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Fear, Trauma and Healing: a Scientific Analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian Relationship



An approach designated as “evolutionary” can be employed in reference to two outlooks on global ethnic conflicts in general, and the Israeli/Palestinian one in particular. A Conservative and Neo-Liberal interpretation of Darwinism employs an approach whereby only the strongest peoples survive in a multi ethnic land. This so–called “survival of the fittest”, exclusionist outlook necessarily invokes in populations a chronic state of vigilance, defense, fear of the “other” and consequent suspicion and aggression. We see such ideology fostered by governments that instill competitive and exclusivist ideology in their populations through nurture of fear. This in turn facilitates the governments’ own self-interest political and economic agendas of empowerment and control. Fear is a cheap and efficient way to manipulate people, especially victims of trauma, as investment is unnecessary – our brains are hardwired to feel fear.

A progressive interpretation of evolution, on the other hand, emphasizes the adaptive utility of focus on mutual interests, inclusion, and co-operation. It endorses education for dialogue and reconciliation, and stresses the importance of equality for peace. Education necessarily requires investment and is thus initially costly. However, in the long run it pays off in the form of productivity, stability and welfare. A methodical understanding of brain mechanisms associated with fear, aggression and trauma may benefit our efforts to comprehend the persistence of conflict and ultimately formulate strategies for its resolution. Healing of trauma is the first step toward an inclusive and co-operative society based on equality.

Fear is an emotion crucial to survival. Thus, brain mechanisms that regulate fear are evolutionarily conserved in all mammals including humans. As such, research on mechanisms of fear in mammalian species such as mice and rats, affords the opportunity to learn about equivalent neural systems in humans.

In a laboratory setting, an animal can be taught to fear a particular cue using a method termed “fear conditioning”. Conditioning entails the presentation of an aversive stimulus, such as a loud noise or an electric shock along with a neutral cue, such as a light or musical tone. As a result of conditioning, the animal forms an association between the aversive stimulus and the neutral cue. Consequently, a cue that was once neutral evokes fear in the trained animal. The amygdala is the key brain structure wherein a synaptic connection is created between neurons of the neutral cue and those of the aversive stimulus. These principles of fear conditioning apply to humans as well.

The complex and dynamic human brain is able to perform unique functions that lead to fantastic accomplishments such as the composition of elaborate symphonies, reaching the moon and cracking the atom. However, the ability to inhibit and ultimately transcend fear is not a distinctly human capacity. In fact, the ability to transcend fear is easily observed in many mammals, including rats and mice in a laboratory. In order to extinguish the association between cues and emotions, one needs to decouple the stimuli; i.e. repeatedly re-expose the trained animal to the neutral cue without the presence of the aversive stimulus, a process termed “extinction of fear”. Research has shown that in extinction, neural projections from the prefrontal cortex inhibit fear-related activity in the amygdala. Human research shows that the functional capacity of the prefrontal cortex is strengthened by education.

Importantly, even when treatment is successful, the neural pathway that associates a cue with fear will always exist in that particular animal or human though it may be inhibited. Thus, even after inhibiting a fearful association by use of re-exposure therapy, if the animal or human is re-exposed to the aversive stimulus, it will again exhibit fear toward the neutral stimulus. This process is termed “reinstatement”.

Palestinian_man_and_son copy

Palestinian man and son.

We can apply this simple behaviorist approach to our understanding of conflicts in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. As societies, Israelis and Palestinians are in an abusive relationship. Interestingly, studies in both animals and humans suggest that one who is at present an abuser was more than likely abused in the past, probably during early life. The state of Israel is a home for scores of traumatized individuals, whether as a result of some anti-Semitic persecution, or a regional conflict. As such, the populace can be seen as inherently post-traumatic, prone to defensive, aggressive and impulsive behaviors typical of victims of trauma. The political, religious, military and economic elites in Israel easily manipulate these fear-based emotions in the populace to gain support for their aggressive, expansionist policies and to suppress dissent. It is easy; neural mechanisms of fear are present in all humans and can be reinstated at will in traumatized individuals. In fact, traumatized war veterans exhibit changes in the brain where the amygdala becomes primed and the prefrontal cortex is compromised, rendering them prone to find fear in everything.

Demonstration_Silwan_Jerusalem copy

Demonstration at Silwan, Jerusalem.

The Israeli government and media outlets persistently portray the Palestinian side as a threat to the very existence of Israelis, the so-called “demographic threat”. When tensions between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians subside, or Israeli social issues take center stage, the easiest way for the government to regain control is to reinstate fear. This can be accomplished by one of several methods: focusing on an act of Palestinian violence or resistance; reminding the public of some atrocity in the past (the Israeli calendar is full of memorial days) and; shifting attention to perceived threats, e.g. a nuclear Iran. Similar tactics are used by Hamas on the Palestinian side, albeit without the plentiful of resources available to Israelis. Lastly, the physical segregation of Israelis and Palestinians by the separation wall renders re-exposure that may lead to reconciliation virtually impossible.

Any plan for a peaceful future must incorporate a process of dialogue toward reconciliation, an education system that uncompromisingly promotes historical truth, as well as the creation of relationships through shared acts of solidarity and civilian resistance to occupation. Nonetheless and for several generations, both sides will always need to maintain constant mindfulness and caution of the possibility of reinstatement. Ultimately, after several generations of peace the fear of the other will have been permanently extinguished and Israelis and Palestinians can coexist in a society that emphasizes empathy and cooperation.

Yoav Litvin is a Doctor of Psychology/ Behavioral Neuroscience.  

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