My TA (Teaching Assistant), who looked like she was in a minor state of shock, walked up to me outside one of the classrooms where the final exam in Introduction to Psychology for the first-year Social Work students was taking place.
I can’t quite believe what I was just asked by one of the Bedouin (Arab) students! She called me over and pointed to a word: ‘What
does this mean?’ I looked at the word and said: ‘HaShoah’. ‘What does it mean?’ I didn’t understand her question: What does the
Shoah mean? How could she not know what the Shoah is? ‘You know, the genocide of the Jewish people during World War II...’
The student looked confused for a moment and then said: ‘Oh, the Shoah! Like when the Jews exploit the Shoah for political
purposes?’ I don’t know what shocked me more – that she didn’t know what the Shoah was or that when the word clicked, her only
knowledge was that Jews exploit it for political gains…
As a result of the student’s question, the TA made the rounds to all of the Bedouin students in the exam rooms to make sure that they knew what the word referred to, since the question concerned the psychosocial significance of the Holocaust (Shoah in Hebrew) for descendants of Holocaust survivors.
My TA’s experience troubled me for three reasons. The first was that some of my students, future social workers, had skipped class and had seemingly not thought it important enough to gain knowledge about the Holocaust’s multigenerational traumatic implications. As a result, they ran the risk of being unprepared for treating Holocaust victims and/or their descendants in their future practice. The second, more troubling problem was that the students did not know what the Shoah was. The third problem was that their sole ‘knowledge’ of the genocide was that Jews exploited it for political gain, i.e., to keep them - the Palestinians – down.
Ignorance on Both Sides
My first thought was: How was it possible that in 2019, Arab students, citizens of the country, did not know what the Shoah was, especially since they are taught about it in school and since it is mentioned daily in Israeli media? From my knowledge of and experiences with Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), I knew that many Palestinians had little to no knowledge of the Holocaust and were unaware of how deeply it continued to affect Jewish perspectives concerning the way they saw others (non-Jews), and their behaviors and emotions. I was unhappy about this, but I was no
longer surprised to meet Palestinians from the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or Gaza who knew very little about this genocide. However, I was alarmed that citizens of Israel lacked basic information about the Shoah, and of its ongoing importance in the psycho-social-political world of Jewish Israelis.
Life and research in Israel demonstrates that even though the Holocaust ended over seven decades ago, it continues to have negative psycho-physical impacts on descendants of survivors (e.g. Kidron, 2003; Rodriguez, March 1, 2015; Scharf, 2007) and produces complex psycho-social influences on Jewish-Israeli relations with Germans, even those born after the war (Bar-On & Kassem, 2004; Chaitin, 2011). Moreover, Jewish Israeli high school students study the Shoah, and thousands of these teenagers participate in Holocaustfocused trips to Poland every year, which often convey the message that because of the past, Israel needs to remain militarily strong (Feldman, 2008). Furthermore, the Holocaust impacts Jewish Israeli perspectives on Israeli-Palestinian relations, since the Shoah is perceived as one of the main factors that brought about the establishment of the Jewish state (Bickerton & Klausner, 2016) and since it is Jewish Israelis’ chosen trauma (Volkan, 2001) – a massive collective trauma that continues to mold the victim identity and social perspectives of generations of Jewish Israelis (Adwan & Bar-On, 2001).
My second thought, however, which followed quickly on the heels of the first, was that just like there are Bedouins (and perhaps other Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well), who do not know about the Shoah, there are Jewish Israelis who do not know what the Nakba is. In spite of the fact that the Nakba, which occurred over 70 years ago, is regularly discussed and examined by Palestinians in myriad outlets and was a direct result of the establishment of the State of Israel, Jewish Israelis often lack basic information and understanding of this collective trauma and/or are apathetic about the negative psycho-social-cultural-political effects it has had on generations of Palestinians – in Israel, in the OPT, and in the world (e.g., Ibish, May 14, 2018; Jabar, Morse, El Sarraj & Awidi, 2013; Manna', 2013). I understood that despite all the knowledge sources available today, in our super electronic world, about the Holocaust and the Nakba, we are, indeed, not only in an age of ignorance but, more saddening, in an age of apathy.
