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Pressure mounts over psychoanalysts’ 2019 conference, slated for Tel Aviv

Just World Admin Blog, Israel, Palestine 1 Comment

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By Alice Rothchild

Originally published in Mondoweiss. Rothchild is a Board Member of Just World Educational.

An extraordinary response has been unfolding around the scheduling of a mental health conference in Israel. The International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy announced plans to book its 2019 international mental health conference in Tel Aviv. Clinicians immediately began raising two major issues:

1. Why hold an international conference in a country where not all clinicians (e.g., Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, and internationals with a history of activism and/or support for the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement) will likely be granted permits or allowed entry into Israel

2. Holding an international conference in a particular country implies some tacit support or at least acceptance of the policies of that country. This is particularly true of Israel where the Israeli establishment understands that conferences, performances, academic visits, cultural and scientific exchanges imply an acceptance of the status quo. The cultural boycott has made it clear that choosing to hold a major event in Israel is a political statement on the world stage. The fierce debate in Israel about the protest regarding the conference location only confirms this fact.

The IARPP has consistently responded that they do not choose locations for their conferences based on political considerations – rather, they hold conferences in countries that have large, thriving IARPP chapters (and Israel has one). Yet of the many countries that boast thriving IARPP chapters, Israel appears to be the only one where the professionals’ ability to access the conference would depend on their ethnicity and political views.

Clinicians also point out the particular irony that the IARPP focuses on relational psychoanalytic approaches to therapy. How paradoxical it is for a group of therapists grounded in “key relational concepts, such as intersubjectivity and mutual recognition,” who “appreciate the way that the relational theory and practice make room for thinking about the mental health impacts of social and political conditions,” to hold a conference in a country with a history of longstanding human rights abuses, occupation, and siege.

The other looming ethical issue revolves around what is the responsibility of medical and mental health clinicians to attend to the context in which their patients are being treated. How do the social ills, political struggles, economic restrictions, presence or absence of war affect the psychological health of patients? How can clinicians attend to the micro and macro dynamics of healing? One cannot possibly recover from PTSD if the trauma is recurrent and ongoing. What is the obligation of the therapist to address the environment in which the patient is living?

Israel claims to be a modern Western democracy and this is somewhat the reality for the Jewish Israeli population, particularly those of Ashkenazi descent (white Jewish people from Eastern Europe) who were some of the earlier settlers to Palestine and are now dominant in the political and socio-economic strata. At the same time, Israel is a complicated ethnocracy where Jewish privilege is the foundation of legal and cultural structures and the attitudes of the majority of the Jewish population. One of the consequences of seeing Arabs as less human and less deserving is Israel’s longstanding major violations of Palestinian human rights, the imprisonment and torture of Palestinian children, the widespread use of administrative detention, and a 99-percent-+ conviction rate in military courts. There are increasing legal threats to human rights organizations, racist language from the highest echelons of government on down towards Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers (who are currently facing the threat of forcible return to their countries of origin, where many will face torture, enslavement and death) and Palestinians. There is a disproportionate amount of power rested in the ultra-Orthodox, in the rabbinate and the Jewish settler movement, who are often the most racist, Islamophobic, homophobic segments of society.

So what happened? In January 2018, a protest was launched by the USA and UK Palestine Mental Health Network, in collaboration with a leading Palestinian activist clinician, Dr. Samah Jabr, and a petition was created with the support of Jewish Voice for Peace asking the IARPP to change the location of the 2019 conference. How about Jordan or Cyprus for instance? This stimulated a lively, wrenching, and honest debate within the mental health communities internationally and within Israel, a debate that brought a focus to the occupation of Palestine. IARPP responded by proposing to address the issues raised with pre-conference tours of occupied Palestinian territory, and panels addressing psychoanalytic aspects of occupation.

To date, over 1,300 concerned internationals have signed the protest petition. Even more remarkable, 24 Palestinian mental health clinicians with Israeli citizenship issued a statement “in solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues in the Occupied West Bank and Besieged Gaza, who suffer daily from oppression, denial of freedom and chronic violence, including frequent killings of civilians by the Israeli Army, which largely go unpunished. We assert that our Palestinian colleagues have a right to resist the Occupation.” They appealed to the IARRP to move the location of the conference to a country where their Palestinian associates would have a greater chance of attending. In addition, 33 Israeli members of Psychoactive: Mental health professionals for human rights, then issued a public statement concerning the contradictions and complications of holding the conference in Tel Aviv and asking for reconsideration of the location.

The Palestinian and Jewish Israelis who signed these letters took on many risks ranging from interpersonal conflict with their fellow clinicians to professional, legal and extra-legal threats. Their signatures could be seen as a potential response to the call for the boycott of Israel which is now a criminalized offense in the increasingly McCarthyite atmosphere of Israeli society and legal system. Internationals involved in the protest have tremendous respect for the perils that Israeli citizens face when speaking out and urge clinicians to work collegially and in parallel within their own personal limits and political beliefs.

This entire discussion also highlights the fact that the lack of access to the conference in Tel Aviv for clinicians from Gaza and the West Bank due to severe restrictions of permitting and movement mirrors the severe pressures facing clinicians in the region who are mostly unable to attend any international conferences or advanced training let alone obtain medical equipment, medications, etc.

Already the protest movement has created intense discussions and an increasing awareness of the realities on the ground for clinicians who are usually in the shadows. This is a difficult and healthy debate. More is sure to follow.

Alice Rothchild portrait

Alice Rothchild is a physician, author, and filmmaker who has focused her interest in human rights and social justice on the Israel/Palestine conflict since 1997. She practiced ob-gyn for almost 40 years. Until her retirement she served as Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Harvard Medical School. She writes and lectures widely, is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience, On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion, and Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine. She directed a documentary film, Voices Across the Divide and is active in Jewish Voice for Peace. Follow her at @alicerothchild