Conflict as the result of intolerable pain

By Steve Rauh

The disastrous human losses in Israel and Gaza are not the consequences of justifiable war or unjustifiable terrorism.  They are the inevitable outcome of generations of untreated trauma experienced by all the people in the region.  Untreated trauma, especially collective trauma, often results in dangerous, hurtful and thoughtless behaviours.  

Knowing where trauma starts helps us if we want to lay blame.  However, laying blame fuels continuing trauma rather than diminishing it.

What is important is to identify the consequences of trauma and respond to them in a way that can reduce or prevent the often devastating outcomes.  

The immediate effects of trauma are well known as fight, flight and freeze.  The ongoing consequences of trauma as a social epidemic are just beginning to be understood.  Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has helped increase awareness in both the making of public policy and understanding our true national story.  Now we are more able to see that social trauma undermines the well-being of all.

Generally, when trauma is experienced by an individual its impacts make one see and respond to the world as dangerous and frightening.  The accompanying stress results in a constant sense of crisis and wariness about what comes next.  When trauma is experienced collectively these traits become verified socially and result in collective preparations for crisis and danger.   This can blind us to the more nuanced possibilities available to human problem solving.  Wars and terrorism both traumatize and arise from trauma.  We refer to this as the cycle of violence.  

Each of us is touched by trauma, whether it be personally or as a witness to events over which we have no control.  The events in the Mideast are especially poignant in this way.  It seems natural, when one is frightened, to want to take sides.  Indeed, self-protection is an automatic response to trauma. Self-protection through harm to others, though, leads to heightened fear and more extreme danger. Such has been the case for Israelis and Palestinians who have been in a constant state of social trauma for over 70 years.  

The Israeli historian and author of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, is quoted in the Guardian as follows:

…the people in Israel and Gaza … “have suffered tremendously … your mind is so full of your own pain that any attempt to even draw your attention to the pain of somebody else feels like a betrayal” … “in a moment like this, we entrust the possibility of peace to outsiders”.

These words capture the emotional tragedy of the current situation, and the difficulty of de-escalation.  

However, by seeing the conflicts as the result of intolerable pain rather than a fight between good and bad, the epidemic trauma, now witnessed globally on a daily basis, can be addressed.

The first step is a ceasefire as called for by thoughtful outsiders, and many Israelis and Palestinians.  

The legacy of violence can then start to be repaired. Investing in workable programs of post trauma growth will be critical.  Most likely a third party peace keeping mission will be necessary as the hard work to turn the ceasefire into regional healing begins.

Beyond the cessation of destruction there will need to be a plan to address the region’s deep wounds.  Foreign contributions could provide the resources for locally led Israeli/Palestinian trauma centers that focus on post trauma growth, economic reparations and a regional Truth and Reconciliation process that is not punitive in nature but reflective of Restorative Justice.  They can address the kinds of traumatized thinking that leads to ongoing violence. 

Though not perfect, just as Japan and Germany live with their former “enemies”, just as Canada is beginning to heal its history of mistreatment of Indigenous people, and just as South Africa has taken steps to heal its Apartheid history, so can Israel and its neighbours learn to repair their human relationships and live peacefully and productively on their shared part of the earth. The right help from the global community can lead to hopeful narratives of healing that replace the current multigenerational Jewish and Palestinian mistrust and hate.

Generations of untreated trauma, “justified” wars, “unjustified” terror will only end through an emphasis on healing and shared well-being.

Steve Rauh is a retired therapist, co-director of the Brower/Dellums Institute and a research affiliate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba office.