The Gaza War Is Traumatizing a Whole New Generation on Both Sides

The pain of this conflict is well known. Yet we are only at the start of learning how that manifests itself — and even further from finding a way out of it, writes veteran journalist Arwa Damon

The Gaza War Is Traumatizing a Whole New Generation on Both Sides
Volunteers dressed up as clowns entertain children in Gaza in May 2023. (Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“I feel super weird,” my friend Simon Schellevis messaged me on WhatsApp last week. “My Holocaust trauma has been triggered like I never experienced before, and I have had Auschwitz nightmares for the past four nights. And I can’t stop thinking about the kids right now, none of these kids have done anything to deserve any of this. And the kids of Gaza right now, as those against whom genocide was committed during the Holocaust, commit a historic atrocity against mankind.”

Simon and I met a few years ago through a mutual friend when I was struggling with chronic, debilitating back pain. Simon had developed what he calls the “Inward Method.” He specializes in mind and body synergy based on his own universal principles that can be applied to all of us when it comes to how we interact with both our external and internal worlds. Applied specifically to what I was going through, the method provided me with breathing and visualization tools to deal with and manage the pain. Over the years we’ve become close friends, with Simon pulling me out of more than one mental meltdown.

Simon has trauma related to the Jewish experience on all sides of his family. His great-grandfather on his mothers’ side fled former Yugoslavia in the late 1800s, converted to Christianity in Austria and “hid” among the population there.

His maternal grandfather, Hartog Schellevis, was the sole survivor of Auschwitz of his entire immediate family. Parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins, all gone. Hartog’s wife at the time also made it out, but the marriage did not survive. They reminded each other too much of the past, too much of the pain. It’s the kind of pain you cannot confront, not just because of the experience and the losses but because of what one had to do to survive a place like Auschwitz.

“You realize that in order to survive in circumstances like there were in Auschwitz, you had to do things to your fellow humans. You had to do things to ensure your own survival that are very hard to reconcile and that are very hard to forgive yourself for,” Simon explains. “So you have this deep sense of guilt where you feel like you had to leave parts of yourself, of your soul there in order to hang on to life. The best men never made it out.”

And yet is it largely the teachings of Hartog, the principles of a man who did not seek or desire revenge post-Auschwitz, on which Simon’s thinking and entire healing process is based.

“Most of the lessons that my grandfather taught me were of deep, deep compassion,” Simon says. “He’d been through the deepest atrocities that humans could do to each other. And his basic conclusion was, if you go down a path like that, it’ll infect everything like a poison. And you do not wish this upon anybody, not even your worst enemy.”

It’s formed the core of Simon’s protocol, this three-step program that anyone can use to cleanse and purge their entire system, their mind and body, to put them in a place where they can process and embody their trauma — to allow the energy of the trauma to use itself up so that it doesn’t eat you up.

I am a big proponent of understanding emotional history, even in the context of “news,” especially traumatic violent news. I believe that part of understanding the “why” in which we find ourselves at a certain juncture does not just include the decisions and events that propel us there but also the emotions that drove those decisions and events.

If we look at the Israel-Gaza war today, this sheer madness that is unfolding as we all watch, if we look at the history of the Palestinian population and the history of Zionism, the horrific events of the Holocaust, what Palestinians have endured for more than 75 years, we’re talking about the re-traumatization over and over again of the two populations at the center of all of this, which already carry generations of deep intense trauma.

As the author Mark Wolynn describes in his book “It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle,” science has a greater understanding of the human genome, and we now know that we are not born merely as a product of the DNA that assigns hair and eye color, physical traits or even some of our parents’ personality traits. We are also a product of our parents’, grandparents’, great-grandparents’ lived experiences.

“Chromosomal DNA — the DNA responsible for transmitting physical traits makes up less than 2% of our total DNA,” he writes. “The other 98% is what is called noncoding DNA and is responsible for many of the emotional, behavioral, and personality traits we inherit.”

And this is where it gets really interesting.

“Noncoding DNA is known to be affected by environmental stressors, such as toxins and inadequate nutrition, as well as stressful emotion. The affected DNA transmits information that helps us prepare for life outside of the womb by ensuring that we have the particular traits we’ll need to adapt to our environment.”

The scientific field regarding this, epigenetics, as described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.”

In other words, while trauma might not change the physical makeup of our DNA, it does change the way that the cells interact with each other. It can preprogram us to prepare for the environment into which we will be born. We are not born as emotionally wiped hard drives.

Israelis and Palestinians are born with the traumas of the generations that came before. Both have been born already in hyped-up survival mode. Whose came first, who caused whose, whose fault it is, none of that changes the reality that both come from generational lines of intense and severe trauma, both passed down and lived.

I met Mark Brayne back in 2014, where I found myself sitting in a chair across from him, literally in a puddle of tears. My tears. I didn’t even know I had that many tears. I looked like I had peed myself — so many of them had spilled onto my crotch area.

Mark is a former BBC foreign correspondent who now specializes as a psychotherapist in trauma, anxiety, depression and relationships. He’s EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) certified.

The best way that I can describe EMDR in nonclinical terms is that it realigns your emotions to the trauma. Trauma “breaks” your brain in an effort to self-preserve, which propels us through the traumatic moment. But break your brain severely enough, or enough times, and it stops being able to assign the proper emotions to the trauma itself or to anything. EMDR readjusts all that.

On a deeper level, beyond the traumas my work with Mark dove into, we also went back in my history, not to events that happened to me, but to those that affected my mother and my grandmother. My maternal grandfather was the prime minister of Syria in 1949, and he was assassinated when my mother was 3.

