Holding the Wound, Holding out Hope: Understanding the Neurobiology of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

As science sharpens our knowledge of trauma’s impact on the neurons of the human brain (above), new pathways to peace may open up. Creative Commons/fullge-healthcare.

Trauma runs through the lives of Israelis and Palestinians like a branching nerve. It haunts Jews whose families have lived in Safed for generations, clinicians in Sderot working with terrified school children, Palestinian peace activists wounded by Israeli Defense Forces, and ultra-Orthodox settlers who live looking down upon the West Bank, stripping it of its resources.

As a psychotherapist visiting Israel and the West Bank during the summer of 2008, I saw trauma in the faces of Palestinians and Jews, torn between bitterness and the longing for peace. I felt trauma’s presence in nervous systems, tangible and agitated, distorted into racism and outrage. The reality of so many years of remembered suffering, terror, and pain can erode our hope of finding a way out of the fear and violence, but there is a path out of trauma. Researchers and clinicians continue to clarify and treat trauma’s effects, enhancing our ability to heal from it. This new knowledge offers a pathway toward peace, but only if Israeli and Palestinian leaders agree to heed that knowledge. It is imperative that an understanding of trauma’s impact and healing form the foundation of all that guides negotiations for peace.

As both progressive and Jewish, I am unwilling to place myself on either side of the typically angry dialogue surrounding this conflict. That we even continue to frame it in terms of sides is not only dangerously inflammatory, but also exposes a narrow understanding of human responses to safety and threat. Condemning Israelis as militaristic colonizers or Palestinians as fanatical terrorists is too simplistic; similarly, it is myopic to justify every suicide bomber as driven by oppression or every Israeli action as self-defense. Each people has legitimate claims. Each needs to be held accountable for wrongdoing. And each must be understood in terms of the trauma suffered and the suffering still underway as a result of this seemingly endless struggle.

The Neurobiology of Responses to Danger

As science sharpens our knowledge of trauma’s impact on our neurobiology, the knowledge builds a new paradigm for understanding the attempts of Israeli Jews and Palestinians to protect their communities, land, and cultures, as well as their increasing descent into violence when they fail. This knowledge of trauma’s impact enables us to see this conflict as something deeper than territorial imperialism, religious extremism, or abuse of power, and to recognize each such practice as reflecting maladaptive responses to ongoing threat and violation. All living beings have mechanisms for assessing their environment for safety and danger, and responding accordingly. We mammals have three primary ways of doing so, each governed differently by the brain and nervous system:

  • mobilization, enabling us to fight or flee;
  • immobilization, enabling us to go unseen, appear dead, or dissociate from pain, terror, and horror; and
  • social engagement, enabling us to connect with our pack as a means to feel safe, remain calm, and access higher brain functioning to resolve situations.

Of the three, we are likely most familiar with that of mobilization: fight or flight. In reaction to perceived threat, our systems activate to aggress, stand our ground, and block attack, or to move away from danger and toward safety as fast as we can. Obviously, the continuing violence between Palestinians and Israeli Jews offers many examples of “fight.” There are also examples of flight: the Jewish exoduses following the Holocaust and pogroms of Eastern Europe; and the exodus of Palestinians, those not expelled, who fled to surrounding Arab nations in the violent wake of initial Israeli statehood. Although an effective defense when needed, mobilization has its limitations. In addition to the destruction and alienation from fighting, and the instability and dispossession that may result from fleeing, no one can fight or run forever; our bodies cannot tolerate the prolonged levels of chemicals and stress that this would demand.

Immobilization, although less well known, also occurs with frequency when animals are unable to escape threat and must shut down in order to survive it. The possum “plays” dead in order to trick its predator into believing its prey is no longer edible fare. The child experiencing sexual abuse dissociates from his or her body in order to endure and not feel the terror and pain. Children frequently do not even have the option to physically fight or flee, and no prey can sufficiently sustain—physiologically or, in the case of humans, psychologically—a continual attempt to escape danger. Thus, our systems must freeze, or enter a state of immobilization, in order to survive. Immobilization is our most primitive response to life threat, occurring instinctually and without conscious thought. It is an immediate way to preserve the system for continued existence or to minimize pain if death is inevitable.

