The Trauma Vortex in Action Again - in the Middle East

by Gina Ross

Two political opportunistic maneuverings by Sharon and Arafat just set the stage for two nations and possibly the Arab world, to get caught again in the psychological " trauma vortex "and its destructive path. The trauma vortex is in action when any present incident, however remotely connected to an old trauma, reopens deep unresolved wounds and throws a person into the same overwhelming emotional turmoil--as if the trauma were still happening in the present. It has a life of its own. Once engaged, it is very difficult to stop it.

When the trauma vortex takes over, its effects are powerfully negative.

  • It creates disconnection from other people.
  • Disconnection of peoplesí emotions from their capacity to reason.
  • Disconnection from the ability to manage oneís internal emotional life; from the ability to keep track of the larger picture; from the ability to control oneís actions.
  • There is extreme polarization of feelings, thoughts, and principles. Hatred and intolerance take over immediately.
  • There is a sense of hyper vigilance and a sense of on-going danger, as well as paranoia.
  •  There is a flooding of memories of every past injury, insult, humiliation, losses, fears and hatreds as if they were in the present.

  •  There is a dimming of the idea of the future and a lack of capacity to function appropriately in the present.
  •  Violence and revenge seem like the only viable reactions; the only seemingly visible way of seeking justice.



    The same damage that the trauma vortex inflicts on a traumatized individual or family is inflicted on traumatized populations. It is imperative that we understand what's happening in Israel-Palestine through the trauma vortex and it is imperative that we take this understanding to both countries.

    The Serbs just woke up from a traumatic hypnotic trance that lasted 14 years. Their trauma from World War II , where 700,000 were massacred and numerous others sent to concentration camps, was left unresolved and thus easily ignited by the manipulations of an unscrupulous and tormented leader. He had the state-controlled media publish numerous pictures of WWII massacre images, re-igniting fears, old hatreds and justification for revenge. Nothing stopped this hypnotic trance and today the Serbs woke up 14 years too late, scarred psychically, morally and economically for generations to come. They lost land, status, and their place among righteous nations.

    Lebanon too just woke up from its own hypnotic traumatic trance that left the previous paradise of the Middle East in a shamble of ruins, economical lags, compromised autonomy, and wounds to lick for a long time.

    Do we have to let opportunistic manipulations win?

    As nations, as a world community watching and responding and as media reporting on events, do we have to give them the power to manipulate our destinies and our peace---by letting them exacerbate our unresolved existing traumas, by giving them the power to polarize our differences?

    Should we not spell the consequences of this hypnotic pull if we allow ourselves not to resist it?
    What are the solutions available for us not to let this happen?

    The trauma of both nations needs to be acknowledged immediately. The horrors that both nations suffered needs to be assessed objectively and with compassion, if we want to stop this hypnotic pull.
    We need to understand the trauma vortex at work in both Nations.

    1. The Palestinians and the Arab world

    We can spend years and thousands of pages discussing who is at fault for the present situation of the Palestinians (the Arab countries, colonialism, the British, the world community, the Holocaust, the Israelis). The fact is that the Palestinian search for identity and independence, the search for a viable economic development and for a sense of pride in their culture is today an undeniable reality that all Israelis, the UN and the Arab countries need to contend with and acknowledge.

    The Palestinian trauma vortex has been fed by many events.

    The Jews came and took over a land they thought was theirs. Palestinians incurred the loss of their homes and their land. Their land had been previously colonized. They have been massacred in the thousands by other Arab countries (Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia). They have not been allowed to be assimilated and have been pawns of the Arab world and the communists against the capitalists. They have participated in and lost four wars started in their name. They have engaged in a struggle for autonomy that the world called terrorism and in suicide bombings, with all the losses incurred, (public opinion, lives, retaliations etc.).

    In their memory there are the graphic and indelible traumatic images of events such as the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut in 1982. They have had their hopes constantly dashed, their pride smashed. They feel repressed, oppressed, dominated, and treated as second-class people. They also feel the arrogance and the muscle that a "major minority" kept under the thumb feels. They think their numbers are on their side.

