October 3, 2022

The Political Unconscious

Is psychoanalysis in Israel/Palestine doomed to reinforce the dynamics of the occupation?

All illustrations by Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson.

“You cannot have an argument with a dream,” the psychoanalytic theorist Jacqueline Rose wrote of Zionism. A “child of the psyche” that brought itself into existence through the force of its own irrationality, the Jewish state was a mad fantasy that had to overcome its improbability to create a new language, culture, and homeland “where there was none before.” With its foundation in trauma and Jewish victimhood, the Zionist imagination has lent itself to psychoanalytic speculation since the birth of the field. (Freud himself, supportive of a Jewish state but with grave concerns about the specifics, remarked on Zionism’s irrational kernel in a 1930 letter in which he decried the “baseless fanaticism” that “transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives.”) The Jewish state has continued to invite psychoanalytic interpretation: Edward Said, for instance, connected Freud’s hypothesis that Moses was an Egyptian—which he understood as a model of the other that lurks unsettlingly at the core of the self—to the way Palestinian presence and history must be repressed to preserve the myths that ground Israeli identity.

Psychoanalysis, on the wane for decades throughout much of the world, remains a robust practice in Israel. The small country has two thriving psychoanalytic institutes and numerous popular postgraduate programs in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis is widely embraced in Israeli culture. (HBO’s In Treatment was based on the acclaimed Israeli show BeTipul.) Yet for the most part, the psychoanalysis practiced on the ground in Israel is far removed from the critical conversation about Zionism in the psychoanalytic literature. Indeed, discussion of politics—at least insofar as the occupation of Palestine is concerned—remains largely taboo among Israeli Jewish clinicians, who tend to see it as a violation of psycho-
analytic “neutrality.”

For a moment last spring, however, as police brutally suppressed mass Palestinian protests in Jerusalem and the state stood by while Jewish mobs attacked Palestinian homes and businesses in so-called “mixed cities,” the silence within the Israeli psychoanalytic field was pierced. Some Israeli Palestinian mental health workers, long accustomed to strategically self-censoring around Jewish colleagues, felt newly compelled to assert their Palestinian identity in professional spaces. “We started to talk much louder,” said Roney Srour, a Palestinian psychotherapist and professor based in Haifa. “We are part of this minority. When our community is angry and is hurt, we are hurt as well. And we’re afraid and anxious as well.”

Many Israeli Jewish clinicians seemed ready to listen: When Srour started a WhatsApp group for discussion among clinicians—both Israeli and Palestinian—about the ongoing violence, many Jewish practitioners sought to join, quickly maxing out the group limit. But if the joint conversation was unprecedented in its reach, it was also circumscribed from the beginning. Though Srour and other participants reflect on the forum as a necessary and encouraging space, some Israeli Jewish clinicians made demands—for instance, that the Palestinian participants condemn Palestinian violence and commit to “coexistence”—that ignored the pro­foundly asymmetrical nature of the conflagration. Some “were attacking us as if we were the perpetrators,” Srour recalled.

In some ways, these events evoked the upheaval the American psychoanalytic establishment experienced a year earlier in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Why, more analysts were asking, was the field still so white? Was psychoanalysis only for the rich, or did it have a larger social role to play? What was its politics, anyway—neutral, revolutionary, reactionary? Those activated by the uprising organized reading groups and speaker series exploring psychoanlysis’s more radical histories. They considered the public clinics of “Red Vienna” and other European cities during the interwar period. They delved into the work of Frantz Fanon, whose psychiatric practice in France and Algeria informed his theories of the psychic alienation of Black and colonized people under the white, colonial gaze, and of the potential and limits of psychotherapeutic interventions to counter this alienation by fostering communal culture and national consciousness. Inspired by these precedents, some practitioners even started new community clinics. In a field long known for conservative gatekeeping, a more radical guard—queerer, less white—was fighting its way toward center stage.

