The Psychoanalytic Reporter

The arc of a frontline

The author activist examines her time supporting Palestinian mothers in East Jerusalem, and her shift to focus on the well-being of both Palestinians and Israelis
By Judy Roth, PhD

I am sitting in the children’s court in Ofer prison, in what turns out to be the culmination of two years’ work around a small project to strengthen Palestinian mothers in East Jerusalem whose homes and neighborhood are slated for demolition by Israel. The project was an attempt to create an attachment-based milieu that would energize mothers long enough for them to catch their psychic breaths and regain their parenting footing. While we had expected mothers to focus on the anticipation of losing their homes, the winds of war were shifting. Mothers, while worried about their homes, were even more preoccupied with the possibility that their children would be arrested and interrogated and that they, themselves, might be interrogated. Palestinian children were throwing stones and Israeli authorities were using the toughest measures possible --large sweeps in neighborhoods, waking families in the middle of the night, separating young children from parents---often violating international and Israeli law in the treatment of minors1.

Ofer prison is not for the kids from Jerusalem. It houses the military court for the Palestinian children in the West Bank. And I am here because, as I learned about what was happening in East Jerusalem, a colleague said that I should check out what is happening to the West Bank kids and their families. This has been the nature of the work, one issue leading to the next. The children here are not only picked up in the middle of the night, detained, and interrogated; they are subjected to brutal treatment, and often disappear for days, leaving frantic families trying to track them down2. Five years ago, when I started to learn about the deteriorating conditions in East Jerusalem, I did not know that I would get up close and personal to different sides of the Israeli occupation or that I would be partnering with human rights workers on both sides of this seam, grappling with psychosocial models of solidarity.

An Israeli soldier testifies against a Palestinian 13 year old, trying to prove that he can identify this particular child as one of many who threw the stones in a village not far from an Israeli settlement. Behind me, in the last row of the courtroom, sits the child’s family, trying to make contact with him. Families are not allowed to sit closer, so I am slouching so as not to break their view. Mothers’ eyes on this frontline are barometers of psychic pain, but I don’t turn around, wanting to protect this mother’s privacy. I flash to a Bedouin mother I met soon after her home was demolished; she was nursing her child, gazing off into some unreachable place. Like so many other mothers in East Jerusalem, her sad, vacant eyes were those of a mother whose mind had been hijacked by active trauma. Mothers here are “frontliners,” as Shelhoub-Kevorkian (2009)3 writes, absorbing and negotiating waves of violence, grief, damage, and rage as they ripple across family life.

Next to me sits a minister from Holland, who wonders what this child must be experiencing. Like me, he has a son this age. But I cannot even "see" the child; I am wondering how this Israeli judge, who might be a mother herself, can defer the case without ever making eye contact with the child or the parents. She is looking at her computer screen. She adjourns the case, the child remains in custody. Someone gasps; I don't know if it is the mother clutching my chair, or me. We are all more parents than otherwise. This is the overriding identification. The time a child loses in the hourglass of this courtroom seems inconsequential. In these woods, many male teens are arrested at some point, a traumatizing rite of passage.

I look at the Israeli soldier and judge. What time bombs will go off for them in five, ten, twenty years, when their children are this age? I feel my identification and empathy shift, perhaps because I worry about the legacies my Jewish children will inherit. Later, a colleague sends a video clip of an Israeli man discussing the thawing of his dissociation, which began as he watched himself organize a round-up on a video he filmed years earlier, while in the army. “I didn’t even realize I was arresting children,” he says. The clip ends as he remembers the mothers of these children, whom he once encoded as “crazy, hysterical” but now has humanized as “mothers severed from their children”; they were much calmer than he imagines he would be if soldiers took away his child. “I would go mad,” he concludes.

I leave the prison galvanized to think more about perpetration and dissociation. But a seasoned activist suggests that I am despairing of the humanitarian issues on the ground, fastforwarding to the next stage, to post-occupation issues, diverting attention from the pull of this dehumanizing vortex and away from the most impotent. The need to look away hovers, as awareness of pain intensifies.

My identification shifts again as I move along the arc of this frontline. I am the psychoanalyst who thinks about enactments, how even the best have internalized the worst of this conflict. The collapsing of dimensionality and individual uniqueness are enacted repeatedly. Everyone is trying to occupy everyone else, to lay claim, cross boundaries, control, and erase. The rejected other is not invisible but is rendered undesirable, hated. Perhaps, because it is too devastating to see the other who is flattened by oppression, as if seeing might negate one’s own suffering and experience of violence. I feel stronger formulating along these lines but feel as though I am “othering” my partners, imposing a psychoanalytic lens that appropriates the meaning of their dynamics. And I am “othering” myself, by not acknowledging how partnering across this divide and witnessing are enormous privileges, with humanizing, psychic reverberations.

“It is just fate that has put you on one side of this divide and me on the other,” says another colleague in the trenches, leveling the playing field. I am terribly grateful to these activists who put me in my place and teach me how to stand. It is just fate to be a “privileged other,” arbitrarily spared from ongoing political violence both as victim and perpetrator. Imprinted during adolescence to engage Israelis and Palestinians, my involvements bring me home and yet, it is not my home. I am almost from there, but I am really from here I try to use my marginality as a muscle, since, as a daughter of refugees, I too wrestle with a legacy of ethnic hatred and a sense of place.

Surprising capacities do exist. People may engage even when they say they refuse; they may reject and simultaneously create; destroy while planting seeds. As a foreigner, you need the “long breath,” as yet another activist says, to learn these possibilities. In a terrain where initiatives slash and burn, a collapsed project can ignite a new connection in a different neighborhood. The playing field is small.

A Palestinian partner asks me not to be an activist. He wants to focus on the violence that ordinary Palestinians live with, the disruptions and losses of daily life, and the maddening obstacles. Perhaps, he is worried about the binary thinking and rhetoric that activism can trigger, collapsing nuance and complexity. “I want you to do what you do in your office in New York,” which I hear as a plea for a measure of thirdness.

As I enter my office I exhale the arc of this frontline: the kaleidoscopic shifting of victim and perpetrator, the concentric circles of dehumanization, the questions of solidarity, the pleas to humanity, and the wisdom of extraordinary human beings--the activists who have been my guides. And I wonder, how will it all reverberate, for them and for me?

Contact the author: Judy Roth


1. See: B’tselem, “No minor matter”, 7/2011

2. See Detention Report, No.19, DCI/Palestine, July, 2011: and “All guilty! Observations in the juvenile military court 2010-2011,” No Legal Frontiers, July 2011.

3. Shalhoub-Kevorkian, N. (2009). Militarization and Violence against Women in Conflict Zones in the Middle East: A Palestinian Case-Study


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