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Telos Tuesdays | The Role of Trauma and Collective Memory

As peacemakers, we must speak honestly about history in order to better understand how we arrived at our present so that we can help write a more just and beautiful future.

 

Introduction

The day between Israeli Memorial Day and Nakba Day marks the liminal space between these symbolic poles of trauma. For Palestinians, the trauma is rooted in the Nakba. For Jewish Israelis, the trauma is rooted in the Holocaust and centuries of global antisemitism.

While we are witnessing horrific violence and destruction continue in Gaza that demands our ongoing focus and engagement, this briefing is taking a step back to explore the role of trauma in shaping the events that led up to and include the current atrocities. After all, “trauma that isn’t transformed is transferred.” The past seven months have shown us the brutal force of this truth.

Understanding the collective traumas Palestinians and Israelis have faced urges us to effectively resist and heal the contemporary traumas being created today. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and nearly the entire population of more than 2 million has been displaced as famine, siege, and a ground invasion of the last “safe zone” of Gaza commence; families in Israel continue to protest for the release of their loved ones still being held hostage and grieve the loss of those killed on October 7.

As tanks roll into Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians had fled, we must speak with a collective voice, in ways that honor the humanity of all, that this violence will not make anyone safer. We need a full ceasefire, a release of all hostages, free passage of humanitarian aid, and an end to the occupation and siege of Gaza.

 

Ceasefire and Release of Hostages Now

 

Contemporary Traumas

Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in freedom, dignity, and security and have their full human rights respected. What happened on October 7th and every day since has been an awful violation of that. The trauma of what is happening will impact not only those who are experiencing it now, but also generations to come.

On October 7, more than 1200 Israelis and others were brutally murdered in their homes, at a concert, and on the streets, by Hamas militants. It was an utterly reprehensible crime that demands sure and swift justice. Civilians are not targets. Since then…

On nearly every day since, except for a brief pause in November, Israel has pummeled Gaza with artillery and airstrikes, invaded its territory, and subjected it to an extreme siege of food, water, fuel, and medicine.

  • More than 34,000 people have been killed, including around 15,000 children.
  • Nearly 75% of the population has been displaced (1.7 million people), many repeatedly. Over 60% of homes have been damaged or destroyed, with estimates that it will take 80 years to rebuild.
  • Over 12,000 children have been injured in Gaza, receiving life-altering injuries. Over 1,000 have had one or both legs amputated. At least 16,000 children are now orphaned.
  • All of Gaza’s 625,000 school-aged children no longer have access to education, with 90% of schools damaged or destroyed.
  • More than 1 million people, almost half of whom are children, have been told to flee Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza deemed a safe zone by the Israeli military, which has begun targeted strikes in the city and outside of which has amassed soldiers for a ground invasion.
  • Famine conditions are now present in the north of Gaza and likely elsewhere, sending children, nursing mothers, and other vulnerable populations over the edge of catastrophe.

In the West Bank, Israeli defense forces and Israeli settlers have accelerated violence against Palestinian communities.

Both before and after October 7, trauma inflicted through systemic and cultural violence was a daily experience for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

  • Israeli politicians referred to Palestinians as “human animals” and called for indiscriminate violence and “Nakba 2.0” against them after October 7, and in the months prior, called for the government to “wipe out” an entire Palestinian village.
  • The daily realities of life under occupation, including checkpoints and other restrictions on movement, land seizures, home demolitions, administrative detention, settler violence, and crop destruction, among other issues, create ongoing trauma in the lives of Palestinians.

 

Trauma and Collective Memory

The present traumas that have unfolded over the past seven months tie directly into the collective historical traumas Palestinians and Israelis hold, including Palestinians and Jewish communities in the diaspora. In many contexts, trauma is seen as a fixed experience, a past occurrence, or something that has happened that was beyond our control. In the context of Israel/Palestine, trauma can be understood to be “the past recurring in the present.” For both peoples, their traumas are inherently rooted in historical collective memory. As Jeff Wilkinson and Raja Khoury describe in The Wall Between: What Jews and Palestinians Don’t Want to Know About Each Other, “History is, by definition, in the past, yet memory is contemporary—it is happening.”