In Israel, however, such a reckoning will have to overcome an even more violently regulated consensus: Nearly every aspect of society, including most clinical training in mental health, functions to support a fantasy in which the occupation does not exist and the Nakba, the mass displacement and destruction of Palestinian communities in historic Palestine in 1948, never happened. “When social and political discourse does take place,” said Esther Rapoport, a Tel Aviv-based Israeli Jewish psychoanalyst who trained in both the US and Israel, her Jewish colleagues have “no shared theoretical or political understanding” and “no decolonial framework” for making sense of their position in relation to Palestinian psychotherapists, Palestinian patients, and Palestinians more broadly. Meanwhile, “Palestinian clinicans, who usually do their internship in Israeli institutions, are expected to minimize their presence as political subjects and to practice self-silencing when it comes to their existence as an oppressed native minority,” Palestinian psychologist Mustafa Qossoqsi said at a recent event addressing mental health practices in Palestine.

How deep can psychoanalysis in Israel go toward addressing the causes and effects of an apartheid that cannot be publicly named?

The apparent intransigence of the conflict in Israel/Palestine seems to demand a language of the unconscious, and its bipolarity may suggest the usefulness of analytic tools focused on the therapeutic possibilities of dyadic exchange. Indeed, in recent decades, some psychotherapists in Israel/Palestine have sought to use psychoanalytic insights to try to break down intersubjective barriers between Israelis and Palestinians. But how deep can psychoanalysis in Israel go toward addressing the causes and effects of an apartheid that cannot be publicly named? Can Israeli Jewish analysts use the principles of psychoanalysis, with their emphasis on representing the unsayable, to help overcome hegemonic ideological constraints? Or are any attempts to use psychoanalysis as a transformative tool doomed to reinforce the status quo?

The British analyst David Eder, a founding member of the London Psychoanalytical Society, is usually credited with becoming the first psychoanalyst in Palestine when he arrived there in 1918 as a representative of the Jewish Territorialist Organization. But it was the youth movement-cum-political party Hashomer Hatzair whose members would make psychoanalysis a cornerstone of the Jewish nationalist project. (First president of Israel Chaim Weizmann later described them as “poor Galician immigrants” who “arrived in Palestine with no clothes” but with a copy of Marx’s Capital under one arm and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams under the other.) Leaders in the party’s educational wing understood Freud’s ideas as a kind of template for libidinal emancipation, a means to create a “new Jew”—one who was sexually liberated and self-possessed, free of the pathologies believed to plague both the passive Jews of Eastern Europe and the assimilated Jews of the west. They foregrounded Freudian theory in their educational training institutes and implemented psychoanalytic ideas when designing the kibbutz’s communitarian childcare system, where children were separated from their parents with the hope that circumventing Oedipal desires would eliminate neurotic conflicts. (Freud himself was highly skeptical of such utopian uses of his work, comparing a similar plan in Soviet Russia “to treating a person’s intestinal disorders by having him stop eating and at the same time putting a stopper into his anus.”)

Another, more classical psychoanalytic tradition grew in the Yishuv alongside this politically committed one, expanding during the wave of emigration from Europe that began in 1929. In 1933, Freud’s disciple Max Eitingon arrived in Jerusalem and founded the Palestine Psychoanalytic Society (PPS). It would later become the Israel Psychoanalytic Society, which exists today as one of Israel’s two psychoanalytic institutes and a member of the International Psychoanalytic Association. Born to a wealthy Russian family, Eitingon had been a co-founder and primary funder of the psychoanalytic Polyclinic in Berlin, which offered free or low-cost treatment to city residents in need—a model he and a handful of other Eastern European émigrés sought to replicate in Palestine. (All Jewish analysts at the Polyclinic were ultimately replaced with Nazi-appointed clinicians in 1935.) Unlike the “ideological-political” Freudians of Hashomer Hatzair, as the psychoanalyst and historian Eran Rolnik put it, the “scientific-therapeutic” leaders of the Jerusalem clinic enforced strict fidelity to Freudian doctrine; those who were seen to be veering from it risked their membership in the society.

