Never Forget: The Danger of Trauma as Policy

I grew up with the inherited history of the Holocaust. ‘Never forget’ was taught to me in Hebrew school lessons, in dinner table stories about the relatives who never left the old country and died in concentration camps, in the narrative of Israel’s birth. Forget we certainly must not, but perhaps it is time to also move forward, to acknowledge and grieve our history but not to let it dictate fears, decisions, and policy in a changing world. Like the other genocides that have scarred the past century, in Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Holocaust must always remain in our collective consciousness both as a memorial for six million lives and as a reminder of the horror and atrocity that lives within humanity.

photo credit: Flash90

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) placard.

However, to hold so firmly to those memories, gripping them close as present rather than past, is dangerous; it can blind us to the reality of the present. Decisions are based on fear rather than thought and policy is created without regard to the geo-political realities of the world today or to any consequences beyond the most immediate ones. Netanyahu’s style of governance falls firmly into this camp, with no consideration given to the long term effects of his decisions. As he perpetuates his unflagging ‘protect and preserve the Jewish Homeland’ narrative he refuses to look at the bigger picture.

For instance, even if we take morality and respective politics out of the picture, from a standpoint of critical analysis, the current perpetual brutal stand-off between Gaza and Israel is patently unsustainable. The approximate two year cycle of escalating violence and war has become grimly predictable, as has the steady increase of destruction and casualties with each new round. Protection and self-defense are justified but, in my opinion, it seems very clear that Netanyahu was simply waiting for an opportunity to flex his muscles in Gaza once again. The fact that he put out a media gag order this summer on the undisputed fact that the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers were dead—cold-blooded manipulation of a grieving public—is further proof.

The Necessity of Compassion

The manifestation of some sort of Jewish home after the Holocaust was an absolute necessity. And it is now equally necessary that we let go of the fear it so deeply engendered and look at the reality of the world. Trauma stunts critical and long term thinking, often leaving room for nothing beyond instinctual, fearful protectiveness. If Israel wants to preserve itself as a democratic Jewish state—and it must be democratic—then it is urgently imperative that the leadership (and citizens) look at the facts on the ground and actually start working toward a two state solution. Not a false presumption of negotiations, not large or small tokens of good will with nothing to support their sustainability and evolution, and certainly not more violence. The time came long ago to stop responding fearfully and start thinking rationally and compassionately. The only thing that can ever save any of us is compassion—compassion for ‘the other side’ and for ourselves.

With each war Israeli families collapse with fear as their children march off to fight and, as the destruction and death climbs children in Gaza curse Israel for bombing their homes and killing their relatives. How long can this cycle last before things collapse completely, before all hope of peace is lost?

Israel’s Declaration of Independence states:

The State of Israel…will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Those are beautiful words, and they’re words that, for all my cynicism, I still believe in. So what went wrong? In the past forty years there have been a staggering, heartbreaking amount of assaults on these principles and today things seem, if anything, to be accelerating. Netanyahu’s proposed ‘Jewish Nation-State Bill’ is nothing short of terrifying. In 1947, directly after the Holocaust, the official policies were actually less extreme than they are today. Why are we choosing to hold xenophobia ever closer?

How tragic. How human.

Censored Voices

Last week a film called Censored Voices premiered at Sundance (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eh0Z1VfYPcE). It is centered around taped interviews with soldiers from 1967, directly after the Six Day War. Some of these interviews were published in Siah Lohamim (Combatant’s Discourse), edited by Avraham Shapira published in October, 1967, (titled The Seventh Day in English in 1971) which sold 120,000 copies in Israel. At the time they were recorded they were heavily edited by the military, offering a very different view of Israel’s unquestionably remarkable victory. The New York Times writes:

Beyond the accounts of killing prisoners and civilians, perhaps the most striking element of the film is that within a week or two of the war’s end, these soldiers—from Israel’s socialist kibbutz movement—questioned its wisdom. “I think that in the next round the Arab’s hatred towards us will be much more serious and profound,” one says. Already ambivalent about the occupation of Palestinian territory, another worries, “Not only did this war not solve the state’s problems, but it complicated them in a way that’ll be very hard to solve.”

photo credit: Flash90

Author Amos Oz listens now for the first time to his taped testimony after the end of the Six Day War. (Photo: Avner Shahaf)

These are strikingly prescient observations that, disturbingly, were carefully kept out of sight. The film itself faced serious censorship, the extent of which the filmmakers are now allowed to disclose. The director, Mor Loushy, commented, “If these voices had been published in 1967 maybe our reality here would be different.”

A Dangerous Path

Painful. So painful to contemplate. In 1972, just five years later, the total settler population had reached 10,608 and things had begun their descent down a dark path. A decade after that it was over 100,000 and today it has more than quadrupled. There is not any action more detrimental to Israel’s chance at a stable future than the continued refusal to cease building settlements. This rabid determination, the refusal to cease construction at the expense of any hope of negotiation, the extremists who so frequently populate them, the military violence that is required to sustain and maintain them, all point to a refusal to face reality. No other country, not even the U.S. has ever supported the settlements and yet Israel continues to bend rules and rights—or disregard them entirely in search of…what? Security? Greed? Dreams? Home? Refuge from the pain of history? Proof of power and legitimacy?

photo credit: Flash90

Ma’ale Adumim, one of the first West Bank settlements, founded by 23 families in 1975. In 2012 the population was 39,200 (Photo: David Mosberg)

How much has the internalized story of the Holocaust, which, though the weight of it’s legacy is carried by all Jews, is not the story of every Jew, not the sole meaning of Jewish history and pain (a whole other issue of internal power and privilege) stunted something, some emotional intelligence? Has something gotten stuck somehow?

It can become deeply harmful for the individual and collective psyche—or soul, whatever you want to call it—to hold onto trauma too forcefully. There is an important difference between remembering and reliving. There is so much internalized, unarticulated pain passed down from parents to children that it can be stultifying. Our collective history as Jews needs to evolve, especially as Israel reaches what could be a critical moment with March’s elections.

A Fresh Start

I was speaking with a brilliant Palestinian friend recently, and when I asked her if she had a vision for what needs to happen for the situation to ever move forward, she sighed and shook her head sadly.

“Change governments on both sides,” she said, “We need a fresh start.”

These elections are Israel’s chance to move in a different direction, away from fear and toward rationality. If the Jewish democratic state is to survive, the government needs to start thinking rationally and start understanding reality. We can only hope that the next leaders will be willing to.