Dear Irwin,

I am very moved by your response to Orna’s commentary on Israel, itself an emotional journey into painfully contradictory feelings and thoughts provoked by the latest war on Gaza.

Your willingness to reveal your own history as a Jew and how you have permitted yourself to challenge some of the assumptions deeply embedded in your formation within a Zionist upbringing, with its concerns for the ever-threatened situation of world Jewry and the “right of Israel to exist,” strikes me as not only insightful, but courageous, given the censorious character of so many discussions on this subject, especially among Jews (and Christians favorable to the Zionist perspective, to be sure) in this country.

As a Jew with a very different upbringing than yours, I can completely identify with the struggles you describe to develop your own independent assessment of what constitutes an ethical stance toward the “intractable conflict” (read asymmetrical power relations) between Israel and the Palestinians.  I especially appreciate your way of understanding how one can get caught up in an appreciation of the complexity of these two peoples’ struggles to the point that one is led to a kind of paralysis when it comes to taking an ethical perspective on the current situation, especially one that might lead toward a critical stance regarding Israel’s domestic and foreign policies.  It is compelling to throw one’s hands in the air and feel overwhelmed in the face of both peoples’ claim to their rights to self-determination, to a state that represents their national identities and their entitlement to land and resources capable of sustaining each of their populations.  I have my own version of this dilemma.  I hope that Orna’s report on her experience and your revelation of what it stimulated in you will encourage others on this list serve to feel that it is important for us to engage in a dialogue that expresses our varying perspectives on this significant social issue. We agree that this contested subject is one that deeply affects our intellectual and emotional lives in obvious ways, especially at moments of intensifying confrontations between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. But perhaps if we are willing to look through a social-psychoanalytic lens, we may detect the underlying patterns of identification and disidentification that are embedded in larger and largely unexamined and unquestioned assumptions and biases that constitute the cultural matrix that informs our and our patients’ psychological (conscious and unconscious) experience.

As I read your post , it stimulated the following associations:

I recently traveled to Israel/Palestine for the first time in my life. I went together with my colleagues as members of a group called “The Psychoanalytic Work Group for Peace in Palestine/Israel.” The group was formed ten years ago 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 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 to create a work group in hopes of helping North American psychoanalytic colleagues to better understand the Palestinian as well as the Israeli perspective on this troubled relationship that is at the heart of intensifying global tensions. We have formed a solid work group that has had bimonthly Skype meetings and gathered twice a year from our far-flung parts of the world for weekend-long meetings. Some of our work over the years has focused on our annual presentations at the American Psychoanalytic Association in two ongoing discussion groups –Nadia Ramsey’s discussion group on the application of psychoanalysis to social issues and Afaf Mahfouz’s on prejudice—which have included a wide variety of guest speakers whose voices add to our own to depict a mosaic of perspectives on one of the central conflicts in the world today. Our goal has been 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 more educated about the perspectives of both Israeli Jews and Palestinians and to actively engage in social action projects designed to facilitate peace and justice in the Middle East.  I have gained personally in this work group by having the opportunity to come to know Arab and Palestinian as well as Israeli Jewish experiences of the history of this conflict and the political and psychological meanings of today’s intensifying confrontations.

Our trip in April was the first time we traveled together as a group to bear witness to the experiences of both peoples.  We met with members of diverse groups composed of Israeli Jews and Palestinians actively working to develop strategies that might be able to implement policies of peace with justice between the two peoples.  In the process, we spoke with Israeli Jews whose support for the separation wall and the expanding settlements bore the weight of unresolved trauma related to the Holocaust and the terrors of a prior era of suicide bombers.  We also learned from Palestinians about the significance for them of the Naqba (catastrophe), in which the birth of Israel in 1948 meant the expulsion of Palestinians and the loss of their homeland.  We had the anguishing experience of witnessing first hand the Occupation, whose policies include arbitrary house invasions; check point harassments; appropriation of natural resources, including land and water; arbitrary arrests of youth, held sometimes for weeks or months without charges; IDF violent suppression of peaceful protest; the imposition of a humiliating impotence among Palestinians who cannot defend themselves or their rights in the face of these demonstrations of Israeli power.