Like its predecessor in Berlin, the Jerusalem clinic offered low-fee psychoanalysis, this time to a population of settlers and new immigrants. Yet, while its commitment to accessibility may have aligned the clinic with certain progressive values (Eitingon himself donated generously to the Palestine Communist Party), analysts there remained invested in the principle of psychoanalytic neutrality. This idea holds that, by refraining from personal disclosure, moral judgment, and affective response, the analyst becomes an ideal screen for the patient’s transference—the patient’s projection of feelings or desires from other relationships onto the analyst. Maintaining a neutral posture also ostensibly allows the analyst to listen to the patient’s words with a non-prejudicial ear, sustaining the “evenly suspended attention” recommended by Freud. But the much-discussed and debated concept of neutrality has been taken up in different ways to serve different ideological ends. In Israel, Rolnik writes, the psychoanalytic office came to offer a retreat from “an ideological environment which tended to appropriate the individual’s private sphere for the benefit of public interests.” The cost, according to Rolnik, was a disengagement from the kind of discourse that might have enabled psychoanalysis not only to provide an escape from “the utopist and Messianic elements” of Zionist society, but to critique them.

Rapoport partly attributes Israeli Jewish clinicians’ tendency to avoid political discussions to the field’s continued enmeshment with the conservative discipline of Israeli psychology, within which many Israeli analysts receive PhDs before going on to analytic training (as opposed to the US, where an increasing number of psychoanalytic candidates come from the humanities or other fields). Within clinical psychology programs, students are taught that the social and political aspects of clinical work are “inappropriate and irrelevant,” a lesson Rapoport said carries over into psychoanalytic education and supervision. Moreover, despite the growing number of clinicans who are Palestinian citizens of Israel, psychoanalysis in Israel remains dominated by Ashkenazi Jews. Cultural sensitivity training initiatives among Israeli clinicians have been deployed in astoundingly insensitive ways, as when the Israeli Ministry of Health decided in 2020 to house its professional development program in mental health, which included such training, at Ariel University, a school in a West Bank settlement.

The psychoanalyst Itamar Lurie told me that periods of violence like the wars in Gaza, or upticks in violent attacks in Israel, tend to trigger “post-traumatic distress” in Israeli Jewish patients, but that these “eruptions” are bracketed by periods of “strange sleep.”

Israeli psychoanalytic treatments can be as varied as the population itself: The Jewish analysts I spoke with had recent immigrant, Haredi, and Palestinian patients. In treatments conducted by Jewish clinicians with Jewish patients, though, the occupied territories often seem very far away. The psychoanalyst Itamar Lurie told me that periods of violence like the wars in Gaza, or upticks in violent attacks in Israel, tend to trigger “post-traumatic distress” in Israeli Jewish patients, but that these “eruptions” are bracketed by periods of “strange sleep.” “The minute the flames go down,” he said, “people are very involved in the immediate issues they’re bothered by, things that have to do with intimacy, with relationships, with children, ambitions, failures, a sense of pain.”

Some Israeli Jewish analysts have tried to stimulate discussion about how social and political events impact clinical work. In 2011, for instance, psychoanalyst Yolanda Gampel started a group called Kir Nophal, or “A Wall Falls Down,” for Israeli Jewish psychoanalytic supervisors to discuss moments when the “external world” intrudes upon the clinical space—including the sometimes literal intrusion of bombs and air raid sirens. Yet according to Rolnik, discussion of such events within the psychoanalytic office is usually subsumed by the brand of trauma discourse that dominates the mainstream of the field, which “tends to portray the patient as a passive template on which social atrocities or the shortcomings of his significant others are inscribed, rather than as an active agent.” Within this “pronounced trauma-centrism,” only certain kinds of traumas are legible. Israeli Jewish psychoanalysts are “very sensitive to traumas that have to do with the Shoah, or traumas that have to do with people being attacked or having PTSD,” analyst Chana Ullman told me, but they are far less able to listen to the “much more basic and chronic” form of trauma resulting from military service, which often includes being tasked with violently enforcing the occupation. Soldiers stationed in the occupied territories dissociate quickly from the experience once they return to civilian life, Lurie said. “There’s a point at which they say, ‘We don’t want to be open to it. We want to have a different kind of life. We can’t have these two experiences co-exist in our hearts.’”

