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To the IARPP Board: what did Gaza mean to you?

June 1, 2018 at 4:04 pm

An injured Palestinian receives care after Israeli forces attacked protesters during the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border on 25 May, 2018 [Mohammad Asad / Middle East Monitor]

Authors: Martin Kemp and Samah Jabr 

Doctors Martin Kemp PhD and Samah Jabr M.D. are urging the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy (IARPP) to cancel its upcoming conference in Israel and give everyone an equal right to health care, something not afforded by the occupation

Israel invests heavily in attempts to present itself as an ordinary Western state. Governments and media organisations do not take much persuading, ethical considerations seldom determining the willingness to continue “business as usual”. Still, a moral fable has to be told, which presents the Israeli regime with a problem. It is not normally acceptable to refuse refugees the right to return to their homes, or to undertake a project of racial exclusivity, or shoot hundreds of unarmed people demonstrating against a medieval siege.

Group analyst Farhad Dalal has written of the way that manners, and social gossip, is generated by hegemonic groups to rationalise and police social relations of domination and subordination. His interest was primarily in the subtle devaluing of black people in white societies, but his insights are applicable in this context. While within Israel/Palestine, the protection and extension of Jewish privilege is ugly in the extreme, in the West it has been made impolite to say so. Acting in accordance with the universalist values that Western societies claim to champion, in relation to Israel/Palestine, has been rendered grounds for social exclusion. Etiquette is breached when someone steps out of line. Passively standing by in the face of an Apartheid social structure shorn up by an increasingly fascistic political culture appears more dignified than actions taken to challenge militarism or promote ethnic equality. It becomes offensive to point out how many of the components of a truly genocidal situation are active in the profoundly asymmetrical relationship between the Israeli State and the Palestinian people.

Read: Victim blaming after the Gaza massacre

A social discourse is developed which allows personal distress and deep concern for those physically or psychologically damaged, regret at the failure to find a ‘solution’ to this ‘intractable’ conflict, and which tolerates even expressions of distaste for the excesses of the Israeli Government. It does not allow a repudiation of Zionism (described simply as ‘self-determination’), or exposure of the pro-active and systematic colonisation of Palestinian lands (the situation is ‘very complex’). Challenges to the ‘security theology’ according to which state crimes are re-packaged as acts of self-defence against a people characterised by an unending hatred and propensity to violence, are passed over in silence. Palestinians cannot be regarded as the victims of State terror.

This discourse is rigorously policed by liberal democrats, using strategies that undermine the fabric of liberal democracy itself, twisting language, and injecting hysteria, intolerance and fear into academic discourse, restricting free speech, interfering in the democratic process, and sponsoring laws that prohibit non-violent strategies to challenge oppression.  Mainstream press outlets are closely monitored and subject to intense pressure to exclude progressive material; social media platforms are subverted; pro-Palestinian sympathies are officially considered indicative of potential radicalisation.

The sufferings of past generations of Jews and our collective shame at the Nazi genocide have been relentlessly exploited to protect this discourse. Some of us had mistakenly believed that sufficient time had passed for an approach to this history that might inform our collective moral conscience, but instead anti-Semitism as Israel’s ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’ has been given a new lease of life.

This combination of urbane good-will and coercive methods of social control to neutralise support for Palestinian rights can be observed in the International Association of Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy’s (IARPP’s) handling of protests against its decision to hold its 2019 Annual Conference in Tel Aviv.

Read: The ongoing Nakba and its forthcoming defeat

The belief that there is a direct link between the ‘normalisation’ of Israel in the West and the perpetuation of state crime in Palestine led mental health clinicians in the United States, the UK, Palestine and internationally to protest IARPP’s decision, launching a petition now signed by 1400 mental health workers and professionals. Rejecting the request to reconsider the decision, IARPP President Steven Kuchuck wrote: “If we chose our conference locations by judging the political decisions of national governments, we might well have a hard time finding an ideal setting that would fit everyone’s preferences and values.” Changing the Conference location would be ‘to allow our organization to single out one country’, it ‘would be to practice the politics of exclusion’. ‘It is not the responsibility of IARPP to side with one view of this complicated history’. Here, one after another, are catchphrases from the lobbyist’s arsenal, insinuating that it is those who act to address injustice who are displaying a lack of good taste.

The IARPP’s position is typical of attempts to rationalise the West’s collusion with Zionism and its crimes. Still, in the aftermath of recent events in Gaza we wonder if their faith in it has been shaken.  In a series of non-violent demonstrations, 112 people were killed; 13,190 were injured; 500 people were shot in the head. 323 health personnel were injured and 32 ambulances damaged.  The Israeli Haaretz correspondent Gideon Levy, asks, after the bloodiest day:

When will the moment come in which the mass killing of Palestinians matters anything to the right? When will the moment come in which the massacre of civilians shocks at least the left-centre? If 60 people slain don’t do it, perhaps 600? Will 6,000 jolt them?

