Sunday, March 01, 2009

Israel's Trauma Psychology and the Attack on Gaza

By Avigail Abarbanel
Sunday 4th January 2009

One of the things that is not being discussed much in the media is how much talk there is in Israel about attacking Iran. Word on the (Israeli) street is that an air attack on Iran's nuclear reactors is imminent.Israel has been itching for a 'good war' for a while now. The botched attack on Lebanon in 2006 was a psychological disappointment that did not fulfil its purpose, and only led to a deepening chasm between the political and military arms in Israel. An Israeli friend told me in disgust the other day, that there is an atmosphere of 'national orgasm' in Israel about the prospect of attacking Iran. While people are being bombed in Gaza, all Israelis can talk about is the coming attack on Iran.

But there is a link between the two.Israel's social problems have grown exponentially over the past 15 years. It's a very different Israel now than the one I grew up in. There is more violent and organised crime than ever before, and more domestic violence and abuse of children than ever. There are more drugs and drug use, and they have drink-driving, something I have never encountered while I was still living there. This is reflected in official reports as well as in the daily newspapers. My brother who lives in Israel described to me how soldiers who spend their military service in the Occupied Palestinian territories implementing Israel's brutal occupation, come home on weekends only to get involved in drunken armed brawls and murders. This was unheard of in my time.

Israelis have never been particularly kind to each other. It's one of the reasons I left actually. In my late twenties I started to grow weary of the unkind, harsh and unforgiving atmosphere around me. It was a tough place to live in not because of our 'enemies' but because of how people treated one another. You would believe that we were all enemies rather than people who have some kind of a shared heritage. The only thing that could unite people and temporarily brought out more kindness and a sense of cooperation was a feeling of being under collective threat, and in particular a 'good wholesome war'. I lived through the war of 1967 and the national euphoria it generated, and the 1973 'Yom Kippur' war and the attrition war that followed. During the time of the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 I was a soldier myself. My last war in Israel was the 1991 Gulf war, when an Iraqi Scud missile landed only a few metres from my apartment building in Ramat-Gan near Tel-Aviv.

I remember well the atmosphere before, during and after wars. These were the best times. You could feel a change in the air. People seemed to have a renewed sense of purpose. Even long-standing family or neighbourly feuds were put aside, and everyone helped everyone. There was more patience and we children were picked on a lot less. Although I was scared of wars I remember also feeling excited. It helped that we all believed the myth that all of our wars were of the 'milchemet ein breira' type - 'no choice wars'. The kind that was imposed on us and that we 'reluctantly' had to get involved in, and only in self defence. We also believed in 'tohar ha'neshek' - 'purity of arms', that is the myth that our soldiers always act honourably and only kill when they have no choice and never unarmed civilians. We were always the 'good guys' in all our collective stories, which of course added to the general fuzzy patriotic feeling.

Israel and perhaps the rest of the world too, refuse to see that Israel's problems are a direct result of deep-seated Jewish trauma and its consequences. Israel's response to trauma was to arm itself to the teeth, and to become an incredibly aggressive country while perpetuating inside and out the myth of victimhood and goodness. As a psychotherapist I recognise this reaction to trauma. Some people who have been traumatised respond to it by becoming very powerful and very frightening. This is a reaction to having been hurt, and a response to the desire to never be hurt again.

Unfortunately this isn't a good or wholesome way to live. This is a way of life that perpetuates inner conflicts, leads to isolation and invites animosity from others. It's hard to spread good will and kindness in the world when one's inner world is based on an adversarial foundation. What is true for individuals can also be true for whole societies. Israel had a chance to heal its traumatised Jewish past but instead chose to perpetuate the trauma and pass it on to subsequent generations. The very creation of the state of Israel is a reaction to trauma. If you understand the dynamic of trauma and the solutions people try to find to it you can understand why Israel's existence has always been fraught with trouble. The fact that Israel has never used its education system and national institutions to facilitate healing from trauma is sad but not unusual. Trauma becomes so much a part of the sufferer's identity, that to heal means to change the very foundation of who you are, something most people, let alone entire cultures are rarely prepared to do.

Many Israelis who have left, have done so for the same reason I did. We were all searching for a calmer, kinder way of life, where people could be friendly and helpful to one another rather than nasty and suspicious. It's hard to leave one's home but if home is so harmful you just have to do it because the personal cost of staying is higher than the cost of the grief over losing your home.

This latest vicious war crime that is unfolding in Gaza and the increasing talk about attacking Iran are a response to yet another turn in the cycle of Israel's collective trauma. Trauma always follows a cyclical dynamic. It's hard to live with it, with the constant fear and mistrust. It's exhausting and demoralising and it can take up every bit of energy you have to just get up in the morning and get on with your daily tasks. People can go on for a while like this, somehow coping from day to day. But things inevitably come to a head and life becomes unmanageable. This is usually a familiar enough point in the cycle and the sufferer would often think 'Oh, no, not again!'

