Collective Trauma, Revenge, and Cycles of Violence: A Buddhist Approach to the Israeli-Palestinian Situation

June 17, 2024

Here is the standard historical pattern: one group is traumatized and seeks revenge through violence, most often, but not always, against the group that is perceived as the most immediate cause of their trauma; another group is then traumatized by that violence (which may reignite past traumas), and it too seeks revenge through violence.  These cycles of collective trauma, revenge, and violence may continue for considerable time, sometimes for decades or even for centuries.

In this article, I want to address the intersection of collective traumas of two peoples and consider how a Buddhist perspective can help us better understand their destructive interaction and continuous cycles of violence as well offer insights into how we might best respond to them. Specifically, as a case example, I want to focus on the way in which the cycles of revenge and violence between Israelis and Palestinians are animated by two collective traumas – the Holocaust and the Nakba.

What is a Collective Trauma? What is a Collective Self?

 A trauma is the result of a fundamental assault that permeates the whole organism. The assault may be constituted by a momentary attack — being the victim of sudden extreme violence — or it may be an ongoing process like being imprisoned or kidnapped or being subject to continuously fearful experiences. However, while trauma, in the first instance, is an assault on the whole organism, it is also, in human beings, a fundamental assault on the sense of self. Thus, if some significant horror happens to me personally, I will feel this horror as destabilizing my whole sense of who I am. The primary form in which trauma destabilizes my sense of self is that I no longer can feel safe, because the world no longer feels like a safe place.

One of the main results of the experience of trauma is the desire to seek revenge, most often violent revenge, against those who I believe are responsible for this fundamental assault on my organism and on my sense of self. My desire to seek revenge may be conceptualized as a quest for justice but rests more fundamentally on a hope that the revenge will at least ameliorate and perhaps even extirpate the trauma.

However, when the assault is an assault on others with whom I identify, it appears not only as an assault on my individual self but an assault on the collective self of which I feel myself a part. But what can it mean to talk about a collective self? And what does it mean to refer to a collective trauma? Collective traumas are not just traumatic memories of individuals who have experienced the assault but can encompass all presently existing and past members of the group and can even extend to future generations. ‘Collective memory of trauma is different from individual memory because collective memory persists beyond the lives of the direct survivors of the events, and is remembered by group members that may be far removed from the traumatic events in time and space’ (Hirschberger 2018, 1).

What can it mean to group all members across generations into a collective being and to talk about collective memories? Are these members of a group anything more than individuals who see themselves as part of the group, and aren’t all memories individual memories? How is it possible for individuals who have not personally experienced the assault to experience the trauma? Here I think a Buddhist perspective on the problem of the self can offer a way of understanding what is going on.

The most fundamental claim of all forms of Buddhism is that the self is an illusion. This is by no means a denial that there is a sense of self but rather a denial that the sense of self has any ontological grounding. In other words, while there is a sense of self, there is no real entity to which it corresponds. The sense of self, then, is constructed, and this construction takes not just an individual but also a collective form. Thus, we construct not just the illusion of an individual self but the illusion of a collective self.

The illusion of self in the individual is the construction of an illusion that there is within each of us a substantive entity that is not identical with our mind and body, an entity which underlies and possesses the individual’s mind and body, an entity which makes it possible to bind my experiences and memories together and which provides the basis for their continuity both synchronically and diachronically, and an entity that is independent of other selves. The illusion of a collective self is similarly constructed. The illusion of a collective self is the illusion of a unitary being that underlies and binds together both synchronically and diachronically the individuals who see themselves as a part of that collective being. Furthermore, just as the sense of self is the illusion of a self that is independent of other selves, so the sense of a collective self of which one is a part is the illusion of a collective being that is separate from other collective beings.

