Article
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Middle East
War & peace
10 min read

Eyeless in Gaza: the tragedy and the trauma of Israel and Palestine

An ancient story of a captured warrior demolishing buildings and devastating Gaza, prompts Graham Tomlin to view the current conflict through the lens of pain and trauma.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two soliders console each other as they search a house that has been ransacked.
Israeli soldiers console each other while searching a house attacked by Hamas.
Israeli Defense Forces.

In Israel, 10/7 has become a date to sit alongside 9/11. 1400 people lie dead, a nation is in shock and families are grieving unimaginably. In Gaza, an even greater and growing number of people are buried, or wait for burial in white shrouds, or lie dazed and wounded in hospitals, wondering how their lives and their cities can be rebuilt after such devastation.

The rest of the world is caught up in the question about blame. Is it, as the Israelis say, firmly Hamas’ fault, the result of a fanatical Islamist group determined to extend militant Muslim control over the Middle East in general and Israel in particular? Or, as the pro-Palestinian crowds chant, the inevitable outcome of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? The argument has reached the shores of capitals across the world as supporters of both sides reach for their flags and banners, and post support for one side or the other on X or TikTok videos. Everyone is pushed to decide. As a child of a friend asked his mum the other day: “Which side are we on?” 

Yet what if we try to see this conflict in a different light - not so much in terms of blame but pain?

Echoes of the past

Of course, this is not the first time there has been war between the people of Israel and their enemies on the coastline of Gaza.

The book of Judges in the Bible recounts a series of confrontations around 3,400 years ago (or 1400 BC) between the Israelites and the Philistines, who harassed and taunted the Hebrew tribes as they struggled to establish themselves in the land of Canaan (though it’s important to stress that the Philistines are not precursors or ancestors of modern Palestinians, there being no direct link from one to the other, apart from a politically-motivated decision of the Romans back in the day to change the name of the region from Judaea to Palestina.)

One of those stories tells of Samson, an immensely strong Israelite warrior, who kills numerous Philistines in a spree of violence lasting several years. Samson marries a Philistine woman, Delilah, who betrays him into the hands of his enemies. He is captured, and his eyes are gouged out. In a final act of heroic violence, he brings down the roof of the Philistine Temple at the height of a religious feast, killing both himself and more of his enemies than he killed in his lifetime.

The story is both a tragedy and a trauma. John Milton’s great verse drama Samson Agonistes, written around 1650, presents Samson as a tragic figure, gifted and heroic, a hero of Israel brought low into his Gazan prison by a fatal character flaw of pride and lust, betrayed by his cunning wife, and in his famous phrase, ‘eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves, Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke’. The tragedy is complete in his final act of destruction both of himself and his enemies.

Yet besides a tragedy, this is also a story of trauma. The roots of the trauma lie deeply hidden in the history between Israel and the various tribes that surround them. Samson is one of many dragged into a history of tit-for-tat violence which ends in this scene of death and devastation. He is caught up in the long history of human wrongdoing – as both victim and perpetrator - that stretches right back to Adam and Eve in the garden. The result is Samson and his enemies all lying dead in the rubble of a demolished building in the heart of Gaza.

In this one small strip of land today we find two peoples living out the trauma of what has happened to them in the past. And without a new approach, the result will be the same – destruction and devastation.  

On many trips to Israel/Palestine over the past 35 years, as I have listened to both Palestinians and Israelis look at the same issue with such different eyes, this conflict has often struck me as both a tragedy and a trauma. That sounds bleak. Yet this perspective can, despite its apparent gloom, bring a glimmer of hope.

This is because tragedy and trauma don’t avoid the question of blame, but they don’t start there. They start with a posture of empathy. Tragedy makes us pause before making moral judgments and instead, simply to notice and enter into the sadness, the grief of it all. When we watch the final scenes of Hamlet or Macbeth, or even the Samson story, we are simply left in silence. We don’t rush to judgment, but simply acknowledge the heart-breaking sorrow experienced by the ordinary people caught up in this. Tragedy sits with the grief and darkness, and does not reach immediately to blame, realising that real life is usually more complex and the causes of conflict more opaque.

At the same time, understanding this as trauma forces us to enter into the pain underlying the conflict. Samson is born into traumatic times with his people under attack, and ends up living out the trauma he has experienced by brutal revenge on his enemies. In a similar way, in this one small strip of land today we find two peoples living out the trauma of what has happened to them in the past. And without a new approach, the result will be the same – destruction and devastation. 

The Jewish people of today, especially in Israel, remain deeply traumatised by the history of anti-Semitism which climaxed in the Holocaust of the 1930s and 40s. A determined attempt by a sophisticated, modern European nation to systematically exterminate every single one of the Jewish race is not just a historical event but one whose ripples or perhaps better, stormy waves, reach us today. Alongside this there is the expulsion of Jews during the C20th from Muslim countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. For those of us who are not Jewish it is hard to imagine the impact of such a reality, not just as a fact of history but as a real danger in the future. After all, if it happened once, it could happen again. It explains why Israel has always paid scant attention to international opinion and resolutions of the UN for a ceasefire, such as the one recently called for. As the Jewish writer Daniel Finkelstein put it:

“The origin of the state of Israel is not religion or nationalism, it is the experience of oppression and murder, the fear of total annihilation and the bitter conclusion that world opinion could not be relied upon to protect the Jews. So, when Israel is urged to respect world opinion and put its faith in the international community the point is rather being missed. The very idea of Israel is a rejection of this option. Israel only exists because Jews do not feel safe as the wards of world opinion. Zionism, that word that is so abused, so reviled, is founded on a determination that, at the end of the day, somehow the Jews will defend themselves and their fellow Jews from destruction. If world opinion was enough, there would be no Israel.”

