the perpetrator and the bystanders (groups who did not prevent the harm
from being done) and nurturing vindictive feelings and intentions. Sometimes the
collectives even tend to blame their own group because this appears to be a
reasonable explanation for the absolutely inconceivable situation.
81
Very often they
affirm the perception of the world as a dangerous place, raise a sense of intense
vulnerability, increase awareness of the group’s dependence on others and under-
mine beliefs in a just world.
82
Sometimes the sense of collective victimhood is
accompanied by fear of physical or symbolic annihilation.
83
Furthermore, collec-
tives often develop feelings of helplessness, humiliation, lack of control, mistrust of
the rival group and the belief that little can be done to change the situation.
84
Stance on humanitarian norms
A specific effect that was investigated pertains to views of the humanitarian norms.
On the basis of a very large-scale study in fourteen conflict areas around the globe,
Elcheroth
85
found that at the individual level victims of violence tend to abandon
the legal conception of humanitarian norms in favour of a conception that these
norms can be violated under certain conditions. However, the same individuals
continued to support moral principles of these norms. The surprising finding in
this study is at the community level, which shows that a normative climate fa-
vouring the legal conception of humanitarian norms develops within the com-
munity. A different analysis of the same data by Spini, Elcheroth and Fasel
86
demonstrated an effect of collective vulnerability defined by them as a material or
symbolic threat to the survival of a collective as a whole. The analysis shows that in
81 E. Staub, ‘Breaking the cycle of genocidal violence: Healing and reconciliation’, in J. Harvey (ed),
Perspectives on Loss, Taylor and Francis, Washington DC, 1982, pp. 231–241; E. Staub and L.A. Pearlman,
‘Healing, reconciliation and forgiving after genocide and other collective violence’, in S.J. Helmick and
R.L. Petersen (eds), Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy and Conflict Transformation,
Templeton Foundation Press, Randor, PA, 2001, pp. 205–229.
82 See J. Herman, above note 5; J. Mack, above note 4; E. Staub and D. Bar-Tal, above note 34; O. Zur,
‘Rethinking “Don‘t blame the victim”: The psychology of victimhood’, Journal of Couples Therapy,
Vol. 4, 1994, pp. 15–36.
83 See J.V. Montville, above note 50.
84 J. Chaitin and S. Steinberg, ‘You should know better: Expressions of empathy and disregard among
victims of massive social trauma’, Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, Vol. 17, No. 2, 2008,
pp. 197–226; E.G. Lindner, ‘Humiliation and human condition: Mapping a minefield’, Human Rights
Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2001, pp. 46–63; E. Staub and L.A. Pearlman, above note 81; V. Volkan, above note
4, and also ‘Transgenerational transmission and Chosen Traumas: An aspect of large-group identity’,
Group Analysis, Vol. 34, 2001, pp. 79–97.
85 G. Elcheroth, ‘Individual-level and community-level effects of war trauma on social representations
related to humanitarian law’ European Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 36, 2006, pp. 907–930.
86 D. Spini, G. Elcheroth and R. Fasel, ‘The impact of groups norms and generalization of risks on
judgments of war behavior’, Political Psychology, Vol. 29, 2008, pp. 919–941.
249
Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
a conflict situation when the risks of becoming a victim are so extended that even
the dominant groups cannot effectively protect their members – that is, develop
collective vulnerability – a climate evolves favouring the defence of humanitarian
norms within the community.
View of the conflict
The sense of being a victim in conflict not only influences the general world view
but also the view of the conflict itself. First, the collective sense of victimhood
greatly strengthens the societal beliefs in the justness of one’s own goals in conflict
and in delegitimization of the rival. This attitude substantially reinforces the ethos
of conflict that is one of the major incentives for continuation of the conflict.
87
Thus a strong sense of victimhood has an effect on the course of the conflict.
Society members, perceiving themselves as unjust victims, vigorously uphold their
ethos of conflict and strive to achieve their goals, prevent future harm and avenge
losses and destruction already done. All these ways of thinking and behaviours are
accompanied by intense hostility, mistrust and hatred directed towards the rival,
which prevents any peacemaking process even from beginning. A study conducted
in Croatia and Serbia by Corkalo Biruski and Penic
88
showed that collective guilt
assignment could serve as a mediating mechanism in the relationship between
traumatic experiences and outgroup attitudes. In this study it was found that the
more people suffered, the more they assigned collective guilt to the group perceived
as being responsible for their suffering. This led to greater social distance from the
target outgroup.
