Israel’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published May 01, 2008, issue of May 09, 2008.
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Suddenly it’s Syria.

Somewhere between a rumor and a demarche, there’s talk of peace. Turkey’s the broker; so far, Bashar Assad seems willing and Ehud Olmert seems eager.

Never mind that we’ve seen this movie before, and that the same pesky details that doomed earlier efforts are likely to doom this one as well. (And this time the United States is no longer the sponsor and goad; it is, at best, aloof, reluctant to affirm Syria even tangentially.)

Consider instead the fate of an agreement in the off chance the two governments agree, with or without an American blessing. It is virtually certain that any comprehensive agreement would have to be put before the Israeli electorate. And it is doubtful that more than a third or so of Israelis would vote in favor of returning the Golan to Syria.

Peace with Syria not overwhelmingly endorsed? A peace that would leave only Lebanon among Israel’s immediate neighbors out of the circle of peace? How and why can that be?

From time to time in this space, I’ve made passing reference to the post-traumatic stress disorder that afflicts Israelis (and the Palestinians, too). It may be a bit of a stretch, but there is a growing literature that suggests that not only individuals, but social institutions, can suffer from PTSD. Thus, for example, Loren and Barbara Cobb, in an article entitled “The Persistence of War,” argue that “specific symptoms of untreated PTSD are particularly troublesome for the social institutions of a society suffering from epidemic levels of these disorders. These symptoms are: hypervigilance, emotional numbing, denial and avoidance, seeing the world in black and white, magical thinking, and apocalyptic thinking.”

They go on to quote Dr. Jonathan Shay, widely regarded as among the giants in the study of PTSD: “Democratic process entails debate, persuasion, and compromise. These presuppose the trustworthiness of words. The moral dimension of severe trauma, the betrayal of ‘what’s right,’ obliterates the capacity for trust. The customary meanings of words are exchanged for new ones; fair offers from opponents are scrutinized for traps; every smile conceals a dagger.”

In the American military experience, PTSD most often arises when a soldier has witnessed the deaths or terrible wounds of his or her comrades. That happens in Israel, too, of course.

But in Israel, whole societies are the witnesses, and the word “post” is, alas, premature. The traumas are very much ongoing, and we do not yet have the clinical vocabulary to comprehend them.

For Jews, the great trauma is, of course, the Holocaust itself, the systematic and ultimately incomprehensible slaughter of one-third of world Jewry. That left a wound that will never quite heal, but that might by now have formed a bearable scab.

But mini-traumas ever since have picked at that scab, rendered the wound ever-raw. The excruciatingly painful list of suicide attacks, the hateful rhetoric, Sderot and the entire aftermath of the withdrawal from Gaza, and now, around the corner, Iran.

And then there have been and are the politicians who whether out of conviction or for purposes of dreadful exploitation pick at the scab and refresh the trauma. For Menachem Begin, Beirut was Berlin and Yasser Arafat was Adolf Hitler; for Benjamin Netanyahu, this is 1938, Tehran is Berlin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Hitler. It was ever thus, it will ever be thus, hence it is here, now: They hate us. “Never again” may be our common oath, but “always, everywhere” is our common belief. The wound will not heal.

And the Palestinians? Betrayed by the corruption of their own leadership, theirs is not only the Nakba of defeat and displacement in 1948 and again in 1967; it is daily humiliation both thoughtless and intended, new bypass highways for the Jewish settlers in their midst, still more than 500 checkpoints and barriers to clog or block their own roads and travel, a security fence that slices and snakes through their fields and their farms and their villages and their cities, reminding, reminding, insulting.

Over Gaza, a sky from which at any moment death may be launched; in the streets of the West Bank, raids and roundups. Ongoing trauma, ongoing disorder. The wounds will not heal.

The Palestinians say: Without justice, there will be no peace. The Israelis say: Without peace, there will be no justice. Both sides are stuck with their wounds and their traumas; they need not only diplomacy, they need therapy. Their empathic capacity has been battered. They cannot place themselves in the shoes of the other, nor can they see themselves as the other sees them.

The Oslo Accords, the Clinton parameters, the Taba agreement, the Geneva document, the Arab League proposal, the Road Map — whoever thinks that a real peace awaits only a tweak here and twitch there, whoever imagines there’s a dazzling breakthrough formula just around the next corner or the one after that, isn’t listening, doesn’t hear the fear, the hurt, the awful memories and the terrifying premonitions.

Maybe that is what Olmert meant when he remarked some months back that these days, he feels himself more Jewish than Israeli. (Or maybe he just meant that these days, he’s feeling persecuted.) One of the hazards of being Jewish is that for us, premonitions are based on memories.

For a brief while, the popular catchphrase of the Sharon era — “we have no partner for peace” — was set aside. Negotiations, however haltingly, had begun. Now, the slogan’s back, full throat. For all the pride and the joy in Israel’s 60th birthday, hope for a pacific future has withered, replaced by denial and avoidance.

Even the prospect of peace with Syria does not gladden the heart or raise the spirits. So take a day for celebration, and then back to the wound.


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