In their recent book Psychoanalysis Under Occupation, psychology professor and psychoanalytic practitioner Lara Sheehi and professor of Middle East Studies Stephen Sheehi, who are based in the US, describe what they see as psychoanalytic practices of resistance among Palestinian mental health workers that amount to a “refusal to be metabolized by an apolitical and non-structural analysis shored up by international mental health discourse, psychological diagnostics, or Zionist ideological negation.” Interviewing clinicians in Israel and the West Bank, they identify “forms of sumud,” or steadfastness, practiced by Palestinian psychotherapists that involve listening for the devastating psychic effects of the occupation without reducing their patients to these effects, and refusing to pathologize the desire for resistance against the state. This is possible in part because clinician and patient share a context: Both “are threatened on a daily basis by another Nakba” and face “harsh racism” and other “insidious trauma[s] of daily life,” Qossoqsi explains. In his view, this state of affairs “desubjectifies” Palestinians, targeting not only their bodies but also their psyches, asking them to reduce “their existence into a life begging for life.” But psychotherapy, Qossoqsi argues, can work against the alienating effects of the occupation, helping to “re-subjectify” Palestinians by “giving them back the possibility to connect with themselves”—with their fears, desires, and rage—and by offering a space to speak about the psychological impact of Israeli oppression.

Qossoqsi is a clinical supervisor at the Maana Centre in the majority-Palestinian city of Nazareth, in the north of Israel. Established in 2006 to provide crisis counseling and treatment for PTSD, today the center is one of the only clinics in Israel to offer comprehensive psychological services to Palestinian children, adults, and families in Arabic. In a field in which all Palestinian clinicians inevitably work in Jewish-led institutions, speaking Hebrew with their Jewish patients and Jewish supervisors, Maana serves as a unique Palestinian-led hub for Palestinian patients and staff. For Qossoqsi and center director Najla Asmar, psychoanalysis has the capacity to be a “discourse of freedom.” But providing psychoanalytic treatment to Palestinian patients in Israel is fraught. “It’s very, very contradictory,” Qossoqsi said. They report learning from the lively psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic communities in Israel, while also observing how these communities sometimes “use psychoanalysis as a tool to avoid seeing, a tool for denial.” And while they offer clinical supervision and seminars to Palestinian psychotherapists in Gaza and the West Bank, they’re mindful of “the risk of replicating some attitudes that are maintained in the professional community in Israel” themselves.

There are also significant material obstacles to providing psychoanalytically informed mental healthcare to Palestinians. Psychiatrist and psychotherapist Samah Jabr, who heads the Mental Health Unit for the Palestine Ministry of Health, the agency that manages mental health services in the West Bank, said that traditional psychoanalysis is usually too costly and time-consuming for the population she serves. “My interventions are cost-effective and quick,” she explained, citing her limited budget and the dearth of mental health staff in Palestine. Despite growth in the number of Palestinian mental health clinicians over the past two decades, there remains a dire shortage compared to the need. Jabr described an initiative to train people in the helping professions, such as teachers, school counselors, doctors, nurses, and religious leaders, to perform “low intensity interventions,” including for traumatic stress, before referring someone for specialized care. Both she and the Maana Center clinicians I spoke to describe how conventional psychoanalysis focused on the individual can also be unsuited to a society that places a high importance on family and community. But Jabr said she still uses her psychoanalytic training to conceptualize her cases, and echoes Fanon when she distinguishes mental disorders from the forms of psychic distress she frequently sees in Palestine, where “much of the suffering is not within the self.”

