Invited Column: What Is Psychoanalytic Activism?

The Psychoanalytic Work Group for Peace in Palestine/Israel

A reflection on the changes in attitudes of discussion group participants, including some lessening of automatic pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian attitudes

By Nancy Hollander, PhD, and Stephen Portuges, PhD

For the past seven years we have been engaged in a group called “Psychoanalytic Work Group for Peace in Palestine/Israel.” The group was formed by Nadia Ramzy, Faculty Member of the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute and co-editor of the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies. In 2004, Ramzy, long interested in the psychosocial dynamics of the “intractable conflict” between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, gathered together Toronto-based Palestinian psychoanalyst George Awad, Israeli psychologist Carlo Strenger, and several Jewish American, Arab-American and Arab Canadian psychoanalysts, including the two of us, to form a work group in hopes of helping North American psychoanalytic colleagues to better understand the Palestinian as well as the Israeli perspective on this conflict that is at the heart of intensifying global tensions.

We gather twice a year from our far-flung parts of the world for weekend-long meetings and participate in discussion groups on the application of psychoanalysis to social issues and prejudice at American Psychoanalytic Association meetings. Periodic conference calls continue the work in between our meetings. Our goal is to engage other psychoanalysts through public events at which we speak and listen to one another as we express diverse perspectives and concerns, modeling empathic speaking and listening, and hopefully motivating others to become actively engaged in social action projects designed to facilitate peace and justice in the Middle East. We have also invited speakers to share their perspectives on the conflict, including psychiatrist Joel Kovel, Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni, Carlo Strenger, and psychoanalyst and holocaust survivor Henri Parens.

Over time we have witnessed changes in attitudes of participants in the discussion groups, including some lessening of automatic pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian attitudes. Perhaps the most compelling part of this experience has been the group process itself, which has focused on the application of a psychoanalytic attitude as a source of understanding of the nature and functions of prejudice. Since the group is composed of Muslims, Christians, and Jews of Arab and Euro-American ethnicity, the membersare committed to being inclusive, empathic and mutually respectful of conflict-stimulating differences among ourselves. When these attitudes are challenged or threatened, the group is committed to a process of self-examination that includes an exploration of both personal and political motivations. A shared conviction that our group process represents and reflects some of the social/political dynamics of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict takes us beyond the psychodynamics of a typical workgroup. By openly discussing our psycho-political micro-dynamics, we think that we can better understand obstacles to working for peace among the traumatized Israelis and Palestinians, other regional powers, and the U.S. that are at the heart of this complex social conflict. We feel that the group’s presentations have helped its audiences to better understand both sides of the conflict by reflecting on their own attitudes and seeing the dynamics in which we all participate that move our society toward conflict and war rather than peace. Our ultimate goal is to find more ways that the group can develop its own version of second tier diplomacy, the goal of which is to facilitate citizens becoming more active in pressing the U.S. government to assume a more reasoned, tolerant, and fair discourse and policy in the region.

