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Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Collective Trauma

Is there such a thing as Collective Trauma? It seems there is, and Google defines and explains it as “the psychological distress that a group — usually an entire culture, community, or another large group of people — experience in response to a shared trauma. In order to impact the entire group, such traumas are usually devastating in their scope and impact.”

The impact of the horrific attack on innocent civilians in southern Israel by a ‘well-armed band of Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 certainly falls into that category. Over one thousand individuals were massacred, over 3,000 injured and more than 220 people taken captive and brought to Gaza. The effect on Israeli society as a whole can only be defined as traumatic.

Dozens of those taken captive are children, and there’s no knowing what the long-term physical and psychological effects will be on them. The only comparable event in history – and once again it is the Jews who are the target of unbelievable cruelty – is the Holocaust. That event has been described in countless memoirs and personal accounts, and the concept of intergenerational trauma has been employed to define its effect on the Jewish nation. Israel has undertaken the task of commemorating and preserving the memory of that cataclysm, and the phrase ‘Never Again’ is used to underscore the need to ensure that nothing like it ever recurs.

But on that Saturday morning three weeks ago we got a taste of what it was like to live through the Holocaust, as well as a very vivid reminder of the pogroms that ravaged Jewish communities in Europe and Russia throughout the centuries. What is most shocking is that all over the civilized world demonstrations in support of Hamas have been calling for the destruction of Israel. It has been claimed that Iran is behind many of these demonstrations, but that doesn’t make them any less disturbing.

For me personally, as someone who was born and brought up in England, the most horrifying sight was the crowds of people thronging Westminster Bridge and large parts of central London calling for Jihad and chanting slogans in the Arabic language that hark back to Saladin’s defeat of the Crusaders in the Holy Land in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The tolerant, cheerful London in which I grew up during the 1950s and 1960s is almost unrecognizable today, with Muslim women wearing black veils and headscarves on every street and in every shop. And although Muslim men are not as readily recognizable, it is they who dominated the London crowd calling for the destruction of Israel. I know that not all Muslims are murderous savages, but the influence of Islam on British society has assumed terrifying proportions, serving as an alarm signal to anyone, and especially Jews, who lives in the UK. The support for Israel expressed by Rishi Sunak, Emmanuel Macron, Joe Biden and other world leaders is helping to assuage my anxiety, but their sentiments tend to be short-lived.

In order to overcome the current trauma, we’re advised to refrain from watching the news on TV (not realistic), take a walk in nature or watch a movie. All I have managed to do to distract myself is to read a long book which happens to be a well-written biography of my very distant relative, Boris Savinkov, who took an active part in the Russian Revolution. But it doesn’t really help. I can’t stop thinking about those little children who have been snatched from their homes, some of them without even a parent to comfort them, and marooned without toys in a dank, dark underground space beneath the Gaza Strip, instead of being with their family and friends, free to run and play in the fresh air and sunshine. Of course, the many babies and toddlers who have been butchered have been spared that particular horror.

And I think, too, of my late parents, who escaped Hitler’s talons by the skin of their teeth but were unable to save their own parents. They must have lived with that trauma for many years, though they made a superhuman effort to prevent it from being passed down to us, their children. In the end, however, there was no escape, and my sisters and I are all-too-well-versed in Holocaust history and literature. Living in Israel and raising families of our own made us feel protected in some way, but now I‘m not so sure.

What is happening in Gaza, as the IDF pounds the Strip in an attempt to rout Hamas and possibly (hopefully) to rescue the hostages is perhaps the best remedy for Israel’s collective trauma. The damage inflicted on the population of Gaza is condemned by the civilized world, and also by many Israelis, but without the dissolution of Hamas, which uses its civilian population as a pawn and whose avowed aim is to destroy Israel and kill every Jew, there can be no peace for Israel or the rest of the world.

About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.
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