Ethos of Conflict

Daniel Bar-Tal

Originally Published September 2004; Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in July 2017.

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

This is the second of four articles contributed to BI by Dan Bar-Tal, a leading social psychologist of conflict.  Here he explains the idea of the "conflict ethos" which is the thought process and worldview which is formed when people become trapped in intractable conflicts, and which then creates a viscious cycle by trapping them further. More...

Defining "Ethos"

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The concept "ethos" is defined as the configuration of central societal shared beliefs that provide a particular dominant orientation to a society (Bar-Tal, 2000). The ethos, along with the goals and aspirations, is what binds the members of society together, gives meaning to societal life, imparts legitimacy to social order and fosters integration among society members (see, e.g., McClosky & Zaller, 1984). The societal beliefs which make up the ethos are typically organized around several themes: one's goals , one's identity, one's role in society, etc. These beliefs are widely shared by society members, appear as central topics on the public agenda, are frequently discussed in public discourse, are expressed in cultural products, are transmitted in educational system, serve as relevant references in decisions made by the leaders, and influence the choices regarding courses of action. They provide a sense of similarity and thus constitute one of the contextual bases of social identity.

Sources of the Ethos

The beliefs which make up a society's ethos evolve from the conditions under which the society lives over a long period of time, and the particular collective experiences that shape the society during this period. Under prolonged conditions of intractable conflict, when violent experiences are common collective experiences, the conflict comes to preoccupy most members of the society. They therefore develop an "ethos of conflict," which provides a clear picture of the conflict, its goals, its conditions, requirements, and images of one's own group and of the rival. The narrative of the ethos of conflict is supported by society's collective memory. Both narratives share similar themes (Bar-Tal, 1998, 2000). These themes include:

Goals: Societal beliefs about the justness of one's own goals, which, first of all, outline the goals in conflict, indicate their crucial importance and provide their explanations and rationales. In addition, these beliefs negate and delegitimize the goals of the other group. They motivate the society members to struggle and fight for their goals and allow group members to endure and bear the sacrifices, losses, stresses and costs of the intractable conflict.

Security: Societal beliefs about security stress the importance of personal safety and national survival, and outline the conditions for their achievement. In the context of intractable conflict, beliefs about military conditions which allow maintenance of security, including heroism on the part of the fighters, are of special importance. These beliefs are essential for a society engaged in intractable conflict which involves violence in the form of hostile acts and wars. They give security a high priority, serve as a rationale for personal and societal decisions and actions, mobilize the society members for active participation in the conflict, and prepare them to live in stressful conditions.

Delegitimization: Societal beliefs of delegitimizing the opponent concern beliefs which deny the adversary's humanity. These beliefs explain the causes of the conflict's outbreak, its continuation and the violence of the opponent. They also justify one's own hostile acts carried out against the rival group.

Self-image: Societal beliefs of positive collective self image concern the ethnocentric tendency to attribute positive traits, values and behavior to one's own society. In times of intractable conflict, special effort is made to propagate, on the one hand, characteristics related to courage, heroism, or endurance and, on the other hand, characteristics related to humaneness, morality, fairness, trustworthiness and progress. Those characteristics are presented in contrast to the enemy, allowing for a clear differentiation between the two parties. Moreover, these beliefs supply moral strength and a sense of own superiority.

Victimization: Societal beliefs of one's own victimization concern self-presentation as a victim, especially in the context of the intractable conflict. The focus of these beliefs is on the unjust harm, evil deeds and atrocities perpetrated by the adversary. They provide the moral incentive to seek justice and oppose the opponent as well as allow mobilization of moral, political and material support of the international community.

Patriotism: Societal beliefs of patriotism generate attachment to the country and society, by propagating loyalty, love, care and sacrifice. Patriotic beliefs increase cohesiveness and dedication, and serve an important function for mobilizing the society members to actively participate in the conflict and endure hardship and difficulties.

Unity: Societal beliefs of unity refer to the importance of ignoring internal conflicts and disagreements during intractable conflict in order to unite the forces in the face of the external threat. These beliefs strengthen the society from within, develop a consensus and feelings of belonging, increase solidarity, and allow directing society's forces and energy to coping with the enemy.

Peace: Finally, societal beliefs of peace refer to peace in general and utopic terms as the ultimate desire of the society. They present idyllic peace as an ultimate goal of the society and society members as "peace loving." Such beliefs have the role of inspiring hope and optimism. They strengthen positive self image and contribute to empathic self-presentation to the outside world.

Societal institutions actively impart such societal beliefs to form and strengthen the society's ethos of conflict. Together, these beliefs constitute part of the shared repertoire of the members of the society, and contribute to a common understanding. They also provide a basis for good communication, interdependence and the coordination of social activities, all of which are necessary for the effective functioning of the social systems.

