North Africa, West Asia

Progressive psychoanalytic organization splits, silencing members over a Tel Aviv conference

Both the supporters and the opponents of a Tel Aviv conference are getting ready for the IARPP 2018 conference in NYC. All have been invited to an open discussion on Israel-Palestine.

Ruchama Marton
31 May 2018
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A Palestinian shows his ID to security officer at an Israeli checkpoint, May 2018. Luay Sababa//Press Association. All rights reserved.Turmoil has erupted in the International Association of Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy (IARPP), following the board’s decision to hold its 2019 annual meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel, as some members charged the organization of discriminatory practices, in violation of its own principles. 

IARPP is one of the fastest growing psychotherapy organizations in the world, famed for its commitment to social justice and a style of clinical work that recognizes the patient as a co-creator of the psychoanalytic work along with the analyst. Most IARPP members reside and practice in the US. The Israeli chapter is the organization’s second largest.  

“It is unreasonable to hold an international professional conference in a country where it will not be accessible to some of the professionals interested in attending it, on grounds such as the clinician’s’ ethnicity or political opinions,” an Israeli IARPP member said, under condition of remaining anonymous. “Palestinian clinicians residing in the West Bank and Gaza are highly unlikely to receive permits to enter Israel at this time, and even the process of applying for these permits is so degrading, that it is illegitimate for IARPP to subject the Palestinian attendees to this ordeal.” 

Although the 2019 conference location became a matter of fierce controversy among both the leadership and the rank members of this 2000-member organization, the Board has refused to reconsider the venue of its 2019 conference, a response which is the only formal reply that IARPP has made to the issue. The Board then closed down debate on the question on the IARPP internet discussion forum after 24 hours. Some of the dissenting members reported strong pressures to keep quiet, including verbal assaults, threats, and character assassinations on multiple professional mailing lists.

In response to the organization’s disregard for member concerns, a number of IARPP members have cancelled their lectures at the upcoming 2018 conference in NYC (one whole panel, on the subject of Israel-Palestine, has been cancelled), left the Tel Aviv conference organizing group or left IARPP altogether, while others have called for a boycott of both conferences.  

“I simply could not in good conscience remain with IARPP when there is such disregard for Israel’s occupation, daily atrocities against my people, like the recent massacres in Gaza, and violations of international law and human rights,” said a Palestinian psychotherapist practicing in NYC who recently left IARPP.

The upheaval did not end with the organization membership however. Over 1300 mental health professionals, academics and activists from across the world, including Israel and the West Bank, have signed three different petitions and statements urging IARPP’s board to reconsider the conference location. The petition that received the largest number of signatures was initiated by the US-based activist group called USA-Palestine Mental Health Network, in conjunction with Dr. Samah Jabr, the Palestinian activist psychiatrist who oversees all mental health services in the West Bank. Renowned feminist philosopher Judith Butler is among the signatories. Another petition was drawn up by the members of the Israeli group Psychoactive – Mental Health Professionals for Human Rights. The 34 signatories of this petition (11 of them IARPP members) argued that “holding an event of this nature in Tel Aviv implies a political position that accepts the Israeli Occupation as a reality with which we/people can live”, pointing out that “the Israeli establishment traditionally sees such events as expressions of acceptance of Israel’s policy and the fierce debate in the IARPP network also attests to the political and ideological significance that is ascribed to the conference location”.

The dissenting Israeli professionals added that according to Israel’s own laws, international professionals who actively resist the Israeli Occupation are also unlikely to be allowed into Israel, hinting at the recent law blacklisting members of some 20 human rights defender organizations – including the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Quakers organization American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace – and banning them from entering the country.  

