Alexander Shapiro
Dedicated Bridge-Builder Working at the Shaharit Institute

After an Attack: The Effect of Trauma on Israeli-Palestinian Peacebuilding

At Rina Shnerb's funeral. (Photo: Times of Israel)

A 17 year old Jewish-Israeli girl named Rina, from the city of Lod, was killed last week in a terrorist attack.

This event was sobering to me as someone who came into Lod and told Jewish people there that they should make peace with the Palestinians, and vice versa. When I brought up the Palestinians, Jewish Israelis likely did not consider the values of equality, justice, and tolerance, like I was asking them to. They thought of people like Rina.

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Rina Shnerb (Photo: Times of Israel)

Virtually every Jewish Israeli knows someone that died in a terrorist attack or war. Many Jewish Israelis are descendants of Holocaust survivors, and the country as a whole was founded and grew up under the shadow of that great tragedy. Jewish Israeli society thus exists in a perpetual state of post-trauma.

Palestinian society is also post-traumatic. Palestinians are brought up on stories of losing their homes and lands, many have had their houses destroyed in modern times, and the Palestinians exist in a legal middle ground where their physical and cultural security is never guaranteed.

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Palestinians fleeing their hometown of Lod in 1948. (Photo: The New Yorker)

People don’t forget about traumas easily. When I mentioned one time to some Jewish Israeli friends that I visited Ramallah, the Palestinian capital, I could see them physically tense up, and even shudder. They associate Ramallah with the Second Intifada, when they were around eight years old and any bus they got on could blow up in a moment. Even if they weren’t there, Jewish Israelis similarly remember the Holocaust, the Inquisition, and the destruction of the temples. Everything that happens in Israel feels related to these events.

The physical hardening and visceral emotion people experience when their traumas are evoked are major barriers to peace and coexistence.

When we come and ask Jews and Palestinians to give up their qualms and build a peaceful society together, their first reaction is typically not to consider justice and equity and rationalism, as we expect them to. They are instantly taken to the place of their traumas, feeling an intense upswelling of emotions and tension.

In this emotional state, when people seek comfort by burrowing inside themselves and putting up walls for protection, pushing harder only makes the walls stronger. Bring up the conflict with Jews or Palestinians, and the walls go up. Tell them that they’re wrong and they should be doing this or that instead, and the walls get stronger.

How do we break down those walls?

We must start with true empathy. Not the empathy of someone that has already made up their mind, but the empathy of someone that is truly open to having their mind changed, that is truly open to understanding.

We must use that empathy to recognize the core elements of people’s traumas, identities, and stories, and openly acknowledge those elements. When people feel acknowledged and respected, they open up.

And we must use our empathy and understanding of both sides’ traumas to know that putting the conflicted parties in positions where they must address their traumas with each other or with us, without existing relationships, will only create stronger barriers and lessen the chances of peace.

Instead, we need to help Jews and Palestinians slowly create relationships of trust and empathy, so they can get to a point where they do not feel under attack, and can let down the walls just a little bit, take a look over, and see over the walls of their enemy.

This is hard, slow work, but it is the work that must be done.

About the Author
Alexander "Jake" Shapiro works at the Shaharit Institute, an Israeli NGO working to create common cause amongst Israel's diverse populations. Jake previously served as a volunteer activist and researcher in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod. Jake studied international relations and political science at the University of Maryland - College Park.
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