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Memory, trauma and Gaza

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Growing up as a Muslim, I was always amazed at the sheer psychological space that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occupied among other Muslims, often at the expense of their home countries.

Any sense of personal victimhood was linked to the perceived injustice the Palestinians were suffering.

Actual knowledge about the conflict was often slim and, like many conflicts around the world, personal or local troubles were wrongly conflated with global trends, worsened further by a well developed reflex towards Jewish conspiracy theories.


At the crux of the anger towards Israel and Jews is not just their treatment towards Palestinians, but it is their symbolic position as history’s victims, epitomised by the Holocaust; a word controversial Sheikh Taj Din al-Hilali has tried to link to the Palestinian suffering.

Cultures and identity are often built upon tragedy, from India and partition to Armenia and its genocide. Even President Barack Obama invoked the deaths incurred during the American Civil War in communicating the ideas that America was built upon.

The remaking of Anzac Day and Gallipoli is a craving for such an identity rooted in blood, especially for younger Australians, as evidenced by the huge turnouts to dawn services in recent years.

But there is no nation so founded on a collective trauma as that of Israel. It is rooted in traumatic memories as the basis of its renewal, like a war veteran or sufferer of abuse re-experiencing their pain. This trauma arises from loss of feelings of safety and protection in the “home”, often corresponding with experiences of betrayal and humiliation by those who were meant to provide protection.

And like the sufferer of traumatic stress who insist their woe is special and justifies lashing out, Israel’s existence depends upon the unique classification of Jewish pain.

The determination to honour these memories continues to drive the disproportionate responses. The shame felt by the Jews in the face of their Nazi oppressor has resulted a hardening and militarisation of their identity.


It is often forgotten that during World War II, many Muslims reached out to Jews fleeing the Holocaust, even though many would settle in Palestine and help create the state of Israel.

But, as in so many instances in the past half century - the Lebanon War of 1982, the “Iron Fist” response to the 1988 intifada, the Lebanon War of 2006 - the Israelis have reacted to intolerable acts of terror with a determination to inflict terrible pain, to teach the enemy a lesson. Civilian casualties and suffering are predictable on each occasion but it is unclear if the lessons were ever learnt.

In fact, with each Israeli show of force, their story of victimhood becomes less and less palatable for large sections of the globe, especially within the developing and Muslim world. What they see, instead, is raw power and a determination to flatten any resistance. They see a mercenary of the West in the heart of the Middle East.

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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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