    They have furthermore been betrayed by their own leaders: hope was given but with promises impossible to keep. Their children have been taught in school that there is no Israel on the map of the Middle East. They have been schooled in revolution, sacrifice of their lives and hatred, as well as poverty and neglect. Their moderate political leaders have not been allowed to develop, neither by the Palestinian Authority, nor by the Israelis.

    The development of their economic infrastructure has been stunted by the Arab world and by the Palestinian authority, as well as by neglect from Israelis and the world. They have also been exposed to the Israeli standard of living, a much higher one than most of their other Arab brethren. They have been supported financially by many countries, but mostly for war, conflict and death. There has been virtually no Palestinian diaspora pouring in money for schools, hospitals, summer camps, religious centers, etcÖ

    The UN has served them badly by siding with them against Israel at every opportunity and not helping them understand the compromises necessary for negotiating a true peace.

    Men of true vision like Sadat have been assassinated and the present leaders of Egypt do not take the opportunity to translate "political peace" into economical and cultural peace.

    Every occasion for learning true peace and accommodating to the inevitable existence of Israel have been missed by all parties involved.

    2. Israel and the Jewish Diaspora

    The Jewish trauma vortex is even more extensive.

    Jews have been a minority that has been discriminated against for two thousand years.

    They have been kicked out, oppressed, violated and massacred for centuries, without ever eliciting the usual compassion the world feels for the underdog. They have been fighting against (and sometimes internalizing) being scapegoated by their host countries as greedy, part of an international conspiring cabal, evil and killers of God.

    They have suffered pogroms in East Europe and Russia; the Russian Jewry is still considered in possible peril. They are a generation who lost six million of its own in the Holocaust. There is still a rabid Christian anti-Semitism that is activating the forces of Holocaust deniers. To boot there is a renewal in neo-Nazi forces in the world.

    They have suffered mass expulsions from and oppression in the Arab countries. The Arab world is now still clearly vociferous about its intention to eradicate Israel's existence. Israelis were, like the Palestinians, a pawn in the cold war between the superpowers.

    Jews around the world are still suffering from and actively challenging a world that did not answer to their smallest calls for help during the Holocaust, the most organized, well planned and supported genocide in the history of humanity.
    They are facing a UN still polarized by Christian anti-Semitism and Muslim anti-Israeli sentiment. Some of the Christian Catholic world is still resolved to not see Jerusalem in Jewish hands, even if it means religious sites desecrated and inaccessible to Christians if in Arab hands; and the battle between the two testaments is still going on in a more subtle way.

    Israel, each time it is facing a grave situation, feels that it can rely only on itself. It feels abandoned by the world community every time the UN takes a one-sided resolution. This fact alone can activate the trauma from the Holocaust over and over again. All the disconnection inherited in the trauma vortex gets replayed again and again.

    They have fought through four wars in their nearly 53 years of existence, wars in which had they lost but one battle too many, they would have been completely massacred as people and as a nation. They know that historically, they cannot take the survival of Israel for granted. They have lost it several times throughout their history. Israelis have suffered numerous suicide bombings, attacks on civilians, and their children have been murdered in groups. They know and fear the mob mentality that can be easily aroused in an Arab world which values individual life in a different way than the Jewish world. Israelis have seen the inability of the Palestinians to use marches or demonstrations to show their discontent . Also, their young soldiers have had to endure injuring rock throwing by Arab young Arab children put in the front lines during riots. They have had to put up with the impossibility of controlling trouble in their country without appearing to be the top-dog, the military oppressor. They have had to contend with the quasi-total silence of the voices of compromise, reason and compassion in the Arab world, while tearing the fabric of their own society in soul searching for having to use violence. They have watched these voices being muzzled by the Arab leadership and by accusations of treason. They have watched at times the world media misrepresenting the events taking place between them and the Palestinians, keeping an intolerably tight grip on their relationship with world opinion.