Israeli Example

At present, the Israeli ethos of conflict that evolved within the framework of the intractable conflict with Arabs is a well-researched. The Israeli-Arab conflict has been going on for about 100 years, reaching its climax in the late forties, fifties, sixties and early seventies, when it had all the characteristics of an intractable conflict. In these violent years, societal beliefs of ethos of conflict were functional for coping with intractable conflict. They had the following contents:

1.Societal beliefs about the justness of one's own goals suggested that the most central goal has been to establish a Jewish State in the ancient Biblical homeland after two thousand years of exile. This goal was inspired by the nationalist ideology of Zionism. This ideology provided the Jews both with goals and the justification for them (Avineri, 1981). Historical, theological, national, existential, political, societal, and cultural arguments were used to justify these goals. These included arguments such as the following:

that the Jewish nation was founded in the ancient Land of Israel;

that during many years of ancient Jewish history the Land of Israel was the Jews' homeland;

that during their exile, Jews maintained close spiritual and physical ties with the Land of Israel, continuously aspiring to return to it;

that the continuity of Jewish life never ceased in the land; and

that the persistent experience of anti-Semitism in the Diaspora highlighted the Jewish people's need for a secure existence in their old homeland.

In the context of justifying the Israeli goals, attempts were made over many decades to refute Palestinian claims. The contested territory was often described as being sparsely populated by Arabs who, moreover, had only moved there in recent centuries. The Palestinian national identity was also denied; it was claimed that they are Arabs, part of the Arab nation. Finally, Palestinians' claims of attachment to the land was questioned by describing the land as desolate, neglected, swampy, desert-like, and primitive, until the Jews' came to look after it again properly when they returned.

In the last few decades, however, the conflicting goals concern mostly the territories Israel conquered during the 1967 war-- at present the focus is on the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights. These territories, or parts of them, are viewed by a substantial segment of the Israeli society as necessary for guaranteeing the security of the Jewish State and/or as a part of the ancient homeland to which these Jews claim an exclusive right. Jerusalem is of special importance; it is viewed as a holy place for Jews, Moslems and Christians. Finally, the contradicting goals touch the issue of the "right to return" for the Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel which is viewed as threatening act to the Jewish population of Israel.

2. Societal beliefs about security provided one of the crucial reasons to establish a Jewish state. The need to achieve existential security underlined the aspirations of Zionism and is the most central need and value of the Israeli society (see Bar-Tal, Jacobson, & Klieman, 1998; Yaniv, 1993). During the intractable conflict, the Israeli Jews have always believed that the security of the country and of its Jewish citizens was under serious **threat (Arian, 1995; Stein & Brecher, 1976; Stone, 1982). Therefore, security acquired the status of a cultural master-symbol in the Israeli Jewish ethos (Liebman & Don Yehiya, 1983) and the Israeli society became a "nation in arms" or "nation in uniform," living in a situation that has been termed a "dormant war" (Horowitz, 1993).

Security played a crucial role in many major governmental decisions, constantly being given preference over other considerations. In fact, for many years it became a sort of rubber stamp for many kinds of laws, policies, and actions, going beyond the military and political spheres into the economic, legal, social, educational, and even cultural domains (Bar-Tal, Jacobson, & Klieman, 1998; Kimmerling, 1993; Perlmutter, 1969). Also, the society did all it could to induce its members to serve in the armed forces, and to motivate the best qualified to volunteer for the most important institutions and units (e.g., the air force, the commando units, the Mossad, or the General Security Services). All of channels of communication and agents of socialization paid tribute to the security forces (Lissak, 1984). The fundamental societal beliefs of the ethos delineated the conditions that were assumed to ensure security.

First, it was assumed that Israel has to build mighty military strength of highest quality to deter Arab aggression.

Second, it was stressed that Israel had the right and duty to defend itself against threats by means of its own armed force and even initiate military acts, including wars o prevent possible Arab attacks on Israel.

Third, Israel should not rely on help from foreign military forces or be dependant on international public opinion or the views of foreign leaders and international organizations (e.g., the UN).

Fourth, land was regarded as the country's important national strategic asset in maintaining security.

