Trauma Legacies in the Middle East

What happens when you put a daughter of the Holocaust in a room full of Arab trauma workers just back from the Syrian crisis? Cross-pollination or conflagration?

That’s the question I pondered upon receiving an invitation to speak at a conference on “Transgenerational Trauma: Communal Wounds and Victim Identities” in Amman, Jordan.

Israeli soldiers stand in a salute by a monument

The oldest known Holocaust survivor has passed away, but the trauma symptoms produced by the Nazi genocide continue to be passed down to new generations. Here, Israeli soldiers participate in a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony outside the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90.

As a rabbi, psychotherapist, and human rights advocate, I had long been fascinated by the psychology of the Middle East. My curiosity was piqued. What might I learn about the psyche of my cousins on the other side of the Jordan River? I wondered. And to what extent might I be able to discuss my own research about Jewish historical trauma?

But several weeks from the event, the conference coordinator contacted me. Given the heightened tensions in Jordan, he said, it would not be advisable for me to mention that I was a Jew, much less a rabbi. And if I could leave out any references to my ties with Israel, all the better. The audience, he explained, consisted mostly of Jordanian and Syrian doctors, medical students, and trauma workers who were themselves overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis spilling over the border from neighboring Syria. The planning team wanted the conference to be strictly apolitical.

Now even more intrigued, though admittedly confused, I adjusted my bio to emphasize my training as a psychologist and steered the content of my talk toward the universal: principles of self-care, issues of secondary traumatization, and resources for self-regulation. As I spoke with knowledgeable friends who worked in the Middle East, I began to understand the context of the coordinator’s concerns. I learned that Jordan has a huge Palestinian population—roughly 3.5 million in a country of under 7 million—most of whom are refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. And while there are certainly cultural rifts between Jordanians and the Palestinians among them, the Palestinians are generally integrated into Jordanian culture.

Palestinian Man Holds Up a Huge Key

The trauma of the Nakba—the forced exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians that occurred during the creation of the State of Israel—also continues to be passed down to new generations. Here, a Palestinian man takes part in a Nakba Commemoration Day protest in the West Bank village of Qalandia. Credit: Anne Paq/Activestills (

Most Jordanians are sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight and many share a feeling of hostility toward Israel. After learning this, I understood why attending the conference as an “American psychologist” rather than as a “Jewish psychologist or rabbi” would be the safest, most prudent way to go.

Trauma in My Own Family

What actually occurred in Amman is another story. I will get to that shortly.

But first let me explain what transgenerational trauma is and why it is of personal interest to both the Jordanian doctors and to me. “Cultural trauma,” “historical trauma,” and “transgenerational trauma” are all relatively new terms in the field of trauma psychology. They denote the response to chronic stress among whole groups of people and how this stress gets transmitted across generational lines. Studies of groups who have endured prolonged stress and suffering resulting from discrimination, war, genocide, and other forms of psychosocial violence show that such massive socio-historical traumas often initiate the transmission of trauma symptoms into second and third generations.
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