There is also a significant relation between the construction of the individual sense of self and the construction of the collective sense of self. Here is the way it works. In early childhood, the development of the sense of self begins with the gaze of the other, as the infant begins to see herself as the object who is seen by some primary other. Thus, through seeing myself through the gaze of the other, I construct a sense of myself both as the object seen by that other and as the subject who sees the other. As the sense of self continues to develop, the child both differentiates and identifies herself with the other on which she depends.  The identification component of this process eventually becomes not only an identification with the specific other but also with the more generalized other and, thus becomes a sense of identification with my family, my gender, my ethnic group, my race, my religious group, my nation, and my species. This entails that just as I draw a separation between my individual self and others, I also draw a separation between the collective selves of which I am a part and other collective selves.

The illusion of individual self, then, becomes a collective illusion, that is to say, it manifests itself not just as an individual identity but as a collective identity or often a set of intersecting collective identities, and, depending on social context, some one or more of these collective identities may assert itself as the most essential ones.

 The illusion of an individual self also involves ascribing an essential nature to the self that appears to inhabit my organism. The illusion of a collective self involves ascribing an essential nature to the group of which I am a part, and the ascription of an essential nature to one’s own group entails ascribing an essential nature to the group to which we are opposed. Thus, trauma inflicted on other members of the group with which I identity is experienced as the trauma of the collective self, even if it is not a trauma that I have personally experienced. And since the collective self is constructed as an entity that spans present, past, and future generations, the trauma of the collective self is handed down from generation to generation. The mechanism which makes this possible is the narrative construction of the collective self.

However, something more is required in order for the trauma of the collective self to result in seeking collective revenge. The desire for revenge against the collective other requires not just essentializing the nature of the members of the other collective entity but essentializing them as evil, and, at the same time, essentializing one’s own group identity as good. Collective revenge, then, takes the narrative form of a contest between good and evil and, therefore, seems a morally legitimate response to the group’s trauma. Thus, collective revenge becomes the illusion of just retribution.

The Trauma of the Holocaust, the Trauma of the Nakba, and the Zionist Project

I now want to apply this analysis to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. At the root of the situation are two traumas. The first is the trauma of the Holocaust, which is often taken to be the fundamental moral rationale for the founding of Israel. The Holocaust signaled for many Jews in the world proof that the underlying assumption of the Zionist project was correct – that Jews can only be safe by having a land of their own. The trauma of the Holocaust was itself much more than the killing of 6 million Jews. In fact, the trauma had a long historical trajectory before World War II, involving ways in which Jews in Eastern Europe experienced various forms of discrimination as well as vicious pogroms. We might then say that the trauma of the Holocaust during World War II was an acute historical trauma, following a series of earlier historical traumas in which the death camps were the culmination.

The Zionist project was initiated by Theodore Herzl as a response to the Dreyfus case. If even Jews in France, a self-proclaimed secular Republic, were not safe, then it seemed to him and many other Jews in Europe that there was no hope of safety for any Jew in Europe. Even though Herzl and many of the early Zionists were secular Jews, this assumption was also energized by the religious messianic symbol of Israel as the ancient historical homeland that must be regained.

However, not all Jews immediately got on board with the Zionist project. Many Jews in Europe were active in left politics and thought that the answer to what was euphemistically called ‘the Jewish problem’ was socialist revolution. And many orthodox religious Jews thought that turning Judaism into a political project was sacrilegious. Even those Jews who were Zionists were often unclear about what the Jewish homeland would look like. Would it be a Jewish binational state within which Jews would exercise political self-rule but not exclusive sovereignty over the whole state, as many of the early Zionists advocated? Or was it to be what it did ultimately become – a Jewish ethno-state? Why, then, did the second option become the reality? Omri Boehm (2021), a contemporary Israeli philosopher, offers the following explanation:

Why did the Zionist agenda change from a binational one to that of an ethnic nation-state? The main reason was the Holocaust. The systematic extermination of European Jewry convinced Zionist leaders that Jewish life depended on Jewish sovereignty: on a Jewish military, and on a Jewish polity capable of deciding exclusively on questions of borders and immigration.… If pluralistic democracy could not protect Jewish life where Jews were a minority, Jews needed their own, exclusive sovereign state (12).[i]

Thus, it took the Holocaust to form a Jewish consensus that the Zionist project should become the project for creating an ethno-state. Here, I would add that what gave this consensus more emotional force was the refusal of many countries, including the United States, to admit Jewish refugees both during and immediately after World War II.

