Chronic trauma and a clarification about my Israel/Palestine post

“Israel is about as well-governed as you’d expect from a country run by people with PTSD in one of the most volatile regions in the world.” This sentence in your recent post feels uncomfortably close to perpetuating a poor stereotype of both abuse survivors and people with PTSD, or like a joke in poor taste at their expense. I think I get what you meant it’s just, in my opinion, very poorly phrased.

realsocialskills replied:

Agreed. I should have phrased that differently. I haven’t really tried to discuss anything related to Israel on this blog before. I was assuming certain context that I didn’t actually explain. I don’t talk about Israel very much, and when I do, it’s usually in a context in which people know that I’m a rabbi and a disabled disability advocate. (People often also know that I have significantly disabling trauma.) That context matters more than I realized. I’m sorry I wrote it that way, I see what it looked like I meant now that people have pointed it out to me.

One thing that I want to be clear about now: I did not mean that as an insult. Part of what I meant is that trauma makes everything harder, and that it’s a factor in why the situation is so intractable. I absolutely was *not* saying that people with PTSD shouldn’t be in leadership roles. And in any case, in Israel/Palestine, there is no alternative. If you couldn’t have traumatized people in leadership roles, it would be difficult to find anyone to govern. That doesn’t mean that the situation can’t get better — it means that it’s *hard*. 

(This is one of the many reasons why I believe that people who want to help should support efforts that are led by Israelis and/or Palestinians and located primarily in Israel/Palestine.)

Some of the things I’ve most appreciated about spending time in Israel are directly related to how normal trauma is there. PTSD is really a misnomer — the situation in Israel/Palestine is chronically traumatic. In Israel, there’s much more serious conversation about resilience in the face of chronic trauma than I’ve ever found in the US. (I’m saying Israel specifically because I’m directly familiar with Israeli culture and I am not directly familiar with Palestinian culture.)

In the US, the conversation about trauma tends to be “You need to get past what happened and let go of it so you can get on with your life.” In Israel, it’s more like “Whether or not things ever get better, we have to live our lives.” (Pronoun choice deliberate; Israel is much more collectivized than the US, which is a cultural can of worms I’m not going to get into in more detail in this post.)

A lot of populations in the US face chronic traumatization, and there’s very little discussion here about how to deal with that. There’s a tendency to inappropriately apply a *post*-traumatic recovery model along the lines of “You went through something terrible, but you’re safe now. Let’s help you to feel safe.” That model is really inappropriate for people who aren’t safe and aren’t likely to be safe any time soon. We need more things that help people in unsafe situations cope psychologically and build as many good things in their life as they can. 

For example, group homes are not safe places. More generally, disability service provision systems are not safe. They’re safer than they used to be, but the rate of abuse is still very high. It is irresponsible to say “you’re safe now” to someone who is statistically likely to be harmed again in the future. It’s irresponsible to say “People can’t heal until they are safe”, and leave it at that. There are a lot of people who aren’t likely to be safe any time soon, and their lives matter *now*.

Safety is not a prerequisite for growth, and it’s not a prerequisite for having good things in your life. We need to do better for people in unsafe situations. We need more space to say “Being hurt matters, and it’s not the only thing that matters,” and more competence to say “Here are some things that often help.” Safety is important, and we should work for it — and we can’t let that be the only thing we do. (Related: “It gets better” is often worth saying, but it can’t be the end all and be all of how we express “Your life is worth living”.)

This matters in service provision and it also matters in activist community. I think that we need a much broader conversation about resilience. We’re fighting for survival and for critically important rights. We can’t abandon these fights and we also can’t afford to treat victory as a prerequisite for valuing our lives. We have to live. I think a significant part of that is finding ways to strengthen each other, and seeking out every form of growth and resilience available to us. 

I have more to say on all of this, but I haven’t found the words to say it yet. 