Problems in the Israeli-Palestinian-German Trialogue
This issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal deals with the sensitive triangular Israeli-Palestinian-German relationship. In that context, it is important to note that in a large survey carried out by the EU in 2018, 85% of German Jews reported that anti-Semitism was a serious problem in their country. Jewish German respondents noted that they often heard remarks such as: ‘Jews have too much power’ and ‘Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes,’ thus highlighting Germany’s failure to deal adequately with its infamous past and to significantly eradicate racism and anti-Semitism (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, March 2019). So, while the Holocaust was a past trauma, present-day racism keeps alive Jews’ deep fear of renewed persecution. Furthermore, the recent huge influx of Muslim refugees fleeing Syria into Germany has led to alarming instances of anti-Muslim racism (Lewicki & Shooman, 2019). These phenomena not only impact Jews and Muslims in Germany but reverberate in Israeli/Palestinian societies, as well.
Given this less-than-ideal state of affairs in Germany, Israel, and Palestine, it is not surprising to learn that when members of these groups participate in people-to-people encounters centering on peacebuilding and social justice, mainly connected to the Israeli-Palestinian context, the dialogue between these young/middle-aged adults is often fraught with misunderstandings and ignorance of the others’ experiences. At times, things are even worse – there are expressions of apathy or negation of the pain of the other.
In these encounters, Jewish Israelis, Germans, and Palestinians (both citizens of Israel and those from the OPT) often struggle to engage in reflective dialogue due to both technical reasons and deep-seated negative psycho-social-political perspectives. The technical obstacles include language barriers: (1) Few participants know the others’ languages, thus, turning English into the linga franca. Since English is not the mother tongue of any of the participants, however, most struggle to express themselves. This leads to frustrations and misunderstandings. (2) Most group participants meet for the first time in these seminars; therefore, this makes deep sharing of painful personal experiences and understandings extremely difficult. (3) Many of these seminars are ‘one-shot deals’ that offer little to no followup. As a result of these technical factors, the encounters often lack the necessary safe spaces needed for reflective and empathic sharing that can lead to long-term changes in perspectives of and empathy toward the other (Chaitin & Steinberg, 2008).
The more substantial obstacles to deep reflection and trialogue include the following (Chaitin, 2008; 2011): collective identities rooted in victimhood (characteristic of Israelis and Palestinians); difficulty in being empathetic to the pain of the former/present-day ‘enemies’; intense emotions of fear, repression, and denial concerning one’s personal/family’s/ collective responsibility concerning the abuse of the other; blaming the other for ‘their problems’; a fear of betraying one’s family and collective by being empathetic to the other; and group-think (Janis, 1982), which makes it difficult for participants to think outside of ‘accepted’ German/Israeli/ Palestinian notions of the self, one’s collective, and the other.
In the Israeli/Palestinian subcase, sustaining dialogue in these trialogues can be particularly difficult, given that the violent conflict between the peoples is not something that only happened in the past but rather a conflict that continues to claim victims. Furthermore, Palestinians and Israelis mainly lead separate lives and are mutually distrustful of one another. Thus, they have few opportunities to talk with one another, let alone jointly seek peace. All this means that even though individuals may desire to meet in groups to try to further peace on the ground, the realities of the 'outside' always intrude and often threaten to shut down dialogue. Finally, when German participants are involved, this can often cause animosity in the group if/when the Israelis feel that the Germans are ‘taking the Palestinian side’ and, hence, expressing anti-Semitism, and if/when the Palestinians feel that, due to German guilt over the Holocaust, group participants excuse Israeli behavior and support them in their oppression of the Palestinians.
TRT - To Reflect and Trust
Despite these difficulties and barriers, there have been civil society endeavors that have brought Jewish Israelis, Germans, and Palestinians together, in one group, to work on peacebuilding, both within the group and for/within their societies. The first framework was the TRT (To Reflect and Trust) which was the brainchild of the late professor and psychologist, Dan Bar-On (2000). Bar-On used the facilitation method of personal narratives and reflective listening in order to encourage reconciliation between members of these groups (Albeck, Adwan & Bar-On, 2002). The TRT began in 1992 as an encounter group between descendants of Nazi perpetrators and Jewish Holocaust survivors. Participants were invited by Bar-On to come together to share their life stories in order to better work through (that is, learn to live with) the traumas connected to their families’ pasts, which resulted from their parents’ perpetrator or victim experiences during WW II (Albeck et al., 2002). In 1998, the TRT expanded and invited former/present enemies from Northern Ireland, Palestine/Israel, and South Africa to join their work (Bar-On & Kassem, 2004).
