On the Trauma Embedded in our Response to Israel and Beyond

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Trauma, I have come to learn, can be with a small “t” or a big one. It comes to mean, ultimately, a response of losing connection with ourselves and each other. It can also mean adapting well to a toxic culture, while in reality, sensitivity and humanity have been buried.

A quote: “All the men were killed, and any men who were captured alive were tortured… the women were gang raped. Some were killed, some tortured. …vengeance could always be a motive for slaying hostages. Babies were invariably killed. (Earlier on there was mention of the babies being beheaded).”

I was hearing/seeing about the Hamas attack on Israel, feeling I had already been reading about it in my beginning foray into a book sitting on my shelf for about ten years. It wasn’t a book or a quote about Israel; instead, the above quotation from page 19 of the book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comaches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (S. C. Gwynne, Scribner, 2010).

It felt like the same, though, and I was stunned. I felt: How could anyone behead babies? How could Nazi soldiers have used Jewish babies for target practice? How could Comanches have done the same?

It was October 2023, and before I knew it, I had heard daily from a dear friend in Jerusalem, a New Yorker/now also an Israeli chemistry professor at a prestigious university. She was praying that her daughter-in-law would deliver her first child without violence. She was praying for the men called up for military duty.

Rachel (not her real name) was terrified and mortified, and she was angry with me. I was ignorant, she said, as she railed against the American left, which was being so cavalier, thinking Israel deserved the attacks on October 6. She had taught and done research with Arabs and Palestinians all of her time in Israel. This was not about the Palestinians, she said, but about Hamas, who wanted the end of Israel at all costs. As she explained her viewpoint to me, she seemed harsh; no doubt she was frustrated by what felt to her as my ignorance. Finally, I asked her to stop shaming me, to which she agreed.

Rachel has told me I am ignorant-that I have been brainwashed. And I have experienced what a lot of American Jews and what a lot of liberals perhaps have: guilt regarding Israel. It’s a guilt about hating anyone (it can also be a burden to inherit hatred even if it is understandable, even though it’s understandable that it can be transmitted by parents and grandparents after the grotesque brutality inflicted on them by the Nazis). At the same time, I have been clear, clearer than clear: the attacks by Hamas were atrocities.

Babies and civilians were killed, taken hostage, dismembered, and beheaded. It was all too much. And because I was also worried about Palestinian casualties, and because I didn’t see Palestinians in one way only, I hurt Rachel’s feelings. And for this, I am truly sorry because I think we both left the realm of feelings too quickly to begin to discuss and question each other’s vision of Israel (hers) as completely innocent and mine as questioning this stance.

Meanwhile, it has kept getting worse on all sides. A portion of the American left has gone so far as to cheer the atrocities, saying Israel has gotten what it deserves. Then came the footage of Palestinians bombed and bombarded during what Israel alleged were, in fact, attacks on Hamas that crushed many too many civilians.

From the beginning of this on October 7th, antisemitism began to show up on college campuses in the US, not particularly or by any means only anti-Israel gestures but out-and-out anti-Jewish ones. As a Jew who has been not religious per se but Jewish in my intestinal tract, as I put it, I began to feel more torn. And even more scared than torn, not just for me but for people I know with names more obviously Jewish.

I want the Palestinians to be treated with dignity and to have land that is theirs. And yet I keep hearing that Yasser Arafat was to sign a two-state agreement, which he didn’t. And I don’t understand, and I don’t see much interest around me in understanding better and more fully the complex political situation between Palestine and Israel.

Now it feels the region is smoldering: rockets from Yemen to Israel, Iran being mentioned by the US as a potential aggressor, and chaos all around. So I am scared, as a Jew, as an American, as a person.

I do want to return, though, to trauma. We live, as trauma specialist Gabor Maté states, in a toxic culture that has been filled with traumatized and traumatizing institutions and people. In the end, we are intertwined, oppressed and oppressors. We inherit the problems we or our ancestors caused. We live with them, or we ignore them; we struggle with them, or we deny their existence only to leave them for our children.

I return to the line in the earlier quote regarding the Comanches: “Vengeance could always be a motive for slaying hostages.” When people have felt humiliated, ridiculed, and violated in a myriad of ways, they can become brutal. Side by side with a religion that promises rewards for violent martyrdom on earth, life on earth becomes pretty meaningless. What becomes full of glory is dying well, meaning dying in control and killing the enemy.

