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  • samchris51

I am one of you

I had another one of those difficult text exchanges with family in Israel this week, where they ended with the statement, “It’s them or us.”  Implying that by refusing to unconditionally support everything Israel is doing in Gaza and the West Bank, I am with “them.”  These exchanges always leave me deeply disturbed.  Perhaps it is because I was raised with that bifurcated understanding of identity.  In the version of the model, I was raised in “us” was Polish Christians and “them” was Polish Jews.  There was no existential threat between the two groups but a clear division.  I believed I was one of “us” until at the age of 65 when I found out I was one of “them.”  So, to now have “them” suggest that I am not “us” but “them” is particularly painful in a way that I am not able to articulate clearly yet.  At the same time, I can acknowledge that for my extended family, it must be difficult to absorb a family member they believe is with “them.”

Issues of personal identity aside, I find the way I am dismissed hard to accept.  I want to affirm that I am with you, I am “us,” and it is because I am “us” that I hold the views I hold and say the things I say. 

I want to get them to understand that as long as Israelis and Palestinians experience each other as an existential threat, conflict is inevitable.  As long as the conflict continues, blood will be spilled on both sides, and both societies will become increasingly rigid and intransigent in their views of the other.  This will only benefit the peddlers of hate and breed more extremists on both sides.  It further undermines the possibility of peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, two people who claim a legitimate right to the same narrow strip of land.

When I look at the conflict through the eyes of a trauma therapist, with a trauma-informed lens, it helps me understand how my family members and the nation of Israel respond.  The definition of trauma I like to use is any event that overwhelms our coping abilities.  The attack of October 7th by Hamas upon Israeli communities and participants at a music festival overwhelmed the coping skills of all Israelis.  Not only had they believed until that moment that in Israel, they were safe from such threats, but the barbarity of the attack was impossible to comprehend and integrate into a cogent narrative. 

We are all programmed to respond to threats in one of four ways: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn (try to appease the source of the threat).  These responses are reflexive, encoded in our limbic system, and intended to ensure the species' survival.  The Israeli response was to fight.  War was declared on Hamas.  Unfortunately, in that reflexive response, Israel walked into the trap set for it by Hamas.  The Israeli response could not at that moment differentiate Hamas from the Palestinian people living in Gaza, whom the defense minister referred to as “human animals” and others spoke of “flattening Gaza” or even “nuking it.” All spoke reflexively from their limbic system. In fight mode.

Unfortunately, more than three months later, much of the Israeli nation, including its leaders, is stuck in a trauma response.  They experience ongoing existential risk, unable to recognize that the circumstances have changed. Now, their actions may not be the most adaptive, but they serve only to perpetuate their perilous predicament.  Israelis are confused and hurt that the world fails to see their predicament and expects them to justify their actions toward those threatening their existence.   

Ironically and painfully, the State of Israel finds itself accused of genocide in front of the International Court of Justice, which was created in 1945 by the United Nations Charter.  South Africa brought the case against Israel under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.  The term Genocide was first employed at Nuremberg in 1944 by a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent to describe the Nazis’ systematic murder of about six million Jews and others based on their ethnicity.  The Genocide Convention was the first human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948. It signified the international community's commitment to 'never again' after the atrocities committed during the Second World War.   

It is profoundly sad that Israel, a country founded in the wake of the near wholesale destruction of European Jewry a country which sees itself as a haven for Jews from all over the world stands accused of wishing to exterminate another people, a people which it sees as a threat to its existence.  Personally, I do not think the allegations are justified; however, the fact that the way Israel has conducted its war against Hamas provides evidence for making such allegations is distressing.  For most Israelis, the fact that such a court case has been brought against Israel does not cause a moment of reflection. Instead, it brings forth another reflexive trauma response.  It is perceived as a threat that must be fought off, evidence of how the world is biased against them and of the prevalence of antisemitism.  So, the content of the 84-page application is summarily dismissed.

Most Israelis continue to live in a trauma response, remaining hypervigilant to the presence of danger, unable to distinguish true danger from the perception of danger, and insisting on responding with the fight reflex, which they believe has served them well.  As a result, they cannot be curious about how they might have contributed to the situation they find themselves in now.  How by responding to the Hamas attack in the way they did, they walked into the trap set for them by Hamas.  The peace movement in Israel has been greatly weakened, Israel’s reputation internationally is suffering, and the cause of the Palestinians is gaining supporters.  All of which benefits Hamas and is consistent with their goals.