If you want to help in Israel/Palestine, acknowledge context and support local efforts

I see a lot of Western talk about Israel and Palestine, and not a lot of Western awareness of the context or the work of Israelis and Palestinians. People on both the right and the left often treat Israel/Palestine as a symbol and ignore the fact that it’s a real place, it has a real history, and real people live there.

One of many pieces of context that matters: Israeli Jews are mostly genocide victims and descendants of genocide victims who see Israel as the only reliable way to protect themselves. In their experience, most Jews who relied on non-Jews to protect them died. That context matters in any discussion of Israel, and it’s antisemitic to disregard it.

Another piece of context that matters: Israel is a mess. Israel is about as well-governed as you’d expect from a country run by people with PTSD in one of the most volatile regions in the world. In addition, Israel has from the beginning depended on less-than-stable compromises between different populations in the area, in a way that’s hard to imagine in the West.

I don’t know what would make things better in Israel and Palestine. The more I learn, the less I feel comfortable having a lot of opinions about policy. There are just too many pieces of game-changing context that I’m unfamiliar with.

One of the few things I’m sure of is that no one involved is suffering from a shortage of Western feelings. It’s not news to anyone who lives there that things are a mess. Israelis and Palestinians who live in Israel/Palestine have their own feelings about the situation.

Israelis and Palestinians also have their own opinions about what would help, and they’re doing their own work. There are Israelis and Palestinians all over the political spectrum, pursuing all kinds of attempts to make things better. (Some of which I’m inspired by; some of which I find horrifying.) I think Western conversations on all sides tend to erase the actual Israelis and Palestinians involved.

For instance, the Western left often erases the work of the Israeli left by pretending that only Americans and other Westerners have heard of justice and human rights). Similarly, the Western right often erases the work of Palestinians pursuing coexistence by speaking as though only people in the West have heard of peace.

If loud Western feelings and platitudes from afar could fix the situation in Israel and Palestine, the conflict would have been over decades ago. Palestinians and Israelis have heard it all before. It’s not helpful. Israelis and Palestinians already know about peace and justice, and many of them are working very hard to pursue both.

If you want to help make things better in Israel and Palestine, the best way to do that is by supporting the work being done by pro-justice/pro-peace Palestinians and Israelis who live there. Find Israel/Palestine-based organizations that share your values, and support their work. Foreigners can’t support political parties, but there are a lot of nonprofit organizations doing good work.

I don’t have an extensive knowledge of justice work in Israel and Palestine, but there are a few organizations I’m comfortable recommending:

The Jerusalem Open House For Pride and Tolerance. Hebrew home page; Facebook page  (They used to have an English page as well. In any case, you can use the Hebrew page to find contact emails). 

JOH is an LGBTQ center located in Jerusalem. (In Hebrew, the word for “gay” is a pun on the word for “pride”.) They provide services in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and I think Russian as well. They also organize the Jerusalem LGBT pride parade.

A Wider Bridge (an organization I’m *not* personally familiar with) has an English summary and links to English-language news articles about the Jerusalem Open House. 

Bizchut: The Israel Human Rights Center for People With Disabilities.

Bizchut works for disability rights in Israel, and has information in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. They work on a number of issues, including alternatives to guardianship, inclusive education, voting rights, and communication access for people with disabilities in the legal system.

Yad b’Yad/Hand In Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel  runs joint schools for Jewish Israeli children and Arab Israeli children. The Yad b’Yad schools teach in Hebrew/Arabic/English, and are educationally progressive in other ways as well. (Eg: The Jerusalem Yad b’Yad school has physically disabled students in regular classrooms, which is unusual in Israel.)

There are many other good organizations doing important work on the ground in Israel/Palestine — these are just the ones I’m personally familiar with. Whatever justice issue you care about, there are Israelis and Palestinians who care about it too. If you want to help, support them.

Tl;dr Neither idealization nor contextless criticism will make things better in Israel/Palestine. Palestinians and Israelis are not suffering from a shortage of Western feelings. Israelis and Palestinians already know about justice, peace, and human rights. If you want to help, support local efforts led by Israelis and/or Palestinians who live there.