Colorful stylized painting depicting themes in psychoanalysis

Homage to Freud (1988) | Bryan Charnley / Wellcome Collection / CC BY-NC 4.0

Gaza health ministry casualty figures have historically tended to be reliable, in part because the names of the dead are carefully documented and the deaths tend to be well known in the territory’s tightly knit communities.

—Chris McGreal, “Can we trust casualty figures from the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry?” (Guardian, October 27, 2023)

Entry points

“What is the purpose of your visit to Israel?” the border agent asked us at Ben Gurion airport. My boyfriend answered on my behalf: “We’re here to visit his family.” The agent looked at me. “Do you have an Israeli passport then?” “No, I’m not Israeli,” I replied, a little too emphatically. He waved us in.

I am, in fact, Israeli. My mother was raised in the country before immigrating to the United States in her twenties. Although I was not born in Israel and have never lived there—I am an American now living in London—the state’s laws consider the child of an Israeli parent automatically a citizen. Legally, I should have applied both for an Israeli passport and exemption from compulsory military service before entering the country.

Citizenship, of course, is merely a juridical matter—one’s sense of nationality and identity are much bigger beasts. I’ve never been more aware of this than when watching, in horror, as a genocide rages on. Who do we identify with as we watch? And what do our identities have to do with that deceptively simple word, solidarity?

In my psychoanalytic practice, a patient pivots from discussing his anxieties about becoming a father to his preoccupation with the war. He was overwhelmed with tears after watching a video of a Gazan man mourning the death of his child killed by Israeli airstrike. “I don’t have any connection to this, why do I care so much about it?” he asks, worried he’s misusing a faraway tragedy to work through personal neuroses.

I feel drawn to a simple reply: “You’ve just told me your connection.”

Every 10 minutes, a Palestinian child is killed in Gaza, reads a headline. A Doctors Without Borders spokesperson tries to help audiences understand the “avalanche of suffering” by explaining how a new term had to be invented for this war: “WCNSF,” meaning “wounded child, no surviving family.” Why should the question of fatherhood make my patient’s response any less real?

I first tried to answer these questions in October 2023, a few weeks after the October 7 massacres and the beginning of Israel’s assault on Gaza. My own family visit to Israel/Palestine had taken place shortly before October 7. The emotions I felt surrounding these events compelled me to pen a personal reflection, drawing on my work in psychoanalysis, about the strange vicissitudes of identity, and trauma, and whether it’s possible to speak openly about these when they are so readily weaponized in the service of Israeli aggression.

The essay I wrote was initially accepted for publication by a literary journal. Then some time passed, the death count in Gaza reached unimaginable heights, and Israel’s allies in America and elsewhere repressed peaceful dissent with the full weight of the police state. The military rescue of four Israeli hostages—achieved at the cost of 274 dead Palestinians and a re-energized Netanyahu war machine—exemplified a grotesque valuation of life by Israel and its allies. The meaning of October 7 seemed to shift; those in the media who continued to focus our attention on that day typically did so to obscure or justify Israel’s crimes.

One attempt by a British-Israeli translator to reckon with October 7, originally published in Guernica, was retracted by the magazine following the mass resignation of its volunteer editorial staff and accusations that it served as “a hand-wringing apologia for Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Palestine.” Afterward, the editors of my own essay decided not to publish.

Other commentators on the left have revisited the meaning of October 7 as an act of Palestinian resistance, focusing particularly on the image of militants breaking free from imprisonment in Gaza and mounting an effective assault against their oppressor. These accounts have tended to leave aside, or treat as politically suspect, any concern over the deaths of Israeli civilians and the ideological and tactical orientation of Hamas. As Palestinians faced genocide, some on the left critiqued the ongoing media emphasis on Israeli trauma as “centering Jewish feelings.”

One of the aspects I find amusing about Jewish culture is its narcissistic capacity to draw everything into itself: “Yes, but is it good for the Jews?” goes the humorous refrain. At the same time, this reflex contributes to the political difficulty in challenging Israel: every criticism of the so-called “Jewish State” is treated, by Israel’s supporters, as an instance of antisemitism. Standing outside the pro-Palestine occupation of Columbia University—a protest with numerous Jewish participants—the far-right politician Inna Vernikov announced, “The university is now officially Judenrein.” Our collective memory of the Holocaust is desecrated by such outrageous claims.

