Survivors…Discovering Who They Really Are and Rebuilding Their Lives Beyond Terrorism

Terrorism can strike any time, anywhere, or anyone. It doesn’t make any difference that it was ten years ago, two years ago, or last month…in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, or Halhul…to a Jew, Christian, Muslim, or Druze. For the survivors and for the families of the victims who are left behind, the pain is always there…and for the world, it’s yet another example of man’s continuing inhumanity to mankind.

Terrorism is a traumatic event. It is a form of psychological warfare and is essentially indiscriminate. In Israel, all residents – Jews and non-Jews alike – live in the shadow of security threats that have created a ripple of lingering worry and anticipatory anxiety that thenext attack may strike them or their loved ones.

In my previous blog postings, we heard from twelve bereaved parents who lost daughters and sons to terror-related attacks during the Second Intifada. But what happens to those who have survived such horrific attacks and to their families? Will the physical and emotional scars overwhelm them?  And/or can they transcend this experience to lead healthy, fulfilling lives?

To answer these questions, I interviewed thirty-four ordinary people – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze – riding in buses, dining in restaurants, shopping in markets, studying at college, visiting hotels, or walking along the street – who suddenly found themselves and/or their loved ones in the midst of a suicide bombing, shooting attack, or rocket attack in Israel and in the West Bank, between 2000 and 2006.

I sat with these people and listened to their horror and distress, their suffering and losses. As one survivor of such an attack recalled: “Darkness, smoke, fire, burning flesh….It’s a picture I won’t forget my entire life.”

But I also heard their remarkable life stories of hope and healing and the sources of their strength to survive and to rebuild their lives. They spoke not just of moving on with life but of living next to their feelings of grief, pain, and helplessness, overcoming suffering, finding meaning and purpose, and moving forward to turn tragedy into action.

Now listen to their words:  “In the beginning it has to destroy you in order for you to survive; …” “I became better in my head, in my soul, in my heart.…” “I can see much more clearly what is important and what is not important.…” “I can do everything in life; I have the power.…” “I can do it; I will do it.…”

Let me introduce you to four innocent survivors of terrorist attacks – a Jewish woman and a Muslim woman, both from Jerusalem and both on their way home from work, and a father and son out for a walk in downtown Herzliya – and how they make sense of their lives and reflect on who they really are and what is important in life.

Shoshana “Shoshi” Gottlieb’s life was changed forever by a terrorist’s bullet severing her spine. Suddenly, and seemingly effortlessly, she manages her family, household, and job from a wheelchair. “I won’t let anything take over my life. I haven’t given up anything. Even walking I haven’t given up.”

She was strengthened by and gives strength to her family. “I learned to appreciate them much more. Before, I accepted them. Now, I look at them openly. When they walk into the house, I see them. When I look at them, I look into them, not at them from the outside. I look deeply into their souls.”

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Shoshi also regards herself as “a survivor of terror, not as a victim.”

Sonia Dibeh was shopping in downtown Jerusalem when a suicide bomber exploded outside the store. As a Muslim woman, she was afraid of two things: “of the terrorist attack itself and of the Jewish people in the store who knew that I was an Arab…the only Arab person there.”

Although telling her story is very difficult, “it is good to remember that something happened, to remember how I used to be and how I am now with my life.” She decided that “I can’t die. I should continue. I can’t live with anger and depression. So I continued with my life. I have more patience. I take the time to do things in a normal way.” As a social worker, she advises other traumatized people “that there are difficult things in life and that we should get through them and we should continue.”

Isaac Ashkenazy and his eleven-year-old son Jonathan both were victims of a suicide bombing at a local shawarma restaurant in downtown Herzliya and Jonathan was injured. Isaac believes that he was saved for some sort of purpose, and was meant to be there to give his injured son – his “soul brother” – his energies and help care for and comfort him throughout his recovery. As a result, Isaac remains strong and positive. “That’s why he’s turned out to be positive too.”

Although we cannot know the mechanism, Isaac has clearly passed his strength and positive attitude to Jonathan, who insisted on enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces for three years although he was exempt because of his physical disabilities. He served as an instructor at an army high school for youth from dysfunctional families and was awarded the distinction of an outstanding soldier. He is now studying to become a social worker.

In the face of overwhelming disaster, the stories of these otherwise ordinary people describe how they called forth, from the depths of the human spirit, courage they never knew they possessed, found meaning from their deeds, experiences, and attitudes, and turned tragedy into triumph, allowing growth and wellness to thrive. They have become survivors! And they discovered for themselves that the meaning does not lie in the disaster, but in the way they respond to the disaster!

About the Author
Zieva Dauber Konvisser, PhD, is a Fellow of the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University. Her research focuses on the human impact of traumatic events, such as terrorism, genocide, war, and wrongful conviction. She served on the National Commission on American Jewish Women and is currently on the international board of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma and the advisory board of Strength to Strength. She is the author of "Living Beyond Terrorism: Israeli Stories of Hope and Healing" (Gefen, 2014). The book can be ordered here:
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