by Gene Knudsen Hoffman

I have long loved Israel. When I was there in the sixties, I found that little country a rare and refreshing spiritual, political, and social experiment. It had taken, I felt, the best from a variety of governing systems and had blended them in a remarkable way. I had hoped each of my sons and daughters would spend time on a Kibbutz.
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When I returned in the 80’s, I found a very different ambience. Israel was heavily armed, frightened, defensive, and persecuting the Palestinians. What had happened to this promising nation and its people to become so bellicose?

A whole new chapter of my life opened. I wondered why people tortured other people, and thought that if I could know that answer, there might be new possibilities for peacemaking and reconciliation. And, as a Quaker Pacifist, I believed that I should have no enemy and should care for the wounded on all sides of any battle.

That year I worked on both sides of the Green Line – moving back and forth, interviewing peace people, both Israelis and Palestinians. The suffering of the Palestinians under Israeli rule was horrifying. It seemed madness; I wondered whether the behavior of the Israeli government and the military had anything to do with the suffering from the Holocaust. I began reading everything I could find on the Holocaust syndrome. In the ensuing years, I learned about post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) – a tragic condition which frequently affects soldiers when they emerge from battle – and often years later.


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I learned that in World War I people called the behavior of men returning from wars “Battle Fatigue” and the behavior was similar to one suffering from a catastrophic event “outside the range of normal human experience.” Symptoms can include depression, isolation, withdrawal, rage, inability to feel – numbing, alienation, intrusive thoughts, horrifying flash-backs, a form of hyper-vigilance akin to paranoia, and more. We began calling it PTSD.

I looked at the histories of these two adversaries, the Israelis and the Palestinians. I saw them as two traumatized people who have both suffered from and committed acts of terrorism and violence against one another. Today the Israeli government is in a position of power and is oppressor to the Palestinians. There is, of course, retaliation. While there is a strong, and active peace movement against the Israeli government’s policies—at least 50% of Israeli citizens are said to disagree with their government—the people have not been able to change its policy to one of just and peaceful coexistence.

Today it’s easy to see the Palestinian suffering and the injustices they experience. It is not so easy to see the suffering of Israelis, and to consider them brutal, relentless, and unapproachable.

I see this differently. I have come to believe that violence springs from our unhealed wounds, and our attitude toward violent people requires a compassionate approach, while we stand steadfast against cruel actions. I believe we must listen compassionately to both sides of all conflicts, and explore the history and fears of both. This is called “Compassionate Listening” and is being practiced in the Middle East, Alaska, the US, and Canada with interesting results.

I studied every thing I could find on the Holocaust Syndrome, and returned to the area many times to learn more about both suffering peoples. I felt it might be the unseen and unhealed wound of both parties to this tragic conflict.

There is a new consciousness of the long-term effects of the concentration camp on their survivors. There is a new awareness that no healing processes were available at the time people were released from concentration camps, and a disturbing lack of care since then. Some people are beginning to refer to the violent actions of their government and the refusal to grant Palestinians a home of their own, as PTSD on both sides. The survivors in Israel experience a deep fear that it will happen again. Many Israelis appear to be affected by a “siege mentality,” and they believe they live in a dangerous “war zone.”

Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom was born in the US and is now an Israeli citizen. When I was there in the ‘90s he was head of Israel’s Clergy for Peace. This tall, young man, intense, and compassionate said: “The holocaust left many Jews so scarred that they believe powerlessness is a sin. They feel the whole world is hostile to us – this is sick behavior. Our politics are the opposite of forgiveness – mainly rebellion against mistreatment suffered in the Holocaust, and violent treatment from Palestinians who demand their freedom.”

Rabbi Milgrom is second generation from the Holocaust and finds his government irrational because the Jewish State has been implemented at the expense of the Palestinians who formerly lived on the land, and because Spiritual Zionism has changed into Statehood after the Nazi persecution. There was a war with the Palestinians which Israelis won and Rabbi Milgrom maintains the “Israeli agenda is corrupt because we’re not permitting Palestinians to re-unify. We Jews feel guilt toward the Palestinians, and we’re unwilling to have a dialogue with them because it will be so unpleasant.”

