Taboo, Trauma and Identity: Subject Constructions of Palestinians in Germany and in Switzerland, 1960 to 2015

By Sarah El Bulbeisi

Since 1947, more than 700,000 Palestinians have been displaced from their homes in what is now Israel, and have become refugees. As a traumatic experience, the Nakba has become a crucial part of the collective memory and the identities of the Palestinians. My book, Tabu, Trauma und Identität: Subjektkonstruktionen von PalästinenserInnen in Deutschland und der Schweiz, 1960-2015, explores the repercussions of the justification, disregard and “tabooisation” of the Palestinian experience of violence, as well as identity in Germany and Switzerland connected to the self-conceptions and father-child relationships of Palestinian men who mainly immigrated in the 1960s. Although my research was set up in two countries, it understands itself as exploratory and not as comparative. This goes back to the fact that I first lived in Switzerland and then myself migrated to Germany. Even though Switzerland has clear international legal positions vis-à-vis Israel, which go further than the positions of Germany and the EU in many respects, Germany remains decisive for Switzerland’s discourse. Germany, where criticism of Israeli politics is still a taboo, is very important for Switzerland for economic reasons and also has the European and international power to transport its particular experience outside.[1]

Verloren. Palestinian Immigrant in East Germany, 1980s. Photo: Mahmoud Dabdoub

We can distinguish between three major migration flows to Germany and Switzerland: the work and study migration in the 1960s and 1970s, the refugee migration of Palestinians from Lebanon in the 1980s, and the refugee migration of those Palestinians who had been living in the recently largely destroyed Syrian refugee camps since 1948 and had to flee Syria due to the war. The largest Palestinian community in Europe lives in Germany, with around 80,000 people. Most of them are refugees who fled from the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s. In contrast The majority are Palestinians who migrated in the 1960s. These numbers are all only estimated. The Palestinian Authority didn’t produce any statistics out of fear of being accused of recruiting terrorists. In addition, many Palestinians are registered under other citizenships or subsumed under categories such as “stateless” or “undetermined.” Moreover, didn’t like to “come out” as such for fear of negative stigmatization and state persecution.

Among Palestinians in Europe the most vulnerable group are the Palestinian refugees from Lebanon, due to their legal status. Palestinians who fled the Lebanese civil war were not recognized as political refugees in Germany, as German administrative practice only grants political asylum if there is evidence of state persecution. The German authorities wanted to send them back, but Lebanon didn’t sign the return agreement. This policy led to the Duldungsstatus (toleration status), a temporary postponement of their deportation. The factual impossibility of deportation led to repeated renewals of this status, which resulted in the so-called Kettenduldung (chain toleration) – toleration for years. They were denied the right to education, work, financial grants and social benefits. Their socio-economic reality was totally different from the reality of Palestinians who came to Germany and Switzerland as study and work migrants in the 1960s and who had the resources to participate in their host societies. Many of them found their way in politically left-wing student circles and intellectual milieus in which they felt understood. Many of them married German and Swiss women. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t find themselves in exile. Most first-generation immigrants who came to Germany and Switzerland before 1967 were not allowed to return due to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967. They became refugees sur place. For those who had already experienced the Nakba in 1948, this indirect form of expulsion was the second forced displacement.

My study draws on forty life stories and conversations as well as on participant observation. Theoretically, I started from the premise that the subject’s speech has to be relativized on one hand by discourse, which provides the symbolic structures that generate the speakable, and on the other hand by the unconscious, which arises in the ruptures of the speech, in slips of the tongue, etc. For data collection and analysis, I therefore combined ethnographic methods with discourse and psychoanalytical concepts, particularly (counter-)transference and free association. Due to the emic aspect inhabiting my research, I incorporated an autoethnographic respectively self-reflexive approach. 