    They are caught by the fact that their acts of strength (pulling one-sidedly out of Lebanon), and intelligent strategy (leaving Joseph's Tomb) are interpreted as signs of weakness and a green light for more violence on the part of the Arabs.
    Their men had to endure sitting through the Gulf War, where the only survival defense possible was the freeze response. They could not fight nor flee. The effect of this freeze response left undischarged, might have been the extreme polarization that today manifests itself in all sectors of Israeli society. Ideological lines drawn long before have become much more polarized, with no possible real dialogue between the different parties involved: religious-secular, Ashkenazi-Sephardi etcÖ

    There is furthermore a polarization in the Jewish world between "Gvurah" and "Hesed": the religious Right is intent on territorial gains and survival without regards to the Palestinians reality, without Hesed for them. The extreme secular Jewish faction, in turn, has shed any religiosity that could remind them of being victims in the world, instead of proud and independent; they have adopted Hesed for the Palestinians without the necessary Gvurah---the need to see the reality that emotional readiness for peace is not there, neither is it being promoted on both sides. They are still yearning for acceptance and ready to close their eyes at the slightest sign of melting, of softening, even if a harsher reality is still present.

    No peace can be negotiated without coming to terms with the situation using both Gvurah and Hesed. No real peace will happen without the ability to judge the situation clearly and objectively and with compassion.

    Furthermore Israelis have been misled by their military capacity into thinking that they could ignore the fate of Palestinians; that because they did not think it was their fault, it was not their responsibility to fix it. They were also misled in thinking that their only cultural way was the western way, instead of embracing the opportunity to adopt east and west. They are also aware that they represent western values for a Middle Eastern world that despises them at the same time that it is seduced by them. They are aware that they represent an economical success that can be embarrassing for the Arab countries.
    Both populations have had their undue share of trauma.

    We know today that unresolved trauma is in the body, in the nervous system. Trauma leaves the sympathetic nervous system chronically hyper-aroused. This chronicity takes its toll on the system and creates havoc in it, as described above.
    The trauma vortex is clearly at work within Israeli society itself, as much as between Israelis and Palestinians.
    It is of utmost urgency to stop both vortexes from continuing to develop and stop them from engulfing us.
    We need to constantly remind both Nations of the healing that has already taken place.
    The world has come through in general and recognized the immeasurable tort done to the Jews during the Holocaust, and in atonement has facilitated the birth of the State of Israel. The U.S. in particular has shown an unmistakable support for the existence of Israel and for the eradication of anti-Semitism. Every year, some head of State apologizes for the wrong his country has done to the Jews, at some point in history (the King of Spain, the Pope, French leader Jacques Chirac, etcÖ)
    Jews today are very vocal about their rights and their needs for security. There is still much to do, but if we can continue on the same path without setbacks, we might get at some point, to the end of the road of anti-Semitism.

    The Palestinians have gone from a population first without a clear identity, then a pariah one, to being recognized as a legitimate and separate cultural identity, in need of land and independence. They have been unilaterally supported by the Soviet Union, all of the Arab world, of course, as well as most of Asia and Africa and always unilaterally by the UN. Even in the U.S., which is supposed to be a "special friend " of Israel, their needs are recognized as legitimate and they are being helped to negotiate them with the Israelis.

    More needs to be done by all in terms of recognizing and validating the suffering that both Populations have gone through but more importantly each Nation needs to help the other heal.

    The media of both nations can be an extraordinary tool to reinforce the healing counterforce to past traumas by reporting stories of common efforts, of harmonious experiences of living side by side, of numerous joint projects. They can tap into huge resources of peaceful coexistence experiments already taking place (school, summer camps, scientific, financial projects, peace and dialogue groups in Israel-Palestine and the U.S).

    We need as Israelis to not threaten, to not use the language of power and of ultimatums. We need to help the Arabs save face by talking consequences instead of punishment. "If the political process is over, then we do not have an option: we will have to respond to violence in kind and that is not what we want" instead of the "we give you 48 hoursÖ"

    We need to remind both Palestinian and Jewish religious rights that they need to follow their religion in all its aspects = i.e. They both are descendants of Abraham---if we are not brothers, we are at least religious cousins.

    Why are both nations asked to share such an impossible small and controversial piece of land? Are they not being called to develop a different understanding of the situation, a different solution to the problem, so they can both be light unto the nations? Nations that are - so many of them - handling the same struggles for identity, autonomy, equality? All dealing with decades and often centuries of unresolved traumas, all letting themselves be caught in the trauma vortex.

    The common ground that both nations have, besides Abraham, is to want to protect their children's lives and their childrenís future. Both populations will suffer tremendously from war The Arab Jihad against biblical brothers doesn't make sense. The destruction of descendants of Abraham by Jews also doesn't make sense.

