Psychoactive and Operation Cast Lead

Lirona Rosenthal Uri Hadar Tova Buksbaum Maya Mukamel
22 September 2009

Information and rumours coming from Gaza concerning the dimensions of the ravage, killing, and injury of citizens - activities which were being conducted in our names as Israeli citizens - caused deep emotional turmoil among the members of Psychoactive. On the one hand, we too were aware of the distress a large group of our fellow citizens in the south were enduring: they had been living in insufferable circumstances for the past eight years. Yet, on the other hand, we could not ignore the suffering that was being inflicted on the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip. The very fact that we were Jewish Israelis put us in the position of the violent aggressor, in our own eyes and in those of Palestinians. The people of Gaza felt that the world had turned its back on them, while we felt that we had become involuntary participants in the cruel modes with which our national collective coped with the complexities of the conflict. These modes of coping made it impossible for Israelis to relate to - or even to perceive - the dimensions of the havoc and damage inflicted by this attack.

The authors are clinical psychologists from Psychoactive - Mental Health Professionals for Human Rights.

Tova Buksbaum lives in the north of Israel, near the Lebanese border.

Maya Mukamel has recently received her PhD. Her dissertation discusses the notion of ‘boundary' in psychoanalysis, philosophy and political theory.

Lirona Rosenthal has an expertise in playback theatre.

Uri Hadar is professor of psychology in Tel Aviv University.Our distress, no doubt, was partly the result of the fact that we had personal acquaintances there. Psychoactive includes both Israeli Jewish and Palestinian mental health professionals and maintains extensive connections with colleagues in Gaza and the West Bank, including professional relations, personal-professional encounters through joint activities, and social relations. All these connections occur within the reality of the Jewish - Palestinian/Arab conflict, and the asymmetry of Israel's military occupation of Palestinian lands.

We pictured our colleagues and friends, mental health professionals in Gaza, with whom in recent years we had developed a working relationship, and our friends, Palestinian citizens of Israel who were concerned about the fate of their relatives in Gaza. We believed that progressive processes of dehumanization and objectification of Palestinians had generated the implicit demand, which became widespread in Israeli society, to eliminate empathy for the Gazan people as fellow human beings - relatives, friends, children, women, men. Between our national identifications and our opposition to dehumanization, a serious crack appeared.

The group has set itself the goal of being active in areas of social-political concern, and notably the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. Much of our activity relates to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the ongoing war between Jews and Palestinians, and the psychological consequences of this situation for the occupied and the occupier. We try to set ourselves challenges as regards the accepted notions about the neutrality of the therapist in the mental health professions and to examine how we may suggest a type of practice that engages with the communities in which psychologists live and work, while safeguarding professional standards and ethics. In doing so, we join therapists worldwide who regard their profession as offering tools for engaging with oppression and violence - whether this is in the clinic or in the public space.

Our email listserve currently contains around two hundred addresses. About forty of these are actively involved in electronic discussions. As the attack went on, more and more mental health professionals asked to join our network. About twenty new members joined us during these days of the attack on Gaza, adding a more heterogeneous flavor to our discussion. From being an email forum for left-wing activists, the messages included more voices in Israeli society, with different political stances regarding the events in Gaza specifically, and relations between Palestinians and Jews on the whole. During the attack we found ourselves acting simultaneously in the role of therapist and patient. We were all undergoing an experience of destruction and fear, and all of us, as a community of mental health professionals, believed that it was of supreme importance not to stop talking.

Here we would like to describe the types of dialogue that took place both on our listserve and in conversation with Palestinian mental health workers in Gaza, in the West Bank, with our Palestinian members of Psychoactive in Israel, and among ourselves, Israeli Jews who opposed the attack and those who supported it. We should stress that the authors of this article are all Jewish Israelis who are on the left of Israel's political map. What follows should be read while keeping this in mind. What we present is one perspective of many, and we do not claim to speak in the name or on behalf of other groups who are involved in this conflict.

