Since 7 October, my therapy patients have asked themselves: who are our people? | Israel-Gaza war

‘People were measuring the coordinates of my belonging, and they were doing so because theirs were being unsettled.’ Illustration: Ayumi Tanaka/The Guardian

Psychoanalysis is a choreography of closeness and distance. You need to feel close enough to your analyst so that what you are most hopeful or excited about, or afraid or ashamed of, can emerge. But you also need the safety of distance – otherwise it can become just another demanding relationship, like the ones you are trying to change.

But we are living through a political and moral earthquake, and it can be hard to keep a distance.

After 7 October, those of my patients aware of my Jewish Israeli background seemed embarrassed. It is hard to know what to say to someone in the middle of a nightmare.

At first there was mostly concern. “I know nothing about all of this, of course,” one said, even though he knows a great deal. “Are your people OK?”

“Nobody I know personally is dead or kidnapped,” I answered.

Many people I know were running for shelter a few times a day then, and many of my Israeli colleagues had patients who knew people who had been killed, displaced or kidnapped, but I didn’t share that.

When Israel began to respond – dropping on Gaza the equivalent of two nuclear bombs and killing thousands of civilians within the first weeks – the reactions began to diverge. Some of my patients assumed that because I am Israeli I’d support anything Israel was doing and muffled increasing confusion and outrage. Some thought that because I’m a Jew, they could find in me an unquestioning ally against anything they saw as antisemitism. The Israelis who immigrated to the US, like me, needed someone they could rely on to see things beyond the rote reactions of the American right and left. Some patients ignored the entire matter. After all, we were there for the delicate work of soul-searching, not to litigate geopolitics.

But with everyone, I felt that my presumed identities and affiliations were acutely observed. It became clear to me that something profound was at play: people were measuring the coordinates of my belonging, and they were doing so because theirs were being unsettled. They wanted to know that we were thinking and feeling similarly, that we belonged together. They were afraid to find out we did not, to feel alone in this intimate space that we’ve worked hard to create together, alone and betrayed.

A patient tells me that the only thing she can do when asked how she feels is to scream. I know that feeling.

We all seem to be checking these days: who do we belong with? Who are our people? It could seem out of place to be talking about the psychology of collective identity in the midst of the carnage we have been witnessing in Gaza. But in my mind, it is the gravitational pull, the psychosocial vortex of belonging, that is keeping us crazed, blind to each other, driven by our cruelest and most savage instincts – capable of Hamas’s murderous martyrdom, or the massive, systematic destruction that Israel is deploying on Gaza, which will take generations to heal. We must understand it to overcome it.

It has been my consistent experience in my decades as a practicing psychoanalyst that challenging one’s collective identity is more painful than questioning one’s most intimate relations. It is easier to divorce a spouse, break up with a child or a parent, than to lose one’s community, religion or nation.

Palestinians flee to northern Gaza as Israeli tanks block the Salah al-Din road in the central Gaza Strip in November. Photograph: Mohammed Dahman/AP

Belonging is a fundamental aspect of the human condition: feeling part of a group, a collective, a nation; knowing who you can trust and who you should be afraid of. This is true always, but at times of collective crisis, the drive to belong becomes acute. It is obvious in people whose identities are implicated in war zones: Russians, Ukrainians, Israelis, Palestinians. They are swept into rumbling streams of devastated, furious belonging, pushed together by swelling collective forces, and by invading armies and bombs. They are attacked and attack together, they rage and self-sacrifice together, and they bury each other, sometimes in mass graves. Nothing like the threat of annihilation to pull a group into (imagined) coherence. Those who whip the threat into the hearts of the tribespeople rule the day.

But the flying identity shrapnel spread by such geopolitical explosions lodges in souls everywhere. You need only to ask and people begin to tremble, or they rush to move past the wreckage, trying to avoid the tremor. In times like these, our sense of belonging is most implicated and most tested. What’s in the balance is the safety of knowing who you are and who your people are – and the fear, not only of being alone, but also of being a traitor.

Because the coin of belonging has three sides, not two. There is belonging itself: being with, being a part of, being known, having a place, a community, an identity, a sense of oneself in the world.

There is, on the other side of belonging, the alienation of un-belonging, the feeling of having no family, no community, no place in the world, of being alone. Not to belong – whether forced by rejection or chosen in self-realization – feels like being cast out.

And then there is the even more complicated third side of the coin: to forsake one’s belonging, to depart from one’s given community can feel like a guilty and shameful abandonment of those you consider your people, those who gave you a place in the world. It is even harder to do when those people, “your people”, and the forces that bind them together, pull you in at the root of your soul, shouting, “we need you!”

But this is precisely what happens at times of crisis. Pulling away is seen as, and can feel like, betrayal, even treason. Nobody wants to feel like a traitor. This is why, in times like these, dissent is so rare.

Israelis gather in Berlin on Friday to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Collective belonging is stronger than kinship, especially when it is driven by an ethos of loyalty and strict rules of distinction between “us” and “them”. When history is saturated with collective trauma, when life carries on in the shadow of generations of dead and abused ancestors (as it does for the Jews and the Palestinians), belonging can gather the gravity of a black hole, where nothing else matters. It becomes like a spell.

