Beyond the Memory of Trauma: Remembering Primo Levi During the Israeli–Palestinian Tragedy

Israelis and Palestinians together defying the occupation during a peace prayer. PHOTO © Aviv Tatarsky.

Amidst the quarters of a cattle car, after the clutches of the murderous Nazi regime, on the path back to his hometown of Turin in Italy, Primo Levi could finally breathe again. Subsequent to the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet soldiers the return route carved through the scars of post-war Europe, once more navigating the remnants of concentration camps where the echoes of the departed resonated. His journey unfolded aboard a Red Army train, an odyssey spanning over nine months, escorting him deep into the heart of the USSR. Legend has it that Levi posed resonant questions to his fellow travelers: What realm is ours to inhabit now? We, who once bore a hand in the resistance, what aspirations may we nurture now? What recognition awaits our fated existence? We, the humiliated, were banished from an imaginary pre-Mussolini-an paradise, only to endure persecution, culminating in the inexorable journey of deportation and death.” This inquiry, though unverifiable, has reverberated through diverse languages, recounted by varied companions over the years since Levi assumed the mantle of a “witness” — a role we now, only perhaps, more profoundly understand. To pigeonhole Levi merely as a “witness” is a grievously simplistic reconstruction and a misguided intrusion into the depths of his comprehension of the unfolding process. Such a characterization amounts to an abuse, borne of our naive interference with the nuances of his deeply personal understanding. Levi’s relevance resounds for both the besieged Palestinian civilians as well as the overwhelmingly mighty Israeli forces. With poignant eloquence, Levi conveyed the imperative to truth: to look around, to acknowledge the harrowing journey, to resist conflating or exaggerating. The horrific experience that caused trauma has to be transmitted by facts. Human nature is all too often tempted to exaggerate and Levi was trying to convince his companions and also himself to stick to the truth, without any exaggeration, without made up facts and without lies. Wat I call the “Levi-ian method” is about recognizing suffering. Not by just reducing it to an event, but by showing the social and historical conditions that make it possible as well.

In his first book, Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), Levi reveals the confounding nature of being a ‘witness’ in a scene where three former detainees who are unable to fulfil a sense of how to properly transmit what actually occurred in the concentration camps themselves. The confounding nature and the utter complexity of the barbarity within the Nazi death camps simply could not fit the conventions of normative language.

To me, as an individual untouched by the harsh hands of occupation and unburdened by legislative collective dehumanization, and who is witnessing via tv, social media and phone calls the rampage unleashed by Hamas upon young party-goers, families in kibbutzim, and ordinary people celebrating Simchat Torah evoked an overwhelming cocktail of emotions. Anger, rage, and most of all profound sorrow and worries. Then the collective reprisal against a caged population in such a barbarous way, eliciting the Biblical vengeance of Amalek on the people of Gaza which transcends any intellectual thought or even human comprehension. How can a State that sees itself as democratic, enlightened, civilized, and cultured, a State that was founded on the ashes of the Shoah, transform into an indiscriminate, hurricane of military violence? This can only be possible after having dehumanized a whole population. Dehumanizing the other in the way you once were dehumanized yourself.

 The phenomenon of such a transformation in human psychology is often referred to as ‘projective identification, which finds its ultimate example in cases where the one who has been bullied or brutally victimized at some point becomes the bully and perpetrator without empathy or regard. This mechanism is not only applicable to an individual but also to a group, a tribe, a community, a nation. Is it not this, what we currently are witnessing, a blind rage and merciless violence rather than the right to defend”? Is this violence towards civilians executed in ‘Bibi’s’ (Netanyahu) war only coming from the rightto defend? Or coming from the rightto be the perpetrator because you were once the victim?

 This paradox, unsettling in its resonance, compels us to grapple with the profound consequences of historical damage and collective desperation. It raises questions about the human capacity to justify extreme measures, even in the aftermath of enduring historical trauma. In the crucible of such complexities, the tragic narrative unfolds—a historical calamity not just of immediate violence but of a deeper, unsettling exploration of what desperation might drive a community to justify, by any means necessary.