Most astonishingly perhaps, given the personal and professional risks they could face in the current social climate as a result of such action, 24 Palestinian mental health professionals who are citizens of Israel organized their own petition, protesting the choice of the conference location and asking IARPP to move the event to Cyprus or Jordan so that their Palestinian colleagues from the West Bank and Gaza could attend. “We have been exposed to the key relational concepts, such as intersubjectivity and mutual recognition, and appreciate the way that the relational theory and practice make room for thinking about the mental health impacts of social and political conditions. In this light, we were surprised to discover that IARPP chose to hold its international conference in Israel, despite its longstanding history of human rights abuses, notably the violent occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. In our minds, not taking these ongoing assaults on Palestinian lives and human rights into account when choosing the conference location could be translated as their quiet acceptance by IARPP”, the letter reads.

The Palestinian signatories asserted that their colleagues in the occupied and besieged territories “have a right to resist”, and expressed hope that “the IARPP Board will take our appeal seriously and make an ethical choice to side with the oppressed”. The board members of the Arab Psychologists’ Association, representing most Arab mental health professionals in Israel, are among the signatories.  

IARPP’s board maintains that the organization does not choose its conference locations based on political considerations, but rather holds conferences in countries that boast thriving IARPP chapters – and Israel has one. The board has also pledged to organize a tour in the West Bank (at present, the tour being organized looks more like a tour of Jerusalem… whether East or West Jerusalem, remains to be seen), and to try applying for permits for Palestinian mental health workers to attend. It has been brought to IARPP’s attention that such permits are unlikely to be issued and that even if they are, most Palestinian mental health professionals are unlikely to choose to attend, given the popularity of the academic boycott in general and prominent Palestinian professionals’ positions regarding the IARPP conference more specifically. 

To date, multiple media items covering the conflict have been published, including the piece by Dr. Alice Rothchild in Mondoweiss and its Hebrew translation, which appeared on the Israeli professional psychology website Psikhologiya Ivrit, and articles by Dr. Samah Jabr in Middle East Monitor. In an article provocatively titled A Monologue with the “Other”, Jabr questioned IARPP’s ability to hold a safe space for Palestinians in their own home, while accommodating for Israel’s policies of military occupation and siege. “The IARPP is losing a unique opportunity to respond to the voices that ask for a genuinely safe space for Palestinians and their supporters,” she responds “Treating Israel like any other controversial government, ignores the impact of the occupation on the possible participation in the conference itself by Palestinians and others. Placing the convenience of the conference for Israeli participants over the rights of clinicians elsewhere to have fair access to it.”

At this moment, both the supporters and the opponents of the Tel Aviv conference are getting ready for the IARPP 2018 conference in NYC. The steering committee of the USA-Palestine Mental Health Network organized an event, Voices on Palestine, which will be held at the same venue – the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan – where the conference is taking place. The event, which is scheduled to take place concurrently with the IARPP conference but without overlapping with any of its proceedings, will start with a panel of speakers, to be followed by an open discussion on Israel-Palestine. All the attendees of the conference have been invited to participate, including the IARPP board members, each of whom has received a friendly personal invitation. IARPP did not reply to the invitations, but weeks after signing a contract with the Roosevelt Hotel, one of the organizers of Voices on Palestine received a phone call from the hotel administration, notifying her that the event could not be held at Roosevelt, because IARPP feared conference disruptions and… had hired a private security company to protect the conference from the event organizers!

The hotel representatives further noted that they became so alarmed upon learning about the IARPP board’s fears that they additionally arranged that the NYC Police would also be present to help safeguard the conference. Eventually, the activist was able to convince the hotel administration that she was an IARPP member herself and that the event she and her colleagues were planning was meant to be a peaceful discussion and not a security threat of any kind. 

It will be interesting to see what will actually happen at the NYC conference. While some of the protesters are still hopeful that IARPP will listen and that the New York and Tel Aviv conferences will allow for honest political discussion, others are deeply disenchanted and alarmed by the way in which this heretofore progressive professional organization is enacting what seems like a strong identification with the right-wing government of Israel – representing political dissent as a security threat, and not ruling out any means of “self-defense” in the face of this “threat”.

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