The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is among the world’s most intractable disputes. The past few decades of fighting over land, rights, and security have left many on both sides with hardened hearts.
The program Seeds of Peace works to soften those hearts and build bonds between Israelis and Palestinians. Since 1993, the organization has brought together thousands of Israeli and Palestinian youth at a campsite in Maine. (An important caveat is that participants are selected or nominated by their schools; the program is not a true random sample of Israelis and Palestinians.)
At the camp, teenagers work together on activities designed to promote integration. Every day, they engage in a few hours of professionally-facilitated dialogue where they exchange stories and personal experiences.
A team of researchers from the University of California Berkeley and the University of Chicago analyzed the Seeds of Peace camp in a recently released study. They specifically looked at how participants formed relationships with fellow campers in their ingroup (Palestinians with Palestinians, Israelis with Israelis) versus with campers in their outgroup (Palestinians with Israelis, and vice-versa). Using a series of surveys over 7 years of the program, they studied how attitudes changed among participants. On the last day of camp, participants were asked to name 5 to 10 peers to whom they became “most close,” so that researchers could map out the social bonds formed among campers.
What they found is that being in close proximity was especially impactful for forming relationships between campers in opposite groups. Participants were much more likely to become close with each other if they shared a bunk. But campers from opposite groups were over 11 times more likely to become close if they were bunkmates than if they lived in separate bunks. The researchers speculate that this is because “people are less likely to spontaneously engage with outgroup members in ways that promote relationships.”
In short: giving Israelis and Palestinians the chance to meet each other and engage in constructive activities with each other served as a powerful means to bridge divisions between them and draw them closer together.
This result is consistent with Gordon Allport’s intergroup contact theory. Allport was a 20th-century social psychologist who theorized that increased contact between people of different groups could reduce prejudice and social tension. But Allport noted that not all intergroup contact was equal: he suggested that certain conditions must be met for contact to be worthwhile, such as having the support of legitimate authorities (such as having an authority figure who welcomes contact between different groups rather than shunning it), common goals, a sense of interdependence, and a sense of having equal status.
Seeds of Peace meets all of these conditions because it creates an environment where Israeli and Palestinian youth have moderated discussions and engage in team-building activities as equals.
But even without these conditions, contact between groups who differ can sometimes have surprising benefits.
Last year, researchers at the University of Minnesota used surveys from the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections to compare how people changed their minds about candidates over the course of the election. What they found is that people who had social circles with a lot of disagreement shifted their votes more over the course of the campaign — voting more based on policy positions than just partisan loyalty — than people who had social circles with less political diversity.
In other words, exposure to different points of view appeared to encourage Americans to examine their candidate of choice more critically, as opposed to simply supporting whoever was in the same party as them.
Seeking out and meeting people who are different from us is one of the best things we can do to break down prejudices, form new friendships, and fill in gaps in our own knowledge to help us make better decisions.
So how can you put this into practice in your own life? You could start by joining organizations like these:
- One America Movement brings people from different political and social backgrounds together for service projects and other community-building work.
- Interfaith Youth Core works on American college campuses and elsewhere to promote dialogue between people of different religious faiths.
Both organizations provide ample opportunity to meet people from groups you don’t affiliate with and experience the benefits of intergroup contact.