Chapter 1, “Palestine as a moral place,” looks at Palestine as a discursive space and a site of projection. It describes its “moral occupation” through the European imagination while Palestinians as human beings are  unrecognized. This results in the tabooing and oppression of their identity and experience of violence, as well as in its misrecognition, disregard and justification. This symbolic violence[2] was accompanied by practices of exclusion and criminalization, such as discrimination, censorship, persecution and surveillance. After the Munich hostage-taking in 1972, these practices intensified. Chapters 2 and 3 trace the reverberations of this violence in the life worlds of the first generation, based on their life stories (Chapter 2: “Fathers I: How do you speak out of nowhere?”), and participant observation (Chapter 3: “Fathers II: Impossible subjects”). I argue that the systemic violence[3] of ethnic cleansing by the Israeli state was continued by the symbolic violence they experienced in their German and Swiss refuge societies, which resulted in the desubjectivation of the members of the first generation. In the life stories this is shown by the dissolution of the narrating self in discourses of guilt that occupy speaking about Palestine/Israel in Germany and Switzerland. The European dream of innocence becomes a nightmare for Palestinians because – trapped in the projection of moral deviation – they become guilty subjects. But the narrating self also dissolves in the discourses of the Palestinian canon: in its exhortations to resist displacement and denial, by not forgetting the tabooed experience of violence and identity. Though guilt here goes beyond the perception of the violation of norms: It becomes a form of ethical work on oneself with which the actors try to empower themselves. Desubjectivation is also shown in the dissolution of the lived self: The members of the first generation feel unreal because they and their experience of violence do not exist in the society they live in. Escape to phantasm, fear, melancholy and shame – shame being a counterpart to guilt in the self-narration – leads to their withdrawal from family and society. This creates a discrepancy between their self-ideals and self-interpretations, and their actions: between the will to resist negation, or the cultivation of an inner devotion that reminds and secures the connection to painful experience and identity, and the actual self-denial in everyday life that they also impose on their children.

Verbunden. A Group of Palestinians in East Germany, 1980s. Photo: Mahmoud Dabdoub

Chapter 4, “Children/Daughters,” describes in its first part, “Alienation from the Fathers/Parents,” how the invisibility of the fathers’ lived selves also result in their invisibility in the relationship with their children and how the experience of the violence of the parents in this way – namely via their emotional absence – inscribes itself in the lives of the children, mainly daughters. In order to maintain a relationship, they have to restore the fathers as subjects first. This leads to a coalescence with them and their experience of violence, to the endeavor to help their marginalized history to be recognized, but also to the adoption of the fathers’ attempt to preserve identity, which is ultimately only lived inwardly by them. Finally, they find themselves caught between a similar conflict like their parent generation, between the imperative to deny themselves, through society’s demand, but also partly through the parents’ demand, and the imperative to remember and to hold on to identity, which results from the transgenerational relationship or especially the non-relationship.

The Israeli military offensive in Gaza 2014 marks a kind of turning point for the second generation. In the second part of Chapter 4, “Alienation from Society: in Mental Prison,” I processed my ethnography in Berlin in a chapter on the life worlds of second-generation Palestinians at the time of the military offensive. Simultaneously, with the intensification of Israeli state violence – the military offensive was the third and most intense of a series of offensives against Gaza within a few years and characterized by a highly disproportional use of violence against civilians – the symbolic violence Palestinians experienced in Germany and Switzerland increased. Often, I was told that they felt like living in a prison, were not able to breathe, and felt under surveillance all the time. As a reaction to this, actors who had denied themselves or had lived their Palestinian existence only privately, if at all, began to make their Palestinianness demonstratively visible. They also tried to re-appropriate what they considered as lost because it was socially rejected. They explored their family histories and told them through art and science. They re-appropriated the lost, socially rejected self, but also  thelost history and identity, sadness and anger. They protested, networked with one another and founded action groups with the aim of promoting to change the discourse on Palestine and Palestinians in Germany. They restored power to act where their parents remained with guilt and shame and with the feeling of powerlessness. With their new activism, they also encountered the limits of their radius of action: Feelings of constriction, alienation and mistrust towards the society they grew up in intensified. Ultimately, they experienced themselves as part of the same colonial, racial violence as Palestinians in Palestine/Israel. This enabled them to claim Palestinian identity for themselves – even if born and residing in Western Europe as children to first-generation immigrants – and to position themselves as subjects of a transnational diaspora community.


[1] Çetin, Z. & Younes, A.-E., Die Anderen der Anderen, 2015.

[2] Bourdieu, P., La domination masculine, 1998.

[3] Žižek, S., Violence, 2008.

Sarah El Bulbeisi graduated with an MA from the University of Zurich. She worked as a research associate at the Institute for Near and Middle East Studies of the Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU) in Munich and led the DAAD project, “Violence, Forced Migration and Exile: Trauma in the Arab World and in Germany,” a Higher Education Dialogue between seven Palestinian and Lebanese universities as well as the LMU Munich. After defending her PhD in 2019 she joined the Orient-Institut Beirut. Her dissertation, Tabu, Trauma und Identität: Subjektkonstruktionen von PalästinenserInnen in Deutschland und der Schweiz, 1960-2015, was recently published by transcript.

Citation: Sarah El Bulbeisi, Taboo, Trauma and Identity: Subject Constructions of Palestinians in Germanyand in Switzerland, 1960 to 2015, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 01.12.2020,

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Editorial Board (2020, 1. Dezember). Taboo, Trauma and Identity: Subject Constructions of Palestinians in Germany and in Switzerland, 1960 to 2015. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. April 2024, von

Das könnte dich auch interessieren …

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.

Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search