The Irrationality That Is the Sum of All Fears

Is Israel a traumatized society? While some psychologists say Israelis feel victimized due to the Holocaust and their fear of being thrown into the sea, a new study points to relatively low levels of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

There apparently is a connection between the wave of terrorism that swept over Israel in the last two years and the sudden popularity of sing-along evenings at rock clubs. Faced with threats to basic security, the latent, almost mystical anxiety embedded in the Jewish soul for generations that the "goyim are out to get us," is awakened. From there it's a relatively short hop, skip and jump to rally around the flag, and the saccharine nostalgia of singing songs together around the tribal campfire.

Dr. Danny Brom, a psychologist and director of Jerusalem's Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, believes that the analogy of a traumatized individual can help explain many of the characteristics of Israeli society nowadays. "Aside from the general feeling of depression, the situation has an impact on the public's attitudes, on what happens on the roads, and violence in the schools," he says. "People in danger move into a state of readiness for survival and self-defense. In such circumstances, the primitive brain controls behavior and there's less access to more developed, rational parts of the brain."

Irrationality in the individual can lead to a turn to religion or mysticism. That helps to explain why large segments of the public are adopting nationalist or militaristic attitudes, or the noticeable wave of return to religion, or the enormous popularity of pop-spiritualism in all its aspects. According to Brom, a psychological analysis of someone faced with trauma could provide a key to understanding Israeliness in all its complexity. Like a person whose nerves have been exposed, Israelis are impatient to the point of rudeness, honk on the roads, and quickly get into fights. On the other hand, when faced with real danger, Israelis exhibit amazing capabilities for survival. "During the Gulf War, people mobilized themselves in ways that are impossible to find in Europe, for example."

A person in a state of trauma is on constant alert for potential threats. Anything irrelevant to the danger is of no interest. "Being alert is an effective mechanism for survival," says Brom. "But if it goes on and on, it can turn into a post-traumatic stress disorder. When an entire society sees the world through the narrow prism of `who did what to me, who hurt me,' it's not a healthy situation. It's being stuck."

Nerve-wracked but functioning

Prof. Zahava Solomon, of Tel Aviv University, an epidemiologist and a leading researcher in trauma studies, prefers to speak of "the psychology of a society living under constant threat," as she calls it. But she claims that it's an exaggeration to state that Israeli society in its entirety is living in a state of trauma. Solomon, a past director of the army's combat trauma branch, even believes Israelis are dealing "relatively well with the situation."

She backs up her claim with a study she recently did on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Israeli society. In a survey she carried out with Dr. Avi Bleich and Mark Gelkop at TAU, which has yet to be published, they found that only 9 percent of Israelis surveyed reported symptoms like repeated bad memories, heightened alertness, general distress, and increasing dysfunctional behavior. By comparison, 10-20 percent of New Yorkers, she says, are suffering from some symptoms of PTSD a year after the Twin Towers attacks.

Solomon's questionnaires were sent to 513 people during the last part of April, on the heels of a particularly vicious wave of suicide bombings. Some 63 percent of those questioned said they were not witness to bombings, or victims of one. Some 22 percent said they knew someone close to them who was hurt. Fifteen percent said they knew someone who was involved, but not hurt. Thirteen percent reported they are considering using one of the hotlines that offer emotional help.

Solomon admits that she was surprised that only 9 percent of the population reported symptoms. She expected much higher results. Her explanation: "The threat goes on and we are often reminded of our biological vulnerability, to such an extent that the general feeling is that the world itself is not safe. The lines are getting shorter. It's not certain we'll reach old age."

The stories about multiple casualties from one family and the reports of terrorist attacks in which children are targeted or hurt, upset a large segment of the population. "Attacks on children undermine our beliefs that there is justice and order in the world and that there is safety for those who have not sinned. In such circumstances, the belief that `it won't happen to me' begins to evaporate."

But some 60 percent of those questioned in Solomon's survey reported feelings of depression and sadness. It may be that the answer to the question if Israeli society is in a state of trauma depends on semantics and definitions. Most people function and continue the routine of their lives. But can the ramifications of the depression, and existential despair, or alternatively, what used to be called national morale, be quantified?

