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Unprocessed trauma driving the Israel/Palestine Conflict

By Annabel McGoldrick - posted Monday, 10 August 2015


As a psychotherapist, researcher and a peace activist I believe that both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict are collectively traumatized, and that their responses indicate they are suffering from a societal form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This shapes their view of the world, contributes to the cycle of violence witnessed over past decades and is one of the factors blocking the path to peace.

We humans like many other animals evolved with a fight-flight-freeze mechanism, which gives us the best chance of survival from real or perceived threats, usually violence or abuse. Our bodies are filled with hormones – adrenalin and cortisol – to stimulate our responses and give us the best chance of avoiding harm, whether that be super strength, alertness, speed or shutdown. Once the danger has passed our bodies usually return to normal, but with PTSD they do not. Those same fight-flight-freeze reactions continue long after the initial danger has passed. "Memories, visual images, somatic and other perceptual experiences seem locked in, or frozen, in the form it took at the time of the event" (Shapiro, 2001: 31). In other words, we react to today's events as if it was the past being replayed.

Brain science has come a long way in the last two decades: "One of the refinements [proposed by recent research into the workings of the brain] is the understanding that trauma is not primarily imprinted on people's consciousness but instead becomes deeply embedded in people's sensate experiences" (van de Kolk, 2002: 80). In other words, stimuli are not processed by the higher centres of the mind – instead the body reacts automatically. The mind, with its reasoning capacity, is excluded: "When people start reliving their trauma, the timekeeping part of the brain that tells you, that was then and this is now, tends to go offline" (van de Kolk, 2014: 7).

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This syndrome is well documented among individuals such as soldiers returning from war as featured in an episode of ABC Four Corners earlier this year, or victims of near-fatal car crashes some years on from the accident who still fear getting in a vehicle or refuse to get behind the wheel again, suffering from regular nightmares and flashbacks of time they were severely injured, trapped in the vehicle awaiting the arrival of the emergency services. Their body and their senses relive the ordeal as if it was happening now. Thankfully as a psychotherapist I have found an effective treatment for such conditions in Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing. Rather than a talking therapy this is a form of brain therapy, that utilizes the same brain mechanism as REM sleep to enable clients to process their traumatic memories; to unfreeze those stuck feelings; integrate them and move on. Ultimately the client's trauma becomes a story in the past rather than a triggered reaction today. They have moved on.

But for those who don't find treatment the prognosis, sadly, is not good. The more trauma you have the more reactive you become, and for some, the accumulation of unprocessed trauma becomes so painful they choose to end their own lives, as photographer Kevin Carter did in 1993 just two months after receiving the Pulitzer for his New York Times photograph of the starving girl being preyed on by a vulture. If we expand these ideas beyond the individual to the canvas of protracted violent social conflict, seemingly trapping the peoples involved in endless cycles of violence, it is easy to appreciate whole nations of individuals locked in states of hyper-arousal and reactivity that are further exacerbated by each round of violence.

I have long explained this cycle as unprocessed anger as one atrocity after another fuels calls for retaliation. But there is more to it than that. "Traumatized people tend to feel numb and not alive, and they can make themselves feel alive by exposing themselves to the same situations that caused their terror" (van de Kolk, 2014: 7). Psychoanalytic theory tells us that humans are unconsciously drawn to replicate the circumstances that caused the original trauma in an effort to recreate the situation with the hope of a better outcome, thanks to the mastery that was not there the last time (Lerner, 2011: 259).

"Jews have never fully psychologically and spiritually worked through the tragedy, pain, and humiliation of 1,800 years of exile culminating in the Holocaust", writes Rabbi Michael Lerner (2011: 261) of the Tikkun community in the United States, who is also a founder of the ecumenical 'Network of Spiritual Progressives'. He believes Israel unconsciously makes itself a victim:

"So tens of thousands of American Jews move to the West Bank settlements where they live in beautiful houses with green grass and swimming pools; they are surrounded by barbed wire to keep out angry Palestinian neighbours whose land has been appropriated to create these settlements and whose water, which is needed for basic family needs, is now diverted" (Lerner, 2011: 259).

There is the consequence of American support which means: "Israel continues to make itself a global pariah; it is perceived in many countries around the world as the sidekick and lapdog for Amercan global imperialism....

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Some will argue that Israel has no choice. Yet what they fail to note is that this is not a viable choice either, because even if identification with the largest imperial power offers the Jews temporary protection, it is simultaneously increases hostility among peoples of many other countries and creates the precondition for future persecution of Jews. As the United States global empire begins to decline, the anger that Jews generated through their blind support of Israel, combined with their role as public cheerleader for banking and investment first, is likely to intensify and once again put Jews in danger." (Lerner, 2011: 258)

Others such as British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argue that some Jews seek to join the "aristocracy of victimhood". Jews who did not live during the Holocaust unconsciously strive to assume the moral legitimacy of being victims. Not only reading the past as the present, but their ancestors' past as the present: "assumed-would-be-persecutors are guilty in advance, guilty of being seen as inclined or able to engage in another genocide" (Bauman, 2000: 12).

Other important psychological concepts implicated in such responses include splitting – as a way of separating the psyche from painful feelings of fear, abandonment and shame. These become disowned parts of the self, around which unconscious psychological defences are constructed. Anything is done to avoid them, such as attributing the parts of myself that I do not like, or am not able to own, to another, through projection.

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About the Author

Dr Annabel McGoldrick is an academic, advocate, activist, peace journalist and psychotherapist. She is a part-time lecturer at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, and a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

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