When trauma is triggered, it can push us to react in ways that are ultimately not in our best interest or even align with deep values we hold. We become instinctively primed to see danger, and enemies, where they may not exist, or at least may not exist to the degree which we feel. This hyper-vigilance ultimately makes cooperation harder. Where continued violence exists, it makes reconciliation exceedingly difficult.

The collective memory of these generational traumas influences how Palestinians and Israelis see the possibility of threats in the present and future. The trauma is a reminder that what happened in the past could happen again. For Jewish Israelis, the fear that another Holocaust could be possible is part of what drives many to see a secure Jewish state in Israel as the only guarantor of their safety and the safety of Jewish communities worldwide. For Palestinians, freedom, self-determination, and reparations for the Nakba would be the only way to halt the injustices of the ongoing Nakba of the present and address the past violence of the historical Nakba. These traumas do not cancel each other out, nor should they be flattened to create a kind of false equivalency. Ultimately, we must recognize that one trauma cannot justify or explain another.

For those of us who are neither Jewish, Israeli, nor Palestinian, understanding the ways in which these traumas and collective memories are inherited and impact people’s experience of the present and fear about the future is essential to the work of peacemaking.

It’s a necessary part of listening to understand and holding perspectives in tension. And it is done in the full belief that trauma can be transformed. It is painstaking and long-suffering work that isn’t linear. But it is possible. Without acknowledging trauma, we cannot transform it and move into a place where all stakeholders can engage toward true justice and peace.

 

Palestinian Collective Memory

The Nakba

For Palestinians, the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” never ended. What began in 1947-1949 has continued in various forms throughout the decades until today, including what is happening right now in Gaza.

Between 1947-1949, around 75% of the local Palestinian population fled or were forced out of their homes as Zionist militias cleared areas they intended to include in a future Israeli state. The people who fled—men, women, children, elderly—were all made refugees, often with promises that they would later be allowed to return to their homes. Families that had farmed the same land for generations were now ripped from the very places that held their memories and identity. Entire social networks disintegrated in mere moments; in more than 450 cases, whole villages were destroyed; in others, entire communities were massacred or experienced other atrocities. In the blink of an eye, nearly an entire people was dispossessed of its wealth, its identity, its home, its community, and its prospects of a future of flourishing. Despite international promises to the contrary, the 750,000 refugees and their descendants have never been allowed to return. Many of them still have the keys to the homes they fled and remain refugees living in the occupied territories, neighboring Arab countries, and around the world, waiting for the day they are allowed to return to their homeland.

The trauma of the Nakba—which for Palestinians continues today through home demolitions, lack of freedom of movement, restrictions on family reunification, arbitrary detention, continued dispossession of land, and impunity for IDF and settler violence, among other issues—cannot be overstated. It is why many Palestinians have for decades referred to their daily experiences as the “ongoing Nakba.”

Today, almost all of the people of Gaza have been displaced—a startling truth given the fact that around 80% of the people in Gaza were refugees prior to October, many coming from lands just outside the Gaza border, where the massacres of October 7 took place. This means they or their families have been displaced and forced to relocate repeatedly. Millions in Rafah, many of them who have fled violence multiple times already, are being forced to flee again with nowhere to go to escape a ground invasion that Israel promises will move forward without regard to a possible ceasefire agreement.

The people living in Gaza faced immense pressures in daily living prior to October 2023, after 17 years of blockade and wars that left its municipal systems inoperable. Today, Gaza as a functioning dwelling area for humans no longer exists. Millions are at imminent and lasting risk. This is why many Palestinians and supporters say the Nakba 2.0 has already happened and is happening as the rest of the world sits by and watches.