3. Societal beliefs about the negative image of the opponent delegitimize Arabs (see review by Bar-Tal & Teichman, 2005). From the very beginning the encounters between Jews, mostly from Europe, and Arabs, living in Palestine, fostered negative stereotyping (Lustick, 1982). Arabs were attributed such labels as primitive, uncivilized, savage, and backward. In time, as the conflict deepened and became more violent, Arabs were perceived as murders, a bloodthirsty mob, treacherous, cowardly, cruel, and wicked. After the establishment of the state, these delegitimizing beliefs about Arabs still prevailed and were transmitted through institutional channels (e.g., Podeh, 2002; Domb, 1982). In addition, Arabs were blamed for the continuation of the conflict, for the eruption of all of the wars and military clashes, and for intransigently rejecting a peaceful resolution (Harkabi, 1977, Landau, 1971). They were also characterized as striving to annihilate the state of Israel and to drive the Jewish population into the sea.

4. Societal beliefs about positive collective in-group image involve the attribution of positive traits, values, intentions, and behaviors to the Israeli Jewish society. These beliefs stood in absolute contrast to the delegitimizing beliefs about the Arabs. The Israeli Jews viewed themselves as "new people," reborn in the land of Israel (Hofman, 1970). The positive stereotypes presented them firstly as tenacious, hard-working, courageous, modern, and intelligent, and secondly as moral and humane. With respect to the first set of traits, various stories and myths were amassed about the Jews' behavior in peace and war times, while the second group traits referred to Israeli Jews' behaviors towards Arabs. Positive in-group presentation also invoked the Jewish heritage. Jewish culture, religion, and traditions were regarded as lying at the heart of Western civilization and morality. Also there were segments in the society that thought that Jews are "Chosen People" and a "light unto the nations."

5. Societal beliefs about victimization presented Israeli Jews as the victims of conflict. They are associated with the beliefs concerning a positive in-group image and the delegitimization of Arabs, since these beliefs support Israeli Jews' perception of themselves as victims of unjust aggression by the Arabs. Beginning with the early encounters with the Arabs, attempts to harm Jews physically, halt their immigration, or prevent them from settling in the homeland were considered by the Israeli Jews as evidence of their victimization (Hareven, 1983). These beliefs were greatly reinforced when, following the establishment of Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states tried to annihilate the new state, and continued to attack it. The wars that were fought, the Arab embargo on trade with Israel, the terrorist attacks on Israeli and non-Israeli Jews, all confirmed to the Israeli Jews their status as the victims. These beliefs fitted in with the Jewish tradition of viewing Jews as victims in a hostile world (Bar-Tal & Antebi, 1992; Liebman, 1978).

6. Societal beliefs about patriotism during the intractable conflict propagated extreme sacrifices, including settlement of outlying or desolate areas, economic hardship and prolonged military service or reserve duty (Ben-Amos & Bar-Tal, 2004). These beliefs even called for the ultimate sacrifice as part of the violent confrontation with the Arabs: Israelis had to be willing to die. Those who acted as models of patriotism were glorified, while those who left the country (called "deserters") or did not fulfill their duties to the state (e.g., by not serving in the army) were stigmatized. Such patriotic beliefs increased cohesiveness and played an important role in mobilizing the members of Israeli society to actively participate in the conflict and to endure hardship and even loss of life (Elon, 1971). Special efforts were made to impart patriotism through various societal institutions, beginning with schools, the army and ending with mass media and culture.

7. Societal beliefs about unity have helped Israelis to ignore internal disagreements and conflicts so as to unite society in the face of external threats. Israeli Jewish society strove to foster unity and build a sense of belonging and solidarity. Heritage and religion were emphasized, and an attempt was made to minimize the ethnic differences within a society whose members came from various parts of the world. Unity was also reinforced by setting lines of agreement in the form of a "consensus" and sanctions were applied to those who expressed opinions or exhibited behavior that did not fit in with the accepted consensus (Elon, 1971). Consensus pertained particularly to societal beliefs about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the justness of Israel's goals and the means of ensuring security (Lahav, 1993).

8. Societal beliefs about peace center on the Israeli Jewish society's desire to live in peace and elevation of peace as a value. Peace was conceived of as a dream, a prayer, and a belief in utopian and idyllic images. Hence Israeli Jews were stereotyped as peace-loving people forced by circumstances to engage in violent conflict. They presented themselves as ready to negotiate to achieve peace, whereas the Arabs, rejecting any peaceful resolution of the conflict were seen as the sole obstacle to progress.

These eight themes of the ethos of conflict gave Israeli-Jewish society its dominant orientation in the context of the intractable conflict, especially before the establishment of the state and during the first three decades of its existence. At that time, the themes were widely shared by the great majority of the society's members, and were perceived as characterizing the society (e.g., Liebman & Don-Yehiya, 1983; Zerubavel, 1995). These beliefs were maintained by societal, political, and cultural institutions (e.g., Ben-Ezer, 1999; El Asmar, 1986; Shohat, 1989; Urian, 1997), were used to justify society's policies, decisions, and actions (e.g., Bar-Tal, Jacobson, & Klieman, 1998; Yaniv, 1993) and transmitted to the new generations by the educational system (e.g., Podeh, 2002). On their basis, language, symbols, values, goals, myths and norms were constructed. With the beginning of the peace process, after the visit of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in Israel, the dominance of the ethos of conflict diminished gradually, but the re-eruption of the violent conflict with the Palestinians in 2000 is strengthening it again.


