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Crisis, disaster and trauma, Violence and trauma

'We have a moral responsibility to offer support and aid… and insight'

Ron Roberts writes.

28 November 2023

With the ongoing catastrophic situation in Israel-Palestine, I feel compelled to issue a call for members of our Psychology profession to respond in some constructive way. 

We have a moral responsibility to offer support and aid where it is needed, and insight where it is possible. The infrastructure of the academic community in Gaza has effectively been destroyed, large swathes of research either curtailed or abandoned through loss of personnel, resources, and data. Along with this, those offering medical or psychological aid, do so under the most trying conditions imaginable. I learned from friends in Bosnia much more than can be conveyed by news media about how devastating war is – and I cannot imagine the suffering which so many people are enduring. I think, difficult as it is, that we must strive for some kind of clarity about these events. 

Many years ago, Noam Chomsky (in Levy, 2010) described the then situation in Gaza as a 'cruel and cowardly exhibition of human savagery'. What is taking place now is immeasurably worse and is recognised as such by many in the international community and major aid agencies. Alongside its accompanying criticism of the actions of Hamas 'in the strongest possible terms', grave concerns have been raised by the Secretary General of the UN, whilst experts from the organisation's Human Rights Office of the High Commission have said they are 'profoundly concerned about the support of certain governments for Israel's strategy of warfare against the besieged population of Gaza, and the failure of the international system to mobilise to prevent genocide'. We must listen carefully to such voices. 

Several years ago, I conducted work in Bosnia with colleagues there. We later published it in a political science journal where it was subsequently picked up by one of the lead negotiators in Kosovo, who praised it for its insightfulness and counter intuitive empirical findings. We published it there because no psychology journal would even review it, on the spurious basis it was not led by psychological theory. For all the good in the discipline, and despite the fact that the study of conflict has been a key feature of social psychology for decades, we seem to have an aversion to dealing with the messy real world. Perhaps this is in part why we have been unable to predict the eruption of conflict of any great significance anywhere. It is my belief that we must be prepared to engage with events beyond the seemingly safe bounds of laboratory-based theory, however fraught with risk this is.  

There are two areas where I believe such work can provide useful insights into the present situation and suggest practical avenues to be explored – social and collective memory, and reconciliation. In my own work (Roberts & Hewer, 2015) we proposed an integrated psychosocial model of traumatic remembering, applicable at several levels of social organisation, from the family thorough to international relations. In this, we argued that two key strategic elements recur in situations of ongoing conflict. The first of these concerns the threatened or actual use of force; and the second, the control of memory, through propaganda, diplomacy, public relations and the denial or falsification of history. The two major narratives at work in the Middle East concern the Holocaust as seen from the Israeli side and the Nakba as seen from the Palestinian. To these, we might even consider a third, which concerns the colonial imprint of the European powers, which functions as a discourse in absentia. 

These narratives seek to dominate discourse, both internally and externally, again backed up by different degrees of power and force. This suggests we must treat media narratives with extreme care – a conclusion supported by work undertaken by the Glasgow University Media Group (Philo & Berry, 2011) which provides firm evidence of the biases in conventional news media on the Israel–Palestine conflict. How we represent certain conflicts – or whether we represent them at all – has enormous implications. Elsewhere Happer and Philo (2013) wrote, 'The information that people are given in media accounts can both legitimise the actions of the powerful, and facilitate change at the collective level, but can also limit and shape the behaviours of individuals which are central to wider social change.'

However Western media narratives refer to current events in Gaza, it should be self-evident that what is unfolding is but the latest step in a long-running conflict, which itself cannot be understood without reference to the Nazis' attempt to exterminate European Jewry. In Naomi Klein's (2023) recent Doppleganger she discusses how victims of genocide have now, with ongoing US support, sought to enact the disappearance of another group of people. At the time of writing, more civilians have been killed in a month and a half than during the whole of the Ukraine-Russia war to date.  

The second area where I believe useful insights are to be found lies in the field of reconciliation. Appeals for reconciliation, as Cohen (2001) notes, explicitly assume that perpetrators, victims, and bystanders have already acknowledged what has happened. In the context of South Africa, Cohen cites a letter from Human Rights Watch to President F.W. de Klerk in which the organisation stated that, 'It is impossible to expect reconciliation if part of the population refuses to accept that anything was ever wrong, and the other part has never received an acknowledgement of the suffering it has undergone or of the ultimate responsibility for that suffering.'  

Desmond Tutu added to this, in remarking that 'reconciliation based on falsehood, on not facing up to reality, is not reconciliation at all' (cited in Garver, 2004, p.16). In both Northern Ireland and South Africa, but in neither Bosnia nor Israel-Palestine, past injustices have been more readily acknowledged by those on all sides. What continues to be disputed, however, is the meaning of those events and the justifications for them. However, in Northern Ireland and South Africa, cessation of violence brought about the creation of a common public space for storytelling. This created effective dialogue and the sharing of narratives across communities. Cultural change emerged from this as did the reconstruction of the institutions of state, aided, and abetted by outside international economic and political pressure.  

Below, I offer a few suggestions for what we might do, though I invite the collective wisdom of all our community to contribute more.  

Firstly, that we actively seek to offer whatever support we can to our colleagues in Gaza and Israel who may not for various reasons be free to speak out, either for practical reasons or for fear of retribution but nevertheless, that we seek their view as to how we can best lend assistance. Secondly that we mobilise our best understanding and forward thinking on the many issues involved in the conflict. Thirdly, as psychologists in a country whose historical imprint is still felt in Israel-Palestine, we have a duty to inform ourselves as best we can and to pursue justice for all the people in the region. This will be difficult. I believe most of us entered the profession with a desire to make the world a better place. Comments and thoughts are welcome.

Ron Roberts, Honorary Lecturer, Kingston University


Cohen, S. (2001). States of denial (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).

Garver, E. (2004). For the sake of argument: Chicago: practical reasoning, character, and the ethics of belief. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Happer, C. & Philo, G. (2013). The role of the media in the construction of public belief and social change. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 1(1), 321-336.

Klein, N. (2023). Doppleganger. A trip into the mirror world. London. Allen Lane.

Levy, G. (2010). The punishment of Gaza. London. Verso.

Philo, G., & Berry, M. (2011). More bad news from Israel. London. Pluto Press.

Roberts, R & Hewer, C. (2015). Memory, 'Madness' and Conflict: A Laingian Perspective. Memory Studies, 8(2), 169-182.