As a Jew, I have often thought that the insistent belief that all of Israel’s actions are justified as self-defense is part of a cultural hypervigilance against repeating the immobilization caused by initial disbelief and inertia during the early years of the Holocaust. “Never again” reflects our worst nightmare that we will once again fail to recognize or proactively respond to threat, placing ourselves at risk of extinction. This fear is understandable if we believe passivity or aggression to be our only choices for defense. In Palestinian history, the surprise of many outsiders to the first Intifada reflected how accustomed we had become to the Palestinians’ immobilizing sense of powerlessness at what was happening during the early years of the occupation. That Palestinians moved beyond nonviolent protest and rock throwing, and eventually sought more potent weapons, was actually an understandable step in the hierarchy of their survival options, just as the French resistance or the Warsaw ghetto uprising were important mobilizations for Jews in World War II. I do not advocate violence on the part of either Palestinians or Jews, but I am glad that both are putting up a fight to continue their respective existence. Evolutionarily speaking, mobilizing a defense on our own behalf for long-term survival is better than dissociating into numbness. With immobilization, we may survive an immediate threat, but continued immobilization, over time, compromises our future ability to mobilize, and our foundational life functions.

The Dangers of Mobilizing While in a Dissociated State

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may look like a tragic exception to the rule that no one can fight or flee forever, we must also recognize the underpinnings of dissociation involved in the abilities of all concerned to endure prolonged, repetitive aggression. Weaving in and out of mobilization and immobilization is a normal regulatory function of the nervous system. For example, there is some activation when pursuing an exciting idea, and then a settling as we integrate our experience of it. A more rapid and frequent movement between mobilization and immobilization characterizes rising levels of stress or danger. In cases of unresolved trauma, this mobilization/immobilization process becomes extreme, with increasing time spent in dissociation, even as high levels of activation are also present. We activate in response to real or imagined danger, often before our brains can evaluate what is going on. Then we dissociate, due to physiological exhaustion, to numb emotional or physical pain, and, in situations of atrocity, in reaction to the horror of what we have participated in or witnessed.

This rapid fluctuation between extreme states is what allows our psyches to commit acts that we would otherwise never consider, and to live through them. Dissociation enables us to not feel the effects of our own trauma, nor recognize or care about the trauma we perpetrate on others. Therefore, we find ourselves frighteningly able to justify such horrible acts as a suicide bombing, destroying a hospital, or gunning down a child. To remain in, and therefore respond from, highly activated and dissociated states begins to lay down a neurological pattern of responses to trauma and everyday life that is maladaptive and becomes habituated. We re-enact what we have experienced, we become addicted to the neurochemicals stimulated by highly activated and dissociated states, and we engage in behavior that directly causes harm to self or others, or sets us up for revictimization. Because of dissociation, we are usually not conscious of why, or even that, we are compulsively acting out these behaviors. Sadly, disturbingly, this pattern of trauma re-enactment, as it is known in the scientific literature, sheds light on the dynamics impacting both Palestinians and Israeli Jews. Mobilization and immobilization do each have a place in the neurobiological hierarchy of our options for managing safety and threat, but because long-term reliance on either has negative, and sometimes extreme, consequences for our physiological, psychological, and social survival, a third, more sustainable, way to defend ourselves evolved.

Social Mammals Like Us Have a Better Option

Social engagement, our newest evolutionary option for responding to safety and threat, is also our most peaceful and life-enhancing. Social engagement involves a complex system of neural, facial, and visceral circuitry, organizing our biological needs for proximity to, reliance upon, and connection with others. Think of the nursing mother who soothes her baby’s startled cries with calming coos and gestures, or the gorilla communicating safety or danger to his band through facial expression and vocalization. The social engagement system is the initial line of defense that mammals have evolved to protect themselves and their young.

