‘They’re on the verge of creating a catastrophe. We have to be thinking about how to stop the cycle of violence. This whole thing reverberates for me with 9/11. Because the response to 9/11 was catastrophic.’

As the deadly conflict in Israel and the Gaza Strip moves toward an even more catastrophic phase, the analogy made by many commentators is that the attack carried out on 10/7 by Hamas, the Islamic militant organization that controls the Palestinian territory of Gaza, is analogous to the 9/11 terror attack against the U.S. back in 2001.

Jack Saul and his family lived in the shadow of that attack. He and his wife and children lived in lower Manhattan. His two sons attended PS-234, the elementary school located just blocks from the World Trade Center. The community suffered a massive collective trauma that day that reverberated for years. Saul, who four years earlier had founded the International Trauma Studies Program, was well-positioned to help lead a community-based response. I wrote back then about his work for Psychotherapy Networker magazine:

Saul began putting into place what he’d learned in more than 20 years of working with refugees and trauma victims. He took on the role of community organizer and talent scout, working, often behind the scenes, to bring area residents together and help them find, among themselves, the skills that could help them cope and rebuild.

Saul believes that when an entire community experiences a trauma like 9/11, something beyond one-on-one therapy is required. As he puts it, “Collective suffering requires a collective response.”

I knew also that Saul had helped create an interactive immersive presentation called Moral Injuries of War and had written – and also painted – about one of the most infamous pogroms against Jews in eastern Europe, the 1903 attack in Kishinev. His grandfather survived the attacks and decades later described the experience to Saul in a series of letters.

I thought Saul would be the perfect person to talk to about the horror now unfolding in southern Israel and in Gaza, and the lessons. This is our conversation, held on Oct. 11. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

An Interview with Jack Saul

Rob Waters: As a Jew whose grandfather survived a pogrom in Eastern Europe, and as a psychologist who’s worked for decades around issues of collective trauma, I’m wondering how you’re coping with the images and the reporting coming out of Israel and Gaza right now, where thousands of people on both sides are being killed and traumatized.

Jack Saul: My first response was really to the terror and brutality I was seeing and feeling sick and scared. Not only has this been an intrusion into Israel – which represents for many Jews a source of safety in the world – but it’s also been really disturbing to see the reactions of some people celebrating the massacre. I’m very supportive of Palestinian rights, as are many Israelis and American Jews, but that has been really disturbing for me. It raises concerns about the rise of antisemitism around the world; it’s not an easy time for Jews. So, my initial reaction was this kind of horror and anger at Hamas for what they did, the brutality, the way they massacred civilians. And it does evoke the imagery of the pogrom my grandfather lived through in Eastern Europe – the pogrom of Kishinev, where similar brutality was committed by the local civilian population and allowed to happen by the local police.

Then my emotional response shifted a bit toward being angry at the rightwing Israeli government that is supposed to be the protectors of Israel. I think this event reveals their incompetence. We know now that part of what happened was that troops that were supposed to be around Gaza were sent to protect occupying settlers in the West Bank, feeding into support of the rightwing religious population in Israel. This left the country vulnerable. And the aggressive treatment of the Palestinians lately contributes to the anger and rage of the Palestinians. I think that they’ve contributed over time to the circumstances that might lead to a terrorist attack. So I’m starting to have complex reactions.

I condemn the horrible brutality Hamas carried out. But on the other hand, to look at this more systemically, something was bound to happen. I’ve been concerned for a long time that Netanyahu doesn’t have the interest of the people of Israel as his primary goal. His focus has been on reducing the power of the judiciary to take more power for himself and the right. This has been incredibly damaging to the State of Israel. There’s going to be a lot of Israelis very angry at Netanyahu although because of the tragedy, people are rallying behind the new unity government for now.

The biggest thing is that they’re on the verge of creating a catastrophe. We have to be thinking about how to stop the cycle of violence. This whole thing reverberates for me with 9/11. Because the response to 9/11 was catastrophic.

For many of us, both Jews and Palestinians in the US, these events are tremendously unsettling. I find myself almost immobilized. I can’t think clearly, I’m struggling with how to regulate. As a psychologist, do you have any suggestions for me and many others who are feeling this way?

One thing you’re doing, which is important, you’re being active and engaging with the issue, by writing about it and interviewing people. You’re making an active contribution to gaining understanding and presenting that understanding to the public. That in itself is important, an active expression of your agency. And it’s taking a skill you have to apply to this current situation. The other thing is this: The most important protective factor against this kind of stress is connecting with others, and not being alone with it – feeling a part of community. Not being alone with these feelings, being able to have conversations with other people, speaking to them about how they’re viewing the situation, how they’re addressing their own stress reactions. The work I do on collective trauma is really focused on the impact that traumatic events have on the disruption of relationships, the disruption of the sense of community, the sense of belonging – that’s the definition of collective trauma. And the antidote to collective trauma is connecting with others.