Three dialogues

When the attack on Gaza started we felt deeply concerned for the physical well being of our colleagues at the Gaza Community Mental Health Center, with whom we were acquainted. We felt it was very important to make telephone contact. Over and beyond our concern for their physical well-being, we also believed that in times like these it was of utmost importance to insist on a direct human connection. We wanted them to know that there were people in Israel who opposed and disapproved of this attack and who were anxious about their situation. In these conversations we were able to hear what we could neither hear nor see via the Israeli media. We heard about the children who were wetting their beds again, who started to stutter and became clingy, sticking to their parents at all times; we heard about the difficulty of getting food; about bombardments, about people being locked inside their homes, loss of relatives and friends, damage and demolition of houses and public buildings - indeed, as part of the wanton destruction, the building of the Gaza Community Mental Health Center was seriously damaged too.

At first, like many people in Gaza, we too believed that if Israeli citizens only knew what was going on, they would not support this military action. Newspapers at this point were publishing surveys that indicated that the majority of Israelis were in favor of the attack. One Gazan friend asked incredulously: "Is it really true that 90% of the Jewish population is behind this attack?" He, as well as other friends in Gaza, was sure that such massive Israeli support for the attack was possible only because the Israeli media occluded the real goings-on in Gaza. But the indifference, and sometimes hostility, with which we were met by the Israeli consensus, our relatives, friends, neighbors, who did their utmost, on hearing these things, to rebut and deny them, led to a growing sense of helplessness and isolation which, once it kicked in, accompanied us throughout the weeks of the attack and beyond, until this very moment: a sense of deep disconnection from the Israeli collective.

In our phone conversations with Gazans we often heard how moved they were that there were Israelis who refused to remain silent in face of the terrible violence against them. We, in our turn, were amazed that we were never met with expressions of hatred or anger, in spite of this cruel attack. Our colleagues persistently voiced their opposition to any form of attack on or killing of civilians, whether Palestinian or Jewish, and they trusted us even though we were part of the collective identified with the aggressor. One Gazan friend described a conversation she had on the night before with a friend of hers from Sderot - the southern Israeli town for the sake of whose protection, according to the official propaganda, the operation was started. The woman said how strange it felt to her to conduct this very friendly, almost intimate conversation, while the sound of Israeli bombs could be heard on both sides of the telephone line.

While we were grateful that we could actually have this dialogue, we also had to admit to them that we were not really succeeding to get across their outcry to the Israeli public. We had no way of affecting the terrible daily reality that they had to endure. We could only share our sense of despair with them.

During the weeks of the attack we also maintained our dialogue with mental health professionals living in the occupied West Bank - mainly through email. The people in the West Bank were extremely upset and angry about what was happening in Gaza. While some of them have relatives in Gaza, even those without family ties identify and have a sense of deep national connection between the two societies. Communicating between us, even during more regular days, is never simple, fraught as it is with occupier-occupied patterns. The violent attack against Gaza interfered with these already fragile connections - the Palestinians of the West Bank, on their side, were expressing huge pain and rage against what was being done to their fellow Palestinians. Mostly, our attempts to express empathy, too, for our own suffering - that of Jewish Israelis in the south who had been under attack for years from Qassam rockets and Jewish Israelis whose lives have been disrupted by fear of terror attacks - such attempts were on the whole seen as a bid to justify the attack on Gaza. The fact that we were activists speaking out against the attack did not really count in our favour: we were perceived as part of the attacking entity and hence as an address for expressions of frustration and outrage.

This response provoked a diversity of reactions among us in turn. The blaming and rage, at times, led to paralysis, to an inability to respond to the pain of West Bank Palestinians.

We should however mention that some of our Palestinian colleagues from the West Bank did express appreciation for Psychoactive members' activities of protest, support and identification. At such moments we felt that our activities were nevertheless worthwhile.