In a recent study carried out on a national sample of Israeli Jews in the
summer of 2008, significant links were found between views about the Israeli-Arab
conflict and the societal belief of being a victim in it (i.e. about 40.6% of re-
spondents highly agreed or agreed with the statement that, ‘Throughout all the
years of the conflict, Israel has been the victim and the Arabs and the Palestinians
are the side causing harm’, and an additional 20.8% somewhat agreed with it).
Specifically, the more a respondent believed that Israel is the victim in the conflict,
the more he/she (1) accepted the Zionist narrative about the conflict; (2) believed
that Jews have exclusive rights for the whole land of Israel; (3) expressed dehu-
manizing views of the Arabs and Palestinians; (4) attributed responsibility for the
outbreak and continuation of the conflict to them; (5) believed that the Jews ex-
hibited moral behaviour during the fighting; and (6) felt hatred towards the Arabs.
Respondents strongly believing in Israel’s victimhood were also less ready to
compromise on various key issues at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations
(i.e. withdrawal, Jerusalem and refugee issues), were more in favour of forceful acts
87 D. Bar-Tal and E. Halperin (in preparation), ‘Socio-psychological barriers to conflict resolution’, in D.
Bar-Tal (ed), Intergroup Conflicts and their Resolution: Social Psychological Perspective, Psychology Press:
New York.
88 See D. Corkalo Biruski and S. Penic (in preparation), above note 4.
250
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
towards the Palestinians, and were less open to alternative information about the
conflict.
89
Siege mentality
One of the possible consequences of a continuous sense of victimhood is the
evolvement of a siege mentality,
90
which denotes a generalized mistrust of other
groups and negative feelings towards them. It is based on a system of beliefs in-
dicating that other groups have negative intentions to harm the collective. This
syndrome develops when other groups support either directly or indirectly the rival
(the perpetrator) who is viewed as evil. The Soviet Union following the Bolshevik
revolution or Iran today provide an example of such a siege mentality.
Effects on identity
In some cases, strong views on being a victim may redefine the collective identity,
as noted by Volkan.
91
In fact, Adwan and Bar-On
92
proposed that to develop col-
lective self-perception as the victim is an identity process, occurring in long and
violent conflicts, in which one or both parties reconstruct their respective identity
around their victimization by the other side. The imprint of the past experiences of
Poles is an example of how beliefs about victimhood can affect the identity. It is
based on shared traumas and memories of suffering and being harmed.
93
Also, the
perception of the Jewish people as the victim of a hostile world, which emerged
early on in its history,
94
has become a central part of the Jewish-Israeli ethos
and identity, and has had a major effect on the way Israeli Jews view the situation
and act through the course of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
95
Egocentrism and lack of empathy
Since the victims usually tend to focus on themselves and their suffering, their
sense of collective victimhood may also lead to a reduced capacity for empathy.
Mack
96
observed that a society that is engulfed by the deep sense of being a victim
focuses on own fate and is completely preoccupied with its own suffering,
89 See E. Halperin and D. Bar-Tal (in preparation) Collective beliefs about victimhood in the Israeli Jewish
society and their effects on the view of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
90 See D. Bar-Tal, above note 28; D. Bar-Tal and D. Antebi, above note 79.
91 See V. Volkan, above note 4.
92 S. Adwan and D. Bar-On, Victimhood and Beyond: The Bethlehem Encounter, Newton Center, Boston,
2001.
93 See A. Jasin
´ska-Kania, above note 40.
94 See D. Bar-Tal and D. Antebi, above note 79; A. Hareven, ‘Victimization: Some comments by an Israeli’,
Political Psychology, Vol. 4, 1983, pp. 145–155; C. Liebman, ‘Myth, tradition and values in Israeli society’,
Midstream, Vol. 24, 1978, pp. 44–53; H.F. Stein, ‘Judaism and the group-fantasy of martyrdom: The
psycho-dynamic paradox of survival through persecution’, Journal of Psychohistory, Vol. 6, 1978,
pp. 151–210.
95 See D. Bar-Tal, above note 56.
96 See J. Mack, above note 4.
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Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
developing what he called an ‘egoism of victimhood’. It means that a collective in
this state is unable to see things from the rival group’s perspective, empathize with
its suffering and accept responsibility for harm inflicted by its own group.