There are a few themes that we saw after 9/11 that are very important now: There are individual things that one can do, the stress reduction techniques. We also need to be thinking of the interpersonal, the social connections we can make.  And then on a basic level, engaging in your usual routines and rituals that you are involved in. If you’re a member of a Jewish community, there’s probably a lot going on now that’s bringing people together to respond – that could be very helpful.

I think part of trying to understand what’s happening right now is understanding the collective trauma that both Israelis and Palestinians have experienced and that form each of their identities and their collective psychology. Can you talk a bit about the importance of understanding, of having both empathy and knowledge about each side’s experiences?

When I think of collective trauma, I’m thinking of the collective experience. And what stands out for me is the division that you see in society as a consequence of collective trauma, the splitting that takes place. In both Palestinian and Israeli society, you have the rise of extremism. I think that’s one of the consequences of collective trauma. People feel a tremendous amount of distress about the way in which the group itself becomes divided and factionalized. And then it turns upon itself. This causes me a tremendous amount of distress. The recent developments in Israel, the division between the right and the left on the Supreme Court issue – that’s an expression of that split that’s going on, and the kind of extremism that has been taking place. And how does this directly relate to collective or historical trauma? It’s an extreme reaction to fear. You have the split between protection and compassion. And they start to lose touch with each other. You have people who just go all the way over to fear – we need to protect ourselves at all costs. And there’s a loss of compassion for the others, and a dehumanization of the others. And I think that that’s happening on both sides.

Paris, France – Oct 9, 2023. Photo: Hadrian via Shutterstock

One thing I’m thinking about, historically, is the collective experience of each side and how the traumatic experiences of each side have been transmitted across generations.

I think the Holocaust is one of the main undercurrents in Israel and that the way that Israel has dealt with the occupation is an indication of its unresolved trauma around the Holocaust. Because people who have lived through such a brutal event as the Holocaust are very suspicious and end up taking a stance where they do not trust the others. They don’t trust that there is any way of resolving a conflict or building a way of living together. They’ve had the experience of being victimized by the Nazis – do you think you’re going to have a reconciliation process with Nazis? That’s the history that many Jews are coming from. And that gets projected on to the Palestinian community. Hamas is an organization that presents itself as a group that will never negotiate with Israel. So they fit the bill for modern-day Nazis. So you have this extreme polarization now.

And then you also have the Palestinians, who have been suffering from the effects of the occupation for a long time. Israel has only become even more aggressive and abusive in the past few years. You have a large part of Israeli society that is really upset about the occupation. Many soldiers who participate in the occupation are very disturbed about this. I study the issue of moral injury. And they certainly feel moral injury having to participate in that, where they’re forced to do things which go against their moral values. This is the other part of the trauma. It’s not just a fear-based trauma, there’s a conscience-based aspect to this trauma that many people are feeling, this moral anguish and moral distress about living in a situation where you have an occupation going on. And for the Palestinians, there has been very little success in getting world support to deal with this situation. When people feel backed into a corner, and there’s nothing that they can do, they may lash out even when it’s not ultimately in their best interest. But Hamas is not impulsively lashing out, this is a more intentional act of terror.

A lot of commentators are talking about this being Israel’s 9/11. You were in lower Manhattan during 9/11. Your own children went to a school that had a direct line of vision to the towers going down. And you helped organize a community response for healing those in lower Manhattan who were impacted. Tell us about how that helped heal the community. Does that strategy have any relevance today?

The strategy we were using in lower Manhattan was a community resilience approach. Rather than putting all our emphasis on professionals and top-down approaches to healing and dealing with people’s anxieties and reactions, we mobilized the community itself to address their psychosocial needs and challenges. We came together as a community. First, we formed these family support teams made up of parents and mental health professionals living in the community that gave support to people in the community, rather than having outsiders come in. These led to a series of community forums in which people that had been evacuated and displaced to other parts of the city came together and looked at how a community is affected by a disaster like that. We looked at what the community identified as their needs and developed approaches that addressed those needs.

At the time, the approach was to screen kids for symptoms, refer them and not really deal with everyone in the community who was experiencing stress and family difficulties. We brought parents together to talk about what they were seeing in their kids, and it led to these ongoing parental support groups, peer support groups for different occupations and projects for kids and youth, plus a community narrative archive. A theatre project brought the stories of people living in the community into a play that was in performed in the community and became a catalyst for continuing to talk about people’s struggles and needs.  The focus was on building a matrix of healing through connecting people and working together and tapping into the inherent capacities within the community to help each other, rather than having an exclusively top-down, individually oriented clinical approach.

So can that model be applied to this current moment?

That model is used in most disaster situations. I was advising a group that was working in Ukraine. There’s a natural tendency for people in a particular area to get together. And in that gathering, they can decide what’s needed. And it becomes a place where professionals can come and offer support. In Ukraine, there was a place where people were coming together in a shelter. And they had already learned about different kinds of stress reduction techniques and, they discussed safety issues – how to protect themselves during bombings and practical issues of living in a war situation. But then the gatherings became a place for people to just have a break from the war, and to experience some pleasure. And they started singing there. And this weekly group became an important place for them to get some relief from the oppressiveness that they were feeling.

