On the Ground After October 7

6 min read

The toll of human suffering from the recent outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East is untold and universally tragic, forcing us to accept, or at least acknowledge, the unacceptable. Politics notwithstanding, civilians have been caught up in violence and vengeance, and the line between combatants and non-combatants has blurred. Conflict activates past trauma on all sides, trauma tat serves only to escalate violence and polarization on all sides.

I interviewed Ethan Einwohner about psychological and emotional perspectives related to the Israel-Hamas War. Einwohner is an American-Israeli with two young children in Israel. He has lived for years as an adult in both the U.S. and Israel and had been in Petah Tikva, Israel, since before the October 7 attacks. He was in New York on 9/11, drawing upon that experience now. Our call was delayed due to rocket attacks, personally a disorienting, sad, and frightening experience.

Grant Brenner: What does October 7 mean to you at this time?

Ethan Einwohner: More Jews were murdered on October 7 than any single day since the Holocaust. As I see it, the breadth and brutally of the killing, as well as the violent hostage-taking of that day:

  • Makes October 7 uniquely painful, as one empathizes for the thousands of families dealing with the death, capture, or injury of loved ones;
  • Places October 7 in a long string of massacres of Jews through the centuries;
  • Challenges several psychological defenses of Israelis, including physical safety within our own borders.

To me, these three aspects of October 7 make it uniquely traumatic for Israelis, and for Jews worldwide. Many have called this massacre Israel’s 9/11. I was in Manhattan on 9/11 and see the comparisons but think that the taking of hundreds of hostages and the subsequent war fought on our borders makes Oct 7 a slightly different trauma.

GB: What have you found most challenging and what have you noticed psychologically and emotionally?

EE: The most immediate personal challenges have been:

  • The extreme sadness of October 7 is retriggered by the circulating images of the brutalities and memorials. For example, when the bodies of the five-member Kutz family—shot while huddling in their home—were found this week, I cried, and then I put my emotions aside in order to focus on matters at hand.
  • Shielding our children from both fears of missile attacks and the images of brutality from October 7;
  • Managing our fears around the escalations in the current war. What if Iran or other powers enter the war against us? What if our borders are overrun?

Our young children share nightmares about the missile-alert sirens and terrorists invading our apartment. Both of them have had outbursts from the accumulated stress picked up from the environment. All in all, however, we are all managing. We feel very lucky that we have been safe, spared in part from the atrocities we are witnessing.

GB: What does the breach of the border mean for folks from an emotional and psychological point of view?

EE: The October 7 border breach causes the mind to wonder whether borders will hold in the current war. We are confident in our defenses, but anyone who is geographically close to war has this fear of being overrun. War is volatile and risky by nature.

Thus, both from an empathic perspective–imaging the suffering of those attacked–and from a pragmatic self-protective perspective–visualizing ourselves attacked if the borders fall–we imagine ourselves in the place of those unarmed civilians facing armed intruders, overwhelmed by their sheer numbers.

GB: What is the role of intergenerational transmission of trauma, as you see it?

EE: The short answer is: Intergenerational trauma both prepares us and imprisons us. Prepares us, as we have been told since youth that sooner or later, there will be another attempt to annihilate the Jewish people. The “never again” message from the history of violent persecution is an undeniable call to action.

I grew up going to Hebrew school in the U.S., studying the Holocaust from the age of 5 as part of our curriculum. I vividly recall the black-and-white photos of Star-of-David-clad children and rifle-toting Nazi soldiers looking on. I would define this education as “deliberately traumatic.” The October 7 massacre here in Israel was a crystal-clear message to Jews worldwide: “Never again” could happen again.

How does intergenerational trauma imprison people? We Jews can not reasonably interpret October 7 as an isolated event, however much we might wish otherwise. Hence, an imprisonment, because we see no clear way to exit the intergenerational trauma, to break the cycle of being scapegoated and attacked. Intergenerational trauma has contributed to the Israeli identity of “being unstoppable,” driving hope.

GB: What are some of your mental or emotional strategies for keeping going during this time of war?

EE: At times of crisis, it seems the best strategy is to reduce one’s emotional field of focus and to episodically express off-field emotions as they arise. This starts with the temporary compartmentalization of emotions. When any emotion arises intensely, including deep sadness at the fate of innocent civilians or rage at the enemy, it should be felt intensely but for a defined time window. Otherwise the multiple, intense vectors of emotion will overwhelm us and hurt our ability to care for our children, ourselves, and our work at this crucial time.

For me, this positive emotion set includes the belief that better days will come and the hope for peace. I have created specific images for this survival belief and hopeful peace, and I play these images in my mind on an offensive basis, before the sadness, fear, and anger and take over.

Beyond war and peace

Speaking with Einwohner and working on this piece together across the oceans has been an evocative experience. Among other things, I’m more actively thinking about how intergenerational trauma shapes the identity and expectations of different groups of people and plays out over historical time in ongoing, seemingly avoidable conflict.

Intergenerational trauma locks people into destructive repetition; violence is likely to repeat when unaddressed trauma influences how we perceive and navigate differences. Increasing polarization, “tribalism,” and ongoing threat (especially to life and limb) make it extremely hard to build bridges, to find that “alliance of moderates” (a term used in conflict resolution).

The hopeful future necessarily goes beyond war and peace, signaling that we need new ways of resolving our shared problems. It starts with the basic awareness that we likely are not in full charge of our own actions and decisions, caught up in a collective state of dissociation in which we “enact” group trauma. The idea of getting to peace through war is self-contradictory when war begets more trauma, which is passed generation to generation, becoming like a chronic autoimmune disease.

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