So, with such a trauma behind them, it is not surprising that when Arabs set off bombs in Tel Aviv, when rockets rain down on Israeli towns, or Hamas militants swagger through kibbutzim, shooting people just because they are Jews, it triggers exactly the memory of the trauma that they have been through as a people. What Palestinians think of as resistance to an occupation of their land, is experienced by Israelis as an echo of the desire to exterminate the entire Jewish people, in a way that sends a shiver down the spine for anyone who has lived this story.

Just like Samson and his enemies. An eye for an eye leads both to end up eyeless in Gaza.

Yet the Palestinian people also have a trauma of their own. In 1948, at the time of the creation of the State of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were made homeless and stateless, deprived of their homes and their land, often at gunpoint, and many killed by Zionist fighters. The Arab nations did little to help, only interested in their own interests. The European nations stood by. And the Americans continue to fund Israel so that their army vastly outweighs any other army in the region, and certainly enough to crush the stones, knives and bombs of various intifadas. Their deep sense of injustice also leaves a scar, one that can continue to be used by groups like Hamas or other surrounding nations for their own purposes.

And so today when Palestinians are made to queue at checkpoints simply to travel from one place to another, when Gazans are not allowed to leave their overcrowded homeland, when land is taken through the building of a security wall, and Israeli settlements continue to get permits to build on Palestinian land, while it is much harder for Palestinians to get planning permission to build a new home, all this triggers the memory of what Palestinians call the Nakhba or the disaster. What Israelis see as legitimate self-defence, security measures to keep terrorists at bay and to keep their people safe, is experienced by Palestinians as an echo of their own past trauma of dispossession.

The result is that both sides end up caught yet again in a cycle of violence, just like Samson and his enemies. An eye for an eye leads both to end up eyeless in Gaza.

Yet this approach perhaps places upon us who look on, the responsibility to try to enter into the pain of the other side.

Now of course, we can argue about which trauma is the greater. We can debate the merits of each moral case, or where real blame lies. But trauma doesn't work like that. Trauma sits within the mind and the body, and spreads, overwhelming any ability to cope normally and react with a sense of proportion and balance. The effects of trauma are not deliberate or logical but involuntary. Reactions to trauma are notoriously complex and differ according to individuals. Trauma stays with individuals for years and with communities for generations.

Understanding this conflict not so much as through the lens of blame but of pain may help us approach in more helpful ways. Of course, this does not avoid the question of blame, because terrible things have been done here. It also doesn’t deny Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas’s attack with legitimate force. Most of us tend to lean towards one side or the other of the conflict. Yet this approach perhaps places upon us who look on, the responsibility to try to enter into the pain of the other side. And when the dust of battle settles, it perhaps promises a better way to cut the cycle of violence in the future.

Understanding this conflict as both tragedy and trauma helps us see it in a new light. And perhaps it gives us the glimmer of a hope of a way forward. The memory never goes away, but trauma victims can find ways to approach the memory of what happened to them in different ways.

The story of Samson ends with destruction and his burial in the family tomb. It ends in death. Within the whole narrative arc of the Bible, however, the chaotic period of the Judges is superseded by the monarchy – the kings of Israel, the best of whom is King David – a ruler with flaws, but described as ‘a man after God’s own heart’. Beyond that, the story of David points to a later ruler also born in Bethlehem, whose rule meant not hating and killing his enemies, but loving them to the point of dying for them, thus, finally, bringing peace. It is that kind of Jesus-shaped, self-sacrificial, radical, counterintuitive leadership on both sides that can show a way out of the cycle of violence and hatred that was there in the period of Samson, and is there today.

Only leaders who are not concerned with doing whatever it takes to stay in power, nor willing to sacrifice others for their own purposes, who don’t care about personal reputation, but are willing to take the risky path of reconciliation, as I have argued elsewhere on Seen and Unseen - only this kind of leadership can lead us beyond the tragedy and trauma of the past into a more hopeful future.

The last word might come from Audeh Rantisi, a Palestinian evicted from his home in Lydda in 1948. He went on to become an Anglican priest and an activist for reconciliation between Jews and Arabs and the need for both to recognise the scars and humanity of the other:

I still bear the emotional scars of the Zionist invasion. Yet, as an adult, I see what I did not fully understand then: that the Jews are also human beings, themselves driven by fear, victims of history's worst outrages, rabidly, sometimes almost mindlessly searching for security.

Four years after our flight from Lydda I dedicated my life to the service of Jesus Christ. Like me and my fellow refugees, Jesus had lived in adverse circumstances, often with only a stone for a pillow. As with his fellow Jews two thousand years ago and the Palestinians today, an outside power controlled his homeland - my homeland. They tortured and killed him in Jerusalem, only ten miles from Ramallah, and my new home. He was the victim of terrible indignities. Nevertheless, Jesus prayed on behalf of those who engineered his death, "Father, forgive them..."

Can I do less?

 

Essay
Belief
Comment
1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.