    Both nations need to become aware of the nature of their trauma vortex and learn the nature of their adversaryís trauma vortex: Jews need to remember that the Arabs are not the anti-Semites of History. The Arabs need to remember that Jews did not come to Palestine to colonize and exploit nor to destroy them. They came in search of a desperately needed refuge in a land that was a semi-desert to which they always thought they had a historical and religious claim . If they wanted to get rid of all Palestinians, they have had many opportunities to do so that they did not take.
    What is clear today is that:

    Both people need religious freedom and respect for all
    Both need the right to live in peace
    Both need economical and political viability and stability
    Both need access to their sacred sites
    Both need their honor protected

    The religious aspect of the problem might actually be the easier to resolve. Israelis have no intention to take the Dome of the Rock down. Arabs need to understand the crucial importance of Jerusalem as a glue for the Jews.

    There can be a solution that does not speak of control, of land domination, but of entente, of extending one to the other. They need to have the courage to extend themselves to understand the other and find solutions that can only flow from this understanding.

    Jerusalem's issue calls for a solution not conditional for peace, but a solution that will flow from a real peace, a peace from the heart. Both people today have a strong spiritual spine because of their sacred books. But many layers of trauma, some very old, some very recent, envelop the spines of both. Both people will be unable to resist the pull of the trauma vortex (catastrophizing, disconnecting, loosing hope, loosing a sense of the future, paranoia, escalation of anger and violence) if they do not develop an understanding for their and their opponents' traumas.

    The problem of the land is more real - the need is real and big on both sides. Can the other Arab countries contribute some land? Can there be more land development projects established?

    Solutions have to be found and quickly. What will the consequences be if both parties do not find a common voice for peace?
    At the very least, war, today, between the Palestinians and Israelis will result in devastating losses of lives on both sides, and maybe more heavily on the Palestiniansí side. Both economies will suffer tremendously. Neither can afford it and even less the Palestinians. There will be more polarization and hardening of both positions. Trauma will have a still bigger grip on both populations.

    If other Arab countries join the war, the war will escalate and it will give the green light to Saddam Hussein's chemical warfare. This could very well take the region into a nuclear convulsion.
    At the very worst, a Third World war might be triggered. There are no winners in this scenario.
    Actions need to be taken by all parties involved.
    The UN must respond to excessive use of military power. But it also must respond to ideological and emotional misconduct: it needs to respond even-handedly. They cannot stay silent over the on-going brainwashing of Palestinian children, nor their use for stoning. The Palestinian Authority has to exercise its power to control revolutionary terrorist forces. It cannot allow the call for Israelis' destruction by its people and pretend to work for peace on the other hand. There cannot be a political solution if there is but a shred of evidence of the intent to destroy Israel.

    Moderate voices in the Arab world have to be allowed to rise without being silenced by threats. These voices could help their people resolve their trauma vortices instead of fanning them, they can use their media to develop understanding, reason, compromise and hope for a shared future.

    The world has to take an unequivocal stand that it will never allow the destruction of Israel. This message has to be given to the Arabs with unmistakable clarity. The Israeli Jewish population must settle the differences between its different factions. The Palestinians must not be used as pawns (compassion or mistrust) by either one, but allow a fusion of the two understandings to create a new reality. The Jewish world in the diaspora needs to develop the capacity to hold the need of both People when trying to help. There cannot be winner and loser in this situation. There can be only all winners or all losers.

    The Palestinian citizens of Israel must take time to reflect and choose whether they want to move and be part of Palestine, or whether they will be an integral part of Israel. For that, theyíll need to resist the pull of their brothersí trauma vortex, and instead serve as a bridge for peace.

    They cannot have it both ways.

    The apparently ideal, dreamed, selfish choice would be for each population to get rid of the other. However, the cost in humanness and integrity for either one to pursue this choice is incalculable, not to mention that, hopefully, the world will not stand for either choice.

    To develop the necessary qualities to be able to share this small and most precious piece of land would help both nations develop the greatness of which they are both capable. It is a unique and extraordinary opportunity to join east and west and create a balanced way of responding to life.

    Amen and Inchallah.


    Gina Ross, a native of Syria, is a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma therapy. She resides in Los Angeles.
    or call 323-934-0379.

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