Rabbi Milgrom was also struggling with the issue of forgiving Germans, for he said, “as long as we withhold forgiveness of the Germans, we’re corrupted. It’s very hard to trust after the Holocaust, (but) if we can have this redemptive dialogue with the Germans, then we can break down the resistance to having it with the Palestinians. Forgiveness is a release from the past. You don’t have to forget.”

Another Rabbi, Rabbi Jonasson Gershom, in his article Breaking the Cycle of Abuse, wrote: “On a conscious level, the Israelis are not purposely punishing the Palestinians for the Holocaust. The very suggestion is horrifying to most Jews – didn’t we collectively vow ‘never again?’ But it is also true that people who have been abused will, when they come to power, abuse others because they do not have healthy models for exercising power. Abuse is passed down from generation to generation…unless there is some kind of therapy to teach new ways of coping with frustration and anger.”

Rabbi Gershom also addresses the question of abuse in its’ application to nations. It is relatively easy to overthrow a government, but far more difficult to oust the internalized oppression which causes us to demonize others. The abuse cycle is not logical. It is a set of totally irrational behaviors based on pain, fear, shame, guilt, and anger… rather than forgive and forget, we need to forgive and move forward… Nonviolence does not mean passive resistance; it means holding to the truth, using truth, faith, and love as our ‘weapons’ for waging peace.

I agree with Rabbi Gershom. There is a Buddhist tale of the snake who learned to practice nonviolence. Like the snake, I reserve the right to “hiss” and warn others of danger.

Last night I met with editor-in-chief of New Outlook magazine, Chaim Shur. He was a lovely, generous, gentle man who told me “the Holocaust is the worst trauma in Jewish history. The whole world was killing us. No one did anything to prevent it. The Holocaust Syndrome invades a large part of our lives. Five hundred thousand people in Israel are Holocaust survivors – and now there is a second generation…”

When I asked him if he thought survivors suffer from PTSD, he answered, “PTSD is not a scientific diagnosis. I have a daughter-in-law whose parents are Holocaust survivors. I don’t accept it.”

After this journey, I returned to the Middle East to listen to Palestinians. By this time I had learned new things: that people become “terrorists” when they feel their grievances are not heard, their concerns not addressed. I believe that our work as peacemakers is not to take sides, but to seek truth, and, there will never be peace unless both sides are listened to. We must care about those who hurt others, and listen with respect to those who disagree or oppose us. I believe that through such listening we can open new avenues for communication where people are in conflict. We hope that one day they will be able to listen to each other.

Now to Palestine, or the occupied territories: How can I make Gaza real to you? Gaza, a Muslim strip of land on the Israeli-Egyptian border – the most densely populated area in the world. Perhaps by telling you how people looked, what they said, and what I saw and heard.

In the outskirts of Gaza, fruit trees blossom, wild grasses cover the fields – and people suffer.

The main street had chuckholes full of dirty water, broken buildings, blind stores, their locked doors covered with anti-occupation graffiti. A woman walked down the broken sidewalk, a baby on her hip, talking and gesticulating excitedly. A barefoot old man carried a knotted staff; he limped.

Gaza in 1996. Desolate, harsh, dark corners, prostheses, crutches, braces, scabies. 15,000 demolished homes, miscarriages from gas attacks, rubber fragmentation bullets, plastic bullets over an explosive metal core. Prison sentences of 150 years, 700,000 people in 360 square kilometers, 45% of their land confiscated by 2,500 Israeli Settlers, Xeroxed pictures of sons of Gaza who were martyrs, on lamp posts. Young men and children shot for throwing stones.

Refugee camps, rag walls on houses, sewage flowing in the central gutter down narrow streets. “There’s not even enough room to carry our dead through these streets!” Malnutrition, worms, parasites infesting the people.

And still, there is life in Gaza.

We drove into a parking lot across a shallow lake of dirty water left by the rains. The buildings are faded blue and white. A sign reads American Friends Service Committee: Early Childhood Education Center. We are taken to a pale green room with a desk and chairs. We wait for Mary Khass, a Palestinian Quaker and pacifist who is the director of this little Center. She has suffered the fate of most Palestinians: a son was killed, her family disrupted, desolation and despair. Yet Mary is said to have a sturdy faith in life; and she lives in this childcare center.