Perhaps the most paradigmatic framework
for bringing the tools of psychoanalysis to bear on Israeli–Palestinian relations was an initiative called The Acknowledgement Project. From 2004 until 2010, the prominent American psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin directed the project, which unfolded as a series of workshops and discussion groups for Israeli and Palestinian mental health workers held in Jordan, Cyprus, and the West Bank. She partnered with Palestinian psychiatrist Eyad el-Sarraj, founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) and an outspoken advocate of nonviolence. According to Benjamin, she was inspired by conversations with el-Sarraj, who died in 2013, about the failures of the 2003 Geneva Accord, a peace agreement he advocated for but later saw as fatally flawed for its refusal to acknowledge the Nakba. With funding from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, The Acknowledgement Project brought together clinicians from Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel, some of whom had experience participating in or leading Israeli–Palestinian dialogues; international therapists joined as moderators. The design of the workshops was inspired by the Tavistock model, a group therapy approach to collectively processing trauma. But the most important ideas informing the Project’s approach were those of Benjamin herself.

In her 2018 book Beyond Doer and Done To: Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity and The Third, Benjamin, a well-known figure in relational psycho­analysis—an approach that foregrounds relational dynamics in psychic development and therapeutic practice—lays out the ideas that informed the Acknowledgment Project. Drawing on multiple psychoanalytic and philosophical influences and incorporating lessons from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, she argues that populations in sites of geopolitical conflict can become organized around the fantasy of “kill or be killed,” annihilate or harm, according to which “only one can live.” In this fantasy, only the one who “suffers most” deserves life, while the other, deemed responsible for this suffering, deserves to die; anything that challenges the self’s claim to greater suffering or points to the self as a perpetrator of suffering must be denied because it threatens to invert the fantasy, revealing the self as deserving of death. For Benjamin, the only way to overcome this relational deadlock is for each side to become capable of witnessing and acknowledging the pain of the other, breaking the kill-or-be-killed fantasies and restoring what she calls the “Moral Third,” a shared orientation “to a larger principle of lawfulness, necessity, rightness or goodness” in which previous harms can be repaired.

For Benjamin, the only way to overcome this relational deadlock is for each side to become capable of witnessing and acknowledging the pain of the other.

In both premise and practice, initiatives like The Acknowledgement Project, and others that have come out of Benjamin’s framework, have reproduced the\pitfalls that have been identified in “dialogue” approaches to peace-building outside of psychoanalytic contexts. These projects, Stephen Sheehi writes, are “intended to naturalize ‘coexistence’ without genuine restorative justice,” and are “traditionally seen by the Palestinian political groups as a means of tatbi or ‘normalization’”—presenting the Israeli state as a normal and even exemplary democracy while whitewashing its violations of human rights and international law. Though Benjamin readily acknowledges the Israeli–Palestinian relationship as a relationship of colonizer and colonized, in practice, the project created a space in which the path to the Moral Third required “all injuries . . . to be equally respected”—one in which, as the Sheehis observe, there are always two parallel foundational traumas: the Shoah and Nakba. “In the end,” they reflect, “no one is guilty/everyone is guilty.” Anyone seen as representing one group’s trauma as more legitimate than the other’s becomes a player in what Benjamin disparages as “the sweepstakes of suffering,” with the result that Palestinian participants are often expected to capitulate to coercive Israeli demands. In his book Psychoanalysis and Social Involvement, Israeli psychoanalyst Uri Hadar de­scribes a characteristic episode that took place at a workshop held in Aqaba, Jordan, where one Israeli Jewish participant expressed his discomfort when a Palestinian clinician spoke of the need for Palestinian resistance without expressly condemning violence. Within the “Moral Third” dialogue framework, Palestinians are expected to denounce political violence along with affects or expressions that might be deemed too combative or threatening: Any displays to the contrary, and they become saboteurs of the Third, unable to overcome clannish political ideologies for the sake of this higher moral ground. Though in this circumstance, the Palestinian participant was able to defend herself deftly, the Jewish analyst’s remark and the resulting fallout among participants over the workshop’s subsequent days effectively refocused the conversation on Israeli feelings and experiences. “The Israelis screamed for help,” Hadar recalls the Palestinian involved in the interaction saying, “and the US coordinators rushed to their assistance.”

