Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
Fear and Consequences: Healing from Jewish Historical Trauma
by Wendy Elisheva Somerson
As a Jew, the most important healing work I can do for both myself and the world is to work with other Jews to move through our historical trauma, thus finding the strength to combat the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In doing this work, we are often literally creating a space to both love ourselves as Jews and protest what is being done in our names by the Israeli and U.S. governments. Centuries of persecution and genocide have left many Jews so fearful that we see ourselves always and forever as victims, which blinds us to our role in the current oppression of Palestinians. Our families have often passed on Jewish trauma to us through the notion that any criticism of the Israeli government is an attack that will lead to our imminent destruction and through the related feeling that we are always in danger.
Even as I overtly contest this thinking through my politics, the fearful feelings lie inside me, ready to seep out when I am least prepared to feel them. Trying to remain rooted in a positive Jewish identity while so many Jews are visibly supporting Israel's immoral actions sometimes awakens my fear and makes my head spin. I feel dizzy when I participate in a protest against the siege of Gaza and see a sign with a circle of swastikas and Jewish stars with recycling arrows going around and around. It both evokes and oversimplifies the cycle of trauma. Yes, the Nazis enacted violence against Jews, and Israel is now enacting violence against Palestinians. Yet not all Jews are Israeli; Israelis are not Nazis; and not all Israelis support their government. The sign catapults me into fearfulness about being visible as a Jew, shame about Israel, and even more shame that I am focused on my own historical trauma when I am there to speak out against Israel's current aggressions. A few days later, when we protest a pro-Occupation event at a local synagogue, my dizziness is reactivated when I see a Jewish person holding a sign that equates Palestinians with Nazis.
When the forces of politics, history, and identity pull me in so many directions that I fear losing my balance, I try to remember the handful of moments when living inside these contradictions has felt like home. Right after the horrific 2008-2009 Israeli attacks on Gaza, a group of anti-Occupation Jews joined in downtown Seattle to protest against the attacks. Dressed in our kippot and tallitot, we recited the Mourner's Kaddish for all the victims of the attacks on Gaza -- the more than 1,400 Palestinians and eleven Israelis who died. Saying the Mourner's Kaddish in prayer shawls at a protest was powerful; our visibility as Jews undermined the notion that Jews mourn only for the loss of other Jewish lives. At a time when so many synagogues were lining up to support Israel, we reclaimed the power of our spiritual heritage by demonstrating how the Israeli government's actions distort our Jewish values. Standing on our makeshift bimah on that cold winter's day, I felt rooted in my community, grateful, and unafraid.
As anti-Occupation Jews, we honor the legacy of Jewish resistance when we consciously choose solidarity over fear. By focusing on a present that is informed but not dictated by the past, we are creating a Jewish culture that can help heal a small part of the world. I look forward to the day when Palestinians gain self-determination, Israel is forced to change its ways, and we are all released from the cycle of reenacting historical trauma.
Wendy Elisheva Somerson helped found the Seattle chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. In addition to writing, she makes art and trouble in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in Bitch and other publications.Her articles in Tikkun include "The Intersection of Anti-Occupation and Queer Jewish Organizing," July/August 2010.
Source Citation: Elisheva Somerson, Wendy. 2011. Fear and Consequences: Healing from Jewish Historical Trauma. Tikkun 26(1): 68