Don’t the unarmed protesters who walked to their deaths to rouse the world’s conscience deserve to be met with a willingness by IARPP to look more closely at the history, and more importantly not to shield themselves with abstract platitudes from the human stories being their sacrifice? It is true that this criminal violence does not mark a qualitative deterioration in the behaviour of the occupation Army, but – Levy’s question – doesn’t the relentless, quantitative aspect at some point erode faith in the shibboleths that oil Western collusion? Recent developments suggest that the IARPP’s Board, far from being shocked into a reconsideration, have taken administrative decisions intended to deny its own members the opportunity to debate the Palestinian situation, and to contemplate together the meaning of IARPP’s decision to meet in Tel Aviv next year.

The organisation’s 2018 conference is due to open shortly in a New York hotel. Hoping to provide a window for a discussion of human rights, the USA-Palestine Mental Health Network (USAPMHN) had requested to rent a literature table within the conference: IARPP denied this request. The USA-PMHN  then hired a room at the same hotel for a symposium, called Voices on Palestine to take place at a time when this meeting would not conflict with a scheduled IARPP speaker. The USA-PMHN invited the IARPP Board. The IARPP’s response was to call the hotel management and claim that the USA-P MHN planned to disrupt the IARPP meeting, attempting to frighten the hotel management into cancelling the USAPMHN’s rental contract. The IARPP intimation that violence was being planned by the USAPMHN was such that the hotel Managing Director called the New York police to be present during the event; the Managing Director asked the USA-P MHN to move its “Voices” event elsewhere. The attempts at sabotage did not end there. The IARPP then arranged for a memorial service for a much-loved member of the IARPP, scheduled at the same time as the “Voices on Palestine” forum, seeking to manipulate the grief his death has occasioned to draw attendees away from the meeting on Palestine.

Neither of these ploys worked. The timing of the memorial event has since been changed, after protests by IARPP members. It is to the great credit of the hotel’s administration that, after it had contacted the USAPMHN to clarify matters, the IARPP’s bluster was met with a thoughtful and considered decision to allow the ‘Voices’ event to take place as planned.  But this, again, is not reassuring. It is shocking that such tactics were thought appropriate by the Board in the first place, that the IARPP’s values in regard to facilitating debate – in this area – are so weak, and that it was assumed the membership would endorse its actions. (They cannot have thought these would remain secret.)


This unsightly affair is not to be understood as ‘parallel process’ in the psychological sense of unconscious identifications with the protagonists of the struggles inside Palestine being played out in our professional relationships. IARPP’s tactics are symptomatic of the dilemmas faced by those who attempt to reconcile the Zionist project with democratic principles. The West’s commitment to universal values was painfully won, we might remember, through the belated recognition of the ruinous impact of racism and ethno-cultural nationalism in both Europe and North America, and their empires. As Anna Baltzer has suggested in relation to Israel/Palestine, such values are betrayed if simply worn as establishment livery – they need to be constantly nourished through ongoing affirmative action.

Last year the psychoanalyst Stephen Botticelli delivered a paper in which he suggested that in the contemporary context the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement constitutes a viable ‘social third’, offering us as an alternative to fellow-travelling with the Israeli regime a constructive form of ethical engagement. The gist of his argument is that the international community, led by the United States, has abdicated its responsibility to uphold its own laws and ethical standards in public life. This can either leave us feeling helpless, or it can be viewed as opening up an opportunity, perhaps a duty, for ordinary people to fill the moral vacuum. Alone our distress and outrage count for nothing–but working together we can contribute something constructive and meaningful to the struggle for equality and justice. We are fortunate that Palestinian civil society has invited us to participate in this activity: they have provided us with a purposeful non-violent and collective outlet for our rage, freeing us from our helplessness.

It is not too late for IARPP to re-locate its planned 2019 conference from Israel. As critics repeatedly point out, doing so would actually broaden the event’s accessibility and inclusiveness. More people from Palestine itself, and from the rest of the world, and from the roster of non-violent organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee could participate. Clinicians who would be otherwise barred from entering the country by the Israeli government would have access to the conference; others surely will refrain from participating by their own consciences. It would take away the moral dilemma that the IARPP’s decision has imposed on Palestinians who could only attend by appearing to legitimize their racial subordination. If it entails some financial loss to the IARPP, this would be insignificant compared to the value of sending a quiet message to those bearing the brunt of Zionism’s crimes, telling them that the organisation representing Relational Psychoanalysis, at least, regards them as people of equal value to the rest of the human family.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.