In Benjamin’s framework, the Sheehis write, Palestinians are asked “to re-enact their own victimization by willfully consenting that their traumatic victimization is equivalent to the violence they may employ to resist their victimizer.” In this psychically “extractive” set up, Palestinians are required to make a gesture of recognition toward their occupiers, and in doing so, to both reject the history that embeds them as Palestinians and accept, instead, the colonizer’s view of their own identities. They’re forced, that is, to accept the colonizing fantasy of repair “without return, without recompense, without land back,” as the Sheehis write. In her book, Benjamin lauds Palestinian participants in The Acknowledgement Project who, upon hearing the story of a white South African woman who forgave a Black ANC commander for murdering her daughter, were “inspired to articulate in a powerful way how they as victims had the power to forgive, to be a moral force, to become agents.”

Today, Benjamin, whose take on the Moral Third remains an important touchstone for many socially-minded analysts, defends The Acknowledgement Project against critics who point to its normalizing premises. “It was never meant to be symmetrical,” she told me. “The mutuality consisted of the fact that the occupying side would acknowledge the Nakba and the occupation, and the other side would respond by recognizing the efforts of those people who wanted to represent symbolically their colonizing group in the interest of a deeper process of reconciliation.” But she also sounds more sober about the prospects of this framework today, expressing frustration with the vehemence with which she has seen Israelis cling to their narratives of persecution, and pessimism about the rightward slide in Israeli society and politics. Still, Benjamin affirms The Acknowledgement Project’s core tenets—including what she sees as the necessary parameters of Palestinian participation—as perhaps the only way forward. “The victim has to in some way signal their readiness to receive acknowledgement or to receive reparation,” she said. “That’s how you reach the Moral Third, and that’s how you have moral integrity.”

Other projects led by Israeli psychoanalysts have worked to create an explicitly activist wing of their field, with mixed results. During the First Intifada, some Israeli mental health professionals formed a group they called Imut (Hebrew for “confrontation”) that organized psychoanalytic conferences on political themes and ran training programs for Palestinian mental health workers in the occupied territories. The group disbanded around the time of the Oslo Accords; Ullman, a member at the time, recalls that participants felt hopeful that political progress was being made. In 2004, though, a new group was catalyzed by the arrest of a young Palestinian psychology intern and political activist named Majed Kana’neh, who was detained by Israeli police on charges of breaching state security. (He was eventually sentenced to ten and a half years in prison.) A small group of concerned Israeli psychologists, some of whom worked in the clinic in Jaffa where Majed was interning, began meeting in Tel Aviv to discuss “possible applications for social and political involvement of concepts of mental health and of psychotherapy,” recalls Hadar, who writes that he was reluctant to join at first because of his feeling “that these matters should be kept apart.”

According to Hadar, the group’s work intensified around the time of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the name Psychoactive was chosen. To date, Psychoactive’s major projects—spearheaded by a small group of active members—have included providing low-fee treatment for activists, organizing training programs in “politically sensitive psychotherapy” in collaboration with Palestinian professionals, leading trips to the South Hebron Hills to offer protection against settler harassment and perform mental health interventions, and providing support for Palestinians held in administrative detention. Despite these important initiatives, Psychoactive’s emphasis on cultivating dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian clinicians has sometimes created its own form of patronizing colonial dynamics. “For the Jewish Israelis, it’s kind of exotic to meet Palestinians. They want to have these dialogue groups to know the ‘other,’” psychotherapist and Psychoactive member Noga Ariel-Galor told me, reflecting on the reluctance of some Palestinian mental health workers to engage in Psychoactive programs and discussions. “Then it’s another enactment of the conflict when they say, ‘Oh, we have our hands reached out, and you don’t want to grab it.’ But of course they engage with us all the time . . . I mean, they’re immersed in us.”