Within left-leaning circles, any attempt to articulate an emotional tie to Israel is fraught—understandably, given the scandalous forms of censorship and repression facing Palestinian perspectives in the mainstream. However, as I revisited my writing and thoughts on this subject, I became even more convinced of the importance of openly examining my “Jewish feelings.” Not for my own sake, but because I believe the increasingly rogue behavior of Israel—which includes ignoring even the US’s feeble attempts at restraint and playing with a nuclear powder keg that threatens humanity—necessitates coming to grips not only with its political and economic force but also its psychical and phantasmatic structures of support.

If “the patient does not remember … what he has forgotten and repressed,” Freud warned, he “acts it out.”

This essay is my attempt to remember.

She lay down, pretending to be dead

On October 7, I was at, of all places, a queer rave in London, when I received a call from my mother. I found a quiet corner to hear her shouting: “Orly’s niece was at a party in the South! She lay down, pretending to be dead. They shot and killed the friends lying next to her! She just escaped!”

Later, I learned from my cousin Orly that this was not exactly how it happened. Her niece was at the Tribe of Nova rave and escaped alive, but she didn’t know what happened to her friends—she thought they were kidnapped. Later they were identified as dead.

But I recognized the image in my mother’s story. Pretending to be dead while those next to you are shot: this how I’d previously been told my great aunt Tsiporah escaped the Nazis. After the war, Tsiporah went to join her brother (my grandfather) who had helped found a kibbutz in Palestine in 1932. This is where my mother was raised. In her anguish, my mother produced a particular form of misremembering, embedding one family story in another: 2023 Hamas gunmen substituted for 1930s Nazis.

This is, to use an obscene phrase, a Holocaust trope. I noticed it repeat again when the released Israeli hostage Mia Schem said, in a public interview, that she survived the Nova massacre by playing dead. Much of her testimony—in other words, what she says she remembers—about her traumatic experience of captivity is, inherently, impossible to verify: she insists she could tell, from her captor’s gaze, that he would have raped her, had his wife not kept a close watch.

It’s not actually clear how my great aunt Tsiporah survived. When I had asked my aunt about it during our visit to Israel, she offered a different account. She and my mother then switched to Hebrew—which I don’t understand—to argue over their conflicting versions. “I was closer to Tsiporah, so I remember the story better,” my mother insisted. (After the trip, I managed to find a video of Tsiporah interviewed, in Hebrew, by the USC Shoah Foundation. I’ve yet to obtain a trustworthy translation.) “Enough about the Holocaust, the boys want to go to the beach!” my aunt eventually declared. The dream of Zion, distilled into a single sentence.

The facts matter here; but so do the fantasies. With his concept of “psychic reality,” Freud challenged the distinction commonly made between “fantasy” and “reality.” Fantasy is a kind of reality for the human being, sometimes more so than historical events. We don’t interact with the world as it is, but through the phantasmagoric prism of half-remembered wishes, fears, and losses—a phenomenon the Far Right, especially in Israel, has ingeniously weaponized.

When Joe Biden compared October 7 to the Holocaust and Rishi Sunak referred to Hamas attacks as a “pogrom,” they instrumentalized Jewish trauma to legitimate the Israeli state’s vengeful response. They took their cues directly from the Israeli playbook—what Gabriel Winant has described as a “machine for the conversion of grief into power”—by Nazifying Palestinians to justify their ethnic cleansing. The ridiculousness of their claims underscores Israel’s sense of impunity: Netanyahu had to be corrected by Angela Merkel when he suggested that blame for Hitler’s Final Solution actually lay with the Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem.

Hamas’s military opposition to Israel—even when it takes unconscionable forms—has a different origin and meaning than the Nazi’s hatred of Jews. Nevertheless, when a Hamas fighter reportedly used the phone of a murdered Israeli to call his family and brag, “I killed ten Jews,” a fantasy of Jewish annihilation he’d heard endlessly from Israelis was fulfilled, whatever he happened to believe. The boundaries of identity are permeable, for oppressed and oppressor alike—locking Israeli Jews and Palestinians a “massive psychoexistenial complex,” to borrow Frantz Fanon’s term.

Can we take fantasies seriously, without succumbing to their demands?

One solution: intifada, revolution!

I was furious when the British Jewish historian Simon Schama maligned a massive, peaceful protest in Liverpool Street station, claiming the crowds were shouting “intifada” when they were actually chanting “ceasefire now.” His was one of innumerable smears against the groundswell of support for Palestinian life. Schama included a clip of the protest in his tweet, where the real chant was perfectly audible. How couldn’t he hear? (He later acknowledged his error.)

