Friday, August 18, 2006

National Trauma or Not

A friend of mine posited recently that the response of some sector of the population to the occurrences of the summer of 5765 (2005) are out of proportion to the actual events. If I understood her correctly, she seemed to be saying this:

The Holocaust (and other events when Jews were murdered on a massive scale) was a national trauma because people were killed. The people of Gush Katif and the northern Shomron only had to move.

It’s true, she’ll agree, that this “only had to move” was traumatic for THEM. But, she says, it’s not traumatic for us as a nation because the people of Gush Katif and the northern Shomron are still alive. They weren’t killed. Let’s keep some proportion people!

She felt that comparison to the destructions of the Temples was also out of proportion. She told me that she was at a wedding last summer where the chatan (bridegroom) spoke about Gush Katif under the marriage canopy. I’m assuming it was at the point where we traditionally make a point of remembering that our joy cannot be complete, even at a wedding, because we no longer have a temple. This disturbed her. She felt it was inappropriate.

And also, in her opinion the majority of the nation simply was not traumatized, so you can’t call it a “national” trauma.

Her strong feelings on the subject aroused strong feelings in me to convince her that she is wrong.

Now please understand, I’m a person who tries to be agreeable. I often backtrack on my own statements to try and keep the comfort level in a good place. But I just cannot agree with her that the events of the summer of 5765 should not be traumatic to those not directly affected.

What is Trauma?
This is a gut thing. I believe that trauma is subjective. It’s a feeling. It’s an experience that differs from person to person, and in degree. We can see that even in the experience of the people who lost their homes last summer. I know one guy at work who used to live in Northern Gaza. He got resettled quickly. He’s working, he has a home. I don’t know about his kids, but he doesn’t seem unduly traumatized. At least from the outside, it just seems like a relocation. That can be tough (packing and unpacking can be nasty) but trauma? Don’t think so. Is he representative of most of the people? I also don’t think so. But I think there is a continuum.

What for me keeps me up tossing and turning at night might be completely unimportant to you. And I don’t think that anyone has the right or even the ability to say to another person, “Hey! You shouldn’t be upset about that! That’s not painful!” At best, one can help a person work through their pain. But you cannot deny the pain.

This is a weak argument in some ways because people DO have inappropriate reactions to events and sometimes have to learn to react appropriately. It’s often a matter of maturity. For a small child, for example, a popsicle that falls in the dirt is a world-shaking event at that moment. So perhaps she is correct in saying that people should be led to recognize that, yes, the expulsions (or disengagement, or whatever you want to call it) was a Bad Thing, but not such a bad thing.

So let’s look at some other aspects.

What are We Talking About Here
I think the first thing that she is missing, is that we are not talking about individuals here. We are talking about whole communities, and groups of communities. We are not talking about a city block where homes are being demolished to make way for a new bypass. Whole, healthy, vibrant, cohesive communities were destroyed. Some or all of these communities may manage to stay together and become healthy and viable once again. Only time will tell. But the bloc of communities that was Gush Katif is no more. The new communities simply will not have the same super-communal and inter-communal relationships. The beauty and uniqueness of the Gush Katif bloc is gone. That’s why the events of the summer of 5765 are more than “just a move”.

Other Expulsions in Jewish History
If we look at the litany of Bad Things that have happened to the Jews, we find them to be full of massacres. But there are other events that we carry with us as yes, national traumas. For example, the expulsion from Spain. The expulsion of Jews from Spain is a separate trauma, distinct from the Spanish Inquisition. It is mourned distinctly from the Inquisition.

For that matter, the focus of mourning of the first exile, after the destruction of the first Temple, is primarily on the exile and not on the war that preceded it. While there is no question that many many people died in the war and destruction at that time, when we look at the kinot, at the stories, at the documentation of that exile we see great emphasis on how terrible it was that the people had to leave the holy land.

Jews were expelled from England. Jews were expelled from countless places, sometimes more than once. Sometimes after a massacre, sometimes to avoid a massacre. But it is clear that the expulsion of a community of Jews from the place it called home were traumatic, and traumatic to ALL Jews, not just the people who “had to move”.

Nevertheless, these historical expulsions were ALL the Jews from a given location. In this case it was a small percentage of the population, so perhaps we still cannot call it a national trauma.