The conflicted feelings I have always had between my emotional and cultural identification with diaspora Judaism and my political critique of Israeli policy was painfully intensified during our two weeks “on the ground” in an area at once hauntingly beautiful and disturbingly ugly all at once.  Our trip ended on April 23, the very day that the PLO and Hamas reconciled in order to become a united political representation of the Palestinian people. The buzz among my Israeli and Palestinian friends and colleagues was that this announcement would spark a problematically confrontational response from Israel.  Heightened tensions over the next month or so ultimately broke out in the war on Gaza.  Which side “started it”?  Which side was the aggressor?  If we had only the Israeli government, the U.S. government and U.S. media as our sources of information, we could rely on our pre-existing convictions that it was Hamas’ launching of rockets into Israeli populated areas that provoked Israel’s unrelenting bombardment and unprecedented destruction of Gaza in an allegedly understandable “defense” of its innocent citizens.  But, as Middle East scholar, Phyllis Bennis, has argued, “…the truth depends on where you start the historical clock.”  And in my case, because in preparation for my trip I studied the history of the region, I became familiar with the ideology and strategies of the early Zionist movement that arose in the context not only of the history of anti-Semitism in Europe but as one aspect of the ideological, geopolitical and military incursion of Western imperial interests into the Middle East during and after World War One.  So my clock starts in the late 19th century and traces the century-long encounter of Western and Central European Jews and Middle Eastern Palestinians in the context of larger global forces whose interests have influenced the fate of these two peoples’ yearnings for a homeland.  From my perspective, this history reveals a complex relationship in which the roles of perpetrator and victim alternate between the two peoples at any given moment, but in which the asymmetry of their respective positions of power, influence and possibilities has been from the start weighted toward the Zionist (and Western European/U.S.) project.

Many Israeli psychoanalysts have written about the psychological dynamics underlying the attitudes and behavior of Israeli Jews.  There are many different theoretical models utilized in efforts to explain the large group unconscious enactments of unresolved mourning or the multigenerational transmission of trauma or the transference and/or projective mechanisms and/or identificatory defenses that characterize the intractable quality of Israeli state policies and the majority of Israeli Jews who support them.  Other analyses shed light on the similar unconscious dynamics of both Jews and Arabs, each of whom suffers tragic losses in their histories (chosen traumas?).   While clearly important, my belief is that such insights should not be taken as comprehensive explanations, but ones that need to be integrated with an analysis of the role and function of ideological hegemony and other social forces as they operate within the geopolitical, economic and military interests and objectives in today’s globalized world.

I fear I have nattered on too long.  But I recognize that in part I am finally taking the lid off my own self-censorship in response to what I often experience as the negative reactions of many on this list serve to the initial efforts to introduce this topic for discussion.  Will we really decide that this issue isn’t appropriate for this “professional” list serve?  I hope not. After all, we are citizens of the global power whose interests and resources are bound up with one side of the conflict and whose government represents us in determining the policies that ultimately affect us as well as the peoples “over there.”  But not only that:  I think we need to find ways to talk about this, because the Arab, Muslim and Palestinian colleagues in the analytic community often feel that their narrative in our society and in our profession has been historically silenced.

Nancy Caro Hollander, Ph.D.
5748 Ivanhoe Rd.Oakland, CA 94618
Office:(510) 331-8535
Cell: (310) 621-9675
Research Psychoanalyst and Historian.
Member, Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California.
Professor Emerita, California State University.
President, Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility, Division 39 of the American Psychological Association
Author: Uprooted Minds: Surviving the Politics of Terror in the Americas (Rutledge, 2010)