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Israel’s assault on Gaza is about more than a fight with Hamas

How collective memories of historical trauma factor into Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attacks.

- May 16, 2024
Israel's collective memories of past trauma, and public memorials like this memorial to concentration camp victims, help unify Israel's population.
The Eternal Flame at Yad Vashem,Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel (cc) Mrbrefast.

Israel’s military assault on Gaza has been ongoing for seven months. Thousands of Gazans have been killed, and it will take years to rebuild homes and infrastructure in Gaza. The campaign came in response to Hamas’s attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, when Hamas brutally murdered over 1,000 Israelis and kidnapped over 200, some of whom appear to have died in Hamas captivity.

Converging factors have contributed to the current violence. Israel’s right-wing government includes Jewish supremacists opposed to Palestinian self-determination. Hamas, the Islamist militant group with de facto control of Gaza since 2007, is equally determined to use armed force to “liberate” Palestine. 

Israeli security has long depended on some form of deterrence, so a military response after Oct. 7 was one way to achieve this. And the current fighting is only the most recent in a long pattern of war between Israel and Hamas.

Collective memories also play a large role in these developments. This additional factor is missing from most considerations of the war – indeed, missing from much of the analysis of international conflict in the media and popular discussion. Israel’s assault on Gaza is more than a fight with Hamas; it’s connected to collective memories of Jewish trauma.

The remembering and commemoration of historical events, particularly traumatic ones, serve to help a people understand how their present came to be. These commemorations also often operate as a policy framework, infusing the contemporary moment with motivation to avenge or avoid the past.

Traumatic memories help produce a group’s identity

A people’s social identity rests on different pillars, including ascriptive characteristics like religion, ethnicity, and language. History, cultural practices, and collective memories also shape that identity. These memories do not just exist inside the minds of individual members of a given community. The group must actively circulate and interpret them in specific ways. This process prioritizes some memories and interpretations over others that are purposely forgotten.

To become dominant enough that they carry a particular meaning for society, memories must be embedded in public spaces – national holidays and annual commemorative events, memorials, educational materials, art, and legislation. Memories of traumatic experiences that affected the group in the past are especially rife with meaning – and usually less contested within the group, and therefore easier to remember. It’s why the Israeli government established an annual national day of mourning to remember the victims of Oct. 7. These types of memories transcend space and time, affecting group members regardless of where they lived, and holding meaning for generations after the event.

Leaders’ rhetoric and policies often rely on the emotional-cultural landscape created by these memories. In the early years of his campaign to promote Serbian nationalism at the expense of Yugoslavian identity, Slobodan Milošević explicitly drew on the traumatic experience of Serbia’s defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire at the Field of Blackbirds in 1389. His explanation for the defeat – a divided Serbian leadership that undermined the army – was the basis for his claims that a united Serbia would be strong and take its rightful place in the region.

May 6: Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day

Israel commemorates Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah, by disrupting the country’s daily routine to remember the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The day has several rituals, anchored by a two-minute siren that sounds throughout the country. For those two minutes, most Jewish-Israelis, and some Palestinian-Israelis, stop whatever they are doing and stand at attention. Traffic on highways comes to a standstill. Jewish communities around the world hold their own memorials.

But commemorating the killing of European Jews never fit easily into the Zionist ethos that drove the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. The Zionists who laid the foundations of the state and led it in its first decades were explicit that they represented a break with the past. They were a “new Jew,” their bodies and minds reworked into a “muscular Jewry,” as early Zionist thinker Max Nordau put it. They worked hard to emphasize certain memories of Jews as warriors, ignoring historical events that undermined that vision.

It’s why, years later, in 1959, Israel added the “Heroes” part to the day. This made the day a commemoration of acts of resistance, and not just the remembrance of the murder of Jews. The day is a somber one, but the inclusion of heroes as well as victims serves as the foundation for the idea that Jews – through Israel – have agency.

It’s also why, at his May 6 address at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a direct line from the Holocaust to Oct. 7, but emphasized a different outcome:

I said that the intention of those who murdered, raped and beheaded, and kidnapped our loved ones who are still there…is the same intention of the Nazi thugs who murdered one-third of our people. The difference is, that we now have heroic soldiers, hundreds of whom fell in boundless heroism, while others have been wounded.

May 13 and 14 are also important for memories

On May 13, Israel observed its Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of the Wars of Israel and Victims of Actions of Terrorism, followed by Independence Day. Originally, Memorial Day recognized only fallen soldiers. But in 1998, during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, the government expanded the day of commemoration to include victims of terrorism. This helped tie together soldiers and civilians when it comes to terrorism and wartime.

Some think this connection is so strong that it should be expanded. In May 2023, the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and Combatting Antisemitism stated it would form a committee to determine whether non-Israeli Jewish victims of antisemitism should be included in this day of observance. This move, if it proceeds, would essentially erase national borders when it comes to Israel speaking for all Jews around the world.

The day after Memorial Day, Israel celebrates Independence Day. The trajectory is clear: Sacrifices by soldiers and civilians contributed to Jewish self-determination and statehood.

Is it possible to reconcile conflicting memories?

Of course, Palestinians, both citizens of Israel and those in the West Bank and Gaza, have their own set of collective memories. For Palestinians, the day after Israel’s Independence Day is Nakba Day, when they commemorate their dispossession from their land and the devastation of their society.

Memories of trauma help buttress contemporary identities and policies, by bolstering claims to competitive victimhood. Dual claims to the land, the dispute over Israeli settlements and return of Palestinian refugees, and who should control the holy city of Jerusalem are all part of both people’s collective memories. The dissonance between competing Palestinian and Jewish sets of memories has contributed to the failure of previous Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. 

The power of conflicting collective memories extends beyond Israel. These conflicts are evident in the protests that have swept U.S. campuses in the last few months. For some protesters, the Israeli assault on Gaza reflects decades of colonialism and the suppression of Palestinian identity. Others see Israel’s response in Gaza as the latest Israeli effort to defend itself from decades of persecution, genocide, and terrorism.

Until both sides fully recognize these historical traumas, it’s difficult to see how Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians can move past them.

Brent E. Sasley is a 2024-2025 Good Authority fellow.