97
Moreover, the victimized group also often finds it hard to identify with the suf-
fering of other societies in completely different contexts and experience empathy
towards them.
This consequence can be found, for example, in Japanese society. The
historical narrative that has been canonized and passed down there focuses on the
death and suffering of Japanese soldiers and Japan’s civilian population, omitting
the death, suffering and destruction endured by other Asians at the hands of the
Japanese during the years of World War II. The younger generation thus mostly
views Japan as a victim of the war, not as a perpetrator or aggressor. A result of this
self-perception of victimhood is that ‘many Japanese people find it psychologically
disorienting to be asked to recognize the victimhood of others, especially when it in-
volves admitting the unfamiliar possibility of Japan as victimizer and perpetrator’.
98
Selective and biased information-processing
The sense of collective victimhood also influences cognitive processes.
99
It causes
individuals to be more sensitive to threatening information and become hyper-
vigilant, constantly searching for threats
100
because the threshold of attention to
threatening stimuli is lowered, as happens when individuals are under stress.
101
In
this case individuals tend to select and interpret information about possible harm
too easily, sometimes biasing and distorting it. In other words, every item of in-
formation or cue is scrutinized for signs of negative intentions, and society mem-
bers may be disposed to search for information that is consistent with these beliefs
while disregarding evidence that does not support them.
102
This processing is based
on the suspicion that society members feel toward the victimizing group, and
which is necessary to prepare them for any harm to come.
Reduced accountability and responsibility
As mentioned above, the sense of collective victimhood that is central to intractable
conflicts delegates responsibility for the outbreak of violence and the violence that
97 S. C
ˇehajic
´and R. Brown, ‘Not in my name: A social psychological study of antecedents and consequences
of acknowledgment of ingroup atrocities’, Genocide Studies and Prevention, Vol. 3, 2008, pp. 195–211;
J. Chaitin and S. Steinberg, above note 84; E. Staub, above note 45.
98 P.G. Schalow, ‘Japan’s war responsibility and the Pan-Asian movement for redress and compensation:
An overview’, East Asia, Vol. 18, No. 3, 2000, p. 11.
99 R.F. Baumeister and S. Hastings, ‘Distortions of collective memory: How groups flatter and deceive
themselves’, in J.W. Pennebaker, D. Paez and B. Rime
´(eds), Collective Memory of Political Events: Social
Psychological Perspectives, Lawrence Erlbaum: Mahwah, NJ, 1997, pp. 277–293.
100 See G. Ross, above note 44.
101 D.E. Broadbent, ‘Decision and Stress’, Academic Press: London, 1971; R.R. Mackie, Vigilance: Theory,
Operational Performance and Physiological Correlates, Plenum: NY, 1977.
102 See H.C. Kelman, above note 4.
252
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
follows to the adversary. Indeed, the sense of victimhood reduces the activation of
mechanisms that usually prevent individuals and groups from committing harmful
acts. Feelings of guilt and shame, moral considerations or a positive collective self-
view are the human safeguards of humane conduct, but they often fail to operate
when individuals perceive themselves as being victims.
103
Reduction of group-based guilt
The sense of victimhood protects the group members’ self-esteem and prevents
feelings of guilt for committing harmful acts against the other group, acts which
take place regularly in intractable conflict.
104
It suggests that from the perspective of
victimization, the harm done was inflicted as a punishment and/or prevention, and
victims cannot be blamed for acts that are viewed as protective. A perpetual col-
lective perception of being a victim thus has great psychological value; it serves as a
buffer against group-based negative thoughts and feelings.
105
When the ingroup’s
victimization is made salient, individuals reported less group-based guilt in re-
sponse to violence perpetrated by their ingroup against another. The reduction in
group-based guilt occurred in various ethnic-national groups when reminded of
diverse historical victimizations. A recent study conducted in connection with the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict discovered a strong association between a sense of vic-
timhood among Israeli Jewish respondents and reduced group-based guilt over
Israel’s actions against the Palestinians.
106
Those who had a high sense of victim-
hood expressed less guilt, less moral accountability and less willingness to com-
pensate Palestinians for harmful acts by Israel. They also used more exonerating
cognitions, or justifications, such as ‘under the circumstances, any other state
would treat the Palestinians in the same way’ and ‘I believe the Palestinians brought
their current situations upon themselves’.