Intifada means “resistance” in Arabic, though, for some, the word seems inseparably tied to the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada. An email sent to all students and staff at the university where I work warned us about an “unauthorized” Palestine rally due to take place, and reminded us that support for Hamas and terrorism is illegal. I wrote an email to HR on behalf of my union, challenging the basis for such a threatening and stigmatizing message. It emerged that management got itself into a panic over a small socialist group that used the slogan “There is only one solution: intifada, revolution!”

“We must defend them,” I argued in a union WhatsApp chat, “but the group could have chosen a better slogan.” Some thought I was ceding too much ground for suggesting “one solution” might be misread as “final solution.” Didn’t I know that such “leaps in interpretation” are really bad faith tactics by racists and conservatives? (After all, I had no time for the accusations that Jeremy Corbyn was antisemitic in 2018. Was I going soft?)

I don’t think Schama’s mishearing and my mother’s misremembering were acts of conscious deception. Freud argued that such “bungled actions” emerge from the repressed unconscious, which, like dreams, allows for endless equivalences, substitutions, and contradictions: “There is no ‘no’ in the unconscious,” he insisted.

But these mistakes are not your typical Freudian slip; however unintentional, they are weaponized to cast Jews as eternal victims and Israeli aggression as a defensive struggle against antisemitism.

How, then, can one mourn Israeli lives lost? “It is not possible to publicly grieve an Israeli Jewish life lost to violence without tithing ideologically to the IDF—whether you like it or not,” Winant wrote. Although I see his point, the statement deeply troubles me. Reacting to Israel’s co-optation of grief, Winant suggests we might politically regulate it ourselves: if we cannot make “every shiva … an occasion to curse the state that has made Jews,” perhaps we’d be better off mourning in private, his argument seems to imply. But this is also how the IDF operates, when it routinely refuses to return the bodies of slain Palestinians to their grieving families.

Winant’s suggestion reminds me of the practice of refusing to name the state of Israel and instead referring to it as the “Zionist entity.” Edward Said was scathing about this “foolish and wasteful policy”: “Real life,” he wrote, “cannot be ruled by taboos and prohibitions against critical understanding and emancipatory experience.” 

The person you are calling cannot accept calls at this time

Two weeks into the war, I dream that I’m a hostage in Gaza. I’m in a large flat next to a silent man, my Palestinian doppelgänger. We both look out the window and see bright flashes of explosions in the distance. It is as if I am both men. The room trembles, and I feel our shared worry: Will we be bombed next? It occurs to me that I’m still in possession of my phone; my hostage-takers seemingly forgot to confiscate it. I can send my location to the American embassy and be rescued, I think to myself. For some reason, I don’t. I choose to stay, in silence.

After I wake, it occurs to me that, a few days before the dream, an Israeli friend told me his younger brother was called up for reserves. “We’re very worried, we only get occasional updates from his commander. He’s not allowed to have his phone.”

Then, a few days after my dream, Israel imposes a telecommunications blackout on Gaza. “The death drive,” Freud writes, “is mute.”

In my dream, I was IDF solider, civilian hostage, and Hamas militant all at once. War is both the politics of difference and the equivalence of death.


In the immediate aftermath of October 7, I found myself in a position of hyper-vigilance. Offended by some posts I encountered on my social media feed, I enacted a classically Jewish paranoia: that my friends would not mind if I and my family were dead. I wrote a Twitter thread offering, “in the spirit of friendship,” a critique of those on the left who celebrated the attacks. I was still coming down from the rave.

I began by announcing that “my niece barely managed to escape that infamous rave alive,” despite the fact she is my cousin’s niece and we are not blood relatives. It seemed natural to say—she felt like my niece when I wrote it—but as the tweet gained traction, I worried there was something selfish about it, an attempt to gain clout out of tragedy. A friend expressed disappointment that I drew parallels between the rave next to Gaza, an open-air prison, and the one I was attending in London as the attacks took place. In doing so, I had normalized the former, my friend pointed out. My identifications had betrayed me.

Amidst my distress, I experienced a macabre fascination with a small detail in the news: when the first gunshots were fired at 6am, some ravers—up all night and likely high on ecstasy—thought they were techno beats, and kept dancing. What would I have done?

