Chana Hughes

October 7 was a Shoah flashback – and maybe we all need a little bit of therapy

Our sense of safety has been undermined in a profound and ongoing way


Israelis attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza at "Hostage Square" in Tel Aviv, November 11, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90

January 22, 2024 14:20

V In the past three months since October 7, the lives of those in the Jewish community have changed entirely. Whether you have relatives on the front line or not, we have all been affected emotionally on some level.

I have spoken to a number of therapists and psychologists working in the UK to explore the impact of that horrendous day and the subsequent weeks.

Looking back, there was a difference between the reactions during first few days and weeks after the attacks and the weeks that followed. For most Jews, the initial reactions were strong feelings of shock, horror and fear.

One doctor in a Jewish care home told me that there was an increase in many of her patients’ blood pressure. Many people had trauma symptoms such as difficulties sleeping, nightmares or changes in appetite. Many experienced heightened anxiety and hypervigilance; the feeling of profound threat. For most British Jews the rise in antisemitism did not manifest itself in physical attacks. But the feeling of safety had gone. Some who were already struggling with their mental health deteriorated and others who were vulnerable started to present with symptoms.

In the “hierarchy of needs” created by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943, our need for safety and security comes just after our basic physiological needs for food and shelter.

Therapists have seen a breakdown of emotional safety in their Jewish clients, which makes their work harder: safety is the foundation of therapeutic interventions. Jewish therapists and psychologists have felt the lack of safety themselves too as their registering organisations failed to condemn the attacks and avoided offering full support.

Some people who are not familiar with the Jewish community did not understand why even those who do not have many relatives in Israel were so profoundly affected. But the strength of the Jewish identity is such that it stretches beyond geographical divides and we easily identify with other Jews, no matter their lifestyle or proximity.

A shared, repeatedly painful history means that Israel represents a solitary safe haven; much needed when you are chronically outnumbered.

This often goes acknowledged: how deeply Jews identify with other Jewish victims and feel the threats to our nation state, even if you disagree politically.

The rise in antisemitism and the growth of anti-Israel bias means that many Jews felt in pain, alone and profoundly misunderstood.

In 2004 therapist Joan Beder spoke about how loss and trauma often disorientate people and the security surrounding their core beliefs falls apart. This feeling, called the loss of your assumptive world, causes feelings of profound instability.

The fear following a shock or threat needs containing and reassurance from those around for that assumptive world to stabilise.

Although some reassurance was offered by key national leaders and some cultural commentators, reactions of grassroots communities such as the mob in Dagestan, increased antisemitism and the silence from organisations and celebrities exacerbated this lack of safety.

Children in particular felt fear and confusion as the lack of sympathy became more apparent in schools and double standards came to the surface.

Why were people tearing down posters of kidnapped children? Why did footballers take the knee but they didn’t light up Wembley Stadium? Why do I feel scared to be Jewish?

One teenager took scissors and cut up his kippah out of anger. Some felt crises of faith and distinct feelings of life being unfair.

Although initial acute feelings of shock settled over time, because the conflict is ongoing, they have not been resolved. Many people’s identities have been shaken to the core.

Vigils, initiatives and protests such as the march against antisemitism have helped people feel strengthened and turn their pain into action.

One psychologist who works with the elderly noticed that the initial anxious and shock response soon gave way to low mood. Many elderly people are more likely to feel despondent and hopeless, with a sense of foreboding that history is repeating itself.

One older client said that she was glad that her life would soon end as it was too painful to witness the next chapter in Jew-hatred.

Many have used comparative language such as “pogroms” and “the biggest attack since the Holocaust”.

For Jews, these comparisons were more than simply words, they awakened intergenerational trauma on a visceral level. Those stories and cultural narratives about the repetitive cycle of antisemitism were suddenly seemed to be materialising.

How many of us have said that we can now understand how the Holocaust happened? This strong identification with such pervasive danger is stressful and distressing.

One therapist who works with the Charedi community noticed that many in the strictly-Orthodox community were slightly less affected emotionally following the attacks, partly due to their lack of exposure to social media and to all the horrific details.

But it was also because they have fewer relationships with people who aren’t Jewish, so they did not feel as betrayed by friends and colleagues from whom they expected reassurance and solidarity.

Betrayal is disorientating, knocks your confidence, and can impact your self-esteem.

Several clients have spoken about their experiencing of being victim-blamed and have felt abandoned by friends and colleagues when they didn’t allow them to express their grief and distress about the attacks. This lack of validation and empathy can be deeply distressing. Trust takes time to rebuild and would need Jewish support expressed at a systemic and cross-communal level.

In the early 2000s, researchers who supported war veterans started using the term “moral injury” to refer to the psychological distress that is felt when you are involved in or witness events that are fundamentally against your core values.

Many people have experienced profound distress by hearing about the savagery of the Hamas attacks, the civilian loss of life, and the cruel way in which so many families and lives are treated.

The reports of sexual violence have been particularly harrowing. Some with a history of sexual abuse or violence have understandably been triggered and sometimes re-traumatised by reading about or watching footage of the events.

I have heard accounts of people struggling to be physically intimate with their partners because of the distress from hearing about Hamas’s barbarism.

The post-October 7 trauma has been exacerbated by the silence of key international bodies and organisations that are supposed to tackle abuse.

Such savage pain remaining unacknowledged by those in power creates moral injury, acute vulnerability and an emotional belief that Jews are not worthy of outrage and protection from aggression of the most despicable kind.

Jewish community members reacted by turning inwards and supporting each other. Webinars and briefings from organisations such as the CST supported the community to navigate the early days.

Community gatherings, synagogues and schools have all been invaluable support to process the situation and to increase a sense of agency and connection. Jewish colleagues across professions have connected to support each other and to show much-needed solidarity. Jewish clinicians in different medical fields have started to meet so that they can maintain the strength needed to support their clients. Many have found new resources of inner strength and developed friendships and enriching community ties. Some have found renewed faith.

The horrors of the past few weeks have been profoundly emotionally distressing and destabilising for British Jews on so many levels.

Our communities have come together in strength and solidarity, and many Jews have become reconnected with their identity.

But the longer this goes on, the greater the weight of pain, fear, and isolation our community carries.

Although resilience is a Jewish characteristic and we are used to getting through tough experiences, it will take much time, effort, and inner strength to rebuild our feelings of psychological safety, confidence and trust going forward.

January 22, 2024 14:20

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