While some of the original founders of Israel had themselves personally suffered from the Holocaust, it was not necessary for any given individual to have experienced the death camps for them to become part of the collective trauma. As I indicated above, collective trauma can encompass all presently existing members of the group and can even extend to future generations. This helps to explain why so many Jews throughout the world then and today often experience a deep sense of insecurity to which the State of Israel can appear as the only solution. In Israel, and to a lesser extent even outside Israel, the intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust continues to be reinforced by narratives whose subtext is what Boehm (2021) characterizes as ‘a mythical, metaphysical account of anti-Semitism according to which “the whole world is against us, and we are ‘the eternal victim.”’ (39).

However, and this is the tragedy of the Jews who entered Palestine in search a safe place, victims of the trauma of the Holocaust and their descendants did not find an empty land but a land full of people with their own villages, culture, and religion. The history here is complex and, given the opposing ideological narratives of what happened, I wish only to mention the most salient facts in a way that (I hope) is relatively uncontroversial.[ii] There were villages with good relations to these Jewish newcomers and villages that were hostile. The Arab nations were at least suspicious, if not openly hostile, to what they perceived as a western transplant in their midst. In 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations developed a partition plan that would terminate the British Mandate and establish two independent States – one which was Palestinian Arab and the other which was Jewish, with Jerusalem remaining under international control. This provoked fighting between certain Palestinian Arab forces and Jewish forces, and, when in May 14, 1948 Israel declared its independence, unleashed a war between Israel and five Arab States which lasted until 1949. The result of this war was devastating for the Palestinians. It is estimated that about 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled by Israeli forces and were never able to return to their homes.[iii]

UN Partition Plan - 1947

Here we come to the second fundamental collective trauma – the Nakba, which is generally translated as ‘the catastrophe’. While Israeli Jews recognized and continue to recognize the Holocaust as their fundamental trauma, and, in fact, think of it as a defining feature rationale for their state’s existence, they often deny or ignore the trauma of Palestinians. Boehm (2021) puts it this way: ‘In mainstream Israeli consciousness, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians miraculously just left their homes once Israel’s War of Independence started.  Of course, the truth is that no such miracle happened’ (56). Boehm then considers what actually happened.

The Haganah, the paramilitary group from which the IDF was created, implemented its infamous Plan Dalet, which included the command to ‘capture, cleanse, or destroy’ Arab villages, at the discretion of commanders. Officially, Plan Dalet was a military campaign, designed to crush all actual and potential Arab hostility within Israel’s future borders in preparation for the inevitable war between the tiny state-to-be and its neighboring Arab countries. However, since the Arab population as a whole was viewed as a potential hostile power, the military objective conveniently converged with a demographic one—expelling the Palestinians in order to achieve Jewish ethnic superiority. The result was a systematic attack on Palestinian civilians, accompanied by massive expulsions…. (56-57).

The legacy of these two traumas resonates through the rest of the history, which is the history of continuing cycles of violence, terrorism, and retaliation. Since then, there have been two major wars, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the invasion of Lebanon, two intifadas, and failed attempts to create a peace settlement. Israel disengaged from Gaza, but, as a result of Hamas gaining political control of the area, maintained a punishing blockade and control of Gaza’s borders. When in 2014 Hamas fired rockets from Gaza into southern Israel, Israel invaded Gaza. 

