Jerusalem Journal: No. 1, Begin with the Trauma

[This is the first of a series of entries in my Jerusalem Journal–observations and opinions arising from an eight-day trip my husband Jonathan and I took to Israel in mid-October so he could attend the annual conference of the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology.  We had some adventures together, and as you will learn if you read later entries, I had some of my own, in Jerusalem and in other parts of Israel and Palestine (aka the West Bank). The series will appear as I am able to gather my thoughts and feelings–I have plenty of both and they need to be sorted, sifted, and organized.]

I have been circling around this for several days, like a dog trying to find the right spot to lie down. I have puzzled about my reluctance to begin, until I realized that I have carried back, inside myself, the tension that underlays everything in Israel and Palestine.

Just using the word Palestine can land you in a controversy. Israel’s government does not recognize a sovereign nation called Palestine. Neither does the U.S. government for that matter. In law, such a nation does not exist. And yet it does. Some call it the West Bank, others the Palestinian Territories.

Those two latter terms recognize the reality that although Palestinian leaders–the Palestinian Authority or Hamas–have some authority in certain areas, they do not exercise full governmental authority anywhere. Their ability to govern is always conditioned on the forbearance of the Israeli government–either its civil authority emanating from Tel Aviv or the omnipresent Israel Defense Force (IDF).

So the society–it is in many ways one society, even though it is deeply divided into two–is governed by, and runs internally on, tension.

Western Wall, where Jews go to pray, with the dome of Al-Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims pray (part of the third holiest site for Muslims in the world), in the background. Not visible, to the left, is the Dome of the Rock.
Western Wall, where Jews go to pray, with the dome of Al-Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims pray (part of the third holiest site for Muslims in the world), in the background. Not visible, to the left, is the Dome of the Rock.

Lest you think I am only critical of how Israel’s dominance produces so much of, although far from all, this tension, let me be clear: the trauma of Jews for two millenia, if not longer–the trauma of feeling always unwanted and unwelcome, indeed of being vulnerable not just to Nazi Holocausts but also to everyday violation–makes the Israeli desire to dominate and control, and own, every part of the land, quite understandable.

Trauma is, I think, the operative word here, but of not just for Jews. The Palestinians experience every day the trauma of living on, or agonizingly close to, the land that once was fully theirs but now belongs mostly to someone else. So many live in ugly, marginal, secondhand spaces only a stone’s throw (I use the term deliberately) from where they used to live the much richer, natural lives that had belonged to them and their ancestors for generations. So the trauma is everywhere.

Both traumas go largely untreated.  Which is why Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, says, “For those of us who truly care about the well-being of both sides, or even or either side, the task is to heal the trauma. That healing is not just a political or psychological project but also a spiritual project.”

Understanding this, I am more grateful than ever for Presidents Carter and Clinton who tried, by bringing the leaders of both sides to Camp David, to get them to talk, to listen, to communicate. And other Presidents, as well as other leaders,  have tried various approaches to change the dynamics of the situation. Secretary of State John Kerry has been engaged for some time, it seems to me, in trying to do something.

In coming entries, I will write about Israelis and Palestinians I met who yearn for an end to the hostilities, for peaceful coexistence, even in some cases daring to believe that all could somehow thrive together. And I will write about others: Israelis who so fear for their survival that they cannot imagine anything other than conflict, and Palestinians who feel the same way. I met peacekeepers and observers and teachers who seek to build honest and even caring relations on the ground now. I met Palestinians who do their best to live well and without rage, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, even as they carry a keen sense of the wrongs they see and experience.  I will write about the things I saw that disturbed me, in some cases made me angry, and I will write about the beauty I saw and the sacredness I felt.

I came back determined to find a way to help. Such a beautiful and holy land need not be a place of bloodshed and terror. I came back understanding that this is not simply an Israeli and Palestinian problem, or even just a Middle East problem. It is a global problem. As a U.S. citizen, I am implicated in what is going on there, if for no other reason than my government’s fingerprints are all over the place.

The sad truth is that both sides have to want to change the situation, and to do so in ways that do not deny the existence and well-being of the other. But to say that does not mean we simply wait until they are tired of fighting and decide to act like grown ups.

It means we have to do whatever we can, everything we can, to help them decide to want to change. That’s what friends do.

And that is what people do who recognize that the trauma which is theirs is also ours. More about that later.


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