In contemplating the intricate nature of memory, one is confronted with a poignant realization—a flaw or even a kind of structural defect within how and what we regard as memory to be. A ‘defect’ that is so entangled in its foundations that in spite of itself, the structural defect scrutinizes its own depths from all gradients as if possessed by all the necessary solutions it dominates from within its own mechanism of the individual’s or even the collective notions of memory retraction. In other words, the very notions of what is deemed as memory recollection or memory retraction is contingent on the particular ‘usefulness’ of that actual memory and its defects which are inevitably bestowed within.

Memory operates within its own selective categories, endowing value discriminately. The memory of those who are in a cycle of perpetual violence or in danger of violence often sees no emotional, intellectual or cognitive potential beyond the actual tragedy itself. With time and endurance that situation gets more aggravated on both an individual and on a collective level as well. Memory becomes a confounding force. It offers no solace beyond the confines of the immediate tragedy. The burden amplifies, individually and collectively, casting a heavier shadow on the human psyche. Wasn’t it Hannah Arendt who already predicted decades ago that a nation based on exclusive harkening of victimhood would one day succumb to the role of aggressors in perpetrating violence themselves? 

In opposition to the perpetual ‘messianic’ violence, there are many examples of the Levi-ian method in practice. First and foremost, symbolized by the French intellectual, magistrate and Holocaust survivor, Simone Veil. Known for many firsts in her legal and political career, advocating for equality for all women and legislation of abortion, firmly defending equality for all humans and staunching fighting for European integration as the only solution for guaranteeing permanent peace. Veil, in her most basic modality, demonstrated through her sheer example the indispensable norms of human engagement.

To extend the Levi-an narrative here, I find profound inspiration and I feel humbled by the actions of two Israeli friends, Neora Shem and Nimrod Kerrett. Following the tragic events of October 7th, Neora and Nimrod immediately reached out to Israeli families who had suffered the loss of their loved ones or had seen them taken hostage in the wake of the brutal attacks. Simultaneously, they extended their support to Palestinian families who were enduring reprisals from the Israeli State Apparatus. Their tireless efforts to assist both communities, amid their own personal grief, was a testament to their unwavering commitment to real peace. Despite the personal tragedy of losing their friends, Lea, Ofir, and Nitsan Libstein— a family of wife, son, and husband-father, ruthlessly murdered by Hamas —Neora and Nimrod continued to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. Their extraordinary courage, moral integrity, wisdom, and their remarkable shuttle diplomacy between Israeli victims and their grieving Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank epitomize the very essence of the Levi-ian methodology. 

In providing “protective presence” to Palestinians against Settler violence and the IDF forces, both Neora and Nimrod are part of a loose net group of like-minded Israelis and Palestinians which include Israel Frey, a Haredi Orthodox Jewish reporter who barely escaped a lynch mob for asking the violence to stop against Gaza, and Noy Katsman, who lost her brother to the Hamas terrorists and also a peace activist who denounces violence in her brothers name.” It includes the Arab-Jewish movement ‘standing together‘ where two Palestinian women are standing with Jewish victims. They are Rula Daood, who is one of the movements leaders and Ghadir Hani, who manages the climate chapter of the movement. Finally, one cannot forget Amir Badran, a city council member and would be candidate for Mayor of Tel Aviv if elections were held. Badran also organizes the Jaffa Jewish-Arab Patrol, together protecting each other against violence from settlers and extremists.

This form of post-trauma memory-action is just phenomenal, as it underscores the force of individual courage. In stark contrast between individual courage and the inaction of most. If any of the Israeli politicians and most Palestinian leaders, including members of Hamas, possessed even a fraction of political and personal courage displayed by the likes of Rula, Ghadir, Neora, Nimrod and the above-mentioned names, then we wouldn’t be here in the first place. We wouldn’t have occupation and apartheid, and instead of Othering, maybe there would be an actual possibility of living together.

Primo Levi, dismantled his own legend to respond to the urgent need for profound thought in changes and actual practice. We might not find ourselves in this dire situation that Levi himself faced as a survivor of the Holocaust, but it is imperative to embrace the Levi-ian method before more lives are lost and more dead bodies are collected on both sides. 


Ibrahim Quraishi is a conceptual artist and writer dividing his time between Berlin and Amsterdam. His work has been exhibited extensively across Europe, South/East Asia and the Middle East. He is a regular cultural-political contributor to the German newspaper TAZ : die tageszeitung. His first historical novel, “being everywhere, being no where” (part I of a trilogy), is forthcoming from Seven Stories Press, NY.<