This brings us to the events of October 7th of 2023 in which Hamas operatives killed at least 1200 Israelis, most of them civilians, wounded at least 3,300 more and abducted 252 people from Israel to Gaza to be used as hostages. The attack was exceptionally cruel and clearly intended to be so. Israel in turn launched a war in Gaza which has now lasted at the time of this writing for 250 days and has targeted hospitals, schools, universities, and many residential buildings, killed over 35,000 people, the majority of them are women and children, and wounded at least 80,000. In addition, most of the population of Gaza has been displaced, often multiple times and more than half of the population is facing starvation as a result of Israel’s blockade and decision to use starvation as a weapon of war. A case has been brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) charging Israel not just with war crimes but with genocide. Whether or not Israel’s actions can be considered genocide in a technical legal sense, it seems likely to bring about another Nakba, and some officials of the Israeli government have declared their support for removing all Palestinians from Gaza.

However we evaluate this history and what is going on in Gaza now, one thing should be obvious. The members of each side see themselves as part of a collective self that has suffered a trauma that goes back many years, and each act of violence reignites the trauma and desire for revenge, often with intense overreactions, with no clear end in sight. I do want to note, however, that there is an asymmetry between the two traumas. The trauma of the Holocaust was the result of the actions of Europeans, whereas the trauma of the Nakba was brought about by Israelis. This raises a fundamental question. If a collective trauma elicits a collective desire for revenge upon those who perpetrated the trauma, how can we explain the way in which the Jews in Israel in 1948 perpetrated the Nakba on Palestinians, since the Palestinians were not the ones who inflicted the trauma of the Holocaust on the Jews?

The most probable answer is that at some deep unconscious level they perceived themselves to be fighting against the Nazis. ‘As Israelis learned to make the Holocaust the basis of national consciousness, it was convenient to think of the Palestinians as proto-Nazis. Allegedly, they fight Zionism not for political causes—land, citizen rights, borders, self-determination, religious sites—but out of a metaphysical, Anti-Semitic wish to exterminate the Jews’ (Boehm 2021, 49). Thus, the fight to establish Israel as well as the continual fight against those who threaten its existence is a revenge against the perpetrators of the Holocaust in a metaphysical sense.

However, in order to do this, Israeli Jews must construct themselves as a collective self that is the perpetual target of the Anti-Semite, and they must simultaneously construct whatever group incarnates the Anti-Semite as a collective self that is the perpetual enemy of the Jews. And this means that they must essentialize the nature of the Palestinians as evil, just as they essentialize the nature of their collective self as good. Israelis, then, are not just fighting for a land of their own but are waging a war of good against evil. The result is that, for many Israelis, any means, no matter how immoral by conventional standards, to annihilate the evil is legitimate.

Similarly, Palestinians are not just fighting to return to their land or to at least have a state of their own. They are also fighting a holy war of good against evil, and the result is, for many Palestinians, that even cruel terrorism against Israeli civilians is not only a legitimate form of resistance but a way to annihilate the evil that brought about the Nakba. Thus, as each side inflicts violent physical and psychological wounds on the other, the original trauma is reignited and their collective self-constructions become more essentialized and solidified. This makes it difficult to feel compassion for the suffering of the members of the other group, creating a sense that even acknowledging that suffering is a betrayal of one’s own group identity.[iv]

Cultivating Conditions for Healing the Traumas and Resolving the Conflict

The Buddhist understanding of dependent origination recognizes that whatever arises does so as a result of causes and conditions. In understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these conditions include much more than the historical events that constituted the Holocaust and the ensuing mutual spasms of violence that reignite the trauma. They also include a variety of political and economic forces, involving a number of global players – nations, transnational corporations – whose agents are themselves often animated by greed, ill will, and delusion. However, if there is to be a reasonable way of resolving the conflict, it must include a process of healing the traumas, and, therefore, the most significant players will need to be Israeli Jews and Palestinians who live within the territory of what is now Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. For those who are not in that geographical territory, they should, at least, do what they can not to add to the flames of hatred and revenge

That said, I do think it is possible for a Buddhist perspective to play a useful role in addressing the conflict. I am not at all suggesting that the solution is for everyone in those territories to meditate (although there have been attempts to bring Israeli Jews and Palestinians together to practice mindfulness meditation as well as to engage in mindful dialogue). Nor am I suggesting that the solution to the problem requires that all the key players become enlightened, which is as silly as waiting for the Messiah to come to solve the problem. What I do hope is that those who have a Buddhist perspective can make a modest contribution in both encouraging certain forms of acting and thinking and challenging other ways of acting and thinking.