A few days later, a journalist friend shared my story on television news, in order to rebut a Labour MP defending Israel’s right to “self-defence.” “I was at a rave with my Israeli friend as he took a call from his family,” he began. “He wants this to never happen again”—there’s that Holocaust phraseology—“which is why the context matters for him.” Later that week, he invited me over for dinner and asked if I was okay with him speaking about me on television. Of course, I replied. It helped demonstrate that supporting Israelis does not require endorsing the Israeli state. (I guess I’m Israeli now.) He bemoaned how difficult it was to persuade Westerners of the humanity of Palestinians, because Israelis are perceived as more European, “more like us.” “Well, I wouldn’t be caught dead dancing to psy-trance,” I joked, grimly.

“I keep saying that I will happily make him dessert for breakfast, every single day, as much as he wants. He prefers my baking to any other cakes, because I am a home pastry chef,” says a Palestinian mother to Al Jazeera, anticipating Israel may release her son from jail in a hostage deal. The statement catches me by surprise, and I start to weep. I can imagine my mother saying it, with that grandiose pride in her cooking and the excessive food she prepares weeks in advance of my visits. “And what the fuck is a home pastry chef?!,” I say to my own psychoanalyst, laughing through the tears.

I never borrowed your kettle

The left-wing celebration of October 7 has always been fairly limited, it must be emphasized. The usual—and in my view, correct—response is to contextualize the root cause of the violence and Israel’s deadly clamp down on peaceful resistance, while maintaining that those who choose armed resistance must still obey basic moral principles. Outright defences of the Hamas massacres, however, are often confusing: “They did not kill civilians,” “If they killed civilians, it was only in the crossfire,” “Okay, but who is a civilian in a conscript society?”

Derrida called such fluctuating claims “kettle logic,” referencing Freud’s story of a man who returned a damaged kettle to his neighbor: “I returned it undamaged,” “It was already damaged when I borrowed it,” “I never borrowed your kettle.”

The IDF deploys kettle logic all the time, like when they bomb a hospital, assassinate a journalist, or produce a mass grave. These attempts to cover up war crimes are accompanied by openly genocidal propaganda on Israeli social media cheering the deaths of Palestinian children. Above the video clips I received from some Israeli family at the beginning of the war, WhatsApp issued a warning: “forwarded many times.” They reminded me of the radio broadcasts from the film Hotel Rwanda that incite the genocide of Tutsis. They are translated into English, as if to indicate foreign office officiousness; at the same time they are, unmistakably, admissions of crime. They are too disturbing for me to quote.

These same family members have assured me, in other circumstances, that “goodness resides in all people,” and peace is possible. In Israel, my aunt accused me of racism when I said I was too tired to stop for lunch in an Arab village. She and my mother argued violently over the mezze selection. Shocked by the ease with which Israelis shout at each other over minor disagreements, my boyfriend joked that the last time people from his home in Lancashire argued like this was the War of the Roses. Meanwhile, the Palestinian restaurant owner watched serenely, in what I understood as bemused familiarity.

For my own sanity, I try to place the blame for incitement to genocide on the dark forces of social media: Facebook, not my family, must be the problem.

“Attack on Israel by Iran”

In April, the sudden escalation of Israel’s conflict with Iran reawakened the feelings I first experienced on October 7. Yet again, the news reached me via my mother, this time in a WhatsApp message late on a Saturday night—“Attack on Israel by Iran”—while I was at a social gathering with some of the same friends I’d danced with in October. I opened the news on my phone and saw the images: silent deadly objects hovering over an Israeli city, and the long, thin beams of light, like shooting stars, of the Iron Dome aerial defence system at work. Dread came over me, and I was once again ripped away from my surroundings. Over the course of the evening, my mind kept circling back towards those images and the sense that, somehow, they affected me. I found out almost immediately that only one person had been harmed (a poor Bedouin girl who did not have access to a bomb shelter—a perfect symbol of war’s victims), yet I nevertheless felt that my family—and by extension, I with them—were under attack.

At one level, my emotional response to the Iranian drones flying over Israel was a deeply personal one, indicative of my familial and affective attachments to Israeli life. While images of death and destruction in Gaza have shocked and horrified me, none have produced that same feeling of intimate proximity and fear. But on another level, my sense of threat also indexed my awareness of the dangerous regional escalation of this conflict, now involving another nuclear power.

The psychoanalyst Paul Terry makes a simple point that never fails to startle me: “I believe that unconscious terrors of death have intensified in more recent times because of the amassing of enough weapons of nuclear destruction to destroy our entire civilization.” Some have speculated that Netanyahu is seeking regional escalation—one he views to be in Israel’s, or his own, interests. But these escalations have their own logic and, like all military conflicts in our era, can ultimately lead to total annihilation. In whose interest is that?