Majority rules?
OK. How can she know that a majority of the nation (or even the country) wasn’t traumatized? I don’t think that anyone who watched TV last summer was unmoved by the searing images in real time of what was going on. I think that the degree of trauma differs from person to person, but when faced with the events and the aftermath I think there is real pain from most people.

Furthermore, what does majority have to do with anything? Did the majority of Jews in the world cry out in pain and anguish when the news of what the Germans were doing began to trickle in? How many Jews didn’t know, or chose not to know? And that was when it was occurring. How many Jews alive today care or even know about the events of the 1930s and 40s? Is there a simple majority of Jews today who relate to the holocaust and are moved by it? I wonder.

Who against Whom?
Another aspect that makes the events of the summer of 5765 different, and traumatic, is the soldiers. When, in history, have Jews ever acted against Jews? This alone makes the forced removal of people from their homes traumatic. That Jewish soldiers, wearing the Star of David and Menorah, the symbols of the nation of Israel, came and physically removed people from their homes against their will, was a traumatic event! How many people said, “For this we created a Jewish state? For this we have an army? An army is supposed to be working against our enemies, not against ourselves!” The sheer numbers, the massive organization, the planning, the psychological preparation the soldiers received (which some would call brainwashing) created a machine.

And the machine, to a certain extent FAILED. Some of the most powerful images of last summer are of soldiers crying as they carried out their orders. Soldiers being comforted by the very people they were working against. And what is the state of the army today? How many suicides have there been (many)? How much post-traumatic stress disorder? It is clear that the army as an institution was shaken, and badly, by its participation in last summer’s events. This has a national impact. Further, how many young people cannot bring themselves to be part of the army? How many parents today are anguished by the choice that their children face, when it was obvious to them when they were young people?

There are Things Worse than Death
The main point that my friend makes is that no one was murdered. That there was no intention to obliterate the people of Gush Katif and the northern Shomron. First of all, murder does not have to mean physical death. Our sages teach that simply embarrassing someone in public is tantamount to murder! Furthermore, taking a person, forcing them to start over (but barely giving them the wherewithal to do that, or giving them nothing), taking everything familiar from them. Forcing them to go begging, forcing the public to support them. All of these acts are aggressive, even if they are not physically violent. Even the people who left “willingly” are STILL suffering today. The numbers are documented elsewhere, but the amount of mental illness among the young and the old, the physical illness that can be traced to stress, the people who simply cannot get it together, all of this is an open wound on Israeli society. This is a trauma because it is not over. We cannot ignore them and these people are not going away! Their pain is our pain because we are all responsible for one another. We rally around anyone in distress. Take, for example, the all-too-common family violence scenario where the father kills the mother (lo aleinu). Once the story goes public, and it becomes clear that the children are left with nothing and no one, people do step in. They send money, clothes, toys, food. It’s not a lasting national trauma (and in the long term often these kids are still left with nothing) but they are helped as long as the cameras are on them because the images are searing and we are pained by them. This is a form of trauma for us. That’s what motivates us to help.

And by the way, how much is the personal trauma of the refugees exacerbated because the very communities that gave them their strength, the strength to stare down thousands of mortars, rockets and shells over the years, these communities are in most cases not whole, and in some cases truly broken and fragmented.

The events of the summer of 5765 have far-reaching implications. We are still living the summer of 5765. We have been strongly impacted by the summer of 5765 and that fact implies deep feeling. The hurt is there, it’s strong, and it’s legitimate. To say that it was not a national trauma is to quibble about semantics. To say that the reaction of people is too strong, is out of proportion, is to deny the right of people to experience emotion and to deliberate hide from the lessons of history, and the implications for the future.

In sum, what I’d like to say to my friend is, while you might think that reactions are out of proportion, you’d better be confident that when the bulldozers come to knock down your home in Ma’aleh Adumim you will not look back and say, “I should have, I could have, I would have, if I had only known.” Because to relegate the trauma only to the people who lost everything is to repudiate “kol Yisrael areivim ze la’ze” and to open the door to a continuation of the trauma until it lands on our doorstep, and we join those who are clearly traumatized by it all.

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