My first suggestion is that we encourage ways of thinking that can erode and even dismantle essentialized collective self-identities, especially those that create the dualistic narratives of good and evil. This would involve recognizing that most people on both sides of the conflict want security, peace, and freedom to flourish and that these cannot be achieved as long as the escalating cycles of violence and revenge continue. For Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, it would mean to recognize that the terrible actions of the other are not the result of the other’s ‘evil’ nature but of a set of causes and conditions to which both sides contribute. It would then be important to acknowledge the fears of the other, their need to for safety, and perhaps even more important, to acknowledge the underlying traumas that animate those fears.

It is especially important that Israeli Jews acknowledge the trauma of the Nakba and the role that Israel played in bringing it about. This will not be an easy task, as this acknowledgment requires a significant change in Israel’s narrative about its birth.[v] And Palestinians need to acknowledge that Jews did not just come in large numbers to establish a settler colony for the benefit of western powers but also came in the hope of healing the trauma of the Holocaust. This will also be difficult task, as it requires compassion for the perpetrators of their trauma. Ultimately, both sides need to recognize that the dualistic narratives of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ does not represent anything real but is a construction born of trauma and that the desire for revenge is a recipe for disaster. Instead of cries for retributive justice, both sides need visions of a future in which both peoples can share the land without fear of the other.

My second suggestion is that those on both sides of the conflict find active ways to open the boundaries that constrain compassion. This is, of course, especially difficult when the traumas are reactivated, as the trauma of the Holocaust was reactivated by Hamas’ attack in Israel on October 7th of last year and, as the trauma of the Nakba is now being reactivated by Israel’s relentless assault in Gaza. Nonetheless, there are groups who are seeking ways of connecting with and recognizing each other’s suffering: the activist group Standing Together that mobilizes Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel to demand peace and justice and who explicitly recognize that the people of both groups need to work out a viable way of coexisting; The Parents Circle Family Forum, a group of bereaved families of Palestinians and Israelis mourning the death of their children together; and Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers. At the moment, these groups are a minority of the population, but they stand for the hope of constructing another paradigm, one that is based on the recognition that it is precisely their mutual traumas that can bind them together with mutual compassion.

From the Standing Together website -

Is there a role for those of us who are outside Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank? Here I want to address those of us in the United States who care about the horror of what is happening there. First, we must make sure not to add to the fires of hatred and not to be seduced by narratives of good and evil on either side. Secondly, we must not look away from the immense suffering on both sides, and we must refuse to prioritize one group’s suffering over that of the other group.

Thirdly, we must do whatever we can to support – perhaps financially, perhaps through action, but at least morally – those groups, like those mentioned above, of Israelis and Palestinians who are struggling to develop a peace perspective and to build bridges of compassion. Fourth, we must do what we can to stop the massive killing that is going on in Gaza, and, therefore, we must insist -- through demonstrations or other forms of direct action, through petitions and calls to congressional leaders, through pressure on President Biden and other officials of the executive branch, etc. – that the United States government no longer supply Israel with the armaments and financial support to continue the war and commit itself to working actively for a permanent cease fire. We should also be putting direct pressure on universities and other corporate entities with investments in the Israeli military machine to divest.

Finally, when doing the above, we should remind ourselves of the Buddhist precept of right speech. We must use our own speech skillfully, reject slogans that fan the flames of anger, hatred, and division, and put in their place slogans that favor compassion and care for both Israelis and Palestinians, slogans that would advance peace and non-violence and mutual recognition of the traumas, slogans that would not support actions that reignite the historical traumas of the Holocaust and of the Nakba.

Concluding Thoughts

For Buddhism, as regards the individual self, the point is not to solve the specific problems that the self encounters, but to see through the construction of the sense of self. When dealing with the problems created by attachment to the collective self, the point is not just to solve these specific problems but to see through the construction of the illusion of a collective self. On the political level, this will require ways of bringing individuals together to immerse themselves in ongoing relations with each other across the boundaries of their collective self constructions. This will also need to be animated by a new vision of human possibilities that are no longer bounded by these constructions.