Justifying negative ingroup behaviour
Similarly C
ˇehajic
´and Brown
107
found that perception of victimhood serves the
function of justifying ingroup negative behaviour after it has occurred and as such
undermines one’s readiness to acknowledge ingroup responsibility for committed
103 See M.J.A. Wohl and N. Branscombe, above note 25.
104 N.R. Branscombe, ‘A social psychological process perspective on collective guilt’, in N.R. Branscombe
and B. Doosje (eds), Collective Guilt: International Perspectives, Cambridge University Press: New York,
2004, pp. 320–334; N.R. Branscombe, N. Ellemers, R. Spears and B. Doosje, ‘The context and content of
social identity threat’, in N. Ellemers, R. Spears and B. Doosje (eds), Social Identity: Context,
Commitment, Content, Blackwell Publishers: Oxford, England, 1999, pp. 35–58; N.R. Branscombe,
M.T. Schmitt and K. Schiffhauer, ‘Racial attitudes in response to thoughts of White privilege’, European
Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 37, 2007, pp. 203–215.
105 See M. Wohl and N. Branscombe, above note 25.
106 Y. Klar, N. Schori and S. Roccas, The shadow of the past: perpetual victimhood in intergroup conflicts,
unpublished data, Department of Psychology, Tel Aviv University, 2009.
107 S. C
ˇehajic
´and R. Brown (in preparation), Victimhood and acknowledgment of ingroup atrocities, un-
published manuscript.
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Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
misdeeds. Serbian adolescents who believe that their group is actually the true
victim (in the 1991–95 war) and/or has suffered more than members of the other
groups are less willing to acknowledge their group’s responsibility for atrocities
committed against others.
Moral entitlement
Victimhood is also strongly related to a feeling of moral entitlement, which can be
defined as the belief that the group is allowed to use whatever means to ensure its
safety, with little regard to moral norms. In the very recent study by Schori, Klar
and Roccas,
108
the sense of self-perceived collective victimhood was found to be
strongly positively associated with the feeling of moral entitlement and negatively
associated with group-based guilt over Israel’s actions in the occupied territories. It
was also related with willingness to continue the military operations at all costs,
even allowing for great losses to either the Israeli or the Palestinian side, and with
the wish to continue punishing the enemy group, even if such punishment means
retaliation and suffering inflicted upon the ingroup.
It is thus not surprising that the sense of being a victim frees the society
from the limitations of moral considerations that usually limit its scope of action. It
allows some freedom of action because the society believes that it needs to defend
itself to prevent immoral and destructive behaviour of the rival. This need often
allows the society to feel free from the binding force of international norms and
agreements. Survival is instead its overriding consideration. An example of this is
the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, which in 1986
argued that ‘Serbia must not be passive and wait and see what the others will say, as
it has done so often in the past’. Similarly, in 1973 Israel’s Prime Minister Golda
Meir responded to international criticism by saying: ‘As for those who are trying to
preach to us now You didn’t come to the help of millions of Jews in the
Holocaust … you don’t have the right to preach’.
109
Recently, Israel justified the
wide-scale harm inflicted on the Palestinians in Gaza by the fact of being con-
tinuously bombarded with Palestinian rockets. A society may thus use the sense of
being the victim in a conflict as a reason for rejecting pressures from the inter-
national community and to justify taking unrestrained courses of action.
Violent reactions
The sense of collective victimhood may lead to intensified violent reactions that are
viewed as a punishment for the harm already done and/or as prevention of possible
future harm. It provides moral power to oppose the enemy and seek justice.
110
The
108 See N. Schori, Y. Klar and S. Roccas, When past is present: reminders of historical victimhood and their
effect on intergroup conflicts, unpublished data, Department of Psychology, Tel Aviv University, 2009.
109 Ha’aretz, 29 April 1973.
110 See D. Bar-Tal, above note 1.
254
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
violent actions are based on absence of guilt feelings, feeling of moral entitlement
and moral justifications for whatever actions the group takes to defend itself.
111
Rationalization of immoral acts
The status of being a victim is sometimes interpreted as a licence to commit im-
moral and illegitimate acts. This licence is based on several types of rationaliza-
tions: (1) a world that allowed such a thing to happen has no right to pass moral
judgement on the ingroup; (2) if the trauma was allowed to take place, then moral
conventions no longer apply, and the ingroup is not bound by them; (3) the
ingroup is allowed to do everything within its power to prevent a similar trauma
from ever happening again; (4) whatever the group may do, it is nothing in com-
parison with what has been done to it. The result of these justifications is that acts
which under other circumstances might be considered by the same group as im-
moral and illegitimate are perceived as just and worthy when employed in defence
of the group against new threats, both real and imaginary.
