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In Memoriam 

Dan Bar-On

By Niza Yanay

Dan Bar-On, an Israeli Social Psychologist and Professor at Ben Gurion University, passed away on September 4th, 2008 in Tel Aviv after two years of illness. His untimely death left many friends, colleagues, students, readers of his many books, and participants in the workshops he facilitated, in great grief for the man whose pioneering work on intergenerational and intercultural conflicts has been so meaningful to our life in many ways, a man who has changed our ways of understanding the relations between memory, psychology, forgiveness and social change. Much has been written on his academic achievements, his international prizes, and his influential books such as Legacy of Silence: Encounters with Children of the Third Reich (1991), Fear and Hope: Three Generations of Holocaust Survivors’ Families (1994), and The Indescribable and the Undiscussible: Reconstructing Human Discourse After Trauma (1999).

I believe Dan Bar-On’s personal and scientific pursuits are as precious and as significant as his scholarship. The first question Dan Bar-On asked me when I came back to Israel in 1985 after my Ph.D. abroad was, “Why did you come back”? This question reflected his criticism of the Israeli occupation but also his curiosity to hear “my story”, to know my motivations, ways of thinking and feelings. This was Dan, always reflecting, asking for a story and himself contributing something he just had seen or thought or came to learn from others, invigorating his interlocutor’s awareness of a person of unusual powers and contradictions, demanding but warm, desiring to express himself but also to listen to the other, his blue eyes penetrating as he watched you speak, noticing your reactions and always opening a space for a personal story that led to a philosophical or psychological or ethical conclusion. I miss him. He was my friend in the Department of Behavioral Sciences. I could approach him with a question and leave him with the feeling that I had come to understand the issue more clearly and in a broader, existential and relational context.

His greatest concern was for individuals, groups and nations who went through trauma. Suffering from the traumas of war himself he dedicated his adult life as a scholar and activist to the study of conflict and peace. First as a therapist in Kibbutz Revivim (where he lived for 25 years) and later as a scholar based at Ben Gurion University, he studied the emotional and experiential narratives of second and third generation of Holocaust survivors to understand how trauma is passed and circulates among the children of trauma survivors, how psychological “walls” (defenses) are created by trauma and continue to affect our social and national reality. When no one in Israel (or Europe or America) could imagine the possibility of working with Nazi perpetrators, Dan brought together in 1988 (until 1992) children of German Nazi perpetrators to reflect on their personal and collective histories as victims and victimizers. His innovative method of storytelling freed them to share their fears, anger, shame, memories and silences. This courageous, controversial and pioneering work led to another revolutionary workshop that brought together in 1992 children of Holocaust survivors and Nazi perpetrators to work together. Through the method ‘To Reflect and Trust’ (TRT) they shared their hostilities in order to develop inconceivable but necessary trust relations.

When Dan showed in our department the BBC documentary of this workshop (filmed on Time Watch, October 1993), everyone remained silent and astounded. He was very disappointed by our reaction, our difficulty to overcome barriers and prejudices toward “the other.” Only years later I realized the depth of his understanding and his theoretical and political message: that reconciliation must start from the very place which we find the hardest to forgive. A turning point for him came in 1998 when the group, in his words, “was willing to bring in practitioners from current conflicts, so Palestinians and Israelis and people from Northern Ireland and from South Africa, could see if what we did is relevant for them.” Sensitive as he was, he came to understand “how much of the problems that I see in daily life in Israel are actually related to unresolved issues from the Holocaust.” And activist as he was, this insight led to the fruitful collaboration with Dr. Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University. Together they co-founded and co-directed PRIME (Peace Research Institute in the Middle East) at Talitha Kumi (near Beit Jala) an organization devoted to grassroots Israeli-Palestinian conciliation and peacebuilding. This collaboration also led to the Israeli-Palestinian Shared History Project – the teaching of Middle East (two version) history (Palestinian and Jewish) in Israeli and Palestinian classrooms – which was based on dual narratives created by teachers brought together from both sides. This model which has been translated into a number of languages and used in countries in Europe is still ongoing. Once again like many of his subversive and visionary works, the project was conceived much before Israelis and Palestinians could digest it and see its impact and necessity.

Dan Bar-On was a realist intellectual and activist; he continuously reexamined his work, and time and again asked himself if dialogue groups can force psychological and social change, or are they only fulfilling his own self needs? But he was also a humanist and a dreamer, and he never ceased hoping that our better understanding of our defenses and psychological limitations will create a better world for generations to come. His legacy must be preserved in our memory.


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