It is crucial to distinguish Jewishness from Israel as a political entity and state actor, as the countless Jewish activists chanting “Not in our name” have demonstrated. The state of Israel is as much the paradoxical product of antisemitic, Western imperialist “interests”—better we give the Jews a colonial outpost than let them pollute our own polity, Lord Balfour figured—as it is any kind of representative of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge that the complex global forces that have brought us to this point mean that “the Jewish question” is a universal one, linked to the fundamental, structuring dichotomy of existence: life or death.

Either a new political expression of Jewishness takes hold in the region, which does not rely on the elimination of the neighbor, or its logic of destruction, sooner or later, may destroy us all.


The psychoanalytic theory of mourning involves a process of what Freud called “decathexis”: by speaking about, working through your investment in the dead, you gradually find a way of letting go. When this isn’t fully accomplished (is it ever?), phantasmatic attachments to those you’ve lost will persist and be passed down.

It seems to me there is not only a clinical but an ethical imperative to give expression to fantasies involving the dead—even when they’re distorted and incorrect—because they are the only means we have of accessing and paying tribute to them when they’re gone.

But we equally must find a way to subject these fantasies to some kind of analysis, to interrogate whose interests they may be serving, what wishes they attempt to fulfil. “The fact that the subject relives … the formative events of his existence, is not in itself so very important,” argues Lacan: “What matters is what he reconstructs of it.”

I stay up late reading about the kibbutzim raids. A man survived and saved others by spraying ketchup on the floor before hiding, to deceive attackers into thinking the massacre had already happened. Did God’s instruction to the Hebrews in Exodus—Paint your doorposts with lamb’s blood and I will pass over you—cross his mind as he devised this ingenious strategy?

That night, I dream I’m in kibbutz Be’eri, taking cover in the burned-out building of an active war zone. A Hamas leader is imprisoned here; an Israeli soldier tells me to keep watch over him. The captive militant looks me in the eyes and I am filled with fear. Suddenly, I receive a text message: “Now the whole world knows you are Zionist scum.”

Upon waking, I remember that the dream figure who sent me the text message is someone who I previously argued with when she called for Israelis to “return” to Europe. Perhaps another word for “canceled” is exile.

In the Question of Zion, Jacqueline Rose notes the extreme public vitriol directed at refuseniks, those Israelis who refuse to comply with compulsory military service. Writing in 2003, she foreshadows the severe repression facing Israelis protesting today. “It seems that … the threat to the nation, the one thing that cannot be countenanced,” she writes, is “collapse of conviction, or loss of belief.”

I always cry at protests. When I attended my first Palestine demo, however, I felt slightly on edge. The chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” has become embroiled in the culture wars. The right wing has attempted to criminalize the chant, alleging it calls for the genocide of Israelis and using it to justify brutal crackdowns on dissent. The chant’s supporters argue that it’s not calling for death or displacement, it’s calling for an end to Palestinian oppression throughout their historic homeland—Jewish safety and Palestinian freedom are not opposed, they are inseparable.

But language is not transparent—this is a foundational tenet of psychoanalysis. Most protestors will explain that the chant endorses a single, secular Palestinian state, with equal rights for all. Some call me a liberal Zionist for doubting that this is currently a politically viable solution. Conversely, media blowback and institutional censorship has added a transgressive thrill to the chant—try and stop me!—heightening its appeal while flattening its meaning.

Despite my doubts, I joined in the chant. I knew the protestors didn’t want my family dead. They—we—desperately want an end to the killing.

“The proletarian has no fatherland,” Lenin wrote in his defense of “revolutionary defeatism”—his term for the socialist fight against one’s own government and its imperialist wars. While defending the right of oppressed nations for self-determination, Lenin simultaneously called for us to disidentify with nationalism, in favor of a more abstract identification with the international working class.

The crowd soon changed to a different chant, one which doesn’t make the headlines:

From the thousands to the millions
We are all Palestinians!

From the millions to the billions
We are all Palestinians!

“Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?” Freud asks himself, in the preface to the Hebrew translation of his book Totem and Taboo. “A very great deal,” he answers, “and probably its very essence.”

Solidarity, I think, requires risk: the risk of losing something you might not even realize you’re attached to. I hope more of us will take it.