The catastrophe isn’t only in people’s collective memory, it is continuing.

 

Jewish Israeli Collective Memory

The Holocaust and Antisemitism

For Jewish Israelis, the memory of the Holocaust isn’t just in the past, but represents what could easily happen again in the future. It is why for many, their sense of safety is directly tied to a Jewish state.

After the last concentration camp was liberated in 1945, the full weight of the horror of the Holocaust, or HaShoah (the catastrophe, in Hebrew), revealed itself. More than six million Jews from across Europe had been murdered. Centuries of antisemitism, fed and upheld by weaponized Christian theology, along with the pernicious evils of racial science and social Darwinism, enabled the Nazi party to use its political power to murder two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe, simply because of who they were.

Throughout history, the world often hasn’t been a safe place for Jews, as the long and pernicious history of antisemitism shows. And too often, the rest of the world turned its back on Jewish communities when they faced violence, teaching them that they could not depend on others to ensure their safety. Prior to the invasion of Austria, as Jews were fleeing the increasingly oppressive Nazi regime, the international community declined to offer refuge to these communities with only few exceptions. This is why, for many Jewish communities whether living in Israel or in the diaspora, the existence of a Jewish state feels existentially important. Others, in response to the Holocaust, continued to reject Zionism on political or theological grounds, but recognized the necessity of building safe communities, strong Jewish institutions, and global solidarity against dehumanization of any kind.

Ultimately, the memory of being targeted simply for being Jewish resurfaces every moment there is contemporary violence against Jews. This, along with what many Israelis see as the necessity of maintaining a 57-year-long military occupation, has compelled Israeli leadership to invest in an indefatigable security arrangement over many decades—Israelis spend more money per capita on military spending than any other nation. For some Jewish communities, only the existence of a secure Jewish state in Israel guarantees that they will never again face existential violence with nowhere to turn.

This is why the memory of the Holocaust and that existential threat was so present on October 7 and ever since. October 7 was the deadliest day for the global Jewish community since the Holocaust. It confirmed the fear that there is no safe place for Jews, not even in their national homeland. For many Israelis, this has contributed to the justification that Israel has to be defended at any cost—including the cost Gazans are currently paying for Hamas’ despicable and indefensible actions.

The horrors of the Holocaust, the culmination of centuries of antisemitism, and the generational trauma it created, cannot be overstated.

 

The Path Forward

As peacemakers who care deeply about the flourishing of Israelis and Palestinians, we have to be able to see the world the way it is before we can work to transform it. That includes understanding the role collective memory and trauma play in this moment. We do this to resist and prevent the creation of new trauma, whether from direct, structural, or cultural violence, and enable a path toward transformation and lasting peace.

Join with us is continuing to call for a ceasefire, release of all hostages, expansion of humanitarian aid, and end to the occupation and siege of Gaza.

 

Ceasefire and Release of Hostages Now

 

Understanding trauma not only compels us to the urgent work necessary for us today, it also lets us do a better job caring for our community members closer to home: Our own Jewish and Palestinian neighbors, whose responses to what is happening in Israel/Palestine are also connected to those deeper narratives and traumas. As theologian Paul Tillich says, “Love’s first act is to listen.”

As peacemakers, we cannot move forward until we have committed to an honest listening to the collective memories of trauma that inform this current moment. But our work doesn’t end with listening—that listening must inspire urgent action. Our job, especially in this moment, is to advocate loudly and devotedly to a future of justice, dignity, freedom, and security for all of our neighbors, Palestinians and Israelis alike.

 

Resources

  1. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict – Origins | Alison Course
  2. The Wall Between: What Jews and Palestinians Don’t Want to Know About Each Other by Raja Khouri and Jeffrey Wilkinson
  3. From Pain to Liberation: Healing Collective Trauma | Combatants for Peace
  4. A Conversation with Authors Jeff and Raja on “The Wall Between” and Trauma | Telos

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