How does one attain peace in a land of ubiquitous trauma? Inside the growing bilateral movement to bring healing to Israel-Palestine
I’m in the passenger seat of a sedan cruising the highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, passing dry hills, minarets and wire fencing beneath Palestinian villages looming over the road. “Sometimes they throw rocks at the cars,” Oren Lebovitch tells me as I try to catch a glimpse of the West Bank barrier, a wall that currently spans more than 400 miles. The chairman of Ale Yarok (“Green Leaf”), Israel’s cannabis- legalization party, Lebovitch assures me we’ll arrive safely at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, which is about to hold a hearing on decriminalization. Posttraumatic stress disorder among the populace is one of many reasons Lebovitch is pushing to get weed legalized.
Cannabis has been therapeutic for many of Israel’s 8.5 million citizens — Palestinians too, though in lower numbers. In the past year, 27 percent of Israelis have smoked pot, while nearly 35,000 legally receive medical marijuana. Others smoke hashish or resort to the Russian roulette of opioids to cope with life in an intermittent war zone.
“Some wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares, sweating, even wetting their beds,” says Lebovitch. “They can’t sleep for more than three hours and get hooked on prescription pills. Every Independence Day, they ask the public not to use firecrackers because it scares them. PTSD was not talked about for years; only lately do they dare to speak out. I think cannabis was one reason for that.”
Approaching Jerusalem, Lebovitch fumbles with the radio. News updates interrupt programming on the hour, a lingering wartime convention. It has been relatively quiet this June, save for the times Gaza’s sole power plant ran out of fuel, causing dayslong outages. (Israel controls Palestinian access to water, gasoline, imports and international travel.)
Almost every Jew, Christian and Muslim in the region knows someone who has suffered under the conflict. Rampant trauma inevitably informs both Israeli and Palestinian narratives, from policy to daily life. For peace to become viable, the conflict’s victims desperately need new methods to address their pain amid the region’s stubborn and blood-stained politics.
A few days after visiting the Knesset (which, to Lebovitch’s dismay, will eventually pass a tepid decriminalization policy), I hop a bus at Damascus Gate, outside Jerusalem’s Old City. I’m going to visit Antwan Saca, an activist working to raise awareness around PTSD and the ways it afflicts soldiers and civilians on both sides of the wall. I naively offer the driver my Rav-Kav, or Israeli bus pass. He chuckles and waves his hand, so I drop him some shekels instead. You can use Israeli currency in Palestine, but not your Rav-Kav to board a Palestinian bus.
It’s a half-hour ride, past black-hat Hasidim, bare-legged joggers and much in between, to the Bethlehem checkpoint. I sail through the near-empty maze of cement —it’s more complicated to get out of Palestine than to get in — and imagine what it must be like at rush hour. On a typical day hundreds of Palestinians line up here between two and eight AM. This is, Saca later tells me, one of the few exits serving a region with a population of 600,000. People unbuckle their belts at security scanners. Israel Defense Forces guard every corner.
On the other side, men hang out on the street, drinking tea and playing board games. The sidewalk is crude; weeds poke out around the alleyways. I peruse a bodega, where the Israeli brands I’m used to are mostly absent, and wait for Saca, who promptly pulls up in a rusty silver Ford Focus. A 34-year-old Palestinian Christian with a grizzly beard and kind eyes, he looks like a teddy bear despite his T-shirt, which reads WARRIOR.
We pass the wall, rife with graffiti and murals, and drive through the meandering Old City of Bethlehem. A large black cross looms over the single-lane road. Smooth, sandcolored stone adorns the walls of connected homes, shops and offices. He leads me to a rooftop café and orders tea.
“Welcome to the Holy Land,” Saca says. “All of us come with deep, inherited trauma. A healing process is needed.” At the time of our interview, he is serving as director of programs for Holy Land Trust, a nongovernmental organization that helps Palestinians explore their identity and personal experiences. A few months later he’ll quit, turning toward conciliatory therapies for both Palestinians and Israelis.
Such has been the passion of a young Israeli Palestinian generation looking to confront the psychic impact of the region’s religious warfare and identity politics. Employing cannabis and psychedelics, art and dialogue, they hope to heal those who will inherit these lands and, in doing so, heal the region.
“To be free means freedom from traumatic experiences, healing from the pain of consistent, existential threat,” Saca says. Working through psychological damage — from a place of empowerment, not victimhood — could allow Israelis and Palestinians to achieve a peace that responds to the needs of both sides, he suggests. “If that isn’t realized, through nonviolent activism, then we’re only creating a bubble.”
Most discourse around the Israeli Palestinian conflict follows the same political
divisions and tired headlines that do little but cause further polarization. Saca’s vision is simply that the peace process must address trauma in order to succeed. But as compelling as his case may be, the question remains: Can drugs and therapy come anywhere near the power of tanks and rockets?
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