Most Palestinian citizens of Israel, nationally connected with the people of Gaza, have either familial or friendly relations with people there: they experienced the attack on Gaza as one against their own people. As Israel, by its own definition, is a Jewish state, Palestinian citizens are discriminated against and don't have equal rights. It is this reality that forms the background to the relations between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority, a situation which has far-reaching consequences for every aspect of life in Israel. At times of war, Palestinian citizens of Israel are seen as a ‘fifth column' and they are under pressure to prove their loyalty to the state. Each time they express identification with their brethren, or give voice to their opposition to Israel's conduct, they subject themselves to intense scrutiny. This became especially poignant in the course of ‘Operation Cast Lead' when Israeli police targeted Palestinian protesters, many of whom were arrested during legally authorized, non-violent demonstrations. The Palestinian minority in Israel also suffered from an escalation of hostility and racial attacks in the public space. This is the background against which we at Psychoactive were conducting a virtual dialogue with those of them among us, as well as a number of face to face meetings. It was especially important to us to be heard and accepted by our fellow Psychoactives because we had been involved in long-term professional and social relations with them in a situation in which we are, on the one hand, citizens of the same state, partners in one activist organization, yet on opposite sides of the fence.

Each side used the virtual space to express its profoundest fears in the presence of the other. One female Palestinian Israeli participant wrote angrily that she feared that what was happening in Gaza would only be the first step, and that Palestinian citizens of Israel would be the next in line. Jewish participants, on the other hand, expressed their worries about the fate of the Jewish state if and when control would no longer be in Jewish hands. These fears of annihilation on both sides seemed to form the bedrock of this Psychoactive dialogue throughout the war. Reflecting the fear we all felt of further escalations, our discussion moved into an exploration of identity and the very meaning of being Jews or Palestinians in Israel. There were expressions of an urgent need for appeasement and finding ways for coexistence. But, by and large, our Palestinian colleagues challenged Jewish hegemony in Israel and thought that Israel should stop defining itself as a Jewish state as a condition for coexistence and civil equality.

Our listserve during this period also became a source of alternative information, action initiatives, calls for boycotts against Israel, and expressions of outrage worldwide, many of them from the Arab world. We were exposed to pictorial material which, among other things, compared the activities of the Israeli army in Gaza with those of the Nazis against the Jews. This evoked hard feelings among the Jewish participants and a very agitated debate with Palestinian members. From time to time the Jewish participants came up with calls for Palestinians to express their disavowal of Hamas or their recognition of the suffering of the Jewish citizens of Sderot or the Gaza area. Such demands were perceived as non-legitimate by most Palestinians - at a time when Israel was carrying out, in their words, war crimes against their brethren in Gaza. These exchanges about the ‘Holocaust', ‘Hamas', and ‘war crimes' were especially explosive because they represented - whether openly or implicitly - negotiations concerning the violent parts and the victimized parts of each side in the conflict.

We would like to stress that even though the discussion touched these most sensitive places in the conflict, the listserve continued to operate as a site for dialogue between Jews and Palestinians. This was in almost absolute contrast with what was going on generally in Israeli public discourse.

Some conclusions

In her analysis of group identities in contemporary Israel, Nava Sonnenschein argues that the experience of threat is fundamental in the formation of the Jewish Israeli identity. She distinguishes, in this respect, different types of threat including, among others, the concrete threat from Arabs and Palestinians, alongside the permanent existential threat of the persecuted Jew who survived the Holocaust. We witnessed these types of threat in the weeks of the attack on Gaza. Over and beyond anything concrete, the bombardments elicited powerful feelings of existential anxiety and concerns about the annihilation of the state.