New York firefighters work near Ground Zero after collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 in New York. Photo: Anthony Correia via Shutterstock

But it was also a place where they could raise issues about what people in the community were going through. And if there were kids who needed extra supports, they could find ways of offering those supports. Once you build that matrix, you know, in a community, then you can identify who are the most vulnerable. And the community can support those vulnerable people getting the help that they need. If you have a community that’s very disconnected, one of the dangers is that these vulnerable people do not get recognized. And they’re often alone without people who can accompany them to the kind of resources that would be helpful. So in a disaster situation, having ways of bringing people together is very, very important. As is returning to routines, and a place where people can talk about what they’re experiencing. Then if they’re needing any extra clinical services, they can hopefully find that kind of support as well through that community.

From your perspective, what, what is the way forward now for these two traumatized peoples who are in such conflict with each other, and where hate and anger is so strong. How do you move out of this gridlock? 

As a family therapist, this is the lens through which I look at this situation. Say you had two very angry and vulnerable siblings battling it out, and one’s much stronger than the other and oppressing the other. They’re fighting and they have alliances with different parents and other people in the extended support system are egging them on to fight and are not stepping in and stopping them. They’re blaming one side and not the other. It’s very difficult for fighting siblings to work out a conflict among themselves. The same is true here. What needs to happen is a regional solution, perhaps with the oversight of multilateral parties.

The major aftermath of 9/11 was the so-called Global War on Terror – the invasion of Afghanistan, the later invasion of Iraq, the counterterrorism and military-focused response to what occurred. That’s where the resources of the US government really went, and the energy and attention. People are making the analogy of this being Israel’s 9/11 and urging this massive military response against Hamas. But that’s not a psychologically astute response.

Rather than thinking strategically about how to respond they’re thinking politically – not simply about the legitimate Israeli security concerns but in deference to the vengeful inclinations of the public. This can be a useful political tool for organizing a kind of collective approval that can serve political interests.

This happened after 9/11, and it turned out to be a major catastrophe. The global wars on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq are one of the greatest catastrophes in American history. And we went from the catastrophe of 9/11, the terrorist attacks and the deaths of Americans to a war that was unnecessary and led to hundreds of thousands of deaths of people in the Middle East. We invested close to $8 trillion in those wars over the 20 years. So the terrorists won. The terrorists were successful. The United States response to 9/11 was so catastrophic, that it hurt America, severely. It’s had tremendous negative impact on our society – distrust of the government, loss of moral standing in the world, and unfortunately tacit permission for other countries to engage in illegal wars of aggression.

Aftermath of an Israeli air strike in the city of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, October 10, 2023. Photo: Anas-Mohammed via Shutterstock

Israel is standing at that decision point right now, whether they’re going to create a catastrophe in which massive numbers of Palestinians are going to die. The deaths from bombings – you don’t see them as easily and they don’t seem as brutal, but they are. It’s feeding into what Hamas is wanting. I think the goal of the terrorist group is to provoke a vengeful response like that, because then it has an impact on world opinion. After 9/11, the United States had a tremendous amount of sympathy, and then lost it due to our engaging in those illegal wars. I see the same thing happening here. The response that Israel is moving toward could be really catastrophic and make things worse. That’s the lesson that Israel should be looking at from 9/11. We created a mess, engaging in wars that led to the deaths of so many people, and the destruction of two countries.

After 9/11, when we got together as a community to talk about what was going on, one of the major themes as we marched against the impending war in Iraq, was that we, as a community, had seen the effects of killing innocent civilians. And we wanted to do whatever we could to prevent that from happening. After 9/11 there were countries that were coming together, that could have worked with us to treat this as a criminal act, and to deal with it collectively among the countries to get bin Laden and get al Qaeda. We did not have to go to war to do that.

If you look at the wars from the past, like World War One, the number of combatants who died exceeded the number civilians. But now, in modern warfare, a much higher percentage of deaths are of civilians. Now when you move into a war situation, the people who are going to suffer are the civilians. It’s like the African saying: When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers…

Thereby continuing the trauma and retraumatization.

Right, the cycle of trauma and violence continues and repeats itself. In looking towards a solution, even if we’re very pessimistic about the prospects for peace, we still must have some kind of vision of a resolution where people can coexist. And the only way we can do that is to prevent ourselves from falling into this dehumanization of the other. It’s very, it’s very easy to dehumanize the Hamas terrorist, when they acted so inhuman. But when you begin to dehumanize another population, you’re in fact dehumanizing yourself, you’re losing a bit of your own humanity. Despite what they’ve done, we can’t lose all of our empathy and connection with the other that would give us some hope of having some kind of positive resolution. There are people working toward a positive outcome and trying to argue for the Israelis to not carry out a massacre now by entering into Gaza.

We have to keep hope alive.

Type of work:

Rob Waters, the founding editor of MindSite News, is an award-winning health and mental health journalist. He was a contributing writer to Health Affairs and has worked as a staff reporter or editor at...