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‘Scalable mental support’ needed for ‘already drained’ Israelis, therapy nonprofit leader says

The NATAL-Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center, which typically fields 24,000 annual calls, has received about 15,000 in the first month after Oct. 7.

Emi Palmor. Source: YouTube.
Emi Palmor. Source: YouTube.

Emi Palmor’s 90-year-old mother Shoshana survived a concentration camp in present-day Moldova, emerging as a “very strong and very positive person,” Palmor told JNS. “I’ve had this expression for years that ‘my mother raised me to survive alone in the woods.’ That’s the way I describe myself.”

“If there’s one thing I’m good at, it is times of crises, times of pain, times of big painful challenges,” said Palmor, chair of the Tel Aviv-based nonprofit NATAL-Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center.

Palmor was heavily involved in the negotiations for the return of the Israel Defense Forces’ soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured in June 2006 by terrorists in a cross-border raid and taken prisoner to the Gaza Strip for five years, when he was finally exchanged in October 2011 for 1,027 terrorists. One of them has been said to have ended up masterminding the Oct. 7 terror attacks.

She served as director general of Israel’s Ministry of Justice from 2014 to 2019. An incident in 2012, during which a veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder burned himself alive at the ministry entrance, led her to get more involved in mental health issues.

Palmor learned about the neglect of veterans and terrorism victims, and soon was asked to chair NATAL. “The exposure of our younger generation to PTSD is huge,” she said. She spoke with JNS about the current plan for the release of Israeli captives, whom Hamas terrorists are holding in Gaza, and her efforts to bring trauma support to Israelis across the country.

Responses have been lightly edited for brevity and style.

Q: What is your view on Israel’s deal for the release of hostages?

A: Watching TV, I could not believe what my eyes were seeing—to see families being transported to Gaza. The pictures of mothers with children were really an unbelievable sight. We saw so many horrible things, but for me, as someone who knows what it means, it was horrifying immediately.

That’s the beginning of analyzing anything. To understand how horrifying it is—and the depth of the solidarity and the commitment—in terms of public policy, to the return of every Israeli.

This is the Israeli culture and public expectation when it comes to civilians, children, elderly, people who are injured and soldiers. It’s about Israeli society defining itself through those decisions.

I think it’s the story of Israelis willing to go crazy and pay unbelievable prices to bring their people back. At the end of the day, we say this is part of the morality that we expect from our government.

Q: What is your organization doing to treat this trauma?

A: When we’re speaking about collective trauma, we have to understand things in terms of solidarity—feelings of common fate that Israelis have in order to understand how we are affected and how we are touched by things that are happening to people that we never met.

NATAL has huge amounts of calls to its helplines. Usually, in a regular year, we have 24,000 calls a year. And the first month [of this war], we received something like 15,000 calls; these are therapeutic calls.

Q: What is the impact of the videos that Hamas spreads on social media?

A: It was done on purpose. It was planned. To execute a woman and to livestream it on her own Facebook page; you can imagine what it does to her family and to other people who were her friends on that page. They could just be exposed to what is happening. They get a notification that she shared something. They open it and see her bleeding on her floor live.

I did a lot of television during these past six weeks, begging people for the first weeks to stop looking at those videos. Not to allow children and teenagers to see them but also to try and avoid it themselves. But even my 90 year-old-mother couldn’t help it.

I sent my daughter to work on an agricultural farm, all of whose employees left the country because they were foreigners. They were afraid because they saw what Hamas did to their friends. She’s been working there for several weeks. It is very therapeutic, and one needs a sense of doing meaningful things in order to recover from the trauma.

This is one of NATAL’s recommendations. First of all, help yourself and preserve your resilience. One of the most important recommendations is to feel meaningful, to do something which is meaningful. That helps you feel better about yourself.

Q: Does that apply for you, too?

A: Yes. It makes me feel very meaningful. I’m at the stage of trying to not be in touch with my feelings. I’m happy to be extremely busy and not to let myself stop, because when I stop, it’s really difficult.

Q: You’re a part of Facebook’s oversight board. What has been social media’s role in the conflict?

A: If you know a little bit about the community standards, you know that basically everything Hamas shared online should have been taken down.

But on the other hand, these are war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is important material that might be the only evidence for those crimes, and the only evidence that can enable you to find a hostage who is 3 years old.

If you had taken down all of this footage, according to community standards, you might have been wrong. You might have been going against other interests that should have been considered, such as newsworthiness and the preservation of evidence of what happened.

Q: What can Israel need to do to alleviate the mental-health problems caused by Oct. 7?

A: The situation in Israel is such that if we do not invest in scalable mental support, the possibilities of our economy and our society to rehabilitate will be very low because people are already drained.

Roy Katz Interviews Emi Palmor
Emi Palmor being interviewed by Roy Katz at a Shabatarbut event in Beersheva, Israel, on May 12, 2018. Credit: 102fm via Wikimedia Commons.

Q: What is a typical day like right for you now?

A: It’s really difficult to sleep. I wake up early in the morning. I’m babysitting my daughter’s dog because he can’t go volunteer with her. I think that’s the only grounding thing that I have. I have to walk and pay attention to him.

I have the habit of helping a lot of people, so in times of crisis, it has expanded in a crazy way. There are so many issues every day to address. It’s really unbelievable that so much time has gone by.

I also have my mother and my children. So once every other day, I visit my mother and support her, and I have to take care of my children.

Nothing is normal. I don’t sleep in my bed. I can’t. I sleep on the sofa, looking at the television. That’s the only way I can fall asleep. Because I’m so—my adrenaline is 24/7.

I’m not special. Almost everyone I know is like this. Nothing is normal.

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