Jerusalem Old City Bethlehem

Rebirth in Bethlehem

Inside a growing bilateral movement to heal Israel-Palestine

A view of Jerusalem's Old City

I am sitting 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. Post-traumatic 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 days-long 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 a.m. 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, sand–colored 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?

Welcome to the Holy Land. All of us come with deep, inherited trauma. A healing process is needed.

If you can take one commonality from the region’s vast and tangled past, it’s that Israelis and Palestinians both suffer from generations of dehumanization. The Jewish story revolves around issues of security, anti-Semitism and persecution in European and Arab lands; for Palestine, it’s a history of displacement and erasure of national identity. 

Three decades after the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which supported transferring rule of Palestine from the Ottomans to the Brits in order to provide a Jewish homeland, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181 to create two states, effectively ending the British Mandate. As told in the composite text Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine, “Arab attacks on Jewish residents began the next morning, as the Arabs did not accept the partition plan,” while “this was in fact the start of the countdown for the establishment of the State Israel on 15 May 1948 and the 1948 Nakbah [‘Catastrophe’], which uprooted and dispersed the Palestinian people.” 

The Oslo Accords process, a series of negotiations in the 1990s, is typically seen as the attempt that came closest to achieving peace and agreed-upon borders—and has been undermined by extremism and distrust on both sides, including increases in terrorism and continued settlement in the West Bank. The security barrier, the checkpoints, the Second Intifada (a Palestinian uprising marked by suicide bombings met with Israeli military aggression) and a hard-right swing in the Israeli government were products of Oslo’s failure.

“The generation before me had a different vision of peace,” Saca says. “They used to encounter each other on a daily basis.” But the ensuing physical and psychological separation has only hardened Israeli and Palestinian estrangement. Post-Oslo, Hamas rose to power, and peace ideals dissolved into cynicism and violence.

Trauma is a daily part of life here, the result of harrowing tragedies and micro-episodes alike. Gaza has its electrical outages, Israel its Red Alert app notifications whenever rockets are launched into its airspace. The sight of army tanks, uniformed personnel and drones can all act as triggers, says Saca. So too can the sound of a balloon popping, which caused an Israeli acquaintance to dive to the floor in a Tel Aviv mall.

The numbers around PTSD in the region can be surprisingly low considering the vast swaths of Israeli and Palestinian populations exposed to violence or the threat thereof. Suicide, not war, has been the primary cause of death within the Israel Defense Forces. Meanwhile, 40 percent of children from towns such as Sderot, on the Gaza border, suffer from PTSD, and in Gaza, up to 92 percent of teens might display symptoms during wartime. According to a study based on biographical sketches of 50 suicide attackers, 44 had grievances resulting from IDF operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The condition is more likely to be exploited than treated. “PTSD develops on an individual level with fear memories that can be manipulated by politicians to promote their agendas,” explains Yoav Litvin, an Israeli American writer, photographer and doctor of psychology and behavioral science. The region’s politics reflect and nurture PTSD, magnifying the existential threat inherent in the Israeli and Palestinian narratives.

Fear also strengthens the brain’s left side, which then inhibits the right side from noticing the details that could mitigate fear, Litvin adds. The left side tells you an owl and an eagle are both birds, while the right side looks for differences between them. So fear between two populations keeps each one from appreciating the “other” as human. This is especially pertinent for young adults, including 18- to 22-year-old soldiers, for whom the prefrontal cortex is still developing. Because this part of the brain is involved in decision-making, impulse inhibition, social behavior and judgment, the demographic is particularly impressionable and more prone to forming fearful associations, Litvin points out.

These tendencies may also lead to a victim ethos. “Israeli politicians invoke fear by perpetuating a victim narrative based on centuries of real persecution of Jewish peoples,” Litvin wrote on the blog Mondoweiss. “In effect, they reinforce a form of collective PTSD, whereby annihilation is eternally around the corner. Thus, fear enables a level of aggression and oppression that is part of daily life in the reality of occupation.”

Although it’s difficult to replace fear with empathy in the shadow of a wall, “universal human languages” such as art and music can bridge gaps, he says. “People are people. This isn’t a religious conflict but a conflict between an occupying force and the occupied. Once people have something to live for, then they don’t want to shoot missiles and they don’t want to get into tanks.”

One state, two state, five states, no state—peace is about more than just borders and the dense binary of politics. Peace is a way of interacting with the other such that common ground (figuratively and literally, in this case) dissolves the notion of “other” altogether.

“On both sides, people go to sleep wishing the other side will disappear, but the reality is nobody is going away,” Saca says. “The eventual outcome is that people need to learn to share this land.”

To decompress and ease the transition into civilian life at home, many IDF veterans go abroad after their service. Every year some 40,000 Israelis backpack through India, where 90 percent of them use cannabis and 25 percent use psychedelics, says a spokesperson for Hapina Shelanu, a safe zone in India that helps Israelis process their psychedelic and high-risk experiences. After partying on the beaches of Goa (a hot spot on the so-called “hummus trail”), Israeli trance fans bring the music—and drug experiences—back home.

Most Israelis get their drugs illegally since the medical cannabis program serves only patients for whom traditional treatments have failed for at least a year. Israeli cannabis provider Tikun Olam (“Repair the World”) found that more than 84 percent of PTSD patients reported improvement after using pot. Cannabis treats PTSD symptoms by suppressing dream and/or nightmare recall and focusing patients on the present, explains Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS. But to actually cure PTSD, there’s another option. 

