The solidarity of shared trauma: De-exceptionalising Gaza

The genocide in Gaza is reshaping psychic life and political imaginations far beyond Palestine.

Demonstrators rally during a "Stand with Palestine" march in solidarity with Gaza, in Dublin, Ireland [Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

“I live out by O’Hare. Every time a plane flies overhead at night, my hands shake. I’m looking for a place to hide. And then the sirens too – the police and ambulance sirens. I know they’re not there, but it feels like soldiers are just outside the windows. We used to watch them walk up and down the road by my grandparents’ house, and we weren’t to say anything. They’d harass everyone, beat people up, including my grandpa. We were supposed to stay inside. My cousin was killed,” my patient told me last November during a psychotherapy session in Chicago, home to the largest population of Palestinian people in the United States. “I haven’t felt like this, had nightmares like this, since I was a kid.”

Since the Israeli bombing and invasion of Gaza began last October, a long-simmering global movement has emerged, particularly from the Global South, in solidarity with the Palestinian people. At least tens of millions of people have marched through the cities of the world in protest of Israeli-perpetrated genocide. In the US, the ruling class and closely linked media have typically portrayed such expressions of solidarity, if acknowledged at all, as simply a matter of vague ideological kinship or abstract anti-US or anti-Israel sentiment, often taking recourse to misleading accusations of anti-Semitism to explain it all away. By doing so, they ignore its historical roots and the ongoing truth to which this movement testifies: There is a deep psychic and visceral connection that binds countless people from diverse backgrounds to the gruesome oppression of Palestinians and to the enabling indifference to it shown by so many North American and European observers.

“I’m trying not to watch it, to look at the videos and the pictures of little kids trying to wake up their dead siblings, but it’s impossible to avoid – and I don’t want to avoid it. It’s the truth. It’s their truth, but it’s also mine and my family’s. But I just can’t deal with it,” another patient said. Yet another explained, “You leave, thinking it’ll be better. But it doesn’t stop. It just changes. Now you get to watch and pay for it rather than be stuck underneath it. I don’t know which feels worse.”

When viewed through the psychiatric and psychoanalytic clinic, it’s clear that, for many, behind their solidarity with Palestinians today lies shared experiences of intergenerational suffering stemming from the legacy of ongoing American and European imperialism abroad and racism within. With social media allowing for an unprecedented level of worldwide proximity to an unfolding genocide after over four centuries of colonial violence has generated a compounding reservoir of trauma passed from generation to generation on every continent across the globe, the images and cries of devastation in Gaza evoke not just sympathy. They are triggering a profound sense of personal resonance. Many Pakistani, Iraqi, Afghan, Yemeni, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Myanma, Irish, Haitian, Rwandan, Somali, Black and Indigenous American, Filipino, Puerto Rican, South African, Colombian, etc. people are now, like my patient, experiencing planes above or cops on the streets as if they’re part of one big murderous machine that they too know very intimately.

From my vantage as both a clinician and political anthropologist, the growing uprising against US-backed genocide in Gaza reflects an emerging revolutionary subjectivity born of massive trauma now coalescing around a singular stage of cruelty. This isn’t about individual empathy, an imagined identification with the other as if you are the same as them – a sentimental virtue so often celebrated by white liberalism to validate its sense of its own righteousness while conveniently erasing both history and the otherness of the other and evading any responsibility to act. It is instead about a collectivisation of otherness in a rejection of the Euro-American “rules-based international order” that has always depended upon the creation and subordination of supposedly threatening racial, ethnic, and sexual others to justify itself.

The identification at play in this collectivity is not with Palestinians nor Palestinian cultures, per se, but rather with the position of the paradigmatic other that the Palestinian people have for so long been forced by Euro-American hegemony – and the Israeli state it created and whose military it props up – to occupy. Consider, for instance, how the label “terrorist” has so frequently been indiscriminately thrown at Palestinians, from small children to poets, such that American commentators and Israeli officials can unabashedly dismiss via these terms the entire population of Gaza as deserving of death. For migrants vilified as rapists and drug smugglers or Black people called thugs in order to rationalise xenophobic violence and racist policing, for example, such practices are very familiar.

It is in this context that queer, trans, Indigenous, and Black communities in the US have joined together with diverse Arab, Muslim, Asian, and Jewish communities around the world, including within Israel, to protest Israeli violence and shameless support for it by the administration of US President Joe Biden. What unites these individuals and groups is not a shared religion, ethnicity, nor cultural worldview but an embodied knowledge of what it feels like to have one’s loved ones – present and past – be ostracised, demonised, and violated simply because they are marked as a threat to Euro-American power and associated white-supremacist norms. This deep knowledge that derives more from the truth of feeling than from any explicit ideology or identity is now fostering a shared ethical refusal to accept the perpetuation of such violence against others.

As the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen has noted, “otherness and its history demands grief.” Our ethical challenge in the face of colonial violence and its legacies is to expand grief, “to make it ever more capacious, rather than reducing it to a singular sorrow. Capacious grief acknowledges that the trauma of the other is neither singular nor unique – that there are other others out there with whom we can share the burden. Perhaps only by expanding our grief may we be able to leave our trauma behind. In sharing our burden … of otherness, we might also transform that burden into a gift.”

In accounts shared by my patients, students, colleagues, and friends, especially those from marginalised backgrounds, I see this revolutionary subjectivity and the solidarity it fuels taking shape and gaining force. It’s not just about acting on moral principles or historical knowledge of Israeli occupation and Euro-American complicity in a project of ethnic cleansing; it’s about reclaiming power over oneself, taking in one’s own family and communal history as confluent with the present, and reasserting the felt truth of one’s being and that of one’s ancestors in the face of radically dehumanising violence. It is a refusal to be passively swept along by the systems of oppression that surround us and to which the US government, in particular, continues to display a bipartisan commitment.

The burgeoning internationalist movement dedicated to freeing Palestine from violent oppression is not a trendy, transient political cause, as some cynical observers have claimed. It is a collective ethical awakening and formation of an affective community derived from a growing postcolonial consciousness – a transnational reckoning with the still-reverberating legacy of colonial violence and neocolonial financial manipulations. It is a rekindling recognition that struggles for justice and freedom are necessarily interconnected in both space and time, spanning continents and generations. The voices rising and feet marching each weekend in solidarity with Gaza over a half-year into the slaughter of its communities are not only protesting the specific injustices perpetrated against Palestinians. They are challenging the very foundations of a global economic and associated moral order built on exploitation and the systematic devaluation of some lives to prop up the plainly false image of postcolonial Europe and North America as emblems of benevolence and freedom. The task of freeing Palestine is simultaneously a task of freeing ourselves, of making a world characterised by – in the words of the families of Israeli hostages beseeching Benjamin Netanyahu to end his violent campaign against Gaza – an ethics of “everyone for everyone.”

Despite the slogans, we are not all Palestinians. We are instead all radically different from one another, with unique life histories, places in the world, and ways of desiring and living. And it is because of the differences that constitute each one of us and how important it is to protect them that the struggle for Palestinian liberation has become the defining ethical and political matter of our era. Its consequences are already reverberating far beyond any single territory or people, and they will demarcate the lines of global ethical-political struggle for the coming generation – one that will not remember our present political leaders kindly.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.