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Finding solace in the South African summer



As the war in Israel persists, our hearts ache for our beloved Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers, the hostages who continue to be held in captivity, and families torn apart by the brutality of conflict that began with the horrific events of 7 October.

Even for those of us miles away, the pain is palpable. With family and friends residing in Israel, and many bravely serving in the IDF, the struggle for the survival of our only Jewish homeland is deeply personal.

Amid this turmoil, antisemitism rears its ugly head globally, casting a shadow reminiscent of the darkest chapters of our history. The Israeli government has issued travel warnings to Israeli travellers, urging them to hide their Israeli passports and Jewish identities while travelling abroad. As Jews, we grapple with vulnerability, exposure, and fear that echoes through our communities worldwide.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, a paradox unfolds. We stand on the brink of our annual work shutdown, basking in the sweltering summer sun that signals the end of a challenging school and work year. The “festive season” approaches, ushering in a time usually of celebration, relaxation, and fun.

Yet, a conflict arises within us. How can we revel in our summer vacation while our Israeli family faces the constant threat of bombing, terrorist attacks, and blaring sirens? The discussion prompts contemplation of survivor guilt. This is an experience in which individuals grapple with guilt for surviving a traumatic or life-threatening event when others didn’t or when they are suffering and we aren’t. It’s a guilt that’s felt when one feels an identification or a connection with a bigger group. Holocaust survivors felt this, and many of us living in the diaspora feel this guilt too.

Survivor guilt often intertwines with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that many of us inadvertently might be navigating due to the harrowing images and stories emerging from Israel as we hear the accounts of unfolding war. We cannot remove ourselves from the blatant antisemitism we’re witnessing around the world and on our own doorstep.

The trauma inflicted upon our people leaves an indelible mark, manifesting in a spectrum of symptoms: nightmares; flashbacks; sleep disturbances; appetite changes; anxiety; hyper vigilance; startled responses; agitation; aggression; depression; concentration and memory problems; and an overarching fear for the safety of our loved ones. Also common are feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and despair; and feelings of being out of control.

If you find yourself grappling with these symptoms, seeking help isn’t just a choice but a crucial step toward healing. Consulting a psychologist or speaking to your doctor can guide you in navigating the complex terrain of survivor guilt and PTSD. Take the time to talk to someone who can help you to unpack and normalise your feelings.

Finding stability within through self-care simply through eating, sleeping, exercise, reading, and relaxation helps us to find strength.

Amid the turmoil and emotional conflict, it’s essential to acknowledge the unique context in South Africa. As we approach the summer break, it becomes crucial to grant ourselves permission to find joy amid the chaos.

Enjoying ourselves when we feel so connected to the suffering may feel wrong, but it doesn’t mean that it is. It’s our time for rejuvenation and connecting with our loved ones, allowing us an opportunity to value our families and the life that we have away from the Israel conflict.

This time gives us an opportunity to contemplate and gain perspective on the blessings we have individually. It’s a recognition that life, even in the face of war and the ongoing trauma, goes on. We may feel guilt, but we can use it as a motivator to act and do something to help the war effort from afar. We’re capable of holding moments of peace within us.

In our pursuit of solace, we must hold onto the profound truth embedded in the phrase, “Am Yisrael Chai” (The people of Israel live). It’s a declaration that life endures, even in the face of adversity. As we embark on our summer vacation, let’s honour the resilience of our people, find strength in unity, and remember that life is for the living. We’re a nation of survivors.

In a people that values life, we navigate the delicate balance of acknowledging the pain in our hearts while allowing ourselves the space to breathe, to celebrate, and to find solace, healing, and connection under the warm embrace of the South African sun.

  • Dr Robyn Rosin Sack is a counselling psychologist in Johannesburg.

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