I am thinking of a few New York families I know. The parents are Israelis who left home with a mix of personal ambition and political disquiet. The US offered better opportunities and distance from a country they felt was losing its moral compass. Still, their Jewish-Israeli identifications remained strong. But the children were born here, went to liberal schools, grew up in diverse, progressive environments. They were not socialized into the dominant, Jewish-Israeli narrative with its particular rendering of history and justice. And so, as they became politically conscious, exposed to other narratives, and struck by the extreme, violent present in Israel-Palestine, they found themselves at odds with their parents’ tortured, yet deep attachments.

The parents, they are now frightened of losing their children to the “other side”. They hear “between the river and the sea” as a call to annihilate the place they come from and is core to their identity. They feel wronged and abandoned by their own children, and they fight. The children too are in crisis; their parents are becoming ideological monsters, war criminals, right in front of their eyes.

It happened between me and my parents decades ago, when as a teenager I began expressing myself in ways they found disturbing, and then resisted compulsory army service. Our ideological parting of ways created an existential fault line. It introduced into our relationship an alienation that has not let up. When we argued about government policies, we were in fact fighting about what it means to belong in our collective, what we were supposed to do for each other and why. The realization we could not agree injured us.

It is testimony to the power of our need to belong that many families would cohere around the collective’s demand for loyalty, even when the price is unbearably high. This is how parents consent to their children being enlisted into armies and armed resistance movements, where they could be injured and die. It is as if human societies are founded on the old Abrahamic willingness to sacrifice one’s most precious kin when a god or a human ruler or an ideology demands it. But some children refuse this pact.

Six months later, more than 33,000 people in Gaza are dead, many more injured and orphaned, 70% of its homes are in ruins, and almost the entire population has been displaced. In Israel, the adhesive belligerence is beginning to crack and anti-government protests are trickling back to the streets.

My practice is full of people who are becoming aware of the burden of previously unconscious pacts of belonging, struggling to renegotiate their collective-identity contracts. It is hard when the spell of belonging is lifted and you realize that your people are more flawed than you want to believe. It requires your sense of belonging to become more layered, more critical, more responsible, more confused.

A home after a Russian missile strike on Friday in Pokrovsk, Ukraine. Photograph: Global Images Ukraine/Getty Images

I am thinking of my Muslim American patient who spent her adult life working for the UN in war zones like Iraq and Syria. It took her years to recover from the trauma of witnessing so much suffering, from the guilt for being able to do so little to help. When we began seeing the devastation brought upon Gaza, she was again drowned in grief and confusion. Why are western powers supporting a genocide? Why are Arab countries doing nothing? Why are her leftist and Arab friends, her secular, feminist, queer community, celebrating religious fundamentalists? “Resistance,” they tell her, “by any means necessary.” But she, who knows what death smells like, feels her alliances shaking.

Another patient tells me how frustrated he is with President Biden. He is afraid of another Trump presidency, but he can’t vote for the Democrats because, he says, the Biden administration is engaged in ethnic cleansing. He has no obvious stake – he is white, Christian, American, but he feels complicit. He is paying for it, he is sending the weapons, he is vetoing security council resolutions demanding a ceasefire. He feels enraged, even more helpless. This is not what he wants his country to do.

I, too, feel enraged and helpless, but also responsible. It is “my people” who are doing this, I say.

I tell a beloved Palestinian colleague that I cannot find a way to sit with the awfulness of the war, to think about it, to mourn, that I’m constantly on edge. He says I should not call it “war”, because there is no even playing field between a coalition of nuclear powers and a resistance movement that is literally underground. It is an uprising, he says. I agree. But I know that many Jewish Israelis feel this is about their survival, that 7 October was a taste of what awaits them if they lose. I am lost, deeply and ragefully attached to a land ruled by madly violent injustice.

He asks: why do you expect to be able to mourn when the killing and dying is not over?

The only people I can trust these days are those who really know what’s at stake: how hard it already is; how hard it is going to be; but also, how necessary it is for us to find new ways to identify in order to live together.

I am taking as my guides two men who were dealt the worst civilization has to offer and kept on striving. Jean Améry, who wrote, after surviving Auschwitz: “Where barbarism begins, even existential commitments must end.” And Mahmoud Darwish, who was seven years old during the Nakba, who added: “Identity is what we bequeath, not what we inherit, what we renew, not what we recall. Identity is a faulty mirror that we must break each time we are enthralled with the image we see in it.”

We cannot ask people to forget the stories they were raised on. This is how they know themselves. But we can ask them to consider how these stories erase the histories, and sometimes the very existence of others; to recognize how much these stories lock them in a state of chronic trauma, how much they demand of them to split and repress. And we can ask them to see that now the story is theirs and they can decide what comes next.

This is what we do in psychoanalysis: we let ourselves be pulled by the gravity of the past and its unconscious contracts, so that we can understand how to free ourselves to make our own futures. This is what we should do now with each other. The alternative is madness.

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