In this reality, voices of dissent like ours were delegitimized and often met with accusations of treason, of undermining the national morale and, more specifically, the morale of the soldiers who were doing their military duty in Gaza. This was the public atmosphere in Israel generally and in the media particularly. In personal or group conversations with parts of the Israeli public, we came upon a number of reactions, from sadness all the way to Schadenfreude (joy at the other's failure). This was when we sensed the presence of the third type of threat that Sonnenschein mentions, the threat to the morality of the national identity group. We felt that we were holding what others did not want to know about - a confusing, troubling, and at times frightening position. The fear of excommunication involves a fear of losing one's identity and this, along with the fear of isolation and the threat to one's sense of belonging, discourages the individual from becoming conscious of what is forbidden. For us, Jewish members of Psychoactive, the listserve was more or less the only place in which we felt free to talk, to share and to think about and against the attack without feeling pariahs. In fact, what evolved was a support group which offered its members the strength to hold out in a situation of war. We continued to suggest, throughout the attack on Gaza, that only dialogue with Hamas, and a readiness on the part of Israel to make difficult and painful concessions, would result in political progress, including the security in southern Israel.

A number of things impress us when we look back at our own rigidity in the listserve discussions: First, it expressed a desire to mark the limits of our tolerance, to protect our listserve communication as a safe space in which, unlike in the outside world, we were a majority and there was no need to defend our views against outside attacks, where we could huddle together in our pain and anger. Second, our need to feel moral and humane was linked to Palestinians' recognition of our morality and humanity. Whether consciously or not, we expected to receive recognition and acknowledgement in our activities, and to assert the difference between ourselves and the Jewish majority. We needed to confirm our humanity and morality through its appreciation by the Palestinian participants. When this did not quite happen, we found ourselves, again, coping with a sense of isolation and loneliness.

As a result, we started to examine our own stereotypes, our positions and prejudices which, at times, prevented us from communicating with those whose opinions did not exactly match with ours. Once we overcame our fear of the Jewish-Israeli ‘other', we discovered eager partners who were ready to examine their own views, their identities; examine the basic assumptions that underlie the experience of being an Israeli Jew. It was through these voices that we were able to refine our own sense of identity. Some of us became eager to investigate the limits of our tolerance, as well as our wish to deny and split off some national parts of our existence. We became acutely aware of the dangers of self-righteousness. We wondered whether our need for a space where we could safely sound our minds out in an otherwise hostile environment could also accommodate a plurality of voices and an ability to open up with those who do not agree with us.

During the attack on Gaza we felt that we must not limit ourselves to words alone - essential though they are in our profession - and that as activist mental health professionals we must do whatever we could to make heard our opposition to Operation Cast Lead. Psychoactive worked on two partially overlapping channels: support for and identification with the Palestinian people within Israel and in the occupied territories, and protests in the Jewish-Israeli society against the attack. Of course, our main effort went toward activities that acknowledged the suffering of the people of Gaza, protested the attack and called for its immediate end.

Sadly, despite much effort and suffering, our region has not come closer to peace or to any political solution. The level of violence still remains alarmingly high. Yet, through our work in Psychoactive, we constantly meet people from both societies who are looking for dialogue and who recognize the suffering we have been inflicting on each other. We recognize that the endless cycles of victimhood and victimization are of our own making and that we all are in urgent need of non-violent alternatives.

This is an excerpted account taken from the " Psychoactive and ‘Operation Cast Lead': Therapeutic Professionals' Activism in the course of the Israeli army's attack on Gaza." Community Mental Health and Wellbeing Bulletin (summer 2009, Volume 2, Issue 1 .pp.12-30 )


Psychoactive will be taking part in Sites of Conflict: Psycho-Political Resistance in Israel-Palestine at Birkbeck College, London on October 15 - 16, 2009, which for the first time in the UK, addresses the remarkable projects of certain groups in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank, working for mental health and human rights in joint resistance to ongoing military conflict and occupation. Speakers include Uri Hadar, Tova Buksbaum, Eyad el Sarraj, Stephen Frosh, Jacqueline Rose, Lynne Segal, Andrew Samuels. For further information:





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