Last updated: April 29, 2013
Sofia Barbarani: The psychological impact of the Holocaust

“Whether the Jewish Israeli’s fear of a second Holocaust is justifiable or not is an opinion, the existence of such fear is a fact”

In September, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz equated America’s election countdown to a ticking time-bomb, set to explode in the form of an Israeli attack on Iran. Three days after Obama’s re-election, Israel’s military simulated a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. While the international community looked on in agitated wonder, people in Israel held their breaths. Too often has the Islamic Republic been compared to Nazi Germany, sparking fear in the hearts of a people still barring the psychological scars of horrors long-gone.

During the summer, speculation over a potential strike on Iran reached fever pitch, encouraging the distribution of gas masks and scaring citizens into bomb shelters. July saw the increase of gas mask sales by 100%, with only 60% available for the entire population. Israelis panicked, and much of the country was lured into a somewhat cataclysmic mindset. A survey carried out by Haaretz found that half of Israel’s population was concerned about the survival of the state, fearing that a war with Iran would entail the end of Israel.

The distant and often sensationalized warnings of a second Holocaust in the guise of an Islamic power were materialising.

Instead of maintaining a much-needed sense of calm in a climate of exaggerated hype, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak embraced a most antagonistic stance, and have been doing so for the past four months. Netanyahu’s rhetoric regarding Iran has seen a revival of his panic policy; a relatively simple task given the grounds upon which Israel was created - a safe haven for the persecuted European Jewry.

Speaking before the UN General Assembly, Israel’s prime minister wasted no time in exhibiting his theatric predisposition, baffling the world with a cartoon-like sketch illustrating Iran’s nuclear progress. The perfectly crafted PR stunt, and a speech embedded with Biblical references and dramatic rhetorical questions had critics on the edges of their seats. Bibi had given them the chance to resuscitate exhausted critiques, as accusations of Israel’s excessive victimhood flooded the blogosphere.  

Earlier this year, Netanyahu used Holocaust Remembrance Day to further address the question of Iran; creating parallels between the Islamic state and Nazi Germany.

By comparing the Iranian problem to the horrors of the Holocaust, Netanyahu succeeded in reminding Israel that a nuclear-armed Iran should be seen as an existential threat.

Rabbi Yirmiyahu Cohen argues against this: “the reason as to why Iran is not comparable to Nazi Germany lies in a fundamental fact: the Nazis sought to kill the Jews personally, not politically. Today, the inverse is true.”

There has been no other Israeli government quite like the current one in using the Holocaust to make political points. We must, however, be aware of the difference between state and citizen. They are not one entity, and perceiving them as such undermines the citizen’s individuality and freedom of thought.

The amalgamation of state and citizen has largely distorted the world’s perception of who the Israeli Jew is. Whilst the average Jewish citizen of Israel is burdened by the scars of the Holocaust, the current government often thrives on the chance to employ the tragedy as a pseudo-justification for its often morally ambivalent foreign policy. This tendency has been historically stark in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and is now resurfacing in the approach in regards to Iran.

Laziness on behalf of the international community has led to a superficial evaluation of the psychological trauma caused by the Holocaust. It has been easier to jump on the ‘Finkelstein bandwagon’ and punish Israel for its seemingly excessive and on-going victimhood.

In a world where the existence of psychological trauma is widely accepted, the dismissal of Israel’s collective psychological scars is somewhat baffling. In her book, Memorial Candles, Israeli psychiatrist Dina Wardi discusses the breakdown of Jewish identity through a Nazi-led psychological warfare.

It was ‘the destruction of the Jewish people as a collective’, Wardi writes.

A human being’s sense of identity is mostly constructed from the sense of belonging to a family and a community, explains Anthony D. Smith. By 1945 the Jews of Europe had been left with neither of those; their hometowns destroyed, and their families murdered.

Following the European Jewry’s ascent to Palestine, survivor syndrome became widespread, and the repression of their traumatic past translated into psychosomatic symptoms and mental disturbances. Inevitably, trauma trickled into the lives of the second-generation survivors, as recounted by Wardi.

Today, the grandchildren of the survivors still bear their scars. For many young Israeli Jews, the fear of a second Holocaust is embedded in their nature. Their apparent strength and sense of superiority is in fact fueled by a deep-seated sense of insecurity, explain RUSI’s Michael Stephens. It is widely accepted that posttraumatic stress disorder does not merely dissipate, instead it lingers in the victim’s life indefinitely.

Why then has the world decided to refute the possibility that the individual citizen may still be a victim of horrors long-gone, and is not manipulating the memory of the Holocaust?

The dismissal of fear as a mere political tool undermines the reality of a very vivid sense of anguish. The collective psychological trauma is on-going, and in-depth research such as Dina Wardi’s work with the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, exposes the complex nature that lies behind the legacy of a methodical genocidal campaign.

All Jews are survivors, says Professor Colin Shindler, “but nationalist politicians are tempted to speak about the Shoah for purely political reasons.”

Today, it is important to distinguish between the men and women who live in fear of repetition, and the man who has been appointed to run their country.

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