“If you were to design a drug to treat PTSD, MDMA would be it,” Doblin says. Because PTSD increases activity in the amygdala, which processes fear, and decreases activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which generates rational thought, it destroys trust and makes it difficult to feel safe. MDMA, on the other hand, “decreases activity in the amygdala, increases activity in the pre-frontal cortex and increases connectivity between the hippocampus and amygdala, where memories are moved into long-term storage,” he says. “With PTSD, memories are never in the past; they’re always about to happen again.” So MDMA allows people to look at memories with less fear attached and fully process their emotions. The once-called “love drug” also releases the hormones prolactin and oxytocin, which build feelings of trust and safety.

MAPS has been conducting MDMA-assisted psychotherapy studies in Israel for more than a decade. The treatment has been successful for more than 83 percent of PTSD patients who’ve undergone two eight-hour MDMA sessions.

The obvious reality, though, is that the psychedelic solution is available only to a few—and fewer still in Palestine. “When you walk in the street, you rarely find anyone smiling,” says Gazan writer Wajiha Al Abyad. “People’s perspective on life is totally damaged. We’re just waiting for another war to launch.” Children in Gaza are more aggressive toward themselves and each other too, she adds. “You reach a point where you have to choose whether to continue with this anger, aggression and desire for revenge, or to just forgive and to live in peace.”

But attaining that goal will require more than mind–altering substances.

Psychologist Mohammad Mansour with Physicians for Human Rights Israel treats Gazans’ “conflict trauma” and “continued post-trauma.” Without stable electricity or freedom of movement, along with high unemployment and dirty water, Gaza is widely described as an “open-air prison.” Mansour performs family and individual interventions, delivers an annual conference on mental health in the Gaza Strip and trains counselors from the Palestinian Ministry of Health and other organizations. “Because of the continuation of attacks and the siege in Gaza, we try to build psychological immunity and resiliency,” he says. Laughing, playing, going about routine life despite war—simple actions such as these, along with nonviolent resistance, help the healing process. 

Parents also need to make space for children’s emotions. “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted,” says Nitsan Joy Gordon, lecturer-facilitator at the integrated Tel Hai College Field Studies Department, paraphrasing author Richard Rohr. “Caretakers need to give children, especially boys, the message that it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to have your feelings; when we are disconnected from our feelings and pain, it’s harder to feel empathy toward other people and easier to act in horrible ways.” 

Through compassionate-listening workshops, playback theater and dance therapy, participants share their stories, cry, hear others and feel heard. Programs such as Gordon’s and Holy Land Trust help people confront fear, trauma and prejudices—without walking out when it gets tough—and face the “other” on a human level. “I still remember sitting across from a Palestinian woman, massaging each other’s hands toward the end of one meeting,” says Gordon. “Later she said that this was the first time in her life that a Jew had touched her. And it felt good.” 

Empathy can manifest in policy too, as demonstrated by other war-torn regions. “Projects we see from South Africa, Ireland and Rwanda show that recognizing trauma was very important in the process of healing those societies,” says Liel Maghen, co-director of the Israel–Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives. “There should be an official recognition of the responsibility for the trauma toward the other, which can be by an official apology.” In Northern Ireland and apartheid South Africa, there was a “transitional justice process” in which the solution was based on power sharing rather than splitting land, adds Maghen, who also recommends integrating schools and rebuilding demolished homes. “Israelis want recognition of a Jewish state, their connection to the land, and Palestinians want human rights,” he says. “There’s always tension, so it’s a question of what you do with it.”

Antwan Saca finds hope in the reconciliation between Germans and Jews. And in light of American influence, left-leaning millennials and Gen Xers, according to the Brookings Institution, are fast becoming the largest voting bloc—large enough to oust politicians with regressive tribal views. 

As to the tension Maghen brings up, the answer can be quite simple: “Create a culture that engages with it,” he says.

This was the first time in her life that a Jew had touched her. And it felt good.

The urgency and wrenching difficulty of this work suffuses the story of a Palestinian named Bassam Aramin. At the age of 17, Aramin began to serve seven years in prison: He saw his actions as resistance, while Israeli security forces labeled him a terrorist. He taught himself Hebrew and learned about the Holocaust. What he once believed was an Israeli lie brought tears to his eyes. Aramin finished his time, established the binational nonviolence organization Combatants for Peace—and then found his ideals challenged: An Israeli soldier injured his 10-year-old daughter near her school. She died days later. “There is no revenge,” says Aramin as he recalls seeing the soldier in court. “The killer of my daughter is a victim. I have five more kids. I don’t want them to grow up victims. You move to a place where you feel stronger than this victim. I take revenge by forgiving him without any mercy.”

Today Aramin is a member of the Parents Circle, a collective of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents. Jesus said to love your enemy, he points out. “That means to love someone who comes to kill you. He cannot harm you because love is stronger than hatred. It’s very simple, but it’s very difficult to practice.” 

Aramin’s battle-scarred passion is there in Saca’s vision that morning on the rooftop: Healing from trauma means living in the present by honoring the past without letting it dictate the future. 

Later that night, I’m in Yafo, a beachy mixed Palestinian-Israeli town south of Tel Aviv. I’m with friends at one of my favorite bars, a place called Anna Loulou, and we’re drinking our Taybeh and Goldstar (Palestinian and Israeli beers, respectively), lighting joints outside, dancing together, Jews and Arabs, sharing one of the city’s liveliest hideouts. We’re not signing treaties or pushing a “solution,” but it’s peaceful here, and part of a process: Israelis and Palestinians co-existing in this complicated, chaotic and beautiful plot of the Holy Land.