I joined the group in 2000, as part of the Israeli contingency. The TRT met – usually once a year – for week-long seminars in the country of one of the conflict groups. Group members were comprised of mental health practitioners and physicians, educators, researchers, artists, and community workers. The participants from the conflict arenas were interested in and/or working on topics connected to peacebuilding within their societies. In these meetings, we facilitated ourselves; we would sit together in small groups and tell one another our life stories, within the context of the conflict. We also always held an ‘open meeting’ in which we presented our work to interested audiences.
While telling one’s story was the major aspect of the TRT meetings, empathically listening to the story of the “enemy” comprised the main, and extremely difficult, group work. We did our best to refrain from engaging in political discussions, which have been shown to hinder dialogue rather than encourage it (Steinberg & Bar-On, 2002). As Bar-On (2000) noted, learning to take in the stories of the other, to hear their pain and to legitimize their narrative while not negating our own pain and story, was the main work and “product” of the TRT process.
FAB – Friendship Across Borders
A second group – Friendship Across Borders (FAB) – has been working since 2003. This German-Israeli-Palestinian NGO concentrates on facilitating young to middle-age adults in their endeavors to become “peace carriers.” FAB organizes and runs an international student seminar once a year, which is held either in Beit Jala in the Palestinian Authority (located near Bethlehem) or in Germany, in addition to shorter uni-national seminars held in each country. In the international face-to-face intensive encounters, seven to 10 participants from each country undergo psycho-social-artistic processes that help them become much more aware of their personal fears, prejudices, traumas, and perceptions of the “others” and much more aware of their societies’ fears, prejudices, traumas, and perceptions of the other collectives. FAB is an educational NGO; it does not concentrate on activism per se but rather on diverse peace education techniques that can help members understand the deep processes necessary for personal and societal transformation, especially as they relate to the German-Israeli-Palestinian triangle, and how to put such understandings into practices of nonviolence, social justice, and peace work (Friendship Across Borders, n.d.).
Our Joint Struggle to Reach an Age of Humanity
I have been a member of FAB since 2009; I participated in numerous seminars and have mentored the students in their process. During one of our encounters in Germany, after the 2012 Gaza-Israel war, I was talking about the wars and violence in our region (I live and work near the Gaza border) and the traumas that both peoples are undergoing. I talked about how traumatized I was during that war and how I found myself running for safety from the never-ending Qassam rocket attacks, lying down on the road, covering my head, being exposed both on my kibbutz and in the region, passing the bombed-out cars that were hit by rockets that had somehow miraculously missed me. While talking about my painful experiences, I also talked about the fact that no matter how much pain I and my Israeli neighbors and society were facing, I knew that the Gazans were facing more. I talked about the fact that while Israel had shelters, Gazans had none. I talked about our strong and super-equipped army and air force that could and was causing massive damage to Gazans, often harming and killing innocent people who had no room to hide, no place to be safe.
As I talked, Nasser, a young Gazan who was sitting across from me, had his head down. I didn’t know what was going through his mind and what he thought of what I was saying. I was talking and crying, finding it difficult to recount the horrors that we were experiencing, and the fact that there was no hope in sight for a peaceful resolution of the wars. When I finished, Nasser looked up. His face was streaming with tears. He came over to me and gave me the warmest hug: “You and I know what this is like. This is something that you and I share. Thank you for sharing and thank you for caring what also happens to me and my people.” We hugged for a long time, surrounded by the German, Israeli, and Palestinian participants.
Our joint struggle to reach a new age has not yet ended; however the presence of people in encounter groups such as the TRT and FAB, who engage in deep, reflective dialogue with one another, have decreased the ignorance and apathy of the participants. There is much work left to be done – such as committing to ongoing peace and social justice education with students and young adults from Germany, Israel, and Palestine. Such a commitment can then lead to concrete, sustained activism and, perhaps to a new age – an age of humanity.
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