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For Israel, Another New Layer of Trauma

For Israel, Another New Layer of Trauma

The attack on Israelis is a reminder of a long history of Jewish trauma.

A man running from a rocket attack
Kobi Wolf / Bloomberg / Getty

I will never forget that mild, golden early-October day almost exactly 50 years ago: the jarring sound of the sirens that tore into the otherworldly silence of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement; the ultra-Orthodox men, still wrapped in their snow-white High Holiday robes and fringed prayer shawls, riding on army jeeps that drove them to their volunteer positions in hospitals and military morgues—an inconceivable sight. But the most unsettling memory is of the famous speech that the prime minister, Golda Meir, delivered that evening on Israeli television, her voice trembling, her appearance bewildered. I was only 9, but I will never forget the fear in the eyes of the grown-ups. We were gathered around the clunky, old-fashioned TV set in my grandmother’s house in Jerusalem, and there was the distinct feeling that they were no longer in control of reality, that they themselves were like lost children.

Waking up yesterday and glancing at my cellphone to see what was new in the world, learning about the horrific attack that Hamas had launched against so many civilians in the south of Israel, sent me straight back to that day, to the boy I was then. Shock, bewilderment, a slight nausea, a sudden urge to fight back the tears that welled in my eyes. The frightened look on the face of my parents and my aunts and uncles was the first thing that came to my mind—but now I, we, all Israelis, were those frightened grown-ups who’d lost the sense of control over our reality.

This shock has yet to dissipate—I live in New York, but most of my family and friends are in Israel. With every new bit of information, I’ve been feeling sicker and sicker to my stomach at the number of those dead, injured, or kidnapped from their home and paraded through the streets of Gaza City to the cheers of an ecstatic crowd. I write these words only to give some shape and form to the chaos that’s been ravishing my mind since yesterday morning. I am not alone.

My frenzied Facebook feed is the portrait of a stunned and frazzled collective mind. Fear, anger, heated accusations against the right-wing government on whose watch this colossal failure to secure the safety of Israeli civilians happened, more fear, more anger, panic, hatred, terror—and all of this is heavily peppered with images of beautiful young people who are still missing. No matter how hard I try, I cannot erase the faces of these young people from my memory.

I am not the only one to associate the shock of today’s horrific events with that of the Yom Kippur War. The date of the attack does not feel random; it seemed carefully planned for the anniversary of that accursed war, which imprinted itself in the Israeli collective memory as a loss. It has shaken our very core, robbing us of our basic sense of stability and evoking the many horrible trials our people endured before the Zionist revolution and the establishment of the state of Israel—the pogroms, the Holocaust, and the murderous attacks on the young Jewish settlement in the Palestine of the early 20th century. The Jewish collective mind, and the Israeli Jewish mind in particular, is layered with new and ancient trauma like the inside of an onion. There are many ways to deal with ongoing trauma, but the one most typically chosen by Israelis is denial. The brashness that is stereotypically associated with Israelis is in fact a defense mechanism against the multigenerational trauma that defines a nation that has been living by its sword, and with an often unspoken existential fear.

What happened in Israel yesterday, like what happened in the scorched battlefields of the Golan Heights and the Sinai Desert 50 years ago, cut through the hard, shiny peel of the Israeli onion and exposed the many tear-inducing layers of trauma that hid under that overconfidence. I hope to God that the coming few weeks will restore the physical sense of security to Israel and the Middle East, but I also fear that this trauma will linger and haunt and perhaps even define us for many, many more years.

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