I return, perhaps, as we need to keep on returning to the state of trauma within ourselves. Even those of us who are therapists cannot help the fact that trauma has touched us and touched not only the way we think and feel but also the way we respond to each other.

In the therapy tradition many of us were raised on, there was a tacit self-righteousness on the part of psychoanalysts and teachers in the discipline. They knew the truth, and if we didn’t concur, we were resistant, regressed, or heaven forbid, “borderline.”

In the land of trauma-informed therapy, we have escaped a lot of the gross inequality between therapist and client/patient. We have seen more mutuality, more compassion, more curiosity, and more humility about working on our own side of the street, not for a short amount of time but rather ongoingly.

During this past summer, even in the idyllic time we spent on the island of Elba off Tuscany in Italy, I drifted between Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and his recent The Myth of Normal. In this quiet place, things were calm. I was calm, everything being relative. I was calm enough to go in and out of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a book on addiction, on the need to understand the pain a person with an addiction flees and the respite gotten over and over from that pain through the addiction.

Gabor Maté has treated the most deprived, abused, the most intransigent, the saddest with so many illnesses and some with no hope for escape. He addresses and shares his own addiction, an addiction to classical music CDs, which at first seems ludicrously out of place against a backdrop of severe, illegal, and dangerous substance abuse. But then it doesn’t, as he races across town while his patient is delivering a baby so he can feed his own desperation.

He is equalizing. He looks into the faces of the addicts, and he sees himself. And finally, I found someone whose writing equalizes me and doesn’t judge me for being a therapist whose trauma hasn’t left me. And so I have been struggling to be sensitive to the marks left by trauma, both in my work and in my life. Even my reading most of the summer- back and forth between the two books-announced to me that it was my time to deal, with help and as best I could, with my own wounds.

Moving into the land of politics, which is not really detached from the other aspects confronting any of us, I want to try for accountability without harshness. After all, I have absorbed some of Carl Jung’s work on the shadow, with the fact that the less we can integrate the parts inside us that terrify us, the more we project them onto others whom we demonize and degrade. I have absorbed the fact that in our Western civilization, we have our histories of violence, genocides, slavery, and weapons of mass destruction. We are not entirely above what is happening.

I feel that as trauma therapists and as clients and people compelled to work on our own trauma, we owe it to ourselves as well to try to stay away from absolutes. To begin to understand history so we don’t repeat it compulsively is to question the version we have or that which has been handed to us.

It is easy to talk about interrupting our own assumptions, but it is harder to do it. As such, while this is about Palestinians living in an open-air prison and about the dangers of Hamas, it is also about more. It is about our tendency to be self-righteous rather than try to understand where the other person/people/nation is coming from. What’s more, it seems like our job to try to understand, again, not only the facts if we should be lucky and motivated enough to see them but to delve into our own emotional responses to them.

We are living in a larger space of unspeakable violence, horrific polarization, and the hubris of facile righteousness on all sides. We are not immune. Progressives are not immune. Therapists are not immune, and maybe it’s our turn to question the rightness of our opinions precisely because even if they should be right, we’ll need more than that in our corner. We’ll need to understand the hardness that the Comanches embodied, the urge to violence, and the conviction in some quarters that the only rewards come in an afterlife and that they come as a reward for the same violence.

We are a long way from the sense that everything and everyone is connected, that we are all everything, with all the possibilities, that we are all righteous, but all part of the trauma of victimhood and that of perpetrators, in the present and historically.

For those of us capable of knowing that ambivalence abounds, I pray in my own agnostic way — even for myself — that we attempt to find a way to study history from different sides. And that every side can hopefully include empathy, coming from within and moving outwards. If we don’t start communicating from a place of self-reflection and honesty, how can we expect that from others?

I feel we will get nowhere if we are not interested in the how but also in the why. Victims become perpetrators; hate can be addictive also because it avoids the worst of feelings-helplessness. Investigating the facts and the facts of how we are feeling and what traumas are triggered also, for us, does not have the adrenaline thrill of even temporary omnipotence. It is not a sure thing, no, and might even seem a naïve attempt to those who are strategizing from military points of view only or taking a one-sided moralistic position.

It can be a radical notion to emphasize not only physical and military boundaries but the feelings lying under the violence that is in our physical, political, and emotional midst.

And if it seems naïve, then perhaps so be it. There also may not be any other viable way past painting each other in colors that would leave no room for air.


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