Victim-to-victimizer cycle
Horowitz
112
and Petersen
113
provide numerous examples of inter-ethnic conflicts in
which parties that suffered harm continue the acts of violence to teach the rival a
lesson and to deter that group from committing future acts of aggression. In some
cases, under certain conditions, a history of severe persecution may lead group
members onto the path of becoming perpetrators themselves.
114
A recent review by
Lickel, Miller, Stenstrom, Denson and Schmader
115
describes the psychological
mechanisms that underlie acts of violence carried out as retribution by ingroup
members, who were not even hurt, towards outgroup members who had done no
harm. They suggested that factors such as initial construal of the event as a harmful
act, identification with the ingroup, and homogenized perception of the rival lead
to ‘vicarious retribution’.
Botcharova
116
delineates a circle of revenge that illuminates the feelings
and processes stemming from personal and ethno-national trauma. The
original feelings of suffering, injustice, anger and frustration may lead to the desire
‘to do justice’ and then directly to violent acts of ‘justified aggression’. Similarly
111 See S. C
ˇehajic
´and R. Brown, above note 97.
112 D.L. Horowitz, The Deadly Ethnic Riot, University of California Press: Berkeley, 2001.
113 R.G. Petersen, Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, and Resentment in Twentieth-Century Eastern
Europe, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2002.
114 D. Enns, Identity and Victimhood, Berghof Occasional Paper No. 28, Berghof Research Center for
Constructive Conflict Management: Berlin, 2007; E. Staub and D. Bar-Tal, above note 34.
115 B. Lickel, N. Miller, D.M. Stenstrom, T. Denson and T. Schmader, ‘Vicarious retribution: The role
of collective blame in intergroup aggression’, Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 10, 2006,
pp. 372–390.
116 O. Botcharova, ‘Implementation of track two diplomacy: Developing a model for forgiveness’, in
G. Raymond, S.J. Helmick and R.L. Peterson (ed), Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy,
and Conflict Transformation, Temple Foundation Press: Philadelphia, 2001, pp. 279–304.
255
Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
Staub
117
proposed that the sense of collective victimhood is related to negative
affective consequences of fear, reduced empathy and anger, to cognitive biases such
as interpretation of ambiguous information as hostile and threatening, to emer-
gence of the belief that violent action taken is morally justified, to reduced moral
accountability and finally to a tendency to seek revenge. Bandura
118
suggested a
number of psychological mechanisms that serve as facilitators of moral disen-
gagement leading to acts of violence. Among them, he noted moral justification,
euphemistic labelling, advantageous comparison between the groups, disregard or
distortion of the severe consequences of violence, and dehumanization of the rival.
This analysis can be easily applied to the victims’ state of mind that facilitates the
harm they inflict in turn. Ramanathapillai
119
described how this process led Tamils,
who had themselves experienced continuous atrocities, to perform acts of indis-
criminate violence that killed many innocent Sinhalese. The genocide in Rwanda is
one of the most poignant examples of the victim-to-victimizer cycle. In a book
about the horrendous events that took place during the 1990s, Mamdani
120
poses a
series of questions which shed light on elements of the process that locks victims
into the cycle of victim-turned-perpetrator:
‘What happens when yesterday’s victims act out of a determination that they
must never again be victimized, never again? What happens when yesterday’s
victims act out of a conviction that power is the only guarantee against vic-
timhood, so that the only dignified alternative to power is death? What hap-
pens when they are convinced that the taking of life is really noble because it
signifies the willingness to risk one’s own life, and is thus, in the final analysis,
proof of one’s own humanity?’
Increased empathy and pro-social behaviours
The above description focuses on the negative effects of the sense of victimhood
because it seems that these negative patterns of thought and behaviour are highly
prevalent; therefore, most of the literature refers to them. However, it is recognized
that the sense of collective victimhood may under certain circumstances lead to
heightened sensitivity to the suffering of others, empathy, understanding and
willingness to aid other groups in need
121
but this form of reaction seems to be the
exception rather than the rule.
Vollhardt
122
presented this effect of victimhood by differentiating between
exclusive and inclusive victim beliefs. The latter emphasize the shared existential
117 See E. Staub, above note 45.
118 A. Bandura, ‘Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanity’, Personality and Social Psychology
Review, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1999, pp. 193–209.