The process and goals of the group have been challenging, and our membership has changed over time, both in terms of ethnic and religious as well as ideological identifications. This group experience has provided us with a rare opportunity to engage “close up and personal” with individuals who represent some of the rich diversity of the major players in the conflict. We are religious and secular; we represent a range of political perspectives, and our identifications and positions on specific issues are flexible and sometimes unpredictable. When our exchanges are emotionally intense, the group acts as an important container. Conflict among us is tolerable and survivable because of the personal warmth that pervades our relationships and the basic trust we have that we are all dedicated to the peaceful and just resolution of this Middle East conflict. Convinced that U.S. citizens need to know more about how the U.S. has contributed to the continuation of this conflict, Nancy has focused her public presentations with the group on the economic, ideological and psychological factors responsible for U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, and has published two articles on the topic. She has grown to see with more sensitivity the subtle complexities of Middle Eastern cultures and their expression in the different political perspectives of the conflict. From the beginning, because of her familiarity with Latin America and her critique of the impact of neocolonial policies, she has been quick to criticize Israel and the U.S., and her sympathies have been with the Palestinian perspective of the conflict. As part of the group experience, however, she has had to negotiate the multiple identifications that demand self-exploration, including the contradictions that mark her psychologically: intense cultural pride in being a Jew, ideological criticism of Israeli state policy alongside a visceral familiarity with Israeli Jews, identification with Palestinians whose subjectivity has been erased in their universal depiction as “the other,” empathy for the traumatic sequelae of both the Holocaust and the Naqba, and feelings of guilt as a privileged U.S. citizen who can escape the immediacy of this high-stakes conflict while other members of the group are more personally as well as politically affected. These years of intense and intimate work with such a diverse group of people, who, despite their differences are capable of sustaining a bond, has been a unique experience and something for which she is grateful. To use one of the few Yiddish words she knows, Nancy feels in the group like she’s with landsmen.

Finally, one of the recollections we both cherish that captures some of the anguish and hope of our work in the group, took place in December of 2006, when Stephen sent the late George Awad a précis of his intention to present a paper to a workshop on “Prejudice in the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” at the American Psychoanalytic Association. The proposal indicated that he would evaluate a particularly odious manifestation of an ongoing intimidation strategy that falsely equates criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-semitism. He said he would then examine some of the effects of this campaign, which, in the name of protecting and supporting Israel’s survival, actually contributes to the very anti-semitism it allegedly seeks to prevent. George’s reply was to remind Stephen that if he were to say what Stephen was proposing, he would simply be dismissed as a deranged Arab, whereas “[Stephen] would probably be sent to live in the occupied territories as a Palestinian!”

With this opportunity to visit the Promised Land in mind along with Stephen’s deepest wish to see Israel/Palestine become a land of equal promise for all Semites, he was comforted by George’s ironic remarks. He also realized that being in dialogue with the psychoanalytic activists in this group, who represent the region’s rich ethnic and religious diversity, has helped him to reduce the intensity of his own ethnic identity conflicts and slightly modify his childhood-based, Hollywood inspired, Leon Uris version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The group members will continue to contribute to both APsaA discussion groups in New York in January 2012, and we are especially excited about organizing and hosting in the near future a public forum featuring psychoanalytic perspectives on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Contact the authors: Nancy Hollander, PhD and Stephen Portuges, PhD 

Suggested Reading

Falk, Avner, (2004). Fratricide in the Holy Land: A Psychoanalytic View of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Madison: The Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

Hollander, Nancy (2010). Anti-Muslim Prejudice and the Psychic Use of the Ethnic Other, Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies, 7:73-84.

Hollander, Nancy (2009). A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Paradox of Prejudice: Understanding US Policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies, 6: 167-177.

Khalidi, Rashid (1997). Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. New York: Columbian Univ. Press.

Mamdani, Mahmood (2004). Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. New York: Random House.

Pappe, Ilan (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: Oneworld.

Piterberg, Gabriel (2008) The Returns of Zionism. London and New York, Verso Press Portuges, Stephen. (2007). Psychoanalytic Reflections on the Misdiagnosis of Anti-Semitism. Paper presented at the meetings of the American Psychoanalytic Association, NY.

Portuges, Stephen. (Reporter) (2007). The Application of Psychoanalytic Thinking to Social Problems: Analytic Perspectives on the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict. Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal Studies 4(3): 286–294.

Portuges, Stephen. (Reporter) (2007). Understanding Terrorism And What We Can Do About It. A Continuing Conversation with Lord John Alderdice, (Former) Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly and International Commissioner for the International Monitoring Commission (Reporter). Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies, 4(3): 277–285.

Segev, Tom. (2007) 1967: Israel, the War and the Year that Transformed the Middle East. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Sorkin, Michael (ed.) (2005). Against the Wall. New York: the New Press.