Yet we appear to have grown quite out of touch with social engagement. Emphasis away from the pack and toward the individual, increasingly impersonal forms of communication; decreasing infrastructure and social supports; a growing sense of powerlessness; and overwhelming exposure to and glorification of aggression all have lessened our capacity for connection and reduced us to more primitive defenses, making social engagement less available, familiar, or acceptable. In an interview about his documentary of fourteen months spent with a military unit in Afghanistan, Sebastian Junger responded to the question of why our young men are attracted to war:

Often people think it is a question of adrenaline, and adrenaline addiction. I think what they are really addicted to essentially is brotherhood; an otherwise very healthy impulse that is taking place in a very unhealthy place … I think if society understands that … we can instead provide that sense of inclusion, brotherhood, here rather than in combat.

In the evolutionary hierarchy of defenses, social engagement (“brotherhood”) trumps mobilization, which trumps immobilization. The chemicals and neural networks of relationship and connection can actually inhibit those of fear and aggression, allowing more choices based on thought and caring, even during times of threat. The social engagement system directs our bodies quite differently, mobilizing us for protection without the biological costs of fight, flight, or immobilization. The physiological, emotional, and behavioral reinforcers of social engagement make it not just a defensive strategy in the immediate moment, but a way of life that lessens the overall presence of danger and stress in our lives. The social engagement system facilitates safety and calm, which promote growth, healing, and a higher level of brain functioning than do our other defenses. This higher level of brain functioning governs and increases our capacity for critical thinking, productivity, mindfulness, creativity, transcendence of violence, and compassionate connection.

How Childhood Experiences Help or Hinder

If, during our early developmental years, we receive the necessary bonding and attachment with our caregivers, our access to this evolved capacity for social engagement is strengthened in our neurobiological makeup. Most brain circuitry develops in the context of this attachment, and children depend upon it from their elders. Among the many functions we learn through the attachment process is the ability to manage or regulate our emotions, impulses, needs, and visceral responses to the world; we are not born with these skills wired into place. When the toddler shrieks with excitement at the puppy entering the room, the parent joins in the child’s curiosity, and at the same time makes certain that the puppy is petted gently. It is in the loving, playful, educational, and challenging moments of everyday life that our caregivers model how to manage the impact of internal and external experiences. If our caregivers and elders regulate themselves in these situations, we learn to self-regulate and co-regulate, wherein we develop the capacity to manage life experiences both independently and while remaining connected with others. Thus the neurobiological structures are created that perceive and respond to life, including safety and danger, with the advanced strategies of social engagement.

If, however, our caregivers and elders themselves developed without the capacity for regulation, or were caught in a cycle of trauma, weaving in and out of violence and dissociation, then we learn to rely more upon the lower-level evolutionary defenses of mobilization and/or immobilization. Think of the generations of Israeli and Palestinian children who have grown up with danger and loss so entwined in their lives, raised by caregivers who themselves are terrorized and enraged by threats to their existence. It would be difficult for these children to develop and maintain the ability to regulate intense and frightening emotions, making them more vulnerable to the cycle of violence and disconnection surrounding them. Yet here there is hope, because even though Palestinian and Israeli children continuously bear the burdens of trauma, inherent in their respective cultures are the love and enriching experiences that they will also receive from their families and communities that provide relational interactions within which their ability to regulate can develop. Thus, the foundations for peace do exist, even if overlaid by so much tragedy.

Shifting Our Neurological Defenses Is Possible

My hope that the science of trauma can offer forward movement toward a path of peace does not reflect a belief in some magical moment in which, suddenly, everyone gets along. I know it is a task of daunting complexity to bring together two peoples with so long a history of hurting each other, particularly in a region where so many other forces seem to have so much at stake in perpetuating their conflict. To shift the programmed, neurologically defended systems of all of us will require painstakingly slow and specifically focused commitment. And we will have to stand, together, to defy those who seek to derail our efforts. But we must remember that Jews and Palestinians also once lived side by side, peacefully, as neighbors, for generations. We are, in fact, cousins, having much more in common than not. Our music, language, food, dance, narratives, religious values, work of land, and love of family connect us, culturally and viscerally, providing the sensory, creative, emotional, and relational experiences that enhance our capacity to engage socially, causing changes in our psychological and neurological systems that can actually heal the trauma we each carry.