A telling incident took place during Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day assault in late 2008 and early 2009 that would leave over 1,400 Palestinians dead. Wanting to express empathy and support with Palestinian colleagues in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza with whom they had formed relationships through their activities in Psychoactive, Israeli clinicians reached out by phone and email. Yet in an article published several months later, Hadar and three other Jewish Psychoactive members describe being taken aback when they didn’t get the expressions of gratitude for their concern, or the recognition of Israeli suffering caused by Hamas rocket fire, that they were looking for. Instead, the clinicians write, they were sometimes “perceived as part of the attacking entity and hence as an address for expressions of frustration and outrage.” This “blaming and rage,” which came especially from West Bank clinicians at a remove from the immediacy of falling bombs, led to momentary “paralysis” among the Israelis, who were unable “to respond to [their] pain.” The authors go on to explain that their “need to feel moral and humane was linked to Palestinians’ recognition of our morality and humanity. Whether consciously or not, we expected to receive recognition and acknowledgement in our activities, and to assert the difference between ourselves and the Jewish majority.” In their self-awareness, these clinicians demonstrate one stubborn feature of undertakings like The Acknowledgment Project: the desire of the occupiers to be recognized for recognizing, acknowledged for acknowledging. As one Palestinian clinician quoted in Psychoanalysis Under Occupation put it, “Israelis, even ‘Good Israelis,’ want to be congratulated that they are against the occupation. Even the occupation becomes about them.”

These clinicians demonstrate one stubborn feature of undertakings like The Acknowledgment Project: the desire of the occupiers to be recognized for recognizing, acknowledged for acknowledging.

The paradoxes of a field broadly tied to universal humanist values unfolding in an apartheid, ethnonationalist state have sometimes been publicly condemned by Palestinian, international, and far-left Israeli analysts, especially around international conferences taking place in Israel. These conferences usually present themselves as open and democratic forums for inquiry and discussion; some, like the series of Nazareth Conferences that began in the ’90s, expressly take up themes of trauma and healing. Bringing together Israelis and Germans—and later Palestinians—in an Israeli city with a predominantly Palestinian population that saw major land expropriation as part of the Israeli program to Judaize the Galilee, these conferences, psychotherapists Lama Khouri and Martin Kemp argue, presented Israeli Jews as victims while “there was little reported appetite” for considering “Israel’s relationship with its own racial ‘other.’” While the 2005 call from Palestinian organizations for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) has provided a framework for opposition to such events, the campaigns against them have also revealed the degree to which criticism and calls for boycott trigger extreme defensiveness—not only among Jewish Israeli psychoanalysts, but within an international psychoanalytic establishment in which Israel remains a largely taboo subject.

In 2017, the International Association of Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy (IARPP) announced that it would hold its 2019 conference in Tel Aviv. In response, Samah Jabr and three US-based colleagues published an open letter calling on the organization to reconsider the location. “It is particularly ironic and painful to see Israel chosen as the site of an international conference when the central theme of the particular organization is the in-depth understanding of human relationships,” they wrote, nodding to the perception of relational psychoanalysis as a practice engaged with social and political issues. Critics pointed out the hypocrisy of an international conference that touted itself as an open space for the free exchange of ideas while excluding many potential attendees—Palestinians from the occupied territories restricted by permits and checkpoints, as well as diaspora Palestinians and other clinicians who might be refused entry at the airport for their activism. They felt it was important, Jabr told me, to remind “mental health professionals that their silence and ‘neutrality’ can be complicit with the activities that do harm to the well-being and the mental health of Palestinians.”

The letter opened the floodgates to a heated debate. The IARPP put out its own statement claiming that it did not consider “the political decisions of national governments” in choosing locations for its conferences, and defending the Tel Aviv conference as an opportunity “to welcome the diverse voices of our Israeli Jewish and Arab colleagues.” The organization then did everything it could to stifle dissent, opening then quickly closing a listserv meant as a forum for the debate, and attempting to suppress a protest event staged at the site of the group’s 2018 conference in New York. In Israel, Rapoport said, the affair presented a novel learning opportunity for psychoanalysts, forcing them to reckon collectively with the realities pointed out by conference critics. But the fracas quickly exhausted them. One prominent psychoanalyst who had been integral in choosing the 2019 conference location complained on the IARPP listerv that the conference detractors were causing her somatic pain. (“It was very manipulative,” Rapoport said.) When Rapoport presented an alternative proposal for the conference to the Israeli IARPP chapter of which she was a member, suggesting a conference co-organized with Palestinian clinicians and held in Nazareth, she was vigorously shut down. One colleague used psychoanalytic language to undermine her stance, diagnosing her pathological desire to “merge” with her Palestinian counterparts, while another approached her making gestures Rapoport felt were physically threatening.

