Another gunman, a few more Jews. For the broader American community, it’s nuisance news. For the press, it is a random act of nothing at all. Labeling it antisemitic, viewing it as conspiratorial, identifying the antagonists, or naming the victims/survivors will be deemed paranoid or overreactive. Describing it as part of a growing trend will be dismissed as ridiculous and self-pitying.
Jews have resided in countries around the world for centuries. Those living in complacency quite naturally develop a sense of security. The psychological dilemma is how one reacts to incursions into that safe, secure feeling.
For Jews in the Diaspora in the aftermath of incidents where Jews are targeted, there are a variety of reactions. Some feel the flicker of panic and eye their passports. Some discard the news items as insignificant and rush to look the other way. Others respond vociferously, demanding investigations and accurate reporting. Still others express anger at those who make an issue of it, lest they attract negative attention and foment more hateful diatribes. Others react by posturing a “so what else is new?” attitude, anticipating that the time may have come to pack out of here voluntarily before we get forcibly packed off. And there is still a small group remaining who respond to the news with tears, flashbacks, reliving their years of horror, fearing that “never again” is now “again.”
Existential threat, whenever and wherever there is a risk to survival, generates cognitive and emotional activation in the brain. When an incident sparks thoughts of danger or death, there will be a string of cognitive associations to prior personal and historical events. In turn, when cognitive associations trigger past feelings and emotional reactions, the brain will gush with dread, anxiety, fright, panic, and confusion. “Bad news for the Jews,” i.e., reports of Jews facing threats to their existence, will trigger in others those cognitive and emotional processes. Reactions to traumatic events lead to trauma-based anxiety. Some might attempt to ward off their anxiety by distraction, denial, minimization of the threat, or disbelief. For others, anxiety leads to paralysis, helplessness, a sense of losing control, dread and uncertainty. Unchecked and ignored, trauma-based anxiety leads to more intense and enduring reactions.
Managing distress during times of perceived stress begins with self-awareness. Self-scanning is key to identifying each cognitive and emotional response, and a calm, focused review of feelings allows for an honest appraisal of where the mind goes in its reaction to scary events. The body too can hold trauma, so be mindful of changes in your physical sensations. Stay honest. Stay objective. Be mindful. Your implicit reactions are yours, and they have meaning and significance.
Connect the dots. When distress floods the mind, it is common to feel overwhelmed, invaded by unfamiliar and unwanted thoughts and feelings. Make the connection from the objective event that triggered your reactions to the reactions themselves. Recognize that it is common and normal in the face of not-so-normal news to react with panic, fear, confusion, or agitation. Connecting the dots is the next step toward normalizing and tolerating those reactions. It also engenders a greater sense of being in control, because knowing what is going on inside and fathoming how it erupted reduces that scary sense of losing control.
Process it through. Turn to a trusted family member or friend who cares about you and whom you care for, and talk through your internal process. You want someone who listens more than talks, and who hears you without correcting, criticizing, or judging. Expressing your internal experiences will allow you to make more “space” inside your head for organizing your anxiety and storing it in a more manageable place.
Take action. People who undertake meaningful or purposeful activities in the aftermath of trauma tend to recover more fully and somewhat more quickly. Determine the steps that you will take in facing the existential threat. It may be advocating for community protection or insistence on accurate reporting, political advocacy, or lobbying for civil and religious rights. And, for some, it can be the decision that indeed, never again is becoming “again,” which will prompt considering the ascent to our homeland.
The Jews of the Diaspora over many centuries have found havens, or have made their residence, in many regions across the globe. Rapid changes in global dynamics are factors in understanding the current wave of hostility confronting our people. Nobody ever invented a remedy for anti-Jewish sentiment, and there is often too little [and too late] acknowledgment of the threats to our existence here. The tools we have at this time are palliative and not curative. But during times of existential threat, we need all the tools we can get. ■
Rabbi Dr. David Fox directs the crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline internationally. A forensic and clinical psychologist by profession, he serves as a rabbi and dayan while lecturing and publishing on a range of topics including trauma, spirituality and Jewish law.