In reality, there is every reason to be hopeful. Today, despite decades of ongoing violence and despair, generations of family members have come together to mourn their mutual losses, and create, together, a vision of a safer world for all of their children. People are implementing inspired ideas throughout the region: youth soccer games, interfaith peace camps, joint economic pursuits, rich cultural exchanges, courageous conversations between imams and rabbis, and the sharing of one another’s horrifying stories, as both peoples, together, hold the pain contained within them. These positive, socially engaging experiences have already built a foundation for peace. Their impact is not some random phenomenon, but the powerful science of how people heal, make repairs with one another, and learn to protect themselves and each other, through a sense of connection and community.

The ordinary Palestinian or Jew does not shun the vision of a peaceful co-existence; yet often, the religious extremists of each community and the people in power, within and outside the region, are the saboteurs of this vision. These saboteurs may continue to fight and hate, attempting to keep us from our goal, but we can continue moving forward toward peace if we do not let their bombs and rhetoric immobilize us with fear or mobilize us into aggression. There is a difference between true self-defense and re-enactment. When we are capable of staying regulated within the social engagement system, we can defend ourselves with the resources it provides: clarity of purpose, critical thinking, cooperative problem solving, innovation, nonviolent action, and compassionate concern.

Our understanding of the neurobiology of trauma provides a revolutionary framework for healing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, demanding that we move beyond the focus and strategies of peace talks and accords based in mutual hypervigilance and territorialism. The complex challenges faced by Palestinians and Israeli Jews can be solved within this framework. Previous horrors can be acknowledged and repair made to the relationships and communities harmed by these horrors. The science of trauma provides a framework that can prevent the saboteurs from carrying the day: a framework that can affirm and enact our most heartfelt vision for justice and understanding, encouraging and actualizing our hopes for healing and peace.

Pathways toward Peace: A Sampling of Programs Around the World

Creativity for Peace, Girls’ Leadership Camp
Startup Weekend, Entrepreneurial Collaborative
Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership for equality, justice, and peace
The Parents Circle, Bereaved Families Dialogue Group
West-Eastern Divan, Youth Orchestra


4 thoughts on “Holding the Wound, Holding out Hope: Understanding the Neurobiology of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

  1. May this understanding be widely shared! Any of our hopes for peaceful relationships at any level depend on humane programs and policies that promote the healing of generational trauma and conditions that ameliorate or prevent current harms. As a mental health clinician, I have immense gratitude to all who help spread the word about this vital but under-reported or understood human truth.

  2. The critical reality that psychotherapist Penny Holland misses is that healing must be preceeded by safety. The second reality is that Palestinians did not cause the horrible traumas that were visited upon European Jews throughout history. In the middle east, Isreal is clearly the aggressor and must stop all aggression before healing is possible. It is not an issue of psycho- theraputic conflict resolution between equals. It is an issue of justice for the oppressed people of Palestine under Jewish apartheid.

  3. What we know is that there will be no immediate cease fire to allow for healing. Healing therefore must start now.
    There May be no safe space to shelter those suffering. Healing must start where ever it can be facilitated.
    Thanks, to Ms Holland for sharing a foundation of the neurology of trauma along with the hope of new therapy practices that can meet this seemingly impossible goal: healing in the midst of war.

  4. Thank you Dr Holland for beginning the work of synthesizing some of the neurobiology, history, and psycho-emotional challenges that create the facts on the ground. You have helped explain why many initiatives such as Combatants for Peace, Sulha, and the Bereaved Family Forum, all face to face social networks, engender so much hope, and the experience that peace is possible.

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