It is not my intention to diminish Hamas’ responsibility for the war in Gaza and the suffering of the Gazan people.  Sadly, however, their suffering serves the interests of Hamas.  Not only does it present Israel as a state engaged in a brutal war against the people of Gaza, killing thousands of women and children and condemning the survivors to continue to flee to find safety, housing, food, and water, but it also provides Hamas with thousands of new recruits. 

Yes, Hamas created a subterranean military base in Gaza for the sole purpose of attacking Israel.  They did so with the help of Netanyahu, who preferred to support Hamas, an extremist group that was committed to the destruction of Israel than to engage in peace talks that might have resulted in the creation of a Palestinian State.  Israel has used the existence of tunnels to justify its bombing of Gaza.  Artificial Intelligence identified targets for the bombing in a platform called the Gospel.  This system was first described by the Israeli-Palestinian publication +972 Magazine and the Hebrew-language outlet Local Cal based on numerous interviews with current and former sources in Israel’s intelligence community.  They describe a process whereby targets were being generated so fast by the program in response to pressure from commanders that IDF members tasked with verifying the targets were spending approximately 20 seconds per target.  The process killed thousands of innocent people and allowed for the widespread flattening of large swaths of urban areas, rendering them uninhabitable. Israel persists in arguing that it did everything it could to avoid civilian casualties and that "it has the most ethical army in the world." A traumatized person is operating entirely in the limbic system, the brain's emotional center. From that place, they can not access the cognitive skills necessary to accept responsibility for a situation.

Israel claims that the war in Gaza is entering a new phase where the fighting will be more strategic and thus reduce the number of innocent victims.   That brings little relief to the two million people in Gaza who are unable to get adequate nutrition, water, or medical assistance.  The challenges faced by humanitarian agencies committed to delivering needed aid to Palestinians in Gaza are enormous.  Getting enough aid into the country is extremely challenging because the number of entries into Gaza is restricted, and all trucks must undergo meticulous inspections of all their cargo.  Once the aid is inside Gaza, distribution presents new challenges.  Israel has restricted the amount of fuel coming into Gaza, which means that intermittently, vehicles used to distribute the aid cannot operate, and there is no electricity necessary for maintaining communications within Gaza. In addition, ongoing fighting often creates unsafe conditions for aid distribution.  The population is densely packed in the south of Gaza, and conditions have become quite desperate, adding to the risks to aid workers.  This is not all Israel’s fault, but the fact that Israel is not willing to look at how they are contributing to these extreme conditions and seeks only to deflect any blame is problematic.  It is behavior very much consistent with a trauma response. 

I recognize that the fact that I live in Chicago and was not raised in Israel colors my understanding and, therefore, my response to what is being experienced by Israelis, including members of my family.  But as a therapist, I'm afraid I have to disagree that I am not able to understand their experience.  In my profession, I am called upon to listen with an attuned ear and an open heart so that I can understand the experience of all my clients and be helpful to them.  If I could only treat the people I shared life experiences with, my practice would be very limited.  I believe that I have taken time to listen to family members who feel that it is “us or them,” and I do understand that they are still responding as traumatized people who are still grieving.  At the same time, I despair about the future of Israel. 

I have children and grandchildren.  I wonder whether they will ever know the Israel I saw in my four visits before October 7th.  It was a vibrant, exciting society with many inner contradictions, but where people were able to acknowledge those contradictions and try to find ways to reconcile them.  Or will they be confronted with the option of visiting fortress Israel, a country under constant threat from within and outside?  Will they have any interest in going to such an Israel?  Will I? 

This has been a very long-winded way of affirming that I feel very much an “us” and have a very personal interest in seeing Israel thrive after this war.  I fear that the course of action Israel is currently embarking on, although understandable using a trauma-informed lens, makes it very unlikely that the Israel that will emerge after the war will be a place I will feel comfortable in or a place my children and grandchildren will want to visit.  That possibility makes me very sad.

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