An Unprecedented Jewish/Muslim
By Nancy R. Goodman, PhD
and Batya Monder, MSW, BCD
Dr. Akbar Ahmed (second from right)
and participants in the dialogue
An unprecedented Jewish/Muslim
dialogue took place on May 5, 2007 at a conference on Fear
and Trauma: Ruptured Souls; Ruptured Cultures. Two speakers,
one Jewish the other Muslim, were addressing the large subject
of Fear and Trauma from the perspective of their own backgrounds
and their very meaningful contributions to the understanding
of these profoundly disturbing subjects.
A psychoanalyst and scholar of the Holocaust, Dori Laub,
MD and a scholar of contemporary Islam, Akbar Ahmed, PhD
presented papers and entered into dialogue inviting participation
from an esteemed audience of psychoanalysts, mental health
professionals, academics, and leaders of organizations interested
in Islam and the Holocaust.
The conference on Fear and Trauma allowed for the suffering
of the Holocaust and the suffering in the world of Islam
to be discussed together for the first time.
The New York Freudian Society, Washington, DC Program and
the School of International Service of American University
in Washington, DC collaborated in bringing together knowledge
of trauma from psychoanalytic study of Holocaust survivors
and the contemporary conflicts between Islam and the West.
Dr. Nancy Goodman, the moderator of the program, opened
the conference with comments about the importance of hearing
from two scholars who have been courageous witnesses to
the truths of unspeakable traumas: the destruction of the
Nazi era and the terror facing us today in the contemporary
conflicts within the world of Islam and between Islam and
Dr. Dori Laub and Dr. Akbar Ahmed created a double narrative
as they spoke from extensive knowledge of their fields of
interest and from their personal experiences as children.
Dr. Laub, a child survivor of the Holocaust, spent the better
part of his professional life working with victims of massive
trauma and writing about therapeutic work with severe trauma.
Dr. Ahmed, a child on one of the trains during the mayhem
of the Pakistani partition, and holder of the Ibn Khaldum
Chair of Islamic Studies at the School of International
Service at American University, is a prolific writer on
the world of Islam and a creator of interfaith dialogue.
Both scholars have the tenacity to know, study, and teach
about ruptures of soul and culture. They are each dedicated
to creating ways to hear about the unspeakable and to facilitate
creation of narrative as individuals and groups learn to
listen to each other.
Psychoanalytic commentaries further enriched understanding
of how narratives and dialogues develop out of terrifying
experience and were presented by Paula Ellman, PhD, Arlene
Kramer Richards, EdD and Robert Rovner, PhD. The three clinical
papers focused on otherness in one form or another and meshed
beautifully with the topic of Fear and Trauma. Each commentary
included exquisitely sensitive work with traumatized patients.
Dr. Dori Laub presented a paper on “Knowing the Unknowable
of the Holocaust”. He spoke eloquently about the place
of testimony as an alternative to dramatic fragmentation.
Only in the creation of testimony could the knowing take
place. “Testimony,” said Dr. Laub, “can
only emerge in the presence of a passionate listener.”
He presented examples of the incapacity of mothers to have
any memory of what happened to their children when the events
involving their deaths were too horrifying. Massive psychic
trauma lacks a beginning, middle and end. It weaves its
way into the memories of several generations as is internalized
by the children of those who were victims. Many survivors
were unable to speak because of their inner speechlessness,
having split off their traumatic experiences both emotionally
and cognitively. Dr. Laub noted that a good object is essential
for survival. Survivors don’t know what they know
till they give testimony. Dr. Laub spoke of the urgency
he experienced to co-found the Holocaust Video Archives
Project at Yale University in 1979 as a living memorial
for testimonies of survivors.
Dr. Akbar Ahmed presented a paper on “Creating Dialogue
when Cultures Rupture”. Akbar Ahmed began his talk
by noting the uniqueness of the Holocaust which has no parallel
in the Muslim world and the importance of a Jewish-Muslim
dialogue. He stressed the need for a narrative about Muslim
history and the urgency for the West to understand what
is happening in Muslim society. The enormity of unrest was
underscored by his remarking that of all the refugees in
the world today, 80% are Muslims. He went on to say that
in Iraq alone four million refugees have been created by
our involvement there. We lament the approximately 3000
American deaths but do not register the far greater number
of Iraqi fatalities, estimated by the British to be 655,000
and by the Iraqis to be 1.5 million.
Akbar Ahmed provided more details about his own history.
In 1947 there was madness in North India. With the creation
of Pakistan, 15 million people were displaced and two million
people died. Hindus went to India and Muslims to Pakistan.
The intense intimacy of these peoples was converted into
violence overnight. He also spoke about the rising tide
of Anti-Semitism and the mistaken belief throughout the
Muslim world that Israel is behind 9/11. He closed with
the plea for Christians and Jews to help Muslims tell their
stories and for the repeated need for dialogue between Muslim
As they spoke together about the incomprehensible terror
they have each witnessed in their work and in their lives,
exquisite need for conversation and knowing the narrative
of the other was evidenced. The audience responded with
gratitude for learning more about the ruptures of soul and
culture which often get submerged when fear and trauma create
silence. The papers, the psychoanalytic commentaries, and
the dialogue between speakers and with the audience exemplified
the way that fear and trauma can become known and the importance
of this knowing to prevent continuous repetitions of horrifying