This article will feature in Issue 36: Ideology & Faith (May 2020)

The state of Israel was founded in 1948 to provide a home for a people who had not only suffered centuries of oppression, but had just survived one of the worst genocides in history. It is no surprise then, that at the core of Israeli identity is an unresolved sense of trauma, in particular, Holocaust-induced trauma. Israeli identity has formed around two, at times contradictory, responses to this trauma. On the one hand, having witnessed the unimaginable horrors of the genocide, first generation Israelis felt an innate duty to uphold the highest moral standards. On the other hand, having faced a meticulously and dedicated plan to eradicate all Jewish people from the face of the earth, Israel maintains an understandable desire to survive at any cost.

Not surprisingly, these two principles frequently clash as Israel attempts to uphold Western human rights standards while simultaneously defending itself from multiple hostile neighbours. This article is going to look in more depth at the latter aspect of this potentially unsolvable dichotomy: the sometimes irrationally manifested desire to avoid what many have tried, and luckily failed, to do for centuries. 

As thousands of traumatised Jewish people migrated to Israel in the wake of the Holocaust, they were greeted by a new state intent on building a modern and prosperous society safe for its people. The Zionist vision for Israel focused on working the land and re-constructing Jewish identity around a new hyper-masculinity. The orientation to a reformed masculinity, generally focused on ‘Sabras’ (Jews born in Israel), reflected a desire to overcome centuries of medical stigmatisation about the weakness of the Jewish male body as well as the self-perceived failure to protect Jews from the Nazis. 

The problem with this blind commitment to a homogenous vision was that the traumatised voices of those who had directly survived Nazi oppression were often muted. The traumatised refugees were forced to either conform or become outcasts. In many ways, trauma came to represent a reminder of a perceived weakness that Israelis, particularly Sabras, were keen to forget. What is particularly interesting was the utilisation of cultural tools such as cinema (an example being Tomorrow is Another Day, 1948) to help formulate the image of the ‘New Jew’.

An obsession with masculinity combined with the subduing of the traumatised voice has meant that subsequent generations of Israelis have, at times, interpreted their parent’s trauma in particular ways. Within Israeli politics and the zionist mythology of the modern Israeli state, there is an emphasis on rectifying past wrongs, and an acceptace of violence as necessary. While this was initially targeted at Nazi perpetrators (as was the case with the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1960), more hard-line Zionists have targeted anyone who might, in theory, pose a threat to the state. While it is important to recognise the immense threat Israelis still face, one should also recognise the questionable ways in which narratives of Israeli identity, victimhood, and purpose have operated in the geopolitical arena. Of noticeable concern has been the historic treatment of Palestinians.

I am sympathetic to both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have no intention of asserting the moral legitimacy of one side over the other. That said, it is hard to deny that at times Israeli actions have presented a serious contradiction. What is of significant importance has been the complex blurring of the boundaries between victim and victimiser status. Put more bluntly, there lies a concerning hypocrisy in Israel’s justifiable claim to victimhood and at times morally contentious treatment of opposition. One event that instantly comes to mind is the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in which Israeli soldiers not only allowed, but potentially aided – by lighting flares – Phalange soldiers in massacring Palestinian refugees in Beirut. 

The contradictions in this particular atrocity were captured in the tactful animated documentary Waltz with Bashir. By shifting through multiple states of being – memory, hallucination, and real life – in the form of animation, the film follows the director Ari Folman’s confrontation with his personal role in the massacre. The key message of the film lies in the tensions between Folman’s contradictory role as both the descendant of a Holocaust survivor and his complicity in the violence. His awareness of the victim-victimiser paradox is made even more powerful when his friend Sivan states “you see yourself in the Nazis who perpetrated your parents”. With a keen eye for nuance, the film leaves the final judgement up to the audience as Sivan reminds Folman that he could not have known the massacre was taking place. Films like Waltz with Bashir present glimmers of hope that Israeli society is becoming increasingly self-aware of the contradictions in its trauma related legacy.

Israel’s history throws up interesting questions about trauma, and its relationship with identity and politics. National narratives are shaped by traumatic events and they can filter down generations, influencing politics and decision-making for years to come. Recent national traumas, including 9/11, indicate that we have learnt little from history. As we strive to resolve conflicts in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Mexico, and Colombia, we must be prepared to implement the necessary peacetime measures to help people process what has occurred and therefore mitigate the long-term implications of their trauma. This can only be achieved with a nuanced understanding of history, and an acceptance of the labyrinthine moral dilemmas in the international arena.