119 See R. Ramanathapillai, above note 59.
120 M. Mamdani, When victims become killers: Colonialism, nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, Princeton
University Press: Princeton, 2001, p. 34.
121 See J. Chaitin and S. Steinberg, above note 84; J. Vollhardt, above note 56.
122 See V. Vollhardt, above note 56.
256
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
experience of victimization and suffering between groups. According to the logic of
this line of reactions, when group members experience harm, it tunes their sensi-
tivity to suffering in general and under some conditions to perceived similarity
with other groups’ experiences, even including those of the rival in conflict. In turn,
this empathy may facilitate courses of action that promote peacemaking, including
various co-operative activities with members of the rival society who have had
similar experiences and whose repertoire of beliefs and attitudes is similar.
The most vivid example of this type of effect is the activity of the Forum of
Israeli and Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, established in 1995 by Yitzhak
Frankenthal whose son was killed by the Palestinians. Today the Forum consists of
several hundred Israeli Jews and Palestinian families (half from each side) who have
lost their loved ones in the conflict and decided to devote their lives to peace-
building in order:
‘to prevent further bereavement, in the absence of peace; To influence the
public and the policy makers – to prefer the way of peace on the way of war; To
educate for peace and reconciliation; To promote the cessation of acts of
hostility and the achievement of a political agreement; To prevent the usage of
bereavement as a means of expanding enmity between our peoples’.
This exceptional example testifies to the possibility of escaping from the
narrow confines of a particular group or society’s sense of collective victimhood
into the open fields of universal moral considerations.
Conclusion
The objective of the present article is to describe the psychological foundations and
dynamics of the collective sense of victimhood in intractable conflict. There was no
intention whatsoever to diminish the status of the victim. On the contrary, we
recognize that intractable conflicts are violent, harsh and vicious, causing
tremendous suffering to society members involved in them. Throughout history, in
various conflicts, there are societies that experienced great losses and we did not
intend to argue against their collective sense of victimhood. However, it is well
established that in intractable conflict both sides almost always perceive themselves
as being victims of the rival.
It is therefore essential to illuminate the nature and meaning of the col-
lective perception of victimhood. Self-perceived collective victimhood is a state of
mind that is brought into being by society members and transmitted to the
members of new generations. The establishment of this state of mind is based on
real experiences and on the process of social construction. Once it evolves it is
solidified and has important implications for society members, for the way the
conflict is managed and for general intergroup relations of the victimized group.
Of great importance for us is the effect of this state of mind in intractable
conflicts. The present analysis indicates that it may be one of the factors that fuels
continuation of the intractable conflict and inhibits its peaceful resolution. Victims
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Volume 91 Number 874 June 2009
cease to view the present as the preparation for defining a new future, but simply as
a continuation of the same past. On the one hand, the sense of victimhood is one of
the foundations of the core societal beliefs of the ethos of conflict and collective
memory that maintain the conflict, and on the other hand it is one of the major
factors that sustain violence. When this state of mind prevails on both sides in
intractable conflict, then these sets of beliefs help to perpetuate the cycles of viol-
ence. However, in very rare cases, the sense of being a victim leads to consideration
of peaceful ways to resolve the conflict.
Yet groups do sometimes overcome the barriers to peaceful conflict
resolution and embark on the road to reconciliation, as has happened in Northern
Ireland. In these cases, there is a need to address the feeling of victimhood. Without
doing so it is hard to bring about any reconciliation, which demands a change in
the psychological orientation toward the past rival and towards the collective self.
Almost all theorists, experts and practitioners of reconciliation hold that in this
process it is necessary to address issues of justice and truth, which in essence
pertain to the harm done during the conflict. This requires an examination of the
harm done by both sides, its extent and nature, the responsibility for it, and due
accountability. Through this process both sides can, by getting to know the two
narratives of the conflict (including those about victimization), at least acknowl-
edge what happened in the past.