At those times people desperately search for something, some kind of temporary solution to relieve the suffering, a new diet perhaps, a new job, renovations, or a war. This is often accompanied by a desperate belief that this time they will find the ultimate solution to everything, and all will be well after that. I think Israelis really believe that if they can crush Hamas in Gaza, all their problems will be solved and they will live happily ever after free from Qassam rockets or any kind of Palestinian resistance. The question of the future of the Palestinians doesn't even come into it. When one suffers trauma, one's thinking is always short-term and self-centred. The focus is always on one's own short-term survival.

Trauma is often accompanied by denial and people spend their lives looking for solutions outside themselves. In aggressive and violent responses to trauma people will believe that it is 'that person' or 'that group' that is causing their problem, and will try to do something to hurt or eliminate them. People eventually come to therapy when they have tried everything and realise that outside measures cannot solve their problem, that there may be something about themselves that they have to fix. Unfortunately not many of the aggressive types come to therapy. Many of them end up in jail instead. People with unhealed trauma can be destructive to others but ultimately they are living an unsustainable life and are self-destructive. Many of the measures that they will adopt throughout their lifetime will be counter-productive and will end up hurting them just as much as they hurt others.

Israel has kept the Palestinians as an ongoing 'problem' so that they have someone to blame each time their trauma reaches its cyclical unmanageable point. If Israel wanted to solve its problem with the Palestinians it could have done so a long time ago. It could start by acknowledging the ethnic cleansing of 1948, then offering a right of return and compensation to the refugees in compliance with UN resolution 194 from December 1948, and that would be it. But to do that Israel would have to compromise its racist and undemocratic dream of being an exclusively Jewish state. And being an exclusively Jewish state is in itself a reaction to Jewish trauma. It is based on the simple idea that Jews are not safe with non-Jews and therefore need a state of their own where they can live separately and therefore safely. But to give up on this dream would require a complete re-evaluation of Jewish and Israeli identity and belief system. People would have to stop believing that the world is bad for Jews and Jews are only safe with one another. This means questioning some of the most fundamental principles of Jewish faith and culture. Such a process of questioning will inevitably start Israel on a path of healing and will also mean that Israel will have to find another way of being that does not involve an adversarial view of the world and perpetual war. I don't think Israel is ready for that. Healing is something that sadly, few people are prepared to do and I guess the same goes for entire societies.

But fighting the Palestinians has become very ugly over the years. The world is making a fuss about it, the Palestinians are fighting back and this ongoing war against civilians is demoralising and breaking the spirit of Israeli soldiers and having a negative effect on their entire society. This 'solution' or way of coping with the trauma (i.e. keeping the Palestinians as an enemy) is backfiring. So instead of solving the problem, Israel is looking for another bigger and more 'legitimate' war that is far less complicated. A war that all Israelis can agree on and be excited about, and that will once again unite the people and offer an uplifting relief from the daily effort of Israeli existence.

From a military perspective Israeli leaders always follow the principle of trying to 'kill two birds with one stone'. I believe that the attack on Gaza is serving two purposes. It is trying to break Palestinian resistance but it is also an attempt to provoke Iran into doing something, anything that can be used as a pretext for attacking the nuclear plants there, and who knows what else. Israel cannot afford to just go to Iran and attack with no real 'excuse', and Bush's tired rhetoric about Iran's nuclear capabilities and potential threat is wearing thin as Bush is on his way out. Obama is yet an unknown quality to Israel so they think they have to find a way to do it themselves with or without the US. That's why Israel has refused the call for a ceasefire in Gaza. They have a clear plan that they are intent on following no matter what the human cost is, and this is just as much about psychological warfare as it is about guns and bombs. It is a horrible thought but the Palestinians are and always have been just pawns in the vicious dynamic of Israeli/Jewish trauma. They don't otherwise really matter to Israelis. Most Israelis have always had trouble seeing the Palestinians as human beings like them and I believe that they do not care about the suffering they are causing them. If they did they would behave differently.

The longer they drag the air attacks on Gaza, the more furious the world and the Arab world in particular is going to be, and this is exactly what Israel is trying to achieve. Drag it on until everyone is completely exasperated and then start a ground attack that might just be the tipping point for Iran. Then Israel could attack Iran, something it has been planning to do for years, and say that it is exercising its 'right for self-defence'. The world can't stand up to that argument even when we are dealing with a few rockets from Gaza that hardly dent Israel, let alone when it comes to a properly organised country with its own armed forces like Iran. Israel's claim for self-defence will appear completely plausible.

The psychology of trauma is treacherous and filled with inner contradictions. It is precisely why the world must intervene decisively in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict: to save the Palestinians from Israel and the Israelis from themselves, and possibly spare us all a much bigger war. Without mature, assertive and clear-thinking intervention this cycle of trauma and the violence it breeds will continue until one day it will exhaust itself because enough people will have died, or a final blow will have been cast somewhere by someone, from which there will be no return