10 min read

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

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

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.
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?


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6 min read

For want of better words... the impact of the indescribable

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Confronted with a question about belief, Henna Cundill found herself stumbling for words. She contemplates the link between our self-identity and what we can communicate.
A woman stops in her stride down a street and pensively runs her hand through her hair as she looks to the side.
Joseph Frank on Unsplash.

I recently got into conversation with a young man who asked me, “Do you believe in God?” When I replied, “Yes,” I almost regretted it, because his next move was to ask, “Why?” and I found this question troublingly difficult to answer.  

Of course, I could have dredged up the old philosophical arguments for the logical existence of God – but none of that would have really captured the thing I have no words for. Belief is like… Oh, what is it like? A glitch… no, a glimmer… no, like a glimpse of… No. Goodness. What is it? I’m lost for a word or even a metaphor that will somehow express what it feels to say “yes” and “I believe in God” and in that moment, even if only for a moment, to feel oneself transported or transposed out of this tiresome, human existence and into something that is... well, it’s something…  

I think it's fair to say that conversations about believing in God are unusual these days, especially when the circumstance is an 18-year-old lad talking with a woman in her late 30s – albeit the lad in question was a philosophy undergraduate and we were at Cumberland Lodge, where such conversations are welcomed amongst those of all faiths and none. Even so, it still felt rather unusual to be asked a question like that, not out of hostility but just casually over dinner, and to see him genuinely and respectfully interested to hear what I might have to say in response.  

Eventually I did come up with some kind of an answer; I can’t remember what. And naturally, I turned the question back on him. Turns out he did believe in God, in fact he was Jewish, so he stumbled out some kind of answer too, but I think it's fair to say that he was hardly more erudite than I was. Eventually, we both agreed that it was rather difficult to describe the indescribable, and our conversation turned to rather easier topics - the food, the weather, geopolitics... 


There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed. 

The question of believing in God was done with. Yet here I am weeks later, still pondering why it was so hard for me to articulate what it means to live with that belief, and why that part of the conversation ended, but still felt so unfinished.  

Has faith always been so indescribable? I suspect it rather has not. These dark evenings always tend to lure me to my bookshelves, seeking out my “comfort books” that I read and reread year after year. Mostly cosy fiction of course, but alongside those, a non-fiction favourite is Sheila Fletcher's, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters. The book is a fascinating study of a family of young women in the Victorian era, faithfully compiled from their own real letters and diaries, so that the voices of Meriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May Lyttleton themselves can all be heard clearly on every page. I just love to read this book over and over again, entering into the hopes, sorrows, loves and ambitions of these young women – so similar and yet so different to my own.  

One thing that stands out particularly is how clearly and easily they each articulate their sense of faith. They were, of course, heavily schooled in Victorian public piety, but there is most certainly a real faith there too. A favourite passage of mine is an excerpt from the teenage diary of Lucy Lyttleton, recounting the day of her Confirmation. She speaks of a ‘nice and stilling’ drive to church, with her parents either side in the carriage, and then:  

I seem to remember nothing very distinctly till I went up and knelt on that altar step, feeling the strangest thrill as I did so… and I know how I waited breathlessly for my turn, with the longing for it to be safe done, half feeling that something might yet prevent it. 

Oh, to be so thrilled by a religious ritual, and to have both the words and the courage to write about it. After all Lucy, what if someone might be reading your diary 150 years later?  

In mainstream society nowadays, most of us simply don't talk about faith, religion, and what it all means to us personally in that way. It’s not the done thing in a (presumed) secular society. Consequently, it is now very hard to write about it too. Yet, many philosophers in the past century have observed a link between our self-identity and what we can communicate. For example, philosopher Charles Taylor describes how our sense of ‘self’ is formed in “webs of interlocution” wherein what we take to be “good” relies on what we can effectively talk about, and thus have affirmed by those we talk to. If we turn Taylor’s idea around, might we say that when there are parts of ourselves that we cannot talk about, parts for which we cannot find social recognition and affirmation, then we cease to value those parts of ourselves as good, or may cease to recognise them at all? 

 With that comes a sense of isolation. There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed.   

To me it feels that, as we talk about faith less and less, and as the language of faith becomes ever more confined, not even just to private conversations but to our own inner worlds, our “webs of interlocution” are beginning to shrink and disintegrate – until believing in God can feel more like dangling on a loose and solitary strand than being part of any kind of web. It’s a lonely place to be – there is a part of me that feels important, but no one can affirm it.  

And yet, by simply asking the question of each other, and being ready to listen respectfully to whatever answer was forthcoming, it seems that me and a teenage lad managed to connect two lonely strands together. It was of no consequence that we worship in different faith traditions, or that neither of us really found the words to say what we wanted to say – a conversation took place, and a certain web of interlocution started to form. For some, reading this, there may be a feeling of resonance, or a moment of understanding, and perhaps that too adds a little to the web, as different people’s words and thoughts and experiences begin to connect across different times and places.   

Webs do more than just create connection; webs capture things too. Perhaps, as this web spreads between different readers and thinkers and speakers, that’s what will happen to this question of believing in God. After a certain point, such a web may even become large enough and robust enough to finally start to capture some useful words, or an apt metaphor, that will really help me to say something about what it means to have faith. To be able to say it is to be able to share it, and in these lonely times, being able to say something is really not nothing.  

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