I found it refreshing and interesting to talk to a psychotherapist about a subject—Israel—that I find increasingly confusing. Along with more and more people it seems, I am asking: Why do the Israelis do what they do? Why do they keep on doing it? Can’t they see what damage they are doing to themselves, to the Palestinians, to us all? I asked Avigail if she would diagnose Israel as if the nation were a client of hers and then suggest an appropriate treatment regimen.
Here, summarized as succinctly as I can, are the main threads of Avigail’s response along with her emphatic assertion that underlying everything she says is a clear distinction between explanation and excuse.
Trauma and its ramifications lie at the heart of the Israeli nation:
it is the organizing principle of the Israeli people and the psychology that has shaped its national character. But not just because of the Holocaust of World War II; rather, the seeds are already there, in the culture, the biblical stories (see Joshua, see Deuteronomy, Numbers, Exodus) and through centuries of history, including the Zionist movement in the late 19th century. The roots of victimhood and persecution go back to a long time ago.
Unfortunately, one of the characteristics of trauma is that it is passed on, through the generations and proliferates within the generations.
Trauma, as we know from PTSD, is a clinically-established phenomenon that can manifest whenever the suffering individual perceives existential threat. The problem is that this former threat may or may not be real today. Objectively, Israel with its military might and nuclear power is one of the most formidable forces in the world; however, the irrational aspects of insecurity persist, nourished rather than managed, treated and healed, amplified now to include Iran.
With an identity forged by its enemies and reinforced by the state’s religious, education, military and cultural institutions along with the trauma narrative, Israelis are not open to seeing themselves in new ways.
Those who suggest such alternatives—you, me, liberal Jews, Judge Goldstone–are dismissed as hostile to Israel and included among the expanding number of enemies. As George W. Bush put it: “You’re either with us or with the terrorists.”
Protective isolation against what is perceived as a highly dangerous world and against anyone perceived as an enemy is a natural consequence of trauma.
The huge dimensions of the wall and fence complex built by Israel in the West Bank speak clearly to just how dangerous every Palestinian man, woman and child is seen to be.
On her blog in the extensive section about Palestine/Israel, Abarbanel writes: “the story of Israel and the Palestinian people is the story of trauma being transmitted from one generation to the next” and “my people…have allowed the quality of their life and their identity to be determined by those who hated them and committed crimes against them.” But, she continues: ”Healing is a risky business that requires a willingness to change one’s identity” and not, as she puts it, an endeavor for the faint-hearted.
Abarbanel draws on the work of the American psychiatrist Murray Bowen, and the “close relationship between trauma and persecution, and the tendency to emphasize the force of togetherness. When togetherness is emphasized, those those who do not feel, think, agree, act in the way that the group does, can be seen as traitors.” Citing Bowen’s theory of differentiation, she believes Israel is a “culture of consensus” and a “very poorly differentiated society…with the sense of self very, very meshed and entangled with the sense of the group.”
Based on this analysis, Avigail Abarbanel believes “Israel cannot be reasoned with”, that it “is a traumatised society and it is therefore very dangerous.” Applying family therapy models, she compares Israel to the abusive husband, the Palestinians to the abused wife and the United States to the enabling neighbor;.
She advocates for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict but warns that the coexistence of two traumatized people will require a great deal of imagination and intelligence.
She suggests that there are enough good and skilled and spiritual people in the world whose energies can be mobilized to do the work of healing and reconciliation when the time comes. “It can be great, you know!” she adds.
The interview ends with Avigail reflecting on the ‘secondary traumatization’ that can affect volunteers and human rights workers who are dealing with traumatized populations all over the world. “Look after yourself first,” she counsels, since “you have to be well to help other people…The only way I am able to work sustainably without burning out…is because I do put myself first.”
(I do urge you to listen to the podcast and listen to her compelling, fluid presentation. Sometimes an mp3 is worth thousands of words of text!) The interview is also available in German. Note: June 20, 2015: Unfortunately the podcast is no longer available although the German translation is.To become more familiar with the body of Avigail Abarbanel’s work, here are her writings and her professional website. MAY 11, 2010