This article is based on a talk that Karsten gave at the East-West Philosopher’s Conference (May 24-31, 2024), at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Works Cited:

Boehm, Omri (2021). Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel. New York: New York Review of Books.

Hirschberger, Gilad (2018). “Collective Trauma and the Social Construction of Meaning,” Frontiers in Psychology 9: article 1441, 1-14.

Khalidi, Rashid (2020). The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonial Resistance, 1917-2017. New York: Henry Holt and Company

[i] Recently, President Biden, in expressing his support for the right of the state of Israel to exist and to defend itself, implicitly echoed this idea, claiming that if Israel did not exist, Jews would not be safe. Given that this was said by an American President, the implication of this comment is that the United States government, even under his watch, could not be relied on to keep Jews safe.

[ii] I am intentionally omitting the interpretation of Israel as a settler-colonial project.  For those interested in an excellent historical account which employs this interpretation, I would suggest Khalidi (2020).

[iii] Part of the reason for this is that after this war, Israel issued a proclamation that mandated that if an Arab-Palestinian had been absent from her village for even one day during the war, she was prohibited from ever returning.

[iv] The symbols of these collective identities – e.g, flags which represent one’s national existing or aspirational identity – reinforce the boundaries of these collective self-constructions.

[v] ‘One of the most difficult decisions perpetrator groups face is whether to accept responsibility for past transgressions and apologize for the harm they have done. Acknowledging responsibility may be devastating for a group’s moral image and for its sense of meaning and significance. It is no wonder, then, that many groups are reluctant to admit their faults and moral failures. This is true for Turkey and the Armenian genocide; the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and Korea; and the Palestinian Nakba during Israel’s war of independence. In all of these cases, and many others, acknowledging responsibility is costly as it requires change in the national narrative; it requires an incorporation of the victim’s narrative and the recognition that victorious moments for the group (such as achieving independence) are often accompanied by harsh transgressions toward other groups that may cast a dark shadow on these celebrated moments’ (Hirschberger 2018, 10).



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8 Replies to “Collective Trauma, Revenge, and Cycles of Violence: A Buddhist Approach to the Israeli-Palestinian Situation”

Assaf Cohen

A very interesting and well written analysis but sadly very simplistic and misinformed. Zionism and the longing of the jews to return to their homeland after more than 2000 years of exile started long before the holocaust and it might have been a trigger but not the only justification for the establishment of the state of israel.

The attempt to explain the conflict between israeli Jews and Arabs as starting in 1947 ignores hundred of years of violence that the Jews suffered from the hands of their Arab neighbors in the Ottoman Empire and before that (the Jews were never in a position of power to harm the Arabs and other muslims during that period in history but i am sure they could have if they could).

I agree that both groups of people need to change their narrative and stop seeing themselves as the only victims and the opposed group as pure evil and i can tell you that there is a big peace movement in Israel (Israel was even on the brink of civil war at the eve of 7th October) calling for establishing a Palestinian state in hope for peaceful coexistence but sadly i don’t recognize the same forces at work in the Palestinian side. They oppose the two state solution much more than the israelis.

A call for stopping military support to Israel ignores that Israel is surrounded by countries that wish to eliminate it reaching as far as Iran and Yemen. As Golda Meir famously said “if the Arabs lay down their weapons there will be peace, but if Israelies will lay down their weapons Israel will stop existing”.

You call for other countries to refrain from adding fuel to the conflict but miss the fact that your own analysis is adding fuel by taking sides (and i know you think you don’t).