To conclude, it is important to say that because the beliefs of ethos of conflict feed continuation of the conflict, there is need to change them in order to lead to conflict resolution. The necessary change of wide scope can only begin when the context of conflict changes, that is when violence is reduced considerably and negotiation begins. It is especially important to change the beliefs related to justness of conflict goals, delegitmization of the opponent, feelings of victimhood and notions of peace. Specifically, the beliefs about contradictory goals have to change in order to remove the epistemic foundations of the conflict. Instead there is need to develop new goals and their justifications about the need to resolve the conflict peacefully and live in peace with the past enemy. It is necessary to legitimize the construction of the new relations and begin to construct a new image for the peace partner. Of crucial significance, after years of delegitimization, is legitimization and personalization of the past rival. The new beliefs should also recognize the "contribution" of one's own group to the outbreak of the conflict and its extension, the misdeeds of one's own group in the course of the conflict, including the responsibility for various atrocities, if done. The described changes reduce the monopolization of the victimhood feelings, which characterizes groups in intractable conflict.

Finally, it is important to evolve new beliefs about the nature of peace, which on the one hand, describe realistically the meaning of living in peace, and on the other hand, present the concrete conditions which are necessary for achieving and living in peace. An important condition is the requirement to solve the out-breaking conflicts and disagreements via peaceful mechanisms such as negotiation, mediation, or arbitration. In addition, it should be well propagated that conflict resolutions require compromises and concessions. With time, there is need to evolve a new ethos -- an ethos of peace that will support the process of reconciliation, by providing a dominant orientation to the society that embarked on the road to peace.

Current Implications

This is the second of four articles contributed to BI by Dan Bar-Tal, a leading social psychologist of conflict.  Here he explains the idea of the "conflict ethos" which is the thought process and worldview which is formed when people become trapped in intractable conflicts, and which then creates a viscious cycle by trapping them further.  

This article was published in July, 2004, and it is notable that not all that much has changed with regard to the Israeli/Palestinian situation.  Israel no longer controls Gaza (it left in 2005) but it does still occupy the West Bank and the Golan Heights, which remain highly disputed territories.

Security is still a dominant concern, driving much personal and political decision making in the country. This is particularly true due to the failure of the land-for-peace attempt Israel made when they unilaterally withdrew from Gaza.  Rather than winning concessions or reduced animosity from the Palestinians, the Palestinians began shooting rockets into Israel from Gaza upon Israel's withdrawl. That greatly strengthened the conflict ethos, which otherwise might have further diminished. (Indeed, its weakening is what enabled the disengagement to take place.)

The delegitimization of the Palestinians is still strong, as is Israel's sense of victimhood.  This drives the Israelis to treat the Palestinians in ways that drive a similar conflict ethos on the other side, and the vicious circle of provocation, fear, hatred, and attacks continues.

The one thing that does not seem to ring so true anymore is the sense of unity Bar-Tal describes here.  Israeli citizens were deeply divided over support for and opposition to Israel's withdrawl from the Gaza strip. That is no longer an issue, but the goals for Israel, the long-term status of the still-occupied territories and the nature of the Israeli state are still divisive issues.

Some advocate that Israel permanently annex the entire West Bank, but then it isn't clear what happens to the Palestinians who live there.  Will they be forcibly removed?  To where?  Will they be given second-class citizenship, allowed to live there but not vote?  That suggestion is what brings some to characterize Israel as an "apartheid state."  Will they be given full citizenship?  If so, demography will mean that Jews will not be the majority people in Israel in several decades. Most Jews find that an unacceptable fulture.  (Gordis, 2017)

Since none of these are good answers and world pressure continues against Israel, the increasingly small "peace community," still thinks Israel should give the land back to the Palestinians. But the searing Gaza experience, the Palestinians' refusal still to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, and continuing Palestinian violence against Israeli Jewish civilians makes that hard to do. It also means that the conflict ethos that Bar-Tal described here in 2004 is alive and well in 2017.

-- Heidi Burgess. July, 2017.

Back to Essay Top

Daniel Gordis "Israel Can't Avoid the Settlement Talk Anymore" Bloomberg View.  Feb. 3, 2017.  


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Use the following to cite this article:
Bar-Tal, Daniel. "Ethos of Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2004 <>.

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