Often, however, more than that is required for preoccupation with the
past to be resolved. The successful process of reconciliation should ultimately lead
to collective healing and forgiveness for the adversary’s misdeeds. It allows the
emergence of a common frame of reference that enables and encourages societies
to acknowledge the past, confess the wrongs, relive the experiences under safe
conditions, mourn the losses, validate the experienced pain and grief, receive
empathy and support and restore the broken relationship, and eventually creates a
space where forgiveness can be offered and accepted. It is also recognized that
intractable conflicts may be asymmetrical in the way the sides involved carried or
carry out harmful acts. In these cases, it is essential that the side that is to a greater
extent the perpetrator takes responsibility for the inflicted harms. They should not
only stop carrying out these harmful acts, but also initiate acts of benevolence such
as apology and compensation in order to speed the process of reconciliation.
The sense of self-perceived collective victimhood is an unavoidable part of
the human repertoire in the context of intractable conflict. Societies involved in
this type of conflict experience losses, bleed and suffer, and themselves cause losses,
injuries, destruction and suffering to the rival. However, the real test for humanity
is whether the groups involved eventually begin to see the contours of human
beings on the other side of the fence, through the dark clouds of enmity that
obscure them. This phenomenal discovery may eventually lead to the great re-
velation that both sides are victims of the conflict, and that it is therefore time to
end it.
258
D. Bar-Tal et al. – A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts
... When group members experience harm or persecution due to their group membership, their collective victimization can become central to their collective memories and identities, and they may develop collective victim consciousness (Vollhardt, 2012). Victim consciousness involves the belief that the harm inflicted on the group was intentional, unjust and unpreventable, sensitivity to threats and commitment to ingroup protection (Bar-Tal et al., 2009). Studies reveal a tendency among historically victimized groups to focus on their own interests and display entitlement and reduced concern for others ( Bar-Tal et al., 2009;Stillwell et al., 2008;Warner et al., 2014;Wohl et al., 2010). ...
... Victim consciousness involves the belief that the harm inflicted on the group was intentional, unjust and unpreventable, sensitivity to threats and commitment to ingroup protection (Bar-Tal et al., 2009). Studies reveal a tendency among historically victimized groups to focus on their own interests and display entitlement and reduced concern for others ( Bar-Tal et al., 2009;Stillwell et al., 2008;Warner et al., 2014;Wohl et al., 2010). This can give rise to exclusive victim consciousness, which involves perception of the ingroup's victimization as unique, more severe and incomparable to other cases of victimization (Vollhardt, 2013;Vollhardt et al., 2021;Vollhardt & Bilali, 2015). ...
... This view, labelled competitive victimhood, involves concern that recognizing the rivals as victims will benefit the rivals while harming the ingroup (Noor et al., 2008;Noor et al., 2017). Viewing one's ingroup as the exclusive victims and the desire to maintain this position is related to increased hostility towards the rival group (Bar-Tal et al., 2009;Halabi et al., 2021;Noor et al., 2012;Schori-Eyal et al., 2014;Schori-Eyal, Klar, & Ben-Ami, 2017a;Vollhardt, 2009b) and decreased willingness to act on behalf of victimized outgroups (Schori-Eyal, Klar, Roccas et al., 2017b;Vollhardt, 2009bVollhardt, , 2015. ...
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... The interpretation of the past defines how we see ourselves today and how we relate to, and interact with others in the present. Since representations of the past convey essential experiences of the Self and the relevant Other, historical events may be used as anchoring points in empirical research to reveal Self-and Other-related meanings and processes (Bar-Tal, 2009;László, 2005;Roccas, Liviatan, 2006;Wertcsh, 2008). ...
... and collective victimhood dynamics(Bar-Tal, 2009), which are characterized by perceiving different outgroups as potential threats to its status quo and by defensive attitudes towards threatening outgroups perceived to have hostile intentions towards the ingroup. These characteristics were reflected in the perceptions of people migrating from the Middle East, and especially by the associated fear and terror, reported by the Hungarian Pride -Migrant cluster. ...
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... This violence has resulted in thousands of fatalities, physically and emotionally disabled victims, and deeply traumatized collective memories for both groups (Ben-Ari and Lavee, 2011: 2). Consequently, both groups perceive themselves as victims (Bar-Tal et al., 2009;Erez, 2006), with fierce disagreements about how to resolve the conflict, and the nature and future of inter-ethnic relations in the Jewish state. ...
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... concern presentation of the ingroup as the victim of unjust harm, evil deeds, and atrocities perpetrated by the adversary (Bar-Tal, Chernyak-Hai, Schori, & Gundar, 2009;Mack, 1990;Volkan, 1997). They provide the moral incentive to seek justice and oppose the opponent as well as to mobilize moral, political and material support from the international community. ...
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