Can We Feel for the Other Side While in a State of Trauma?

People sometimes ask me what it is like to be a new immigrant to Israel and to have had war break out several months after we arrived. Not just war, but war in the aftermath of the unspeakable trauma of October the 7th. While we take our kids to school, go to work, shop for groceries and attend to life demands, there’s an ever-present fog of unspeakable trauma. The country is bleeding.

I think about the deeply regressive nature of violent trauma; the shame and vulnerability of being rendered helpless and stripped of the skills and coping mechanisms that give you an identity and help you feel you’re standing on solid ground.

As long as the fate of the hostages remains unknown and in the hands of those we fear, part of ourselves is held hostage too; the part that can live fully as a free nation in our land. We feel a connection to those whose faces are plastered over every corner of this small country, we follow their stories and share feelings of desperation with their families.

Unlike the Israeli hostages, the Palestinian civilians who have died do not have names or faces for us. The death toll mounts as a growing number, a casualty of war. I have been increasingly aware of the inability or unwillingness to really face and acknowledge what is happening in Gaza, as if we are all turning away, turning a blind eye. My discomfort has grown as people from along the political spectrum seem unable to acknowledge the full extent of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Perhaps it is my outsider perspective as a new immigrant that makes it impossible to ignore the other side without a nagging feeling.

Sometimes it’s all just too much. We’ve been attacked, we are bleeding, and now we are being asked to feel for the other side. Can we afford to do that? When we are in a state of trauma, which is still ongoing, primal survival mechanisms are set in motion, speaking to a kill-or-be-killed world where we cannot afford to drop our guard. The millions demonstrating all over the world against Israel only add to the feeling of needing to band together and assert our right to self-defense.  There is the current trauma as well as the historic sense of existential threat which is exacerbated by people questioning our right to exist.

There are a few responses I have come across which help to obscure the reality of Gaza, and support the action of turning a blind eye. The accusation of genocide in the International Court of Justice gave us good reason to be defensive and to view those highlighting the Gazan plight as a group of dishonest anti-Semites. These proceedings understandably put us on the defensive.

The distortions of denial and minimization have been at play, and I observe them in myself too. I remember being skeptical of numbers supplied by Hamas themselves, whom I view as cynical and anything but trustworthy. Slowly I’ve had to face that Hamas aside, the toll is tragic and the destruction of civilian life and infrastructure is real. The idea that ‘there are no innocent civilians in Gaza’ is another idea I’ve heard which serves to blunt emotional response by tarring all Gazans with the same brush.

Of course I know about Hamas operating their terror activities from within civilian infrastructure, in breach of international law, and therefore being bearing responsibility for civilian casualties. Does this justification really obscure the need to face the devastation in Gaza? Is it possible to be both proud of our brave soldiers and profoundly sad about this devastation? Should we not take some account of this in our emotional reckoning with where we are in this war?

I fear that distortion, turning a blind eye, numbing, give rise to a kind of psychological petrification. We cannot mourn that which we cannot acknowledge, and what are the consequences of the failure to mourn? Any kind of psychological defense mechanism costs psychic energy, hindering the person and more broadly, the society, from experiencing reality as a fully alive and feeling organism. This is the fog and the petrification which I’m feeling; the parts of myself which need to melt after the trauma so that I can feel more human again.

I am reminded of the story of Sisera’s mother. Sisera was a Canaanite army general. The Canaanite King Jabin oppressed the Israelites for 20 years, culminating in a war where the Israelites were led by Deborah and Barak, coming out victorious against the Canaanite army. Sisera flees on foot and is murdered by Yael after taking hospitality in her tent. A passage in Judges talks about Sisera’s mother looking through the window, wondering what is delaying her son and the arrival of his chariot. The word ‘vateyavev’ is used, in the language of ‘yevava’, weeping or moaning, becoming the basis for the 100 shofar blasts on Rosh Hashana. Sisera wrought havoc for the Israelites in the north of Israel, and the historic victory against his army is celebrated. But his mother’s deep cries embody the human pain of a mother in a state of loss and uncertainty, and they are acknowledged and inscribed in our tradition.

Philippe Sands in his brilliant account of the development of international humanitarian law through the Nuremberg Trials, East West Street, contrasts the views of Rafael Lemkin, who coined the term ‘genocide’, and Hersh Lauterpacht, a jurist in the trial who opposed the use of the term genocide. Lauterpacht opposed the use of this new term because he feared that too much focus on the group would obscure the need to protect the individual in the context of human rights, with too great a risk of an ‘us and them’ focus. These views help us to apprehend collective trauma and our need to survive as a people, while holding in mind the human experience of the individual. Over time we can come to expand our emotional register to acknowledge the totality of the human experience that has unfolded, as we undertake the enormous task of attempting to heal.

About the Author
Leanne Stillerman Zabow lived and worked as a clinical psychologist in Johannesburg, South Africa, before moving to Raanana, Israel with her family in 2023, where she runs a psychotherapy practice online and in-person.
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