The conference went ahead as planned. Organizers made a show of helping a clinician from Gaza attend the conference, Rapoport recalled, as if this would allay any concerns about exclusion. Rapoport resigned from the Israeli IARPP chapter, and she and other boycotting analysts organized a tour and discussion at Israeli checkpoints for international attendees. The organizing around the IARPP affair also spawned the creation of the Palestine-Global Mental Health Network, as local and international Palestinian clinicians involved in the boycott formed an association to publicize issues pertaining to mental health in Palestine.

Looking back, Rapoport believes that she and the few Jewish colleagues who joined the boycott faced professional repercussions for their actions: She suspects it’s why a job offer she’d received was rescinded around that time. But she also noticed that professional relationships that became strained during the boycott campaign quickly resumed their friendly tenor when the conference was over, a reminder of the Israeli capacity to revert back to “normal” after a war.

While the IARPP’s invocation
of “open dialogue” may have been more cynical than the dialogue envisioned by initiatives like The Acknowledgment Project and Psychoactive, they are perhaps connected by an almost compulsive need to talk. “We were all undergoing an experience of destruction and fear,” the Psychoactive members wrote in the journal article penned during Operation Cast Lead, “and all of us, as a community of mental health professionals, believed that it was of supreme importance not to stop talking.” For Israeli Jewish clinicians, talking with Palestinians can be a source of fascination, an opportunity to feel morally elevated and relieved of any lurking guilt, a way to move toward the mix of discomfort and desire aroused by the other. “It’s not a surprise to me that relational psychoanalysis finds a home” in discussions in Israel, Lara Sheehi reflected, because it offers “these escape valves of guilt. If I talk about it, I’m not enacting it.”

“It’s not a surprise to me that relational psychoanalysis finds a home” in discussions in Israel, Lara Sheehi reflected, because it offers “these escape valves of guilt. If I talk about it, I’m not enacting it.”

For all her concerns about its potential to sugarcoat oppression, Sheehi remains a firm believer in the political importance of psychoanalysis, both as a conceptual framework for understanding Israel/Palestine and as a set of clinical practices. But for Sheehi, who made a conscious decision not to pursue training through psychoanalytic institutions “that have been weaponized historically to exclude people,” the psychoanalysis the situation demands is one that would likely be unrecognizable to an analyst with a Eurocentric framework. Instead, what is needed is a psychoanalysis re-centered around the non-Western histories effaced by mainstream psychoanalytic discourse, and grounded in decolonial practices that foreground the enmeshment of psychic life and sociopolitical reality.

For her part, Rapoport said she doesn’t believe psychoanalysis itself will serve an important function in ending the occupation. However, she told me, “Palestinian mental health professionals and activist professionals have a very important role to play in supporting and motivating Palestinian people to stay resilient, healthy, resourceful, and optimistic, until such a time when things shift,” noting that the same is true for supporting Jewish activists.

Perhaps the question is not whether dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian clinicians actually bolsters the colonial relationship between Jewish and Palestinian psychotherapists, but what structural conditions might enable conversation between them to abet real decolonial change. The political theorist Nancy Fraser argues that claims for reciprocal recognition can only be justified under conditions of “participatory parity”—that is, the just distribution of material resources and power creates the only conditions that ensure that participants have an equal voice. Qossoqsi and his colleague, Maana Centre director Najla Asmar, say they’re interested in inviting Israeli Jewish colleagues into conversation. But they are clear that when they do so—from within a robust Palestinian-led Arabic-language training clinic which they have labored to make a “secure space” for Palestinian clinicians to talk and “think freely” among themselves—it is “a connection more from equal sides.”

“The colonizer is always blind to the subjectivity of the colonized. It’s by definition,” Qossoqsi asserts. Yet, while he points to the many “blind spots” of his Israeli Jewish colleagues, he feels hopeful that some are “getting the idea that they need to listen more, to let the Palestinian psyche speak.”

Eta Demby is a social work student living in New York.