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Transgenerational Trauma

Last week, I shared with you an article by Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein regarding the criticism of Israel’s newest Basic Law. Though I feel he made several good points, it still might be a good idea to tweak the law’s language a bit without compromising its essence, in order to address legitimate issues that should be clarified.   

This week, Rabbi Adlerstein wrote a piece that hits closer to home for us Bay Area Jews. As you may know, Stanford student Hamzeh Daoud recently sparked controversy when in response to the passing of the new Basic Law, he released an anti-Israel Facebook post that threatened the physical safety of Zionists on campus. In his own personal statement published in the Stanford Daily, Daoud apologized for his reaction and cited an unusual defense - “transgenerational trauma.”

If the term sounds familiar to you, it is because its origins lie in a controversial study of the trauma effects on second-generation Holocaust survivors. Perhaps by means of cultural appropriation, Daoud borrows this term to defend his own actions, claiming that his outrage was caused by the long-term PTSD he suffers as a “third generation Palestinian refugee.”

One of the main problems of this defense is the moral ambiguity that arises when one can blame his or her actions not on their own misdoings, but on the stress from a previous historical event. Rabbi Adlerstein applies this line of reasoning to other situations in order to demonstrate its absurdity:

...Cop-killers might find refuge in a claim that they have still not gotten over the horrifying effects of an ancestor’s trans-Atlantic passage in the hold of a slaver, or even a forebear’s discourteous treatment at a traffic stop. In truth, Daoud’s argument could unseat all of criminal justice. What if – just what if- a person’s crime of passion was nothing more than a flare up of a repressed transgenerational memory? You know – the time some prehistoric predecessor stepped out of a cave, and had to clamber up a tree to escape the advances of a hungry woolly mammoth? It takes a long time to get over things like that, you know...

Perhaps the more frightening component of this situation is Stanford University’s action (read: inaction) to the incident, claiming after an investigation that “the student does not pose a physical threat to other members of the community.” In reflecting on this, Rabbi Adlerstein makes a clear point - threats of violence must be met by sharp opposition:

...Now, whether or not Daoud himself will be a threat is not for my conjecture. But we do know this about calls to violence. Eventually they are heeded, unless they are sharply and decisively repelled. Americans understood this when they reacted with wall-to-wall disappointment to the President’s initially weak reaction to Charlottesville last year. The fact that Stanford made do with a slap on Daoud’s wrist will certainly empower the other haters waiting in the wings, if not now, then in the future...

Rabbi Adlerstein briefly questions Daoud’s position to claim transgenerational trauma as a defense before moving on to his final conclusion, using this controversial event to demonstrate the difference between the reactions of Jews to the Holocaust and Arabs to the 1948 War of Independence:

...Daoud signed his statement, “From a Muslim, Third-Generation Palestinian Refugee.” There is some irony – others would call it cultural appropriation – in donning the mantle of “refugee” while he is drinking deeply from wells of privilege at the West Coast’s version of an Ivy, rather than sharing the privation of some hundreds of thousands of genuine refugees internally displaced in Syria. But that misses the real point, which is how he and other Palestinians deal with the grievances of the past. The term transgenerational trauma originated in the study of second-generation Holocaust survivors. The findings – and the term – are controversial. It is a matter of fact, however, that the reactions of Jews to the Holocaust and Arabs to the events of 1948 could not be more different. Jewish survivors struggled and succeeded in building new lives and families, and adapting to the countries to which they moved. More importantly, they took a fledgling third-world state and built it into the only successful democracy in the Middle East, pausing every now and then to stave off the murderous designs of her neighbors and absorbing millions of refugees who came in successive waves. The Palestinians could have done the same, but preferred to don a laurel of victimhood, teaching their children never to give up the attempt to throw the Jews out, and basking in the glory of self-imposed poverty and hopelessness.

If there is transgenerational trauma, it is to the rest of the world that deals each day with the inflated rolls of UNRWA and its perpetuation of victimhood. Perhaps Daoud will help convince some in the West to stop supporting those who allow too many people to feel sorry for themselves, rather than giving their children a chance at a future of security and success which they would have if they came to the negotiating table.