Some 67 percent of those answering the TAU questionnaire said they were optimistic about their personal future. But half were not optimistic about the future of the country. It's possible that the anxiety about the future of the country is connected to a deeper, more profound trauma - the Holocaust. "There aren't many nations in the modern world that went through a trauma like the Holocaust, in which so much of the nation was wiped out," says Prof. Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University. "All of Jewish society in Israel has been influenced by it."

Bar-On, a psychologist and former dean of the behavioral sciences faculty at the university, is now on sabbatical in the U.S. He points to the Holocaust as the main source of trauma for Israeli society. During periods of outright combat, like the 1967 and 1973 wars, the Gulf War and the current intifada, latent feelings of anxiety in a traumatized society awaken, he says. "There's a tangible sense of `see, they want to destroy us, throw us into the sea.' Or in the current political reality, the Palestinians want the right of return."

Like Brom, Bar-On borrows his distinctions from the characteristics of a traumatized individual. A state of psychological trauma, he says, is characterized by petrified, closed thought processes, and distorted views of reality. "During the Gulf War, Holocaust survivors stocked up on food and turned their homes into bunkers. A traumatized society, and this is particularly evident in Israel, always tries to repair the failures of the past, to respond to the threat early, to try to remove it. The result can end up inviting the very war that is feared."

Bar-On says that perhaps the most prominent distortion of reality in a traumatized society is the psychology of the victim. "The attitude that we are the victims, and `we deserve to get what we demand because we have been victimized' is dominant in both Israeli and Palestinian society. It's not entirely unrealistic, but the problem is that the ability to be self-critical is severely damaged."

He says the winds of war in America nowadays are evidence that the Americans are precisely at that point in their reaction to the trauma of 9/11. "Looking for the `evildoers' in the world to prevent the next attack could lead them to do the exact same evil."

A world moving backward

As someone who specializes in conflict management in national settings, Bar-On says that past traumas are the biggest obstacles at the heart of conflicts between societies, but at the same time hold the key to solving conflicts. After investigating the traumas of Holocaust victims and second and third generation survivors, as well as the second and third generation after the Third Reich on the German side, he believes the way to genuine, lasting reconciliation is through mutual recognition of the traumas on both sides.

In recent years he has been working with groups of Israelis and Palestinians trying to reach dialogue as well as groups of third-generation Jews and Germans. Lately he has begun working with a group of Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland.

Every nation preserves its traumas through memorial days and national mourning days, says Bar-On. Most Israeli holidays, and not only the memorial days, mark traumas that happened to the Jewish people. Those days, he says, are often exploited by leaders to consolidate the collective memory, with its latent feelings of patriotism and desire for vengeance. Thus, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic used historic memories of the Muslim conquest of Kosovo in the 14th century to fan the flames of nationalist hatred. "The feelings were so strong that even the fact there was a 46 percent intermarriage rate in Bosnia-Serbia did not prevent the descent into the bloodbath."

Bosnia still has not begun a process of reconciliation and peacemaking, since the acts of destruction and violence there were so harsh. But other cases from the past prove that sane thinking by leaders can erase past traumas. That's what happened between France and Germany after World War II, or Germany and Poland after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. "It takes a lot of work, and not just a few peace talks," he says. "And they tried everything, including mutual visits, analysis of school-books to remove all traces of hatred. They understood they had a common interest in this. As societies, they made enormous strides forward."

Recently, in Northern Ireland, he says, Derry marked the Catholic siege of the Protestants. For years, the day was marred by incitement and violence. People dressed up in period clothing, prepared special foods and paraded. Violent rioting would break out between Catholics and Protestants. This time, for the first time, the leaders from both sides met before the events, and agreed on ways to prevent the violence. It worked, he says.

"It's easy to manipulate national anxieties in a traumatized society," he says. He's not optimistic about the Middle East conflict. "We are part of an entire world in which social and economic processes are moving backward instead of forward, motivated by the fear of terrorism. But when fear is allowed to lead the way, the fears become self-fulfilling prophecies. That's the nature of fear," Bar-On says.