IARPP clamps down debate on Palestinian mental health at its conference in NY

First published in Mondoweiss

On May 20, 2018, a disturbing press release came across my inbox, “IARPP attempts to squelch NYC meeting on Palestine.” The International Association of Relational Psychotherapists and Psychoanalysts has been making headlines over the past few months for scheduling their 2019 international conference in Tel Aviv. In January 2018, a protest was launched by the USA and UK Palestine Mental Health Network, in partnership with Palestinian psychiatrist Dr. Samah Jabr and Jewish Voice for Peace. A petition that has been signed by over 1400 mental health workers, clinicians, and professionals from all over the world called attention to the problematic nature of holding an international conference on mental health in a state where Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and internationals involved in human rights struggles are unlikely to be permitted to attend. Given the current political climate, academic conferences in Israel as well as other cultural events are also seen as a tacit approval of the policies of the State of Israel. (see Netanyahu’s recent response to an Israeli performer winning the Eurovision Song contest)

While the IARPP claimed that its decisions were entirely apolitical, that conferences are located where there are large numbers of members, that they are solely interested in “open dialogue,” subsequent events have brought serious questions to these assertions. At the launch of the petition, the IARPP proceeded to forbid discussion of this topic on its own listserv after 24 hours.

Additionally, this year’s conference is being held this month in New York City, from June 14-17. The USA-Palestine Mental Health Network continues to be interested in creating a space for academic conversation on the impact of the Israeli occupation and siege on the mental health of Israelis and Palestinians. According to the press release, the group requested a rental for a literature table at the IARPP conference and this was denied. Then they contracted with the hotel to rent a conference room for a symposium of scholars, academics, and clinicians entitled “Voices on Palestine.” They scheduled this meeting so it would not conflict with any IARPP speaker within the main IARPP conference and invited the IARPP Board of Directors to attend.

A professional, international organization that is focused on the social and relational aspects of mental health might be expected to welcome a conversation that explores the impact of longstanding human rights abuses, military occupation and siege on a captive civilian population. Indeed, even the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder may not be applicable to a society where the trauma is ongoing and rarely “post”. The link between a respect for individual human rights and mental health has been foundational to the work of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, and Professor Rita Giacaman’s Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit University in the West Bank. Professor Giacaman has conducted pivotal research on the intersection of health and disease through the lens of military occupation and colonization. The researchers there have developed unique measures for the “wounds inside,” which impact “ease” and “dis-ease” such as suffering and humiliation.

But some staff at the IARPP responded more like an arm of the Israeli government than a professional mental health organization. They complained to the hotel that the “Voices” conference was designed to interfere with speakers at the main IARPP conference (it was not) and that the goal of the symposium was to “disrupt” the IARPP conference (it was not). Given these alleged risks, they informed the hotel that they had hired their own private security force and the frightened hotel managers followed their lead and arranged for a NYC Police Department presence to maintain order. The hotel then contacted the USA-PMHN and asked that they go elsewhere.

Fortunately, the USA-PMHN spoke with the hotel managers to counter the distortions and fear mongering raised by the IARPP and will be allowed to proceed with their symposium at the hotel as planned.

So what do we learn from this? Why is an academic discussion about political and social realities that impact mental health so threatening (the relational in the International Association of Relational Psychotherapists and Psychoanalysts)? Why is the IARPP acting like it is the group that is endangered, victimized, under threat by these colleagues who are asking important and challenging questions?

Not only is this kind of behavior dangerously manipulative and distorted (a la a Trumpian approach to inconvenient facts), this is classic Israeli hasbara. The danger is not the facts of occupation, restrictions of movement, the thousands of unarmed protesters injured in Gaza and over a hundred killed, the trauma to their families, the children incarcerated and tortured in Israeli jails, the loss of hope and possibility. The danger is the folks who are raising these uncomfortable questions. The IARPP is playing the victim (hence the private security) when their behavior is actually giving cover to the perpetrators. I would expect that psychotherapists and psychoanalysts would be interested in understanding this kind of psychopathology. It is pervasive in much of the Jewish community in the US and in Israel and supports the world view popular in the US Congress and Christian Evangelical movements that Israel (born from the ashes of the Holocaust) is justified in doing whatever it needs to do to survive with its “most moral army in the world.” If we as a community of therapists, clinicians, academics, and activists do not challenge these assumptions wherever they may occur, I fear that the patients may never be healed.

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