“We did an amazing piece of intergenerational work around that, didn’t we? I mean, this was many years ago,” Mark says, laughing a bit. “That was before I really knew what I was doing.”

Mark may not have consciously known then what he was doing (he’s developed a whole EMDR protocol around this since then), which is fascinating in and of itself, but now in EMDR it’s described as intergenerational trauma.

“So, the current discussion — whether it’s genetic or epigenetic, or is it that I’m angry because as a kid I watched my father being angry — it’s massively richer than that,” Mark says. “It’s about survival. It’s about the stuff that’s happened to us, our parents’ stuff and then what I call the fourth level of formative experience, which is, yes, the collective, root experience of family and group and tribe and nation, and just being human.”

Back then we landed on this notion that I basically had the emotional maturity of a 3-year-old, the same age my mother was when her father was so abruptly taken away. And as such, I was incapable of processing what I was seeing in the field, in war zones. I transformed everything into anger. I mean, everything. I did not cry. I would want to cry, but it would just get stuck in my throat. Sad, hurt, guilt, pain, frustration — I turned all of it into anger, an emotion much easier to deal with so I could keep functioning. I was, in effect, emotionally poisoning myself.

That’s not to say that any of this is some sort of magic, one-off exercise. There’s a reason we have this term “working on yourself,” and it’s — in my opinion — an insanely annoying, never-ending process. But I also cannot deny that the more I have “unclotted” over the years, the better I have functioned.

We can’t start coping with our own internal tornados until we understand ourselves. We can’t understand our own emotional history without understanding the history of those who came before us.

As Mark sees it (drawing also on the work of the legendary James Lovelock about climate change and sustainability), as a species homo sapiens has so far been incapable of evolving much beyond the basic survival instincts of flight, fight, freeze/flop, friend/fawn, and we are now collectively being invited by evolution to wake up. We need to shake ourselves out of our emotional complacency so that we, as a species, can realize our true potential. We cannot do that without evolving emotionally.

In other words, we need to evolve beyond this perpetual existence of constantly being in “survival” mode. It’s hard not to look at what is happening between Israel and Gaza and just be overwhelmed by how the train of humanity has gone off the rails. But if we don’t start to recognize and deal with our epigenetic and lived traumas, we’re just going to keep passing it down generation to generation, with it all becoming worse and continuing to perpetuate the sort of violence we’re seeing today: the polarization, the intolerance, the racism, the biases.

Simon explains it this way: “The fear is very real, and it is incredibly important to realize that you have a choice how to respond, and that there has to be a healthy relationship between the mind, between thought and emotions.

“The brain has a very simple mechanism. It avoids discomfort. So, it is logical. It is very understandable that people that feel something that does not feel comfortable, that they try to avoid it. They stop listening and they just speak.”

Invariably when we speak, we lose the ability to listen, which allows one to avoid the discomfort. It is perhaps why you will hear so many people just shouting over each other, whether it’s on social media, the mainstream media, debates, conversations with those around us.

The internal equivalent of listening is feeling, the internal equivalent of speaking is thinking. Our brains will race at a mile a minute, spinning and chewing up thoughts to avoid pain and discomfort. It may seem counterintuitive, but basically there needs to be a healthy balance between thought and feeling.

The human tendency is to believe whatever makes us feel good. We are wired to push away anything, whether it’s a different perspective, new information, that will shake the pillars of the safety of our beliefs.

We inevitably pass so much of our own and our collective traumas on to the next generation. (As the poet Philip Larkin famously puts it: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.”) But if we allow ourselves to properly process our stories, it doesn’t need to be like that. It is thoroughly unpleasant to unpack yourself, your past and then dive into your parents’ past to disassemble another aspect of why you might be the way you are.

There is an analogy that Simon uses to describe what happens to trauma that is allowed to just fester.

“Most violence is committed out of emotional incapacity. Out of the incapability of processing emotions, they clot together, they harden, and they turn into a poisonous form of projective energy that often comes out as a form of violence,” he explains. “It is also violating ourselves because it makes you sick. It literally is bad for you to do harm. But it very often comes from a legitimate and understandable human emotion. Fear. Fear is huge and very few people can accept that they are scared.”

Beyond that, Simon says, there is a reason why there are so many instances of the abused becoming the abusers.

“As you often see with different forms of abuse in childhood, is often transferred to their children when the trauma is not processed.” He explains. “And not because people think it’s a good idea. They just can’t help themselves.”

Maybe we as a species are a lost cause, doomed to ride this spinning-off-the-tracks train of destruction, that is, if climate change doesn’t get to us first. Maybe it’s too much to expect people and populations across the planet, especially in such a violent and charged time as this, to not give in to fear and the way that it’s manipulated. Maybe it’s ludicrous to even have this conversation as bombs rain down on Gaza, destroying 8,796 Palestinians, including 3,648 children’s lives as of Wednesday, as more than 200 Israelis are still held hostage, as trauma handed down the generations is triggered for so many, in ways that neither they nor we who have not experienced it can fully comprehend.

And maybe, just maybe some of us will be willing to pause for a moment and listen to what is uncomfortable and ugly.

“Welcome to the human condition,” Mark says after I go off my own rails about what a mess we all are. “What is happening in Israel and Palestine has roots that are tragically collectively human, but also sit on hundreds, thousands of years of civilizational history in that part of the world. But when the lights go on, we realize, wait a minute, we do have choices. We don’t need to be driven by this stuff, but if we continue to blame the past or blame each other, as a species we’re in very serious long-term trouble.”

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