Working with collective trauma to facilitate peace

by Gina Ross
18 December 2008
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LOS ANGELES – Trauma triggers violence. We know this based on research and applying this knowledge can contribute to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli and Palestinian populations suffer from chronic trauma. Israelis feel as though they revisit the Holocaust with every terrorist attack. This feeling has been reinforced by five wars, anti-Semitic propaganda in the Arab world, and extermination threats from Iran. Palestinians suffer from the trauma of having to assert their identity as Palestinians against Arab and Jewish denial that such an identity exists. They suffer from a lack of autonomy and water, economic dysfunction, refugee problems, and occupation.

These traumas are neither negligible nor innocuous; they are at the very root of what perpetuates this conflict, and foreign and local leaders must encourage healing in both communities in order to help them restore self-regulation, release despair, helplessness, anger, mistrust and hatred, and set the necessary emotional foundation for effective dialogue.

Every new incident amplifies and propels the cycle of violence in the region. Negative experiences produce trauma that is passed down through generations (called a collective trauma vortex)—affecting collective narratives, deepening fears, and creating a lasting sense of victimhood and animosity. Most importantly, a trauma vortex provokes impulsive rather than thoughtful responses.

The Palestinians’ collective nervous system is kept aroused by media, internal factional violence, suicide-bombers used as weapons against the Israelis, and escalating control by the Israeli Defence Forces. The media encourages them to focus all their energy on suffering, and they fall prey to inflammatory slogans, while some are driven to violence and the destruction of their own society.

Stress and despair are also part of the Israeli psyche, which is torn by a need to defend itself, while simultaneously repulsed by its occupation of the Palestinians. Social groups are polarised against each other within Israeli society, and extremism is fuelled in small groups on both sides of the political spectrum.

The conflict has turned each party from victim into victimiser. Often, both sides feel like the political situation is at an impasse, as political approaches to the conflict have thus far failed to address the root causes of the violence. The befuddled international community, and its approach, would benefit from being more attuned to the traumatic collective experiences of Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, many who are deeply engrossed in the conflict are not cognisant of the impact of their traumatic suffering on their behaviour, and need help, as well, recognising trauma in the other.

Assessing signs can help gauge the degree of trauma in either group and alert them to the need for healing. Aspects of the conflict which have only helped undermine the peace process include: feelings of religious superiority; suspending critical thinking; labelling, blaming and demonising “the other”; ethnic cleansing of “the other” from their midst; distortion of traumatic narratives; believing one’s side is totally innocent; repressed media; purposeful violence against civilians to regain control; and rearing children in hatred.

The mental health, medical and educational fields, clergy, military, media, diplomats, NGOs, and local and international political leaders can all help ease the effects of collective trauma by introducing innovative tools for self-regulation. By employing an apolitical language to deal with trauma’s ravages, these groups can help all sides prepare for a durable peace.

Traumatic narratives fixate us in our trauma and appear to absolve us of any responsibility. Therefore, leaders throughout civil society and government need to do their part to identify these harmful distortions by validating the suffering of all, condemning the destructive ways it is expressed, and confronting traumatised groups with historical facts.

Palestinians and Israelis need to be asked if their actions are: giving them real safety, real autonomy; supporting their self-esteem and inspiring respect in others; making them feel competent; giving meaning to their life or culture without jeopardising the needs of others (meeting our needs at the expense of others’ indicates a trauma vortex pull and forecasts the perpetuation of one’s trauma and further victimisation); helping them trust and be trusted; promoting cross-cultural understanding; and inspiring compassion and the desire to validate their suffering.

Trauma, and the actions it elicits, calls for rigorous self-honesty. And the same questions should be asked of all outsides forces involved. Beginning to recognise the unacknowledged forces in this conflict – foreign, domestic; inside, outside; psychological, non-psychological – is a positive step forward.

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* Gina Ross, MFCC, is the founder and chair of the International Trauma- Healing Institute in the United States and the co-founder of the Israeli Trauma Center in Jerusalem. She specializes in trauma and has been involved in this field since 1990. This article is part of a special series on Psychological Effects of Conflict written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service, 18 December 2008, www.commongroundnews.org.
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
 
 
 
 
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