Jesus Perez

Many may be surprised that Buddhist individuals support, in one way or another, the genocidal and apartheid policies of Israel towards palestinian people. Unfortunately, it’s not such a rare case. There have been examples much more radicals in which Buddhist doctrine has been used to justify massacres and the extermination of populations. In the wars of Japan and Sri Lanka during the 20th century, Buddhism was used to legitimize such violence. That’s why when I read about Buddhists who are unable to distinguish between victim and aggressor, I think they are playing the same game that many others have fallen into before.
I believe being a Buddhist without compassion is like being a musician without a musical instrument. And we can hardly have compassion if we cannot distinguish between victims and aggressors

Karsten Struhl

Thank you, Jesus, for reminding us that Buddhists are not immune from collective selfing and ethno-nationalism, and I would certainly agree that actively engaged compassion requires being able to distinguish between victims and aggressors. However, as the history of the Nakba and its aftermath demonstrates, the aggressors in one situation can be the victims of a previous situation. Thus, while opposing oppression, we should not lose our ability also to feel compassion even for the aggressors and agents of oppression. And the hope of undercutting the cycles of revenge and violence will require, among other things, the mutual acknowledgment of each other’s trauma by those most directly involved.

Karsten Struhl

Dear Assaf,
I do understand your concerns. However, your comments suggest that you think I am trying to explain the whole history of the conflict between Jews and Arabs. In fact, I purposely offered only the briefest history of the conflict from 1947 to 1949 in order to reflect on the beginning of the interaction between two essential traumas – the Holocaust and the Nakba – that are fundamental to understanding the continual cycles of violence and revenge. Nothing I said should be taken as ignoring the fact that there was violence suffered by Jews in Arab lands for many hundreds of years prior to 1947. However, I think you would agree that the violence and discrimination that Jews suffered in Arab states was far less than the violence and persecution that Jews suffered in European states.

In any case, this is not relevant to the fundamental fact that both groups suffered fundamental existential traumas that get reignited with each act of violence and that underpinning the violence is the desire for revenge based on the collective illusion of self — of the collective self of “my people” who are good and the collective self of the other who is evil. I also for the sake of space did not tell the full story of the Nakba. I do not mention the infamous example of the massacre of Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin that provided the template for other such massacres. And there is ample evidence that the leaders of the Haganah, not to mention the Irgun and the Stern gang, understood that they were involved in a project of ethnic cleansing and that such cleansing required terrorism and massacres. This was also understood by many of the architects of what was to become the Israeli State. Here, for example, are the words of Yosef Weitz, a high official in the Jewish National Fund. “There is no way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, to transfer all of them, apart perhaps from [the predominantly Christian] Bethlehem, Nazareth, and old Jerusalem. Not one village must be left, not one tribe. . . . And only after this transfer will the country be able to absorb millions of our brothers and the Jewish problem [in Europe] will cease to exist. There is no other solution” (quoted in Boehm 2021, 60). I mention this not to claim that there were no others to blame for the Nakba but to highlight the way in which the collective sense of self played a significant role in the process.

While I do agree that “the longing of Jews to return to their homeland” played some role in the Zionist project – I did mention that the Zionist project was “energized by the religious messianic symbol of Israel as the ancient historical homeland that must be regained” – I would deny that it played the most significant role. The Zionist project, initiated by Theodore Herzl, was a fundamentally secular project. The main concern was the Jews needed a state of their own not because of a need to regain their “ancient historical homeland” but because they would always be unsafe in Europe, as, for Herzl, the Dreyfus case seemed to demonstrate. Furthermore, many orthodox religious Jews regarded the Zionist project as sacrilegious. Finally, as I suggested in my article, it is unlikely that there would be a consensus that having a Jewish homeland required a Jewish ethno-state had it not been for the trauma of the holocaust.

I also want to assure you that I do recognize that Israel is surrounded by countries that would wish to annihilate it, and I am not claiming that Israel disarm or do nothing militarily about terrorism. I think any state has a right to protect its citizens against terrorism, but that does not mean that they have a right to do anything. And what Israel is doing has been doing in Gaza for the last 273 days is simply horrible. If it is not exactly genocide in the legal sense– and I think there are good reasons to think that it is, although I recognize that this requires proof of official intent – it is at least something quite close to it. What I am especially concerned about is that we should at least not be supporting or facilitating this horror, which is what those of us who live in the United States are doing with our tax dollars when the United States gives billions of dollars for armaments that are used to target civilian housing complexes, markets, school, universities, hospitals which, in general, creates a situation of extreme terror and suffering for the entire civilian population of Gaza. Civilians in Gaza have been told to move sometimes as many as five times to safe havens, and then those safe havens are bombed. There is also compelling evidence that aid workers have been targeted and that starvation is being used as a weapon of war. In short, while Israel has a right to defend itself against terrorism, that does not give it a right to brutalize and decimate a whole population. And this will undoubted prepare the ground for the next generation of terrorists. This is not a question of taking sides, as we can feel compassion for both Israelis who suffered the terror of the Hamas attack and Palestinians who are suffering now, but of doing what we can to prevent the immense suffering that exists at this historical moment. Simply put, we should not be aiding either side in bringing about the suffering of the other.

Thanks for this insightful analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Karsten. Your deep commitments to scholarship, Buddhism, compassion, and right speech are all on vivid display in every paragraph. I especially appreciated your compelling description of how the collective self on each side of the conflict promotes the demonization of the collective self on the other side, and permits each side to feel justified in seeking revenge on the other. At the conclusion of your essay, I found myself thinking hopefully about those Israelis and Palestinians in the three groups you cited who, despite all odds, are persevering in their efforts to connect with each other and acknowledge their mutual suffering. I wonder how they have managed to overcome the illusory collective self that has infected so many of their fellows, and I wonder what it would take for their courageous resistance to that collective self to begin spreading among those on both sides who are still in thrall to it.

Karsten Struhl

Thank you, Tom for your kind and affirming comments. The question you pose at the end — how it is possible for some Israelis and Palestinians to connect with each other, to acknowledge each other’s suffering, and to overcome their attachment to their respective illusory collective selves — is important and certainly needs more analysis and exploration. Clearly these are individuals who have prepared the seeds within themselves of reaching beyond othering. But certain social conditions must also make this possible. These social conditions would include the ability to see through the propaganda rooted in the collective sense of self but they would also include the recognition that continuing the cycles of revenge and violence are harmful to both peoples. In additions, they would also include the willingness of certain brave souls to reach out and establish such organizations, and these organizations, if skillfully constructed, would have the potential to attract others.

Suzanne franzway

Thank you for this thoughtful history and offering a very useful way to understand this appalling situation, as well as suggestions for bringing peace to all involved.
I would very much like to see you apply this analysis to the military producers in the US and Europe.
Why are they now, and really since at least 1945 so keen to keep supplying the State of Israel with an enormous arsenal? It used to be said that these governments were aiming to protect their oil supplies, but what are their reasons now? I can’t believe that they too are suffering from the collective trauma caused by the Holocaust.

Karsten Struhl

Good question, Suzanne. The short answer is that there are many causes of why the U.S. and the military producers are supplying Israel with weapons. In the case of the producers of armaments, the answer has more to do with profits than any cultural or ideological concern.

The deeper question is why is the United States so invested in supporting Israel. Here the causes and conditions are many. They include a geopolitical interest in using Israel as a base to control the Middle East (having access to oil being only one of the motives for control) and to provide a counterweight to Arab nationalism, but they also include political and cultural forces — e.g, Christian nationalism, the Zionist lobby, and anti-Islamic racism. These causes and conditions do not very much include the trauma of the holocaust, although this may be mentioned for ideological purposes. Therefore, my analysis of the way the two historical traumas and the way the cycles of violence reignite them and reinforce the collective illusion of self is not meant as an all encompassing explanation of the causes of the conflict. In terms of the specific question of why the United States is so invested in supporting Israel and contributing to its already enormous military power, it only plays at best a very limited role. In contrast, however, it plays a very significant role in explaining the way in which Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in a seemingly endless conflict of violence and revenge. But even here, there are other social and political factors that shape the way this conflict plays itself out.

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