Mary Khass enters. She is full-figured, Western dressed. Her face is carved into lines of pain and compassion. She stands before us telling her story. I trust Mary Khass.

“My deepest concern is the children. We and the Israelis are raising a generation of haters. It is important for the Palestinians and Israelis to come to an understanding before the Palestinians lose all the land. There is no survival without sharing. We and the Israelis will have to live here – the sooner, the better.

“What can you do to help us? Work hard for the two states. Respect and support Israeli progressive groups, but remember, they haven’t done enough unless they refuse military service in the occupied territories. If they are against the occupation, they must not serve.

And then, her cry of anguish: “How can they sleep? There is a hospital next to this place. I have seen Israeli soldiers raid the hospital. They shot and beat patients, nurses, doctors. I saw an Israeli soldier crying and beating his head against the wall. A Palestinian mother comforted this soldier. ‘Malesh. It’s all right, my son.’ That young man could have said ‘no.’ Why didn’t he say no? Can Israelis not see it’s more courageous to work for peace than war?

“We have unwanted refugees all over the world. We didn’t cause the Holocaust. We advocate a peaceful and just solution for both. But my people have learned that depending on justice and the politicians is fruitless. We must pay the price and bring about change ourselves. Our children are suffering emotional horror, hypocrisy, violence, and fear. The little ones learn how to solve problems with violence. They are out-of-control. They are controlling us. The hand that throws the stone needs understanding and love. Educators need education to deal with opening the minds of these little ones.

“Recently a bullet was shot in a camp. Nobody was hurt. All the camp was placed under curfew for twelve days. One hundred and eighty young men were arrested. All the citrus groves were demolished. Three houses were destroyed. Many men between the ages of sixteen to sixty were beaten.

“The Israelis must learn to live with guilt. To do this, they must stay in camps with us. As long as they don’t stay in our camps, they haven’t crossed the line emotionally. As long as they don’t discourage their military from serving in the territories, they wipe my tears with one hand, and slap me with the other.”

That night we heard shooting in the streets; fires blazed in the sky. The next day, fighting continued with rock throwing and sporadic shots. Soldiers and rock-throwers faced-off on a street in which we were riding; our driver turned hastily and left. We later learned a nine year old boy was killed.

We were taken from refugee camp to refugee camp – more stories.

“I was in prison; so was my husband – he for 440 years. I was pregnant, near term. The guards insisted the baby should be born – now – dead. They said I have five living children; this one must die. They drove me for two hours over rough roads. I was forced to lie on my stomach. The baby did not come. They took me to a room in the prison and manacled me to the bed. They threatened and probed and pushed. Still the baby did not come. They called my baby a terrorist. At last, my baby came. He lived! I called him Yasser. God wanted Yasser to live.

More voices from the camps: “I have two martyrs in my family; two of my sons were shot. See their pictures on the wall…My son was seventeen when he was killed by open fire on demonstrators…Mine was shot in the head…My son is in Anssar III, the prison of suffering…My youngest son is serving his ninth prison sentence…”

“Do not feel sorry for us. We are parents of Martyrs. We are proud. For thirty-eight years we were silent and compliant. Then we began the Intifada – our uprising. We do not use weapons. We use our skills. We now have hope and a purpose. We will not stop until we get our independent State and our own identity.”

I feel there are always new possibilities if we look for them. The therapist, Alice Miller, is confident that we can find ways to free ourselves of hatred and rage by doing the painful and rewarding work of feeling and experience it “in its original context.” She is confident that we can save life on our planet by “questioning present dangerous and ubiquitous blindness (denial) – above all, as it exists in ourselves.”

I agree with Alice Miller, and I feel, if we can see the sorrow and suffering of those who commit heinous violence, some new dimensions will open for our lives and for peacemaking. I see peacemaking as a healing process, and know that if we include this dimension in our efforts, our efforts will have new power and persuasion.