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Freud meets Palestine

posted on: Jul 28, 2015

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(Author and filmaker, Alice Rothchild)

As a physician/activist interested in the political as well as psychodynamic foundations of the ongoing struggles in Israel/Palestine it was an incredible pleasure to be invited to attend a panel on “Israel, the West, and the Palestinians” at the International Psychoanalytic Conference in Boston and then to show my film to some of this most unusual audience. The panel consisted of psychoanalysts and psychologists from Egypt, Israel, the UK, Saudi Arabia, some now living in the US, all involved in a 12 year old working group.  They focus on exploring issues of guilt, dehumanization, emotional defenses, victimhood, shame, and compassion on individual and large group dynamics when it comes to the history and politics of Israel/Palestine. On its most basic level, these are the reasons why many of us cannot say the “P” word at Passover, why mentioning the call to boycott Israel provokes a level of rage and yelling that is uncharacteristic of many of our otherwise progressive, educated friends, why everything feels so stuck.  So there I was, observing Jews and Arabs crowded together on the analytic couch, fighting for space, the wounded and the co-wounded, the victims and victimizers all jostling for attention. The insights were breathtaking; needless to say, the members of the audience still could use a lot of therapy. I can only hope the patient can begin the difficult work of recovery.

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(Photos from screening of Voices Across the Divide)

This conversation continued through post panel brainstorming, dinners, and then the Q&A after the screening of Voices Across the Divide. So what did I learn? (These interpretations are my own.) I know that Israel/Palestine is a nidas for the conflict in the Middle East with its dizzying array of factions, fighters, religious fanaticism, and lately ISIS, and that the Nazi Holocaust and the Palestinian Nakba created shared communities of trauma and suffering that are in deep trouble and unable to see each other. The challenge for us is to generate respectful, empathic discussion, or as they say “to stay in charge of our countertransference,” and at the same time to recognize the inheritance of colonialism, militarism, racism, (of the anti-Semitic and anti-Arab/Islamophobic varieties), and the ongoing asymmetrical power imbalance, the brutal occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the siege of Gaza.

One of the enormous contradictions is that post World War II, there was a growing commitment on the international level to universalism, anti-racism, preventing genocide, defending human rights, and at the same time Nazism had laid bare an immense failure in western societies to protect Jewish people.  Thus it is understandable that to defend against the guilt of such widespread anti-Semitism, at the same time that colonialism was being challenged and the rights of indigenous peoples applauded, Zionism got a pass. In the midst of an international universalist consciousness haunted with sympathy for the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was erased from historical memory and the dehumanization and blaming of Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general became the established framing of this painful and ongoing piece of history. At the same time the speakers made it clear that understanding this erasure does not mean that we should accept it.

I learned that between the times in Spain from 700-1400 and then later in the Ottoman Empire, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in mostly peaceful coexistence for a total of 1200 years. So what gets in the way now? This is where it gets really interesting to be in a room full of analysts!
My understanding is that Israeli Jews deal with their guilt over the dispossession and massacres of Palestinians by displacement and aggression, by transforming their guilt into aggressive military action and an ideology awash in racism and mythology that covers up the reality.  This almost delusional collective psyche preserves Jews as the only real victims and fantasizes that the Palestinian student blindfolded at the checkpoint or the mother weeping over her bulldozed home or the farmer clinging to his uprooted olive trees, only wants to kill Jews and drive the remaining survivors into the sea, ie., to do what has been done to them.

And I learned more about the impact of British and US powers, the forces of colonialism, dependency, control, guilt, prejudice, trauma, and the “narcissistic wounds” for the Arab world,  the humiliation and shaming that occurred after the Arab armies were defeated with the founding of Israel and in subsequent catastrophic (if you are an Arab) wars.  As we explored additional psycho-social consequences for Arab societies, the presentations became even richer with a discussion by an “Arab Jewish Israeli” of Iraqi/Moroccan parents.  As an Israeli, he was expected to conceal his Arab identity while in his world, his Iraqi grandmother felt superior to other Arabs, his Moroccan Jewish friends claimed to be French and sought to disappear their dark skin by marrying light skin spouses, and everyone embraced the superiority of European Ashkenazi Jews.  Thus this colonization of the Jewish Arab mind, this splitting of reality into good (Jewish) and bad (Muslim/Christian) Arabs, adds another layer to the cycle of violence, projection, and splitting of identities. Ultimately everyone is mired in this conscious and unconscious soup and of course, the Palestinians are at the bottom of the pot as part of the racist characterization of them as members of a chaotic, unstable, and violent Arab world.

The last therapist spoke of traumatic erasure, prejudice, and the role of “compassion resistance” in the Middle East where Israeli Jews live in one reality and the rest of the Arabic speaking world, either by proxy or actuality, lives in and with relentless and inescapable images and experiences of Palestinian humiliation.  This deep sense of defeat, inferiority, and the conspiracy of western powers continues as the colonial legacy of the 20th century. When the perpetrator feels he is the victim (a fully armed Israeli soldier shooting at children throwing stones), the erasure and dehumanization of the children is made possible through powerful unconscious dynamics, supported by the aggressive narrative of the occupation, the collusion of Western powers, and the one sided messaging of the mainstream media. According to analysts, this is fueled by guilt that prevents an awareness of the suffering of the other and the compassion that would follow. One  speaker called for “compassionate witnessing” on both an interpersonal as well as political level creating the possibility the victimizer might consciously see the human being at the end of his gun as a victim, to be able to empathically suffer with him.

This unique mix of the psychological and the political, (the film discussion ended with many supporting the BDS movement), was extraordinary and gave me insights into the power of bearing witness compassionately. This then creates the possibility of changing the psychological and physical erasure of Palestinian reality, building a discourse that is not angry and triggered, but uniquely based in reality…. A kind of therapy on a global scale.

Special to Arab America
Alice Rothchild
Contributing Writer

Alice